In case you missed it, Friday was supposed to be the end of the world. Dec. 21, 2012, marked the end of the Mayan “long count” calendar. Various astrologers and hand-wringers took this as a portent that Armageddon was at hand.
In passing, it might seem odd that the Maya themselves held no such belief. They kept several calendars, all based on cycles. Some of the shorter ones followed the phases of the “Lords of the Night” — celestial bodies such as the moon and Venus.
Others, including their long-count calendar, tracked events over more extended periods. But Dec. 21 wasn’t some sort of cosmic end point, it was merely time to turn the next page.
However, that didn’t stop the prophets of doom. One prominent New Age writer foresaw a cataclysm of super-volcanoes, accompanied by cracks in the Earth’s magnetic field.
Another sold 40,000 copies of a book predicting the return of the Mayan serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Apparently, crop circles and Stonehenge had something to do with it. (Though “Stonedhenge” would be closer: The author admits to imbibing the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine.)
And one brave soul published a “channelled briefing” on “physical changes scheduled for the third week in December 2012.” These were to include a restoration of the “true balance between Divine Feminine and Masculine.”
Ironically, if the purpose of the long-count calendar was to foretell disaster, the opportunity was certainly there. The Maya civilization was all but wiped out in the ninth century. Climate change may have played a part.
But a better question would be why we invest such energy in these matters. The online reference site Wikipedia lists 90 separate end-of-the-world prophecies in the last 100 years.
And being proven wrong the first time is apparently no hindrance to trying again. Or to being believed.
One syndicated radio show host in the U.S. assured his listeners the world would end on May 21 last year. It was hardly his first swing and a miss.
Beginning in 1994, he had already struck out four times in a row. Yet it’s said several thousand Americans quit their jobs last May to prepare for the apocalypse.
Having a college education is no obstacle, either. A former president of Yale University once startled his colleagues by confessing a similar premonition. Although he was canny enough to put the date well beyond the deadline for next year’s enrolment.
Money, of course, plays a part. Numerous self-proclaimed psychics have become rich along the way.
And seemingly, what matters in this line of work is less accuracy than sheer inventiveness. The Amazing Criswell, a TV personality in the ’60s and ’70s, made a career out of his grotesque soothsaying. In his books and broadcasts, death rays from outer space and mass outbreaks of cannibalism lay perennially just around the corner.
But he also benefited from one of the accidents that keep his profession alive: Issue enough predictions and one of them is bound to work out.
After Criswell warned that some harm would come to president John F. Kennedy in November 1963, his fame and wealth were assured.
Psychologists call this “hindsight bias” — our tendency to recall predictions that events prove true. We forget all the others that fell short.
And so what if Quetzalcoatl didn’t show up? Or the crop rings were long since exposed as fakes?
Somewhere out there, just beyond the reach of astronomy, the death planet Nibiru is hurtling toward a collision with Earth.
Or buried in the scribblings of some 10th-century monk, there’s a mysterious allusion that could spell destruction for our species.
We may have dodged a bullet for now. But when it comes to the end of the world, there’s always a new end in sight.
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