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Ryan Johnson, Published September 19 2012

NDSU professor: Western ‘fascination’ with apocalypse fuels 2012 fears

FARGO – Just “one tiny bit of evidence” suggests the Mayan calendar actually predicts the world will end in December, NDSU assistant professor of history Bradley Benton said Wednesday.

But he said there’s a simple explanation of how hieroglyphs found on a stone tablet grew into widespread speculation that the apocalypse will happen Dec. 21, 2012.

“It comes from us,” he told a crowd of more than 100 students during a lecture on the NDSU campus. “It comes from the West; it comes from New Age thinkers; it comes from medieval Europe.”

The alleged expiration date of the world is based on the calendar widely used from 300 to 900 A.D. during the classic period of Mayan civilization in present-day southern Mexico and Central America.

Benton said Mayans, known for their expertise in astronomy, established cycles of 5,125 years in their “Long Count” calendar. The current cycle began in 3114 B.C., and it will reach its end and start the next one on Dec. 21.

Benton said the Mayans did believe in several cycles of creation, destruction and re-creation. In the previous age, he said, they believed the world was populated by humans made of wood who were destroyed by the gods because they couldn’t adequately express gratitude.

Because of that belief, he said, some have thought the current age also would be destroyed at some point.

But he said the only evidence that will happen Dec. 21 comes from the so-called Monument 6 from the El Tortuguero archaeological site discovered in the 1960s during construction of a cement factory in present-day Tabasco, Mexico.

A piece of the monument first translated by scholars in the 1990s says at the end of the 13th Bak’tun – a nearly 400-year cycle that ends Dec. 21 and resets the calendar – “there will occur blackness and the descent of the Bolon Yookte’ god to the red,” according to one translation.

But Benton said other Mayan hieroglyphs seem to discredit a doomsday reading. Some symbols from the same genre found on other buildings included two dates – the time of the building’s completion, and a date far into the future.

While he said scholars still don’t exactly understand the purpose of the future date, many believe it was simply saying something like “this building will stand a long time.”

He said with this in mind, revisiting the Monument 6 passage makes it seem “a little less ominous” and more like optimism that the monument would serve as a place of reverence to the gods for centuries to come.

Benton said scholars also have found Mayan hieroglyphs celebrating anniversaries 8,000 years into the future, and said it seems unlikely they would record these future dates if the world really would end long before.

But he said it makes sense that so many people in America fear the rapidly approaching date of Dec. 21 because of their ancestral ties to Europe, a “hotbed” of apocalyptic imagery mostly based on the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

Benton said the influence of Gnosticism, or the belief that there’s “some secret truth out there” that just needs to be found in a code or numbers, also has added to the hype.

Either way, he said, there’s been a “fascination” with the end of the world for centuries that will continue long after Dec. 21 passes.

“The bottom line is we are living in an age of perpetual apocalypse,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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