Apocalypse now? Blame the Pilgrims, not the Mayans

Miniature Stela from the Walters Art Museum exhibit Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift. J. Puerto, New York [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; John G. Bourne, 1961, by purchase.

Tony Aveni blames it on the Pilgrims.

If it hadn't been for our prim and quarrelsome ancestors, their descendants might not now be making forecasts that the world will end in 313 days based on a blatant misreading of the Mayan calendar, according to Aveni, a professor at New York's Colgate University.


If our fanatical forebears hadn't separated from the Church of England and climbed aboard the Mayflower, there might not be widespread doomsday forecasts for Dec. 21, 2012 — a mere 14 months after the Rapture failed to materialize as predicted.

"Apocalypticism is very American. It's in our bones," says Aveni, who will deliver a lecture next month at the Walters Art Museum in connection with "Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas," an exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum.


"The craze for world endings is very prevalent in American pop culture, but not in France or the Czech Republic. The Pilgrims were a cult of religious extremists who came to America because they were dissatisfied with the standard religion. We are their descendants, and there's a lot of evangelism in the U.S. right now."

Aveni, a founder of the field of cultural astronomy, will talk about the likelihood of worldwide Armageddon in light of findings in the earth and star sciences in his lecture, "Maya Apocalypse Now?" He will explain why the Mayans' famous stone calendars — called stelae — seem to end abruptly four days before Christmas.

Exhibit viewers can decide for themselves by checking out a miniature stela, or column carved with hieroglyphs, on display in the exhibit. It should be noted that the Walters' stela isn't an example of the much-discussed "long-count" calendars that run for 5,125 years and that have a final inscription for Dec. 21, 2012.

Instead, the Walters' small, altar-top stela is dated June 28, 810, or about eight centuries after the earliest of the long-form calendars was inscribed. But the form and function of all the stelae — they were intended to legitimize kings — is the same.

"If you read the inscriptions, the carvings on the monuments aren't directed forward but backward," Aveni says. "They say next to nothing about the future. Instead, they're all about Mayan history, some real, some made up."

So, for instance, on the Walters' stela, a king is portrayed on the front of the monument, presiding over a ceremony that occurred in the summer of 810. A deity who also happens to be the king's ancestor floats above him, conferring approval upon his acts.

"The stelae are designed to show that the ruler's authority is rooted in the deep past," Aveni says.

Though the long-count stelae measure a wide swath of time at one stretch, in other ways they are strikingly similar to the Gregorian calendars used today.


The Mayans used a five-place notation system, in which short periods are used as building blocks for longer chunks of time:

What we call a "day" the Mayans referred to as a "k'in." Twenty k'in made up a "winal"; 18 winals made up a "tun" of 360 days, or just five shorter than our average year; and 20 tuns equaled a "k'atun." Twenty k'atun amounted to a "b'ak'tun" of 144,000 days, the longest category into which the Mayans grouped time.

The people of this pre-Columbian culture had a myth that established the creation of the world as occurring on Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. Count forward from there by 1,872,000 days, and the 13th b'ak'tun ends on Dec. 21, 2012.

But, Aveni says, just as our own calendar wraps up every year on Dec. 31 only to start a new year on the following day, there is no reason to think the Mayans weren't expecting the 14th b'ak'tun to begin promptly on Dec. 22.

"This decade has been tumultuous in so many ways, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the economic collapse," he says.

"In desperate times, we reach out to the wisdom of the past. The Vietnam War era, another period of great unrest, coincided with a lot of UFO sightings and a belief in pyramid power."


He's frustrated that, despite the assurances of scientists, apocalyptic fears show no signs of abating.

"Two-thirds of Americans say they expect something to happen on Dec. 21," he says. "It's turned into a money-making opportunity for a lot of people."

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Even the relatively high-minded National Geographic cable television channel is currently running a show called "Doomsday Preppers," which follows Americans who are building shelters and making other preparations for the end of the world.

And that's a shame, he says, because the Mayans were astronomers and mathematicians of staggering sophistication. All the furor over the prophecies tends to obscure the culture's genuine contributions to civilization.

As Aveni puts it:

"We don't need to erect cardboard ancestors. The Mayans were cool enough on their own."


If you go

Colgate University Professor Anthony F. Aveni will deliver "Maya Apocalypse Now?" a public lecture on end-of-the-world theories at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 17 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. call 410-547-9000 or go to