Aveni says apocalypse not imminent
By Emily Brigstocke
Published on Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Anthony Aveni has made a career of the history behind the current media fad surrounding the allegedly upcoming Maya-predicted apocalypse. An author with 26 book titles to his name, Aveni, an astronomy professor, anthropology and sociology professor at Colgate University, discussed three aspects of the Mayan apocalypse — the predictions of the form it would take, its role in Mayan culture and the particular interest American pop culture has taken in the subject — in his lecture, “The End of Time: Maya Apocalypse Soon?” The lecture took place in Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall on Monday afternoon.
The predicted apocalypse date, December 20, 2012, is the winter solstice and the last day of the Mayan Long Count calendar, the longest of the culture’s many predicted, measured time cycles. The Maya were skilled artists, constructors and astronomers and were able to make predictions of incredible accuracy based on naked-eye observations, Aveni said.
From the relatively few surviving carved monuments and codices, archaeologists have learned that the Maya were much more concerned with “digging their roots into the past” and repaying their past debts to the gods than with the future, according to Aveni.
The Maya anticipated the coming 2012 winter solstice as a marker of the beginning of a new era.
“There’s a lot of activity down there,” Aveni said. “They’re preparing for a celebration of renewal ... they’re not worried about the end of the world so much as excited.”
Rather than either of the popular American pop culture projections of a violent Armageddon or transcendence into a higher state of consciousness, the authentic Mayan view of the “turnover of the odometer” is closer to typical Western conceptions of New Year’s Day or Mardi Gras, according to Aveni.
Those who believe in the approaching end of time point to solar flares, Hurricane Katrina and the recent Japanese earthquake as signs of an impending upheaval. Aveni presented slides to the audience that showed the scientific weakness of these claims.
For instance, a comb-like graph of sunspot activity showed the historic oscillating pattern of solar flare frequency and severity, which has remained constant over time. He also referenced previous attempts to date the end of the world that aligned with significant natural events, such as the Great Comet of 1843. When 1843 came and went, the date was extended to 1844.
The Dresden Manuscript is the only Mayan codex in existence today that contains an allusion to the future. The images in the manuscript depict a flood story of destruction, but such stories are common across cultures and appear in different religions throughout history as a “metaphoric passing of old ways and a time of renewal at the end of a cycle,” Aveni said.
“This type of prediction was not ‘apocalyptic’ in the movie sense of the word,” he said.
Americans are particularly fascinated by the Mayan calendar and its supposed prediction of the world’s end, according to Aveni.
“Religion in America has a long tradition of the apocalyptic,” he said. “People of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New York State and people all across northwestern New England had notions of preparing the New World as a place of renewal.”
The American one dollar bill is printed with the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” meaning “New World Order,” which the United States was intended to begin.
“Christopher Columbus claimed to be ordained by God to bring the second coming,” Aveni said.
In tough times such as the 2008 recession, people are more prone to falling into “fin-de-siecle counter-culture like anti-materialism, anti-science, and conspiracy theories,” according to Aveni.
Various historians and authors have also examined the psychology behind apocalyptic followings and why people believe in Mayan predictions in particular. In his book “History of Religions,” Mircea Eliade presents the idea of “shared nostalgia, a desire to return to an origin, to antiquity,” according to Aveni.
“Aldous Huxley, in ‘Perennial Philosophy,’ echoes Eliadi and says that people tend to believe in the existence of one absolute truth that can be achieved by returning to the past, which is why the Maya, as an ancient people, draw a particular following,” Aveni said.
Aveni related the germination of his interest in the mathematical aspects of Mayan culture as the product of a trip to Mexico. Persuaded by a group of students to escape the New England snow and ice, Aveni and 15 undergraduates traveled to Mexico to measure and gather first-hand data of the Mayan pyramids.
Debbie Haynes, a former student of Aveni’s who attended the lecture and now works at the Hood Museum of Art, went to Mexico on one of the first trips. An anthropology, art history and studio art major, she was inspired to pursue independent work translating Mayan glyphs.
The Mayan glyph code has only recently been cracked “because of [its] complex nature and lack of external reference points,” Haynes said. “The first step was identifying repetition of symbols that turned out to be historical markings and signatures.”
The initial deciphered codes were largely dates and signatures, offering the public a limited view of Mayan culture. This narrow aspect of the Mayan code became the face of Mayan culture in America, and was most likely responsible for the general public’s continued associations of astronomy with the Mayans, according to Haynes.
Other attendees were drawn to the lecture by academic interests and a desire to learn more about a popular topic.
“It’s been in the media, so I wanted to get a scientific perspective on it,” Sanja Miklin ’12 said.
The lecture was sponsored by the religion department.