The 2012 Story: The Myth, Fallacies, and Truth behind the Most Intriguing Date in History

The 2012 Story: The Myth, Fallacies, and Truth behind the Most Intriguing Date in History

John Major Jenkins
New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2009. 336 pages, $24.95.

The excitement of the new millennium had scarcely faded when it was followed by a new craze—the obsession with 2012 as a date of coming cataclysm or redemption. Particularly since The Da Vinci Code, the mainstream media have been keen to New Age enthusiasms, so they have taken up 2012 with gusto. The History Channel and the Discovery Channel have produced any number of shows on this theme, and practically every publisher in the field of alternative spirituality has made its contribution to the 2012 furor.

Very few of these items are worth discussing, but one recent offering is an exception: John Major Jenkins's 2012 Story. For the last two decades Jenkins has been looking into the Mayan calendar to discover what its end date of December 21, 2012, meant to the ancient Maya and what it might mean to us today. He does so from the unenviable position of the independent scholar, steering a course between daft New Agers on the one hand, who portray this date as the advent of space brothers and dimensional shifts, and academic scholars on the other, who generally march in the equally mindless lockstep of automatic skepticism. The 2012 Story chronicles Jenkins's own findings and experiences.

To begin with, why did this particular date—the winter solstice of 2012—matter so much to the ancient Maya? The classic phase of their civilization ended around a.d. 900, so it was hardly a pressing issue at the time. Jenkins answers this question by sketching out a short history of scholarship in the field, complete with its cast of rogues and geniuses. In short, the Maya had an intricate series of calendars, one of which is based on the baktun, a measure of time encompassing 144,000 days. The Mayans believed that thirteen of these baktuns equaled a great age. The present cycle, they believed, began on August 11, 3114 b.c., and will end on December 21, 2012. (For more on the Mayan calendar, see Barbara J. Sadtler's article 'The Mayan Fascination with Time" in this issue.)

Why the Maya might have chosen the 3114 b.c. date is not entirely clear, particularly since it marks a time that long preceded their own civilization. Jenkins's own theory is that the Maya were actually calculating back from the 2012 date. What, then, was so important about that? According to Jenkins, it marks a point at which the sun at the winter solstice is in the "dark rift" of the Milky Way, a gap in the galaxy (as seen from earth) that corresponds to the galactic center. It is this "galactic alignment," as he calls it, that the Maya believed would herald a regeneration of the age.

The 2012 Story goes on to describe how the date took hold of the popular imagination. This was chiefly the work of Josa Argaelles (who now calls himself Valum Votan), the eccentric prophet of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence, and of the late Terence McKenna, who in the 1990s replaced Timothy Leary as the pope of psychedelia. Both Argaelles and McKenna had their own different but equally convoluted reasons for coming up with this date, which do not entirely jibe with Jenkins's, but he discusses these fully and fairly.

The later part of the book chronicles the public reception of the 2012 date. Jenkins excoriates the cable TV networks for cynically sensationalizing the issue, portraying 2012 as an equivalent of the Christian Doomsday, when in fact, he claims, the Mayans themselves foresaw a time of cyclical renewal. His discussion of the media's treatment of the theme is instructive for anyone who is tempted to take the breathless documentaries of the History Channel and its kin too seriously. I have appeared on some of these myself, and I can testify that the producers asking me the questions offscreen sometimes have trouble keeping a straight face.

Finally, Jenkins provides his own views on this date and what it may mean to us today. Although he is often astute in his criticisms of contemporary civilization, he does not offer much that is new here, and one can go away believing that he thinks indigenous wisdom will save the day for us. To me this seems too simplistic. If the ancient Maya had ways of knowledge that we need to resurrect, they had their share of follies and brutalities as well. Ironically, considering that some are looking to indigenous peoples for answers to our ecological woes, many scholars ascribe the sudden collapse of the Mayan civilization to overexploitation of the environment.

Jenkins also gives more weight to the Traditionalist school—the followers of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon—than it deserves. The Traditionalists draw a stark and Manichaean contrast between the glories of "traditional" societies and the evils of our own corrupt time. (For more on the Traditionalists, see my article "Against Blavatsky: René Guénon's Critique of Theosophy" in this issue.) Again this is too easy and too negative. If we are sometimes tempts to spurn the advanced civilization that we have created over the last two centuries, it is a temptation that is best avoided. We may need to transcend this civilization, but that does not mean turning our backs on it.

Despite these faults, and despite its frequently clumsy prose, Jenkins's book remains by far the best and most authoritative guide to the 2012 phenomenon. I doubt it will be followed by anything better.

Richard Smoley