By Chase Rheam
Stillwater NewsPress / CNHI News Service
— If one has been on social media or around a water cooler, they’re probably not immune to the ever-increasing talk of the end of the world. The prediction of earth’s demise by the ancient Mayan civilization has been a hot topic as we approach Dec. 21, 2012, or as others are calling it — Friday.
No matter what side of the fence anyone is on, a religion professor from Rutgers University sheds light on the idea and the people behind it.
“The Mayans were typical of a lot of the indigenous cultures in North American, South America and Central America,” said Rutgers-Camden professor Stuart Charme. “They had what we would probably call a cyclical view of time.”
According to Charme, the Mayans had three calendars. He is familiar with two of them.
“They have an everyday calendar that they use for measuring holidays and celebrations and the kind of things that are measurable in terms of the lives of people and the community,” he said.
The other calendar is referred to as a “Long Count” calendar which extends beyond any individual’s lifetime but with units of time that can be compared with examples including centuries, millennia and beyond, he said. This calendar is on what the popular Mayan prediction is based. Does the “Long Count” calendar end on Friday? According to Charme, the answer is disputed.
“That calendar has not been in use probably for about 900 or 1,000 years, so it’s not like there are any Mayans around today who are paying a whole lot of attention to it,” he said. “It’s really been reconstructed from archeological remains from various kinds of hieroglyphs that have been deciphered during the height of the Mayan civilization when it was really being used to mark big events in the life of civilization.”
From the deciphering, when scholars found dates that related to a date in current calendars, they worked backward and forward.
“They looked backward to see where the Mayans were dating the beginning of that calendar and they come up with this date somewhere in the year 3114 B.C. which is the beginning of this calendar we are talking about and then they project forward in terms of where it would rollover into a new cycle,” Charme said. “And some scholars have said that’s this year and some next year and maybe it’s on the 21st or maybe it’s on the 23rd, but I think the consensus statement everyone kind of agreed on, which also kind of has the advantage of also being the winter solstice, is Dec. 21, 2012.”
However, there is room for misinterpretation on two levels, he said.
“One is a simple calculation,” Charme said. “This may or may not be the day when the calendar is rolling over. That’s a sort of minor thing.”
The bigger issue, Charme said, is what will be the result when the calendar runs out?
“And that’s where the kind of craziness of contemporary Mayan apocalyptic catastrophic scenarios really is pretty much of our modern invention,” he said.
Did the Mayans actually predict the end of the world or is it an assumption based on the end of a calendar? Charme said it depends on who you ask.
“I think scholars of Mayan culture would say there are no such predictions,” Charme said. “The Mayans themselves were not a particularly apocalyptic people.”
Instead, the date could represent a change for humanity and not the end of the world, he said.
“It’s possible and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a sense that at the end of the cycle there would be a different quality to a new age in the same way that we might say the middle ages were different than the modern period or the 19th century was different from the 20th century,” he said.
Charme said it’s important to remember that the Mayans were creating a calendar that ended in a period far beyond what they could sense.
“Probably what they were saying, going back 1,500 years when they were using this calendar, was by the time this calendar runs out in 1,500 years, it will be a new cycle for the world and for humanity,” Charme said.
Charme said he thinks the first mention of the calendar may go back to the early 20th century.
“I’m not sure when the first scholarly reference to it was,” he said. “It definitely got picked up by the new age spiritual movement and some central figures in that movement who combined it with a whole set of different scenarios and that, I would say, has been building over the last decade and really gained it’s momentum, I would say, in the last five years.”
However one chooses to view the prediction, Charme knows what he’ll be doing Friday. In an interview with Rutgers Today, the university’s official news site, he said he would have students from the graduate version of his class come to his home for an end of the world party.
“I don’t know exactly what we’ll do,” he said. “I’m not sure what end of the world activities would really look like. One of my students recommended that we play Twister. Maybe...”
Rheam writes for Stillwater NewsPress.