Monday, December 10, 2007
"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"-William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
THE END IS NIGH and somehow we know it. It blackens our souls and poisons our dreams. Wrath, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, vanity-these are the hallmarks of human civilization. Our institutions are corrupt, our perceptions distorted. We have become evil, hell-spawn, irredeemable by love.
Someday a rain's a-gonna come and wash it all away. Hurricanes, tsunami, cyclones-they will cleanse the world of our evil. The fires of war and cataclysm will purify the land. The temples of the money-changers will crumble to dust. The earth will swallow you whole. And those that remain-the chosen few-will live on in the kingdom of God.
Such is the future prophesied by many of man's religions. Every generation fancies itself as the last—they, unlike countless generations before them, will see the end times.
In a sense, we all will see the end times-our own individual end time. But that is not what many seem to be looking for. Many, it seems, are waiting for something more widely dramatic-a drama worthy of the Bible or Homer.
Such people may well fear and look for signs everywhere that the apocalypse is nigh. Global warming. North Korea. Iran. Israel. Palestine. Jihad vs. McWorld. World World III. Peak oil. The 2007 KU football season. etc.
But much of this is nothing new. The Middle East has been on the brink for seemingly ever. The Cold War thawed. Y2K fizzled. Comet Kouhoutek passed in peace.
And yet for all the apocalyptic predictions shouted through the ages, the human race rushes on unchecked and unharmed, mightier than ever, masters of our domain.
Until, maybe, ...now?
Hasta la Vista
Two years ago, I began an article for lawrence.com with the sentence, "Justin Roelofs is sitting on a pyramid in Mexico." And today, I report again that Justin Roelofs is sitting on a pyramid in Mexico.
Roelofs is a veteran Lawrence musician of note-some would say notoriety. He returned briefly to Lawrence this summer, en route from the Adirondacks (where he'd recorded music, alone in a mountain cabin) back to the YucatÃ¡n peninsula of Mexico, this time to the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal. After my article on Roelofs was published in 2005, he sent an email from some jungle village-"The internet is everywhere, even in paradise," he wrote-in which he proclaimed me his Galactic Heart Father and mentioned his excitement about an upcoming meeting with a very special person at remote Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
I felt strangely honored to be a Galactic Heart Father, without knowing why, and curious about what Roelofs was up to in the jungles of Central America. When I heard he was passing through Lawrence, I set up another interview.
We arranged an eight-o-clock dinner meeting at my place. Roelofs showed up at nine-thirty with black olives and a bar of dark chocolate, the only things he would eat. We listened to a few tracks from his just recorded album, and then moved to the table to switch on the recorder. It seems spiteful to me now, but that night I chose to play devil's advocate during the interview. I advised Roelofs to stuff on cheeseburgers while he was in the States, inferring that his emaciated, Christ-like appearance was a cliched affectation (though he glowed healthy as a horse). I chided him for back-seating his high-potential career in music to a fanciful, cult-like obsession.
When he told me that 2012 would be the end of time, and then spoke of impending apocalypse-the first time I'd heard the 2012 date in that context-I reminded him of the Moonies, Jim Jones, and all the other prophets who were sure the end times were to transpire in their time.
Roelofs was gracious in the face of my skepticism. He said his father had reacted the same way three years ago when Justin announced his intention to study the Mayan Calendar in Mexico. When the olives and chocolate were gone, when Roelofs left after stiff goodbyes, I sensed my status as Galactic Heart Father had diminished. To atone, the next morning I resolved to look into this Mayan Calendar, these things of which Roelofs was so thoroughly convinced:
Time and the Maya
"In my beginning is my end."
-T.S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"
The ancient civilization of the Maya spanned four millennia (circa 2500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.)-that is, twice the time between Jesus Christ's walking of the Earth and our own.
The 2012 phenomenon online
2012 WEBSITES, General
2012 IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA
"Explaining the Mystery of the Vanished Maya," by John Hoopes Mental Floss March 2005
Climate and the Classic Maya Civilzation NOAA Paleo Slide Set
"The Classic Maya Calendar and Day Numbering System," by David Mills, PhD University of Delaware
Video interview with John Major Jenkins 29 mins; Conscious Media Network
Sitler's 2006 paper: "The 2012 Phenomenon: New Age Appropriation of an Ancient Mayan Calendar" originally published in Nova Religio
"How Now Justin Roelofs?" from lawrence.com April 2006
Global Consciousness Project Princeton University
"Vernadsky and his revolutionary theory of the Biosphere and the Noosphere" University of New Hampshire
"History of a Meme" MetaFilter
The Maya established a homeland of kingdoms encompassing large areas of present-day Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. While the Maya (translating roughly as "people of the corn") weren't the only high culture inhabiting Mesoamerica at the time, theirs was by far the largest and the most sophisticated, spawning some of the most pioneering astronomers, mathematicians, builders, and engineers in human history.
To the modern mind, the Maya seem a people of paradox. They were one of the first civilizations to employ the concept of zero, yet they never discovered the wheel (or, at least, never used it). They were a highly cooperative society, yet they ritually practiced human sacrifice. For the Maya, there was no division of church and state-the spiritual was the political, and the welfare of the people was determined solely by the negotiations between their kings and their gods. Their cities and monuments are breathtaking wonders of engineering and artistic skill, which-in a relatively short period of time and for no clearly defined reasons-they abandoned.
The Maya had a predilection for developing extremely complex systems of measuring time. Without the distractions of TV, computers and light pollution, they became expert sky-watchers. Observing the cyclical movement of heavens, the Maya concluded that time was also cyclical in nature. Unlike our linear conception of time-beginning at a fixed point (creation) and traveling forward in a straight line-the Maya had a continuum consciousness, seeing time (and creation), as an interlocking system of cycles and ages, always returning to a regular series of conjunctions imbued with varying characters and differing potentials, on which the Maya placed great spiritual and social importance.
The movements of Venus, for example, determined propitious times for waging war and so-being sanctioned by the heavens-the Maya famously had no fear of warfare. The Long Count calendar was one of their most elegant masterpieces. The Maya devised shorter "life-sized" calendrical cycles-the Tzolk'in, the Haab', and the Calendar Round of 52 years-but they needed a system that would accommodate the span of history.
They produced the Long Count, the Great Cycle of 5,126 years.
As Mayan cities grew in monumental grandeur and human population, they strained their natural resources-a prevailing explanation for the "vanishing" of the Maya from their cities. Dwindling resources led to raids on neighboring kingdoms, often with great loss of life. Desperate to appease the disgruntled gods, the Maya further decimated their own kind through large-scale blood sacrifices. As the labor pool emptied, food became scarce, social services unraveled, malaise set in and disease took hold. Most importantly, the Maya lost faith in the abilities of their leaders to transact favorably with the gods.
It's not implausible that the Maya (or, at least, their leaders)-like many civilizations before and after-simply got too big for their britches. By degrees, they left their once-splendid cities and returned to the villages of the jungles and highlands.
Only a few straggling Maya kingdoms witnessed the coming of the Spaniards-most of the great cities had been abandoned centuries before. When Cortes and his men arrived in 1519, they immediately began to eradicate all traces of Mayan culture-supplanting it with martial law and the Roman Catholic church-and to servicing Spain's insatiable lust for dominion and gold. The Maya had assiduously recorded their history, astronomical observations, calendrical calculations and spiritual beliefs in thousands of texts (called codices), and in cryptic carvings on their stone monuments (called glyphs). The Spaniards burned most of the Mayan codices, destroyed many of their temples, and enslaved and murdered all those who had not yet fled into the jungle.
But that wasn't the end of the Maya people. Over six million Maya live in Mexico and Central America today, far more than the total estimated Maya population during the peak of their so-called Classic period, around 700 A.D. The Maya-the survivors of Cortes, and those who had retreated from their cities prior to the Spanish invasion-eventually succumbed to the conquering culture, but it is believed that many secretly held to their traditional beliefs. They transposed their Tree of Life, the sacred symbol of cosmic unity, onto the Holy Cross; their pantheon of gods morphed neatly into the array of Catholic saints. Today, offerings of corn are still made at altars hidden in jungle caves, and a few discreet Maya daykeepers in the Guatemalan highlands still heed the Tzolk'in, "the count of days."
What does all this have to do with the End of the World as We Know It?
According to the Maya Long Count, we are now living in the close of the Fourth Age, a Great Cycle which began on 0.0.0.0.0.-the Zero date: August 11, 3114 B.C.-and ends 5126 years later on the winter solstice of 18.104.22.168.0.-December 21, 2012.
The date Roelofs called the End of Time. There, many believe, the Mayan calendar simply ends. I would soon discover that the 2012 date had long since become an international cultural phenomenon whose growth was accelerating.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I googled "2012 Maya" and up popped a strange new world:
Interstellar energy clouds.
Magnetic fields and polar shifts.
Crop circles and sacred geometry.
The return of Planet X, or Niburu, the Red Dragon, lurking in the asteroid belt, waiting for another fiery shot at Earth.
Increasing reports of UFO activity and a rise in alien abductions.
The noosphere and synchronicity. Sun spots and solar storms; solar maximums and Maunder minimums.
Psychoactive plants, shamanistic ritual and dimensional portals.
Cosmogenesis and karma.
Daemons from the Underworld.
The perennial apocalyptic prophecies of Revelations, Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus, and lesser-known but equally grim prophetic interpretations of the Qabbalah, and the Qu'ran.
The end-time visions of the Lakota and the Hopi (if you've been good, head to the Four Corners).
Terence McKenna, psilocybin, the I Ching, and Time Wave Zero.
The bulging Yellowstone supervolcano.
Motivated survivalists soliciting well-funded citizens for an apocalypse-proof community in the mountains of South Africa or New Zealand.
Entrepreneurs hawking ready-made Armageddon backpacks stocked with anti-radiation pills and mylar heat shields...
I Am Legend **
If we must watch the last man on Earth wandering about aimlessly, it may as well be someone who can hold our attention like the charismatic Will Smith. The actor conjures both pathos and absurd laughs in "I Am Legend," until the film turns from a quiet meditation on the nature of humanity into a B-movie schlockfest. Were it not for the last 15 minutes-it's really appalling, and feels like it's from another movie-"I Am Legend" would have been much more than its pulpy premise hinted at.
Hollywood, which long ago got wise to the profit point of the apocalyptic theme, frequently muscled its way through the online eschatological melee to tout its own interpretations: recently "28 Days Later" and, in theaters this week: "I Am Legend," a re-hashing of Charlton Heston's "Omega Man," starring this generation's end-times man Will Smith.
Crop circles caught my attention and I papered my living room walls with Lucy Pringle's photos.
Then there's Chardin's and Vernadsky's concepts of the noosphere: the coming of a shared global consciousness, a world mind; an evolutionary development presaged by the internet.
Who, or what, was stirring up this fuss about a date from an ancient, little-known calendrical system? Who, or what, was the engine of this movement?
A Gathering of Prophets
Jose ArgÃ¼elles, born in Minnesota in 1939, is generally credited as the father of the 2012 movement. In 1987, ArgÃ¼elles masterminded the so-called Harmonic Convergence, an annual two-day global meditation for peace, and he played a key role in the founding of Earth Day.
In his best-selling book, "The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology," ArgÃ¼elles blames human disconnection from the natural world, and attendant ills, largely on the Gregorian calendar.
He promotes a worldwide switch from the Gregorian to the Dreamspell, a 13-moon, 28-day cycle of his own making, which he deems harmonious with natural law, extrapolated in part from the Mayan Tzolk'in.
ArgÃ¼elles says he's been channeling the spirit of Pacal Votan, an entity ArgÃ¼elles describes as a 7th century Mayan prophet. According to Votan, on 12.21.2012 we will "close out not only the Great Cycle, but the evolutionary interim called Homo Sapiens."
In that closing moment, Votan says, a rainbow of human consciousness will arc from pole to pole, and we will all flash from this place into the heavens.
Votan also states that every human solar plexus has antennae receiving signals from the center of the Milky Way. For some in the 2012 movement, ArgÃ¼elles/Votan-though undeniably brilliant and not to be counted entirely out-is now veering dangerously into tinfoil helmet territory.
Other prominent figures are out there, such as Mayanist John Major Jenkins and the late New Age proselytizer Terence McKenna. (Find more about them in this story online.)
Pinchbeck, High Priest of Psychedelia
But as the big date approaches, perhaps no one is more widely associated with 2012 than Daniel Pinchbeck.
Pinchbeck stands at the center of the expanding media bubble surrounding 2012. A skeptical profile of him in the August 2006 Rolling Stone carried this title: "Daniel Pinchbeck and the New Psychedelic Elite: How a cynical son of beatnik parents combined drugs, the devil, and the apocalypse into a modern movement."
A 41-year-old, well-connected journalist based in New York City, Pinchbeck had already carved himself a respectable niche before the 2002 publication of "Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism." "Head" detailed Pinchbeck's experiences with an impressive variety of psychoactive drugs, and his investigations into the shamanic rituals of indigenous African and South American peoples. It was the story of his vision quest-a ripping tale told by a friendly mad scientist with a great vocabulary.
Pinchbeck's passionate call: for mankind's return to a naturally harmonious and intuitive state of being, and the immediate renouncement of materialism-before the shit hit the fan.
"Breaking Open the Head" gained Pinchbeck entrance into the circle of the New Age intellectual elite, where he sparred handily with the minds of McKenna, ArgÃ¼elles, chaos theorist Ralph Abraham, and former Cambridge biochemistry professor Rupert Sheldrake.
Pinchbeck's interstellar shift came last year with the publication of his second book, "2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl." Despite generally unfavorable reviews, the book struck a chord and Pinchbeck rocketed to the top of the 2012 chart, suddenly being spotted around Manhattan with the likes of Moby and Sting. Nerdy, rumpled and overtly intellectual; hardly a glamour boy-Pinchbeck was now the front man for a bona-fide cultural phenomenon.
All Your Goodies Are Gone
Just how it could all go down in 2012 depends on whose imaginings you're reading. There are countless permutations prophesied on the internet-many begin with a supervolcano.
The Yellowstone Caldera measures about 35 by 45 miles (roughly the size of Tokyo's footprint), with a magma chamber five miles deep. It encompasses about a third to half of the area directly beneath Yellowstone National Park. The last time Yellowstone erupted, about 630,000 years ago, it went off with a bang over 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. After the explosion, the atmosphere filled with over 200 cubic miles of radioactive ash, which drifted back to earth, blanketing the entire lower 48 to a depth of three feet. The air filled with sulfur dioxide gas. Ash remaining in the atmosphere blocked out the sun for 10 years, plunging the earth into a nuclear winter.
A natural catastrophe of this magnitude is truly inconceivable, and yet it's part of our planet's natural cycle. Not if, but when.
The U.S. Geological Survey calculates that the Yellowstone Caldera is on a 600,000-year cycle-and that it's about 30,000 years overdue.
This was only the beginning of the impending catastrophes-both natural and social-that Pinchbeck says are coming in 2012.
A Conference of Scientists
"We [the archaeological community] have no record or knowledge that the Maya would think the world would come to an end in 2012."
-Susan Milbraath, curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History.
"According to the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar, a cycle of more than 5,000 years will come to fruition on the winter solstice of 2012. While this day is largely unknown among contemporary Maya, some participants in the New Age movement believe it will mark an apocalyptic global transformation. Hundreds of books and internet sites speculate wildly about the 2012 date, but little of this conjecture has a factual basis in Mayan culture."
-Robert Sitler, director of Latin American Studies, Stetson University.
"Nowhere in the databases of science does it say that the 2012 date is the end of the Mayan calendar."
-John Hoopes, KU associate professor of Anthropology
KU professor John Hoopes knows Daniel Pinchbeck. They have the occasional shouting match over the phone. When Hoopes talks of Pinchbeck, there's contentiousness, but not without a whiff of admiration. Whereas Pinchbeck is a star player in the 2012 sphere, Hoopes is a highly respected specialist in pre-Columbian civilizations. The New York Times interviewed him recently on this same subject. Hoopes is no stodgy academician-he once went with Pinchbeck to Burning Man, an annual hippiesque gathering of thousands in a Nevada desert. And his papers and reviews sometimes reference fringe thinkers, including New Ager McKenna or former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett.
Hoopes has strong opinions on the 2012 movement, and major ethical issues with Pinchbeck. His response to my email about the release of a new compendium of 2012 writings, to which Pinchbeck was a contributor, was blunt:
"Pinchbeck's [article] reads like a first semester freshman philosophy term-paper on steroids, written after a night of heavy tripping by someone who never came to class or did any assigned readings. I think I'd have to take some major psychedelics to begin to make sense of it! Pinchbeck clearly believes that the world should be run by an intellectual elite that includes himself. Some people will believe him, and that's extremely disturbing to me."
Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Florida, rings the same bell, calling the 2012 movement "a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in."
Pinchbeck, being the 2012 guru of the moment, is often in academia's crosshairs. His perceived "you just don't get it" attitude-a phrase Hoopes says Pinchbeck screamed at him repeatedly during one phone conversation-irks many Mayanists.
And, Hoopes acknowledges, sour grapes may have entered the mix. Here's Pinchbeck, writing books, making money, hanging with high-profile eggheads and rock stars, talking to the media... "It's hard to swallow," says Hoopes, "and all that seems to come to him just for basically making things up."
So I emailed Pinchbeck:
In my interviews with KU archaeologist John Hoopes, a self-professed debunker, I wrote, he claims that the 2012 "phenomenon" is fertile territory for Barnums and hucksters. ...How can people tell the "genuine" from the sham? What is genuine about the 2012 date?
Pinchbeck replied quickly:
What is genuine about the 2012 date is that it is the end of the 5,125 year "Long Count" in the Mayan Calendar, and was given a lot of attention in their culture and their artifacts. This date appears to be linked to a rare astronomical event: the Winter solstice sun eclipses the dark rift at the center of the Milky Way. Beyond that, nobody knows "the truth" about what the Maya understood about the date, or what the actual meaning is. My argument is that, as with the phenomenon of the crop circles, we are faced with a phenomenon that requires our effort of thought and discernment, and requires a multi-dimensional approach that synthesizes different types of data. For instance, looking into Mayan myth, such as the Popol Vuh, we see that they believe in world cycles that end with cataclysm and regeneration, and it seems very plausible that they saw 12/21/12 as the shift into a new cycle.
I forwarded Pinchbeck's response to Hoopes, who shot back:
Pinchbeck's participation in the sham seems to be deepening. ...I doubt you could find any academic expert on the ancient Maya to agree with any part of this. The Long Count is not 5,125 years long, but records dates that represent many, many multiples of this! Why does Pinchbeck misrepresent what is actually known? As we've discussed, 2102 is not the "end date" of the Maya calendar, either. The Maya calendar has units far greater than 13 baktuns (the supposed "end" of the calendar) and there are many Maya inscriptions that refer to dates after 2012.
In my mind, Hoopes continued, Pinchbeck is blowing the same kind of smoke as Biblical literalists. His interpretations of the ancient Maya ignore Occam's Razor and, in my opinion, are not supported by academic research on this fascinating ancient civilization.
Fear sells, and Pinchbeck is using fear to sell his specific worldview and ideas in a way that the ancient Maya could never have anticipated! It should be clear that he is blatantly misrepresenting our actual state of knowledge. I'm skeptical that Pinchbeck has researched and understood 2012 and the ancient Maya, or what archaeologists have to say about these, any more than a scientific creationist has researched and understood evolutionary theory and the scientific evidence supporting it. He's selected the information that he needs for his specific ideological purposes and ignored the rest. Unfortunately, a lot of gullible, uninformed people will be deluded by his misrepresentations.
Robert Sitler of Stetson University, another Mayanist heavyweight, has Hoopes' back: "I'm looking for a single unambiguous 2012 reference in the Classic texts, Popul Vuh, Chilam Balams, etc. and haven't found one yet," he writes. Sitler even suggests that the 2012 movement is weaving a fictitious Mayan history and selling it back to the modern Maya, writing in an online forum that "... the 2012 phenomenon arises from outside the Mayan cultural context and is only now being introduced in the Mayan world."
Throughout my conversations with Hoopes-we talked for several hours on many aspects of the 2012 phenomenon, from crop circles to currency collapse to pole shifts and magnetic fields-there was a definite undercurrent of "knowing," a sense that there was indeed something big going on in the world at this moment, some kind of build-up involving many of the topics in the 2012 catalog and far removed from the calendar of the Maya-an indefinable something that may well be the same force propelling the worldwide 2012 movement. Something in the air.
At our last meeting, I asked Hoopes if he thought anything significant was going to happen on 2012. He answered without hesitation: "Yes. I can't say what or why, but I feel sure that something momentous will happen."
"Are we creating it?" I asked, more than surprised by his response. "Is this a noospheric thing, where all our fears and discontent are coming together in a global-sized, self-fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy?"
Hoopes shrugged his shoulders.
Hasta La Proxima
"Someday after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire."
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
We all have our appointments with death, as much as we try to cheat it, but it isn't every day you get a date with an apocalypse. Not much you can do about a supervolcano, or a sunstorm, or a shift of consciousness, except roll with it.
The first instinct is to laugh off 2012 as just another crackpot doomsday prediction-Biblical prophecies, Y2K, Nostradamus-so many have been beating that cat for centuries. Perhaps it's Shakespeare's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing."
And what of Justin Roelofs, sitting on a pyramid in the jungle eating papaya under the stars-while we're slaves to bills, the MySpace, the latest on TomKat, and anything on TV that's not depressing like Iraq or whatever:
Who's crazy anymore?