The annotated apocalypse: Anthropologists tackle 2012

It's August of 2011, do you know when your Apocalypse is?

There are 1000s of people who think that something important—if not the end or the world, then something—will happen on December 21, 2012. These speculations spring from a well-seasoned cultural melting pot, but a key ingredient is the writings and beliefs of both ancient and modern Maya people. In fact, the folks promoting the 2012 movement often frame themselves as experts in Maya traditions.

Here's the thing, though: There are actual experts in ancient Maya traditions, and actual experts who study the culture and religion of modern Maya living today. These archaeologists and anthropologists have, inadvertently, created some of the pop culture legends that spawned the 2012 movement. But, until very recently, they've largely ignored that movement. This is starting to change, however. Last January, archaeo-astronomers held a symposium on the 2012 phenomenon and those papers were recently published in The Proceedings of the International Astronomy Union. Meanwhile, a new scholarly book, collecting essays on the 2012 phenomenon by Mayanist researchers, is set to be published soon.

One of the researchers featured in that book is John Hoopes, an archaeologist and one of my former professors when I was an anthropology student at The University of Kansas.

Hoopes does field research, digging at archaeological sites in Costa Rica and other parts of Central and South America. But, as a side project, he's also developed some expertise in the way archaeology—and, particularly, pseudo-archaeology—influences pop culture in the United States and Europe. I spoke with him about where 2012 myths come from, why scientists need to study and address pseudo-science movements, and why he thinks the 2012 phenomenon owes as much to H.P. Lovecraft and Aldous Huxley as it does to the ancient Maya.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: I know that you are an archaeologist, but you also have this very meta offshoot of your research that I sort of think of as the cultural anthropology of archeo-mythology. How did you get into that?

John Hoopes: That’s one way to put it. I usually think about it as the ethnography of contemporary culture. It goes a long way back. I was an avid consumer of pseudo-archaeology in high school. I was a sci-fi and fantasy fan. My very first research paper, in 10th grade, was a critical evaluation of the Lost Continent of Atlantis.

MKB: Tell me a little bit about the real science that forms the backbone of this 2012 mythology. When people talk about this stuff, what artifacts and research are they building off of?

JH:The real stuff behind it, it comes in several flavors. The main real stuff are prophecies in The Books of Chilam Balam, the Books of the Jaguar Priest. That's really a set of different manuscripts from colonial Yucatan and it was published in the 1700s. But they recount stories that were collected much earlier, including ones from the time of Spanish arrival. Chilam Balam is a legendary prophet who made various pronouncements that are collected in these books. That's what's referred to as "Mayan prophecies." The scholarly discussion of them goes back to the 1930s.

Then, beginning in the 1970s you also have discussion of a monument called Tortuguero Monument #6. It appears in Linda Schele's work in 1982 [Schele was one of the key researchers in the story of how modern scientists learned to decipher ancient Maya hieroglyphics—MKB] and discussed at the Maya Workshops in late 1990s. As we got closer to 2012, David Stuart published the new translation. [Stuart is a student of Schele's and another key figure in the translation of Mayan writing.—MKB]

It's the only monument known to have the date—the Mayan date that corresponds to December 21, 2012—on it. The monument is damaged. So it's hard to read and it takes a lot of cleverness to decipher what the text actually says. The preliminary translation came out in the late 1990s. However, the inscription isn't at all clear. There's some discussion about whether it's even a prophecy, but I think it is. It refers to celebration of a god called Bolon Yok'te K'uh. This deity seems to be associated with warfare and with the king of Tortuguero. The most recent translation suggests that whatever they said would happen then was really just the dressing and honoring of this deity, nothing more.

The date is a logical extrapolation of how the Mayan Long Count Calendar works. The first published mention of that date was in the 1800s, came from the work of Joseph Goodman. But it wasn't actually written anywhere other than the Tortuguero monument, which was discovered in the 1970s.

MKB: When did you start noticing the 2012 movement as a phenomenon? Did it grow out of something else that you were already following, or kind of appear on its own?

JH: It had been something on the edge of my consciousness for a while. The Mayan Factor by Jose Arguelles is a book was part of the New Age Harmonic Convergence of 1987. That came out right as I finished my dissertation. I didn’t pay much attention at the time because everybody had just written it off. By that point, people were joking about New Age and not taking it seriously. But at that time, Arquelles was writing about December 21, 2012. And it just grew from there. I didn’t pay much attention until 1995, which is when I noticed two things.

First, that was the year that the first interactive, graphic Maya calendar orientation program came out on the web and it gave December 21, 2012 as the date that corresponded to the Mayan date of Then I got an email from Daniel Pinchbeck. We had a common interest in Burning Man and he contacted me saying that he was writing about Jose Arquelles and 2012 for Rolling Stone. That’s when I realized that this had taken on a life of its own. But I hadn’t really realized until early 2003 that it was something people were still paying any attention to.

MKB: One of the things I found very interesting is the role that legitimate archaeologists have played in creating this 2012 myth. One of those people is Michael Coe, a very well-respected researcher who wrote some of the books I read as an undergrad. Tell me a little about his role in this. Has he ever talked much about it?

JH: He’s made informal statements in email and in conversation with colleagues. And he did write an introduction to a book that's coming out soon, which I have contributed to, called 2012: Decoding the Counterculture Apocalypse. In that, he discusses his inadvertent role in fostering this myth.

It really started with his 1966 book, The Maya. He did two things. First, he was the first Maya specialist to correlate a long count date to a date in the future, rather than in the past. He was trying to figure out what that date would be, and he turned out to be wrong. He thought December 24, 2011 and that was later corrected. But he was also the first person to link that date——to the concept of Armageddon and say that the Maya would have associated that date with the end of the world. I’ve been in pretty regular communication with him over the last several years, and he’s repeated that paragraph in all 8 editions of The Maya. He really thinks the ancient Maya would have thought about it that way. But that’s not everyone’s interpretation. And it’s not mine. That’s just what he thinks.

MKB: Is his story something that has made today's Mayanists more careful about the way they talk to the public about their theories?

JH: I think that people are beginning to think that way, but it’s not how they thought before. I don’t think any of the Mayanists saw this coming. They’re taken aback by it. They’re surprised that the statements they make are taken as seriously as this and treated as real beliefs, absolute fact. What they’re really doing is throwing out ideas to make the books interesting. I don’t think Coe was asserting a scientific discovery about Maya prophecies. He was just talking in an informal way about what he thought the ancient Maya might have thought. In the past, those books were intended for academic audiences that understood that, but with the web new audiences have read these books and interpreted them in different ways.

MKB: How do you address this with your students? Do you address it?

JH: Oh, absolutely. I have a class called Archaeological Myths and Realities and we devote a whole semester to looking at myths that have come out of archaeology and how those play out in popular culture. We also discuss the phenomenon of how people learn about the past. I think a lot of the current generation of high school and college kids learn about archaeology through video gaming. They learn about it through Civilization and Tomb Raider. There are lots and lots of allusions in games to ancient cultures and civilizations, and through science fiction movies. Many people learn about the past through pop culture. And pop culture has popularized some really spurious theories. Think about the History Channel and their series on ancient aliens, for example.

MKB: We’re starting to see anthropologists publishing research on the 2012 movement. Why is the movement something important to study on its own, separate from the traditional archaeology that seeks to understand what ancient Mayans believed?

JH: Mainly because I think it gives us an opportunity to see how religious movements begin.

There’s a lot in that mythology that people are referring to as if it is real or as something they want to believe in. It’s been tied together with the Age of Aquarius, the legitimacy of prophecy, and visionary experiences. There’s a lot there that’s similar to the beginnings of other religious traditions. Christianity, for instance, began in the context of messianic prophecies. The LDS church began in the context of speculation about Native Americans and concerns about the end of the world. And the Millerite movement of the 1840s is another one. That gave rise to today’s Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. William Miller prophesied the second coming for October 1844. And even though it didn’t happen, it still had a lasting legacy because so many people believed. Publications started by Millerites are still the publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses today. I really think there will be some religious or spiritual movements that come out of the 2012 mythology. If you go into Barnes and Noble and look in the metaphysics or spirituality sections, you’ll find tons of books about 2012. It’s not treated as historical or scientific, but as spiritual.

MKB: How many scholarly articles have been written about this now, and what issues are they looking at?

JH: There’s only three books that represent scholarly critiques, and two scholarly articles. Anthony Aveni is an archeo-astronomer interested in the intersection of astronomy and culture. In his book, The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012, he’s talking about what the real science behind this is. There’s also another book, 2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya, by Mark Van Stone, which looks at what the hieroglyphic texts do and don’t say about 2012.

Like I told you, there’s actually only one text that even mentions it. And it’s not complete and not easily interpreted. All the prophecies don’t come from the pre-Columbian texts, but from post-contact documents that are heavily influenced by Christianity. There’s another paper about that contact period that has focused on the role of missionaries in the Yucatan shortly after Spanish conquest. Basically, it’s framing Millenarianism in the context of that post-contact era. Many of those people came to Mexico precisely because they were on the extreme end of ideology and were obsessed with the end of the world. And we know that one of the first things they said to the Indians they found was that the world is ending soon and Jesus is coming. It was a very important part of Spanish colonization. When we hear end of the world prophecies, what they are is synchronistic prophecies where Mayan beliefs and Catholic Millenarian beliefs combined.

MKB: Why has there been so little scholarly attention paid to the 2012 movement until now?

JH: I think that scholars in general are very uncomfortable with contemporary belief systems. They’re laden with a lot of emotional baggage. It’s not the purpose of science to generate or support ideology, and so scientists are reasonably cautious and don’t want to contribute to that growth. They’re also just not familiar with it. They won’t touch fringe literature with a 10 foot pole and so they’re completely unaware of how big this phenomenon is. A student of mine has just written an article called “2012 by 2012.” He’s been keeping tabs on the number of books published about this topic and he thinks there will be more than 2000 books out by the time 2012 comes around. It’s been a huge publishing phenomenon.

MKB: In some ways, it seems that this has given people like Mayanists and archaeo-astronomers a role in modern culture that they don't normally have. You talk about Anthony Aveni having an email conversation with a teenager and trying to debunk the myths and reassure this kid that the world wasn’t really going to end. And, I mean, it's typical for a biologist to have to have conversations with the public like that, or a climate scientist, but it's not really something you expect to do a lot of when you study dead things. What has that been like for you? Is that role of public explainer something archaeologists are well prepared to take on?

JH: I think that they’re prepared to take it on in terms of the knowledge that they have. But they’re not well prepared in terms of how it is that we talk to people who are interested in the spiritual aspects of this. I think that actually polarizes the dialogue sometimes. Scientists and academics end up being seen as the bad guys. A lot of this mythology falls into anti-authoritarian mythology. “What the official sources tell you isn’t true. There’s a conspiracy to hide the truth.” The trailer for the 2012 movie said something along the lines of, “If governments knew about a world wide catastrophe, would they tell you?” It raises suspicion of authority. And I don’t think many academics are prepared to deal with people who are hostile to authority and who have made up their minds that scholars are lying or are part of the conspiracy.

MKB: So what do you do when that comes up?

JH: I try to be fairly diplomatic about it. I try to realize that these myths play a very important role in people’s lives. They make them feel comfortable, help them feel better. I try to help people develop critical thinking skills, and help them understand that you can’t educate yourself simply by reading the web and watching the History Channel. That it requires a lot of scholarship and reading, and you have to look at the original academic literature. You can’t rely on popular magazines. You have to evaluate the primary information itself. Lots of people can’t afford the academic training they want and so they try to do it themselves and wind up with an autodidactic education that includes a lot of bizarre and totally wrong speculative literature. In fact, a lot of people writing about this are self taught in the same way.

MKB: Are there cultural anthropologists who make a point of studying pseudoscience movements? Because some of the pseudoscience you talk about seems fascinatingly detailed and complicated, but at the same time, completely speculative. That's an interesting combination to me. Is it interesting to researchers?

JH: I think it is, but I don’t know of any cultural anthropologists who pursue it. There’s a lot of excellent religious studies work on new religious movements, though. One of my favorite books is The Invention of Sacred Tradition. What they talk about is how people will invent things that they then say have been happening forever. I think it helps us understand the production of culture, how culture is generated. There’s a lot of richness out there that we can see in the creation of new mythologies.

Jesus Potter Harry Christ is another book you should look at. It’s a detailed comparison of Christian myth and the Harry Potter stories, and it comes to the conclusion that, except for the fact that Christian myth has been sanctioned for 2000 years, there’s no difference. Essentially, one could base a whole theology on Harry Potter. And, in fact, I suspect that in the future somebody will. That’s how culture gets created. Myth cycles become the way that people teach morality, values, and behavior. That’s what the Bible does, but Star Trek has that function, too.

MKB: What other influences do you see on the 2012 movement, besides New Age ideology and Mayan mythology?

JH: Something else covered in that 2012 book I’m in that hasn’t really been talked about in mainstream media … the reality is that this mythology came out of the psychedelic subculture. You can’t ignore that influence. I was talking about this with a TV presenter and her reaction was that they couldn’t say that because they do family programming. A lot of people won’t talk about it because it’s a taboo topic. But we do discuss that in this book. If some of the 2012 theories seem like they were made up by people on drugs, it’s because they were. There’s this huge psychedelic subculture that still exists and that the media doesn’t really report on except to demonize it. But it’s important.

Also, the most recent research I’ve been doing, and I haven’t published on this yet, but I’m finding links between the work of H.P. Lovecraft and influence of that on 2012. Michael Coe was a huge Lovecraft fan, even. I’m working on a manuscript on that right now. But Lovecraft is at the root of a lot of the ideas here, like the cycles of destruction, for instance. That’s not Mayan, that’s Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself had a lot of skepticism and felt that spiritualism was appropriate for fiction but didn’t believe any of it in everyday reality, and he kind of used his fiction as a way to mock those beliefs a little. But now that’s being used as reality.

MKB: What about the modern Maya? Has anyone gotten good documentation on what they think about this cultural phenomenon that's tied to their culture, but is also separate from it?

JH: I hope that that work is happening. In fact, I’ve encouraged some of my students who work with modern Maya to be doing just that. Because what’s happening now is a very active synchretism of the religions of living Maya groups with New Age thought.

Mayan belief has long been synchronistic. In the pre-Columbian era they were influenced by the cultures and beliefs of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, the Olmecs, and then you get the Spanish and Catholicism, then evangelical Protestantism, and since the 1970s there’s been this influence of the New Age and that’s really intensified now with the 2012 thing.

Essentially, some very enthusiastic hippies have gone into remote Maya villages, bringing their ideas about the New Age, Buddhism, and theosophy. They are introducing them to the Maya themselves, who are in turn producing a new synchretism. I think there are a lot of places that are reinterpreting shamanism along the lines of what Western academics think shamanism to be. That makes it really hard to understand what those people originally believed. The religous studies scholars call it “The Pizza Effect,” it refers to what happens when a culture reflects back to a foreign influence as though it had always been there. The Hare Krishnas, for instance, were an American interpretation of Hinduism and were exported to India, where it became a religious movement in India that hadn’t been there all along.

The name comes from the history of the pizza, which is that the pizza was invented by Italian immigrants in New England creating a quick lunch. But as American tourists went to Italy in search of authentic pizza the restaurateurs were happy to oblige by inventing a history of the pizza in Italy. And now you have this “authentic” Italian pizza coming back to the U.S. I think that’s happening with 2012 as well. You have modern Maya talking about New Age secrets as if those were original parts of Maya culture, but those were things that were learned in the 60s and 70s.

It is authentic. Synchretic beliefs are absolutely authentic. You know, the authenticity argument is really one of, “Do these people authentically believe this,” and the reality is that many, many Maya are authentically evangelical Protestants. Yes, it’s recent. But it doesn’t mean it’s any less authentic. But there’s a difference between authenticity and tradition. And the arbiters of truth and what is tradition are changing. Ironically, this is happening at a point where we know more than we ever did before about ancient texts because we can actually read them so much better. And there’s nothing in there about aliens.

Image: Apocalypse, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from torek's photostream