King K’inich Kan Bahlum II reigned in Baalak from 685 AD to 702 AD. Like his father, the great K’inich Janaab Pakal, he was responsible for many of the most glorious architectural and artistic achievements of Mayan civilization’s “classical period;” it was he who oversaw the completion of the great pyramidal Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, on one of whose walls he left a legend predicting that his dynasty would last until 21 October 4772.
I have to say, I’ve always been impressed by the absolute precision of these old Mayan prophecies: never any vague predictions of nameless catastrophes occurring at uncertain hours—“In the time of great sorrow, when the moon is in the third house and the curlew’s nest is empty, a dark fortune will descend upon the house of Tarquinio” or anything like that—but only exactly dated auguries of specific events. Admittedly, I would be considerably more impressed if, in addition to their precision, they occasionally exhibited some tendency toward accuracy, but you can’t ask for everything.
As it happens, Kan Bahlum’s dynasty died out some time in the early ninth century. There’s no need to quibble over four millennia here or there, though; what makes Kan Bahlum’s prophecy interesting is that it refers to an event scheduled to occur exactly 2759 years and ten months after 21 December 2012, which is supposedly the day on which, by the reckoning of the Mayan long calendar, the current “Great Cycle” of 5125 years will reach its end.
We have recently entered a period of popular fascination—which will become more intense over the next thirty-six months or so—with this date, or at least with the year 2012. Any number of recent books, articles, television programs, and viral videos, as well as one particularly bad film, tell us that this is date that the classical age Mayas predicted would end the world, or at least inaugurate a cataclysm of such enormous proportions that the vast majority of life on earth will perish. And yet here was Kan Bahlum, ever the sunny optimist it seems, confidently asserting that his family’s reign would continue on for better than twenty-seven centuries beyond that mark.
There’s no mystery here, really. The truth of the matter is that the ancient Mayas understood 2012 as the terminal year not of the cosmos or the planet, but of a calendrical rotation. There is clear evidence that they did indeed regard every transition from one Great Cycle to another as something quite momentous, with some greater mystical or cosmic significance, but they certainly did not see it as ushering in the end of time. In fact, they do not seem to have had any concept of the end of time.
Rather, they had an insatiable predilection for large numbers arranged in magnificently intricate mathematical schemes, as well as an equally insatiable fascination with astronomy; and these two appetites in combination produced marvelous and fantastical myths and monuments and vaticinations, all embraced within a vision of time as a kind of endless epochal spiral, rather like Yeats’s system of “gyres,” but on a far greater order of magnitude. There could scarcely be a more drastic confusion of categories, therefore, than the application of eschatological themes to what is in essence a mythology of perpetual periodic regeneration within natural time.
It is probably an inevitable mistake for modern Westerners, of course, or for any people raised in a culture shaped by one of the “Abrahamic” faiths. For us, it seems perfectly natural to think in terms of a catastrophic or redemptive conclusion to the narrative of history and nature as we know them. And even many of those systems of thought with which we are most likely to be familiar and which involve some idea of eternal recurrence, like Stoicism or certain schools of Hinduism, presume periodic annihilations of the cosmos.
Some sense that “time must have a stop” is part of the common conceptual property of the whole “Indo-European world.” And that perhaps goes some way towards explaining the popular fascination with an imminent end of days. It does not, however, explain everything.
There is a question here worth pondering, I think. Why are apocalyptic fantasies such inexhaustible sources of popular entertainment? What is it that draws a great many of us to the idea of a world shattered and scorched and whelmed by the seas, or of civilization reduced to savagery in a single day? More importantly, why is the prospect of that day’s imminence one of the most tantalizing elements in these fantasies?
Admittedly, they probably would not entertain us very much at all if we really found them credible. But, still, there’s been such an abundance of post-apocalyptic novels, films, television stories, and so forth over the past five or six decades that the whole genre seems now to enjoy the sort of perennial appeal that once belonged to westerns. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the popularity of books, magazine articles, or “documentaries” that pretend to warn of the impending cataclysm in earnest.
Moreover, it is a market that crosses almost every cultural demographic boundary, albeit with significant variations. For some, the eschatological genre is simply a subcategory of the horror genre, and has no grander function than to inspire little macabre thrills of unease or Schadenfreude. For the more morally serious, it has a graver, minatory purpose, and should apprise us (ponderously) that nuclear war, environmental devastation, genocidal pandemics, swarms of omnivorous nano-robots, and dangerous experiments on subatomic particles are very bad things that ought to be avoided on most occasions. For certain Christian fundamentalists, “end times” fantasy is a kind of licit pornography, absorbed with an altogether unhealthy relish.
And so on. But I suspect that, underlying all the superficial differences, some essentially uniform impulse of the imagination—or collection of impulses—is at work, some species of shared desire or fear.
Not to say that I have any clear notion of what it is. It might simply be the result of history. The latter half of the twentieth century being what it was, it may be that our shared visions of the impending eschaton are nothing more than memories of the recent past allegorically inverted into fabulous premonitions of the near future. That, however, explains only the element of collective therapy in these fantasies, not the great pleasure they seem to afford.
I suppose it’s possible that their appeal reaches down to a more fundamental level, either more basically physiological or more obscurely metaphysical, or both at once. Perhaps, for example, it is all merely an expression of some “death instinct” in us, a way of sublimating the Freudian ferment of Thanatos rising from the depths of our organic existence. Or perhaps it’s evidence of the ineradicable element of sadism residing in our brute or fallen nature (whichever you prefer): just another of the “theaters of cruelty” humanity devises for itself in every age.
On the other hand, maybe these fantasies principally arise from a wholly understandable desire to know how any story ends. It is occasionally difficult to accept that each of us occupies only a vanishingly minuscule portion of terrestrial time, and that most of us are not destined to play any conspicuous role in the great drama of history. In many of us, surely, there must be some tacit impulse to rebel against the indignity of our transience and seeming irrelevance, and to mythologize our brief moment in the light as one that coincides with the end of time.
Or perhaps the greater part of the appeal of such stories—even granting morbidity and nihilism their places—lies in a curiously subdued but persistent longing for innocence: the bright golden innocence of the desert. Maybe what draws many of us to the poetry of annihilation is the thought of a world of sublime simplicity, purged of politics, taxes, national and corporate interests, social coercions, and private ambitions: a world without the ambiguities or structures of sin. In utter desolation—some inner voice may sometimes whisper to us—there is a kind of purity, the fallow time before Eden, from which a blameless new order of things might arise.
But who knows, really? I certainly don’t. I can say, however, and with some confidence, that the world will almost certainly not end in 2012. Kan Bahlum II—however wrong the rest of his prophecy may have proved to be—was certainly right on that score.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press).