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The lucrative myth of the Mayan prophecy

January 10, 2012

December 21, 2012. Doomsday. You may have heard this year’s winter solstice will coincide with an apocalypse forewarned by the ancient Mayan calendar, but this infamous “prophecy” is simply a misinterpretation of the pre-Columbian civilization’s history and culture.

Supported by pseudo-science and popular superstition, the myth of the Mayan prophecy has been exploited for commercial reasons – to promote movies and generate tourism. In reality the Maya did not forecast the apocalypse; the date simply marks a shift in time-cycles in their elaborate calendar system.

The Maya have inhabited south-east Mexico and Central America for millennia. The Classic period from around 250 to 900 A.D. marked the high point of their sophisticated civilization, while around ten million Mayan descendants remain in the region to this day.

Advanced astronomers, the Maya devised a cyclical calendar that ran for 52 years, approximately one human lifespan at the time. To account for more long-term events, they created the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which began on the mythical Mayan creation date of 3114 B.C. and runs for 5,126 years.

Inscribed in stone 1,300 years ago, near modern-day Tabasco, the date of December 21, 2012 marks the end of the first 5,126-year cycle. Yet the Maya believed that time started and ended with regularity and without cataclysmic incident. The end of the current cycle merely heralds the beginning of the next.

Scholars from various disciplines have dismissed the possibility of any end-of-the-world scenario playing out in 2012. Astrological interpretations supporting the supposed Mayan doomsday prophecy have been discredited by mainstream scholarship, while experts on Mayan history say predictions of impending doom are absent from all 15,000 classic Mayan texts. Even scientists from NASA have been moved to dismiss the myth in response to an avalanche of questions received on the subject.

Public consciousness of the December 21 doomsday date was spiked in 2009 by the worldwide viral-marketing campaign accompanying the release of disaster movie “2012,” which was based loosely on the Mayan calendar theory.

Meanwhile, although not endorsing the prophecy, the Mexican government is aiming to capitalize on the increased interest it has generated in Mayan culture in 2012. At a special summer-solstice press conference in 2011, President Felipe Calderon launched Mexico’s Maya 2012 tourism initiative, with over 500 cultural events scheduled throughout the year.

Among the planned events, the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, has erected a countdown clock in the town square; resorts along the Riviera Maya are planning special reenactments of pelota, the ancient Mayan ball game; and hundreds of paddlers will take part in the Sacred Mayan Journey, traveling in canoes to the island of Cozumel to pay homage to the goddess Ixchel.

Government officials are predicting a surge of 52 million domestic and international visitors to the five southern states that comprise the country’s Maya region: Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatan.

The apocalyptic economic boom is expected to be felt across the Mayan world, which also encompasses Belize, Guatemala and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Airlines have booked tens of thousands of extra seats to Belize, where a rise in foreign visitors is anticipated, while officials in Guatemala, the country with the most living Maya, predict a 10-percent increase in tourism this year.

The real meaning of the Mayan prophecy is not then the return of vengeful gods or an astrological alignment bringing about the day of reckoning, but a convenient boost in regional tourism. Expect the hype to continue until exactly December 22, 2012.

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