The world isn't going to end in 2012. But you wouldn't know it to look at the movie 2012, or online, where doom and "end times" theories roam free. But the people who know Mayan culture and the infamous "Maya Long Count" calendar that started all this "end days" talk chuckle at the hubbub. And they see the new disaster movie as a "teachable moment."
"The vast majority of what's been attached to that date in 2012 online, in movies and books and on TV, has no basis in the Maya world," says Professor Robert Sitler, a Maya culture expert from Stetson University.
We're misreading that "Long Count" calendar, adds Eleanor Harrison-Buck, a Maya scholar who teaches at the University of New Hampshire. "The Mesoamerican concept of the 'end of time' is in some ways similar to our own New Year's celebration. "It represents the start of a new beginning…Time and space are cyclical — never ending."
So don't expect the mortgage, cable or newspaper subscription to run out on Dec. 21, 2012. It's just a roll-over date on a calendar that fell into disuse for a millennium after Mayan civilization plunged into decline around 900 A.D., the experts say. Just because a tiny portion of a surviving Mayan text that says "The calendar ends 12-21-2012" migrated from academia to New Age authors and end-times cultists is no reason to be alarmed.
Sitler is giving a free public talk debunking some of the current Maya mania on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. in Rinker Auditorium on the Stetson campus in Deland. He says he will tells people what he tells students in his classes, "There's nothing to fear. The world isn't coming to an end that day."
But that doesn't mean he isn't hoping that Roland Emmerich's film calls attention to the lessons of the Maya. Sitler's upcoming book, The Living Maya: Ancient Wisdom in the Era of 2012, uses the doomsday "hysteria" to look at end of Mayan civilization and how the modern Maya – some eight million of them in upper Central America — live their lives.
"I ask my students here at Stetson, 'How many dead bodies have you seen?' Most of them have seen maybe a grandparent or two in a coffin. You ask a Maya that and they've seen dozens of bodies. The idea of death is much more out in the open.
And with threats to the planet's environment, "mass extinctions, pollution, maybe we are looking at a sort of doomsday," Sitler says. And maybe we should live in a way to prevent it.
"The movie 2012 has the potential to create hysteria, sure," he says. "But it's worth contemplating one's death or even the death of the society, because that ultimately can be a very re-vitalizing influence on your life. If you realize, 'I actually AM going to die. It's just a matter of days, maybe many days. But eventually, yes,' when you look at life and death that way, you tend to live more deliberately."
So Sitler's making plans for Dec. 21, 2012.
"My wife and I have a favorite place in the Maya world in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Some wonderful things have happened to us there, and that's where we'll be vacationing, Dec. 21, 2012."