from Academia Website
Just as concerns about Y2K fueled massive investment in software development, underwriting the ‘dotcom’ bubble of the late 1990s and contributing to the emergence of the World Wide Web, the 2012 phenomenon (Sitler 2006) is creating a bubble in New Age metaphysics.
According to popular mythology, the ancient Maya predicted that this date would be accompanied by either global catastrophe or a ‘transformation of consciousness’ that would usher in a long-awaited New Age, anticipated by mystics and Theosophists on the basis of the Book of Revelation and Medieval Arabic astrology.
Predictions include ‘earth changes’,1 a global flood, a supervolcano, a dramatic magnetic or physical shift of the Earth’s poles, the arrival of Planet X, visits from extraterrestrials, an increase in telepathy, and a shift in negative attitudes about the benefits of cannabis and metaphysical revelations (Joseph 2007; Stray 2009).
1 - A phrase coined in the early 20th century by psychic Edgar Cayce and associated with Atlantis.
The origins of the phenomenon can be
traced to comments made by respected academic Mayanists and its
promotion has included speculative statements by scholars, some of
whom have doctoral degrees.
Three represent scholarly critiques (Aveni 2009; Van Stone 2010; Restall & Solari 2011) and there are only two scholarly articles (Sitler 2006; Hanegraaff 2010). The meme ‘tipped’ (Gladwell 2000) in 2007.
It was discussed in counterculture circles at the Burning Man festival, where in 2003 the central icon stood atop a Mesoamerican-style pyramid before its own apocalyptic incineration.
However, its historical antecedents can be found in the millenarianism of Joachim de Fiore and its roots in the revival of astrology and the ‘concordance of astronomy with history’ by Bishop Pierre d’Ailly.
The latter had a direct and profound effect on the thinking of Christopher Columbus, whose Libro de las Profecías sought to use sources from antiquity and ecclesiastical scholarship to prove that his prophesied discovery of ‘most remote land’ would precipitate the reconquest of Jerusalem, the Second Coming, and the end-times events described in the Book of Revelation.
Columbus was compiling this “Book of Prophecies” on his fourth voyage in 1502, during which he encountered a trading canoe off the Bay Islands of Honduras and interviewed a local cacique on Guanaja.
This first encounter between Europeans and the Maya world was the occasion on which the existence of the continental mass of Central America became understood and the episode in which ‘Maia’ first appears in European records (Academia de Geografia e Historia 1952).
The Maya were associated with confirmation of eschatological mythology from this initial encounter, which was followed by the introduction of Western millenarianism first to the Antilles and Panama and subsequently to Maya converts in the Yucatan.
From a Western perspective, there has
always been ‘New Age’ thinking about the ancient Maya.3
2 - Columbus made special note of a passage from Seneca’s Medea, published for the first time in 1491:
3 - Columbus himself employed apocalyptic imagery associated with astronomy in his interaction with indigenous people, using the prediction of a lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504 to intimidate natives of Jamaica into provisioning his ships (Morison 1942: 653-654).
The 2012 phenomenon is the result of speculative academic hypotheses, some discarded long ago and some not. Scholarship on the ancient Maya - academic and otherwise - has included many crackpots.
Lord Kingsborough, who commissioned facsimiles of Mesoamerican codices and descriptions of Maya ruins in the 1830s, believed Mesoamericans were the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Charles Brasseur de Bourbourg, discoverer of the Popol Vuh and Bishop Landa’s Relacion, found narratives of past destructions that led him to speculate about similarities between Maya culture and Plato’s Atlantis, asserting direct connections with the lost continent.
Waldeck illustrated Maya reliefs with Classical and Egyptian embellishments.
Desire Charnay suggested that the
Toltecs were Aryans who had migrated to Mexico from the Himalayas.
Augustus Le Plongeon, the first excavator of Chichen Itza,
identified the roots of Freemasonry through ancient Egypt and
Atlantis to the Yucatan some 11,500 years ago. His work inspired
Ignatius Donnelly (1882; 1883) to trace not only the Maya but
all civilizations to Atlantis and assign catastrophism a role in
Esoteric Maya studies preserve archaic forms of knowledge that support New Age ideologies but do not withstand objective scrutiny. Specific assertions about 2012 derive from statements made by reputable scholars - the experts of their time - that were misinterpreted in unanticipated ways.
These include a chain of speculative inferences that runs from Ernst Förstemann to Sylvanus Morley to Michael Coe.
Förstemann (1906) made reference to ‘destruction of the world’, ‘apocalypse’, and ‘the end of the world’ in his commentary on the last pages of the Dresden Codex.
These were repeated by Morley (1915), who paraphrased the earlier scholar and added his own embellishments, such as references to a universal destruction of the world and a ‘final all-engulfing cataclysm’ in the form of a Great Flood.4
4 - The romantic imagery and excitement of the Maya’s watery end may have come from Morley’s youthful reading of Heart of the World, an adventure novel about the Maya by H. Rider Haggard (1895).
Morley repeated this in The Ancient Maya (1946) as he appropriated uncited details from Alfred Tozzer’s (1941) translation of Landa.
In so doing, he conflated pre-and
post-Conquest stories, mentioning flood legends likely introduced by
16th century Christian missionaries, in turn influenced
by speculation concerning a ‘Second Great Flood’ predicted for 1524
(Pankenier 2009). It is not at all clear that stories of ‘universal’
floods (past or future) have pre-Conquest Maya origins.
However, this work drew the attention of
only a small circle of scholars. Goodman made no calendrical
associations with astronomical events or catastrophes.
William Burroughs studied Aztec history and Maya writing at Mexico City College in 1950 and Allen Ginsberg made a long visit to Palenque in 1953. They were among a wave of tourism to Mexico after World War II that delivered a ready audience for Maya studies amidst a growing counterculture.
Maud Makemson (1951), an
astronomer, was the first to associate 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in
with end-of-the-world prophecies on the basis of the Book of Chilam
Balam of Tizimin. However, her translation of the date and its
meaning were flawed, resulting in a spurious Colonial-era prophecy
that she correlated to 1752. Her book introduced the date to a
general audience amidst meaningless confusion.
Coe makes parallels between Mesoamerican and ‘Oriental’ religions, including similar concept of eras or kalpas. He also claims that the ‘fifth world’ which we inhabit, was to be ‘destroyed by earthquakes’.
This shift from the catastrophic flood of Förstemann and Morley to a fate predicted in the 1558 Aztec document La Leyenda de los Soles reflects beliefs about congruence in Aztec and Maya eschatology.
The reference to Armageddon, written to
stimulate his audience, undoubtedly reflected Cold War anxieties.
Its repetition in subsequent editions of The Maya has fed the 2012
meme for four decades.6
Though critically panned for its cherry-picking approach,7 Hamlet’s Mill inspired myths about 2012.
Its central premise is that world mythologies are based on observations of celestial events and that ancient knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes formed the backdrop to cosmological narratives. The authors suggest that initial knowledge of precession was ancient, occurring around ‘Time Zero’, a hypothetical date ca. 5000 BC during an undocumented and unexplained Golden Age, when major calendrical systems began.
Hamlet’s Mill influenced psychonauts Terence and Dennis McKenna, who found in it evidence for precession-linked cycles of ‘novelty’ that reached an ‘eschaton’ in 2012 they felt could be identified through a psychedelic-inspired analysis of the mathematics of the I Ching (McKenna & McKenna 1975; Hanegraaff 2010).
John Major Jenkins (1998; 2009),
who drew direct inspiration from the McKennas, saw precession in the
5126-year Great Cycle of the Maya calendar, asserting that knowledge
of precession was the basis for the Long Count and claiming the Maya
specifically picked the 2012 winter solstice to celebrate a
culmination of grand, 26,000-year-long precessional cycles.
The early 1970s were a heady time for speculation about Mesoamerican shamanism, cosmology, and metaphysics. Carlos Castaneda’s books - not yet revealed as fraud - were earning him millions. They fostered interest in shamanism and psychedelics as paths to self-realization and had an effect on Mesoamerican studies.
Furst (1972) included an essay by Castaneda’s advisor Weston La Barre. Although a speculative article by Dobkin de Rios (1974) about Maya hallucinogen use fell flat among Mayanists, it inspired other speculative literature.
At the same time, Furst (1975) offered a
revised definition of Mesoamerican shamanism, one that gave a
central role to hallucinogens and the concept of transformation
(especially therianthropic). Castaneda influenced Furst’s thinking -
and vice-versa (De Mille 1976; Fikes 1993) - and this legacy has
remained a part of both Maya studies and the 2012 phenomenon.
A zeitgeist that had included hyped anticipation of Comet Kohoutek in 1973 cast renewed attention on the heavens, including predictions of disaster. A popular TV documentary claimed the Mayas had been visited by extraterrestrials. Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam undermined confidence in central authority, making alternatives seem credible and attractive.
Poet Tony Shearer (1975) claimed that Maya prophecy predicted the end of the world on August 16, 1987, a date subsequently adopted by art historian Jose Argüelles for the Harmonic Convergence, a counterculture astrological event.
Argüelles, who has a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the University of Chicago, had been a heavy user of psychedelics, a founder of Earth Day in 1970, and was a student of astrologer Dane Rudhyar (1975). His was one of the first books to identify 2012 (not 2011) as a significant date for the Maya (Argüelles1975),8 implying it would bring spiritual transformation.
Frank Waters’ book (1975), the result of a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study in Mexico in 1970-71, revisited the myth of a white, bearded Quetzalcoatl, the lost continent of Atlantis, and interpreted an astrological chart for December 24, 2011 (a date taken from Coe).
7 - Reviewer Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin
of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory put it in the same
category as Donnelly’s Ragnarok and Velikovsky’s Worlds in
In it, he suggested that that ancient Maya had obtained knowledge of the galaxy from extraterrestrial beings and that on December 21, 2012 the Earth would come in contact with a beam of energy emanating from the center of the Milky Way that would usher in a time of metaphysical transformation and spiritual peace. Among other things, he predicted a visit from ‘galactic ambassadors’ in 1992-93.
They have not yet arrived, though von
Däniken (2010) asserts they are coming in 2012.
However, all of these were subsequently
revived and reissued in the 1990s, due in part to word-of-mouth
popularity in counterculture lectures during the 1980s, a revival of
psychedelics in the rave subculture in the 1990s, and especially the
growth of cyberculture. The correlation of December 21, 2012 with
18.104.22.168.0 was first published in an appendix to the 4th
edition of Morley’s The Ancient Maya (1983). All of these books came
back into print and are well-known among 2012 aficionados today.
Schele encouraged her students to read widely in the areas of comparative religion, with a special emphasis on shamanism.
Mircea Eliade’s work (1959; 1964), which emphasized a desire to return to primordial, archaic belief systems of the distant past, was particularly influential. He was an expert on yoga who used comparative analysis to find parallels between Eastern and Western thought. A special focus on ‘shamans’, vision quests, and complex symbol systems accompanied real breakthroughs in the decipherment of Maya writing.
The work of Schele, her colleagues, and
her students was highly collaborative, bringing together linguists,
art historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers for a heady period
of exciting discoveries.
Linda Schele and David Freidel (Schele & Freidel 1990; Freidel et al. 1993) asserted that ancient Maya rulers were shamans whose principal acts included dramatic performances in the context of celestial phenomena. In the model these present, the Milky Way is the World Tree, an axis mundi that represents the middle of the cosmos and connects a three-layered universe within which shamans travel.
They also asserted that Maya cosmology
is meaningful in contemporary society. This has been adopted in
2012-themed metaphysical literature.
His work has evolved from a
concentration on astrology to an imaginative reading of iconography
at the site of Izapa, where he asserts the Long Count was created.
Jenkins suggests the creators of the Long Count calendar were able
to pinpoint a winter solstice and a ‘galactic alignment’ of the sun
with the center of the Milky Way thousands of years in the future.
Archaeo-astronomers remain unconvinced.
Jenkins (2009) attributes his insights into 2012 to the use of mushrooms and especially LSD in a sensory deprivation tank. Stray (2009), also an online chronicler of the 2012 phenomenon, attributes his initial interest to the work of the McKennas, especially visionary insights that resulted from psychedelic journeys.
Daniel Pinchbeck (2006), another voice in promoting 2012 as a metaphysical event, was identified by Rolling Stone magazine as the leader of the ‘new psychedelic elite’. His first book detailed visionary experiences on iboga, ayahuasca, and DMT (dimethytryptamine), the last during a conference on psychedelics at Palenque (Pinchbeck 2002).
Inspired, he channeled the deity
Quetzalcoatl and weaves crop circles, alien abductions, psi
phenomena, and Hancock’s theories about a ‘lost civilization’ into
Carl Johan Calleman (2004; 2009), a pharmacologist with a Ph.D. in Physical Biology from Washington University, has created a new cosmology based on the Maya calendar.
Semir Osmanagich (2005), with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Sarajevo, has used it to promote interest in the spurious Bosnian ‘pyramids’.
Robert Sitler (2010), who has a
Ph.D. in Hispanic Literature from the University of Texas, also
writes from a New Age perspective, invoking psychedelic-induced
visionary experiences and personal growth.
Psychedelics have played a significant role in contemporary culture, beginning with the Beatles. They have had an unmistakable impact, from fantasy and science fiction to computer graphics (especially in the film industry) and computer gaming.
Hallucinogens and fascination with the cosmos have gone hand in hand since the first person entered an altered state of consciousness and looked up into a night sky filled with stars. There’s a reason why drug use and ‘spaciness’ go together. Psychedelics generate a sense of other worlds, which is why psychedelic users are drawn to thoughts about other dimensions, alternative universes, and extraterrestrial intelligence.
The same is true for metaphysical discourse. Good science doesn’t care where good hypotheses originate, even if they come from psychedelic epiphanies.
The bottom line is that we can discount unsupported hypotheses about 2012 exactly the same way we discount those about,
...Occam’s Razor and the absence of persuasive scientific evidence (sic...)
Apart from the winter solstice and the proximity of the sun to the galactic center of the Milky Way (something invisible to the naked eye that has been occurring every December for over a decade), there is little special that happens on December 21, 2012.
However, assertions that the ancient
Maya associated this date with unique astronomical events are
unconvincing. The hullaballoo is a projection of present-day
astrological concerns on an ancient culture by earnest believers in
New Age lore. It is primarily a manifestation of contemporary pop
The latter, because it casts suspicion on scholars. We have scientific facts about past catastrophes such as the Chicxulub meteorite of 65 mya. We even have some good ideas about present ones, such as oil spills and global warming, even if our plans for avoiding these in the future remain murky.
Science has cast doubt and even ridicule on metaphysics and the supernatural. Our understanding of consciousness, neurophysiology, and cognition remains inadequate for explaining revelations - including those under the influence of LSD or DMT - that seem ‘real’.
The public’s perception of scholars has
been colored by a string of individuals who have identified
themselves as credentialed scholars while engaging in unfounded and
even pseudoscientific speculation.
As with Creationism, there is a rejection of the ‘official’ narratives about the ancient Maya and with them the rejection of academic authority.
Just as many astronomers know nothing
and care less about the power of astrology, archaeologists have
similar attitudes regarding mythology about lost ‘archaic knowledge’
and ‘ancient wisdom’ that has been generated from a psychedelic
and/or metaphysical perspective.
During his participation at a conference on this history of religion in Switzerland he wrote:
flying saucers for Jung, the
2012 phenomenon may be far more interesting as a window into our
contemporary culture - especially how our scholarship is consumed in
ways we intend or not - than for anything its reality reveals about
the ancient Maya.