2012: The End of the World?

There are some who said that the world would end today. Why some folk believed this is pretty definitely defined (see below), although nobody seems to be able to agree on just how these end-times were supposed to pan out. Suggestions range from a planetary collision or a run-in with a black hole to some sort of reversal of the earth’s polar axis – or even a zombie apocalypse (I’ll be in the pub if that ever happens…).

These eschatological theories had been circulating online for quite a while, and I was curious as to exactly what they were all about and where they had come from. Predictions giving a precise date for the end of the world are not uncommon even now (anyone remember Harold Camping‘s insistence that the apocalypse was due in 2011?) – and, in fact, there is a long list of such predictions going back almost a millennium.

So what is it that made the 2012 phenomenon different and so widespread? The existence of the internet has certainly helped disseminate these theories far and wide, but as with so many other things what has been said online is not always strictly accurate, and these end-times theories are no different in that respect.

What can be said for certain is that, ultimately, it all comes down to the intriguingly-named Mesoamerican long-count calendar (see here for an explanation of how this type of calendar works), which was widely used in Central America prior to the violent arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.

Probably originally devised by the Olmec people, the long-count calendar and the various cycles of time and history that it measures have become most closely associated with the Maya civilization – and it is the mistaken belief that this Mayan calendar predicted that the end of the world would happen today as one of these cycles ends that has caused what I can only describe as mass hysteria in some parts of the world.

In Russia, officials have been attempting to calm people down as a spate of panic-buying of food and supplies for the apocalypse has hit certain parts of the country – although one wonders how useful such things would be if the entire human race was wiped out! Indeed, one concerned Russian quoted in the article above seems to have missed this basic apocalyptic point entirely:

[F]illing a garage with stocks of food is… dangerous. If the apocalypse comes, then crowds of hungry, angry, terrified and horrified people will sweep into your garage just because they suspect they might find something edible.

And in China, rather sinisterly, the authorities have arrested hundreds of people associated with what The Guardian describes as a “quasi-Christian religious group”, who are accused of spreading rumours about the end of the world. Long suspicious of religious groups, the Chinese government appears to have been slightly rattled by this:

Chinese media outlets have been told to dampen coverage of the rumoured cataclysm. “Strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumours, as well as working up panicked feelings,” said a leaked directive posted to the internet by the Berkeley, California-based China Digital Times.

However, in the French village of Bugarach, believed by some to be the only place on earth that would survive the apocalypse, it sounds as if the villagers will just be glad when its all over and would quite like to be left alone – and frankly, I don’t blame them, especially when you can’t leave your house without having a camera stuck in your face!

[T]he media presence was exasperating locals in the village, where streets were mostly deserted except for camera crews looking desperately for interview subjects.

All this media attention and misinformation has left academic experts and those of Maya descent equally exasperated. They rightly point out that Maya calendars are cyclical (just as ours is – we cycle through days, weeks, months and years), and that what today marks is simply the end of one of these cycles – albeit a particularly long one – and the beginning of another.

The fact that the end of this cycle has coincided with the Winter Solstice – considered by many cultures to be a significant and even magical time of year – has only added to the interest (and probably confused matters further), as the Solstice also marks the end of a crucial stage in the astronomical cycle of the year.

Scientific explanations aside, it is, in a way, actually quite easy to understand why people might latch on to such apocalyptic misinterpretations of a significant date like today’s. All you’ve got to do is read the news – with everything that has happened in the world over the last decade or so, it’s understandable that some might believe the end-times are upon us.

But that in itself is cyclical too. People have been predicting the end of the world off and on for centuries, often during times of social unrest, economic downturn or war; times when many people need some form of belief to bring structure into chaotic lives. Today’s is just the latest in a long line of failed doomsday predictions, and I very much doubt it will be the last…

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