Crashing the Mayans’ Big Date

Most of us know, one should hope, that the media’s portrayal of 2012 is essentially baseless. What is more interesting, though, is the way that the Mayan date of 2012 has been forcibly grafted onto Western understandings of the ages of man and Judeo-Christian beliefs about the end of the world. The pop phenomenon surrounding 2012, in fact, is little more than foreign beliefs projected onto a Mesoamerican number.

A cyclical view of history, in which man enters and exits distinctive historical eras, is hardly unique. Both the Greek poet Hesiod and the Roman poet Ovid expressed this using familiar metallurgical metaphors: In the Golden Age, according to Hesiod, men “lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief”; the Silver Age was “less noble by far”; the Bronze age was populated by men who praised the “lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence”; and in the present Iron age, “men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night.” Someone should have reminded these guys that the cup is half full, too.

In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of the same historical procession:

This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.

Daniel explains that the golden head represents Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom. After this empire falls, an inferior kingdom—the silver—will rise. This kingdom will be replaced by that of the bronze, followed by a violent kingdom of iron that will conquer all, but it will eventually be weakened as it mixes with “common clay.” This is the present day, which will end when God establishes His eternal kingdom.

Aside from the choice of metals, what these accounts have in common is that the present age finds man in a fallen state. This resonates throughout the Bible, not only in the exile from Eden, but in the long life spans of the humans after that Fall, which are gradually reduced to the short amount of time that we know today. Unlike the Greek myths, however, the Bible presents an exit: a chosen people get on the fast track to God’s kingdom.

The Mayan view, however, is distinct. Its procession of ages does not delineate a periodic decline from a prehistorical ideal, but a rise towards greater perfection. Like the Western tradition, there are four ages, each associated with a natural element. First, man was of mud, but the gods immediately recognized this attempt as a failure. They destroyed their creation and created men of wood, who were unable to worship and so were wiped out by a flood. In the third attempt, men were made of tzite wood and women were made of rushes, but these people could not think. Half a book later, man was finally made of maize. Rather than representing a fallen condition, these men were “the noble sons, the civilized vassals.” The age that will supposedly come to an end in 2102 began with that new creation.

Unlike the Bible, the Popol Voh allows no survivors. Each new humanity is wholly new, except for the wooden men, who fled into the forest to become monkeys. By way of contrast, Adam and Eve leave Eden, then populate the earth. Noah’s family survives the flood, then repopulates the earth. The chosen will live on after the Rapture.

The final scene in 2012, with a chosen few venturing out into a new world, comes straight out of Judeo-Christian eschatology. And though the New Agers’ insistence that 2012 marks a radical change in “consciousness” better reflects the Mayans’ ever-perfected humanity, the implicit message is that their enlightened consciousness that will be the one to reign. Again—a chosen people.

The 2012 phenomenon is fascinating not because it is exotic and Mayan, but because it is actually so Western and so familiar. Rather than dismiss the craze, we should interrogate the source of its appeal. End times beliefs resonate mostly strongly during periods of cultural upheaval, so what is it in our time that makes people so enthralled with the idea of the world’s destruction and the birth of a new era? In any case, whether it is the Y2K scare, 2012, or the next Big Disaster bandwagon, they unwittingly carry a lot of Judeo-Christian baggage along for the ride.

Want more? We’ve got a whole series all about 2012.

Garrett Baer is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.