A popular topic for discussion at the moment is the alleged ancient Mayan prediction of a significant event occurring on the 21st December 2012 and more specifically the end of the world. This has led to responses varying from lighthearted articles to very specific predictions about how the world will end. This global conversation offers us a fascinating insight into human nature and raises the possibility that we may be witnessing cultural dysfunction. In other words it is not a single person who is displaying illness but instead it is something more abstract – a property of culture which can cause illness. In order to address this question I will briefly discuss the Mayan civilisation before explaining what delusions are in more detail. This is to distinguish the clinical term delusion from the new term I am proposing – the cultural delusion. I am proposing that the very specific statement
‘The World Will end on December 21st 2012 Because the Mayan Mythology in Conjunction with the Long-Calendar Predicted This‘
is a cultural delusion. More specifically I am suggesting that this statement is patently false, has the potential to cause illness and other adverse consequences and does not have a proper place in culture. Indeed I will go on to demonstrate that not only has Mayan mythology been misinterpreted to produce this statement but that this very isolated aspect of Mayan mythology has been transplanted into another culture with the adverse consequences that have already been seen.
Following this I will briefly look at some of the films and literature since the nineteenth century which have promoted related discussions within various communities and in the general public. Furthermore I will comment on how some of this discussion in the background relates to interpretations of Mayan predictions. However I will distinguish between this background discussion and the very specific and isolated cultural delusion that I am focusing on in this article. I will then go on to discuss some of the predictions that have been made in relation to the world ending on the 21st December 2012 along with responses from scientists, historians and archaeologists about those predictions. I will then look briefly at some of the adverse consequences relating to this prediction that have been reported to date.
Having done this I will then hope to convince the reader that the above statement fits with my proposed definition of a cultural delusion. I will then further categorise cultural delusions and demonstrate that the properties of this cultural delusion may readily give rise to other cultural delusions. Finally I will conclude with a discussion about how the concept of a cultural delusion can help us to make small adjustments to our culture which can be health promoting and in this case may have potential economic benefit.
The Mayan Civilisation
The Mesoamerican Mayan civilisation began somewhere around 4000 years before present (BP). The Pre-Classic period of the Mayan Civilisation ended 2250 years later. The Classic Period took place between approximately 1750 years BP and 1100 years BP. The Post-Classic period began after this and continued until approximately 310 years ago. The Mayan Civilisation was influenced by the older but less well understood Olmec Civilisation whose origins can be traced back to some 4500 years before present. The territories covered by the Mayan civilisation vary according to the period. The Civilisation included cities in Belise, Mexico and Guatemala the remains of which can be seen today. Mayan archaeological sites include Nakbe, El Mirador, Rio Azul, Tikal, Uxmal and Kabah.
The Mayan civilisation was decentralised in contrast with the Aztec civilisation. The Mayans develop sophisticated ceramics which is a hallmark of a sedentary society that has moved away from hunter-gathering. As the Mayan culture varied according to the era and location, Mayan ceramic designs also show considerable variation. The Mayans developed writing, specialised agricultural practice, pyramid building, calendars as well as cities and other sophisticated aspects of infrastructure necessary for the expansion of their civilisation. Today there are over 6 million people who speak Mayan languages. These are languages derived from Proto-Mayan which is estimated to have existed 5000 years ago.
A Video Contrasting Mayan, Spanish and English
Dr Van Stone Demonstrates Mayan Writing
One estimate for the peak population of the Mayan city Tikal is 420,000 including the surrounding area although this has been challenged (Webster, 2002). The Mayan state was ruled by the Ajaw. The Ajaw was the ruler and may be one or many people who fulfilled religious duties. The Royal Court has been suggested to have been the centre of the Mayan settlement. Mayan artwork included sophisticated sculptures and reliefs. The Mayans used ballcourts to play a popular ball game.
Dr Van Stone Discusses the Mayan Ballgame
Central figures in Mayan mythology included Kulkulan and the Hero Twins.
Dr Van Stone Demonstrating the Conch Shell Being Used as a Mayan Trumpet
What are Delusions?
Delusions are a central feature in several mental illnesses. This is not to say that they must occur in such illnesses but that they would feature prominently in many people with such an illness. People may experience various types of delusions. Delusions are disorders of thought. More specifically they are fixed false unshakeable beliefs which are out of keeping with a person’s cultural, social and educational norms. We can explore this a little further.
Delusions as False Beliefs
First of all the person must hold a thought which is false. This judgement is usually made informally as it is usually obvious. For instance a person may believe that they have special powers which they are unable to demonstrate and which would be outside of the range of human abilities. Some people with delusions will believe they that hostile people are trying to cause them harm. These paranoid delusions may have a significant impact on their ability to function and on their quality of life. Fortunately such delusions can be treated successfully or at least reduced in their intensity with treatments such as antipsychotic medication. However we all hold false beliefs. That does not make them delusions. So let us have a look at some of the other characteristics of delusions.
The Social and Cultural Context of Delusions
Turning now to another feature of delusions – they must be considered in the social context of the person. Therefore the delusions must be out of keeping with a person’s social, educational and cultural norms. In the year 2000 in the months and years leading up to 2000 the IT industry promoted the concept of a year 2000 bug otherwise known as the Millenium Bug. The concern was raised that in moving from 1999 to 2000 the date in the digital clocks would read as 1900 instead of 2000. This would then cause errors to appear elsewhere as the date 1900 was used for calculations and other operations. Society depended on expertise to advise on this.
Video Outlining One Company’s Approach to the Millenium Bug and Related Problems (Very Technical)
Although there was much debate about the Millenium Bug and whether the response was proportionate the belief in a Millenium Bug fitted easily within the social milieu. Society had sought advice from information technology experts. The professionals had pointed out the threat as well as remedial actions to minimise disruption. The debate about the response occurred away from this central conclusion. Professional expertise had been the arbiter. A person holding the belief that there would be widespread disruption in software systems albeit not catastrophic would be able to validate their belief by referencing expert opinion. Had the person held the belief that the Millenium Bug would lead to the end of the world then this conclusion would not have been supported by the expert panel and would have fulfilled at least one of the criteria for a delusion.
Delusions as Unshakeable
Another quality of the delusion is that it is unshakeable. Therefore when the delusional person is challenged about their belief they hold it very firmly and cannot be argued out of this belief. This happens even when they are presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Other Properties of the Delusion
People with delusions will not generally have insight into their delusions at the time these beliefs are held. The delusions may cause distress to the person or those around them although it is the above properties which define the delusion.
Delusions Result from Clinical Assessments
The definition of delusion is a very private one in the sense that the assessment is undertaken by a clinician following a detailed examination of the person’s thought processes and other associated evidence. This is a clinical matter which forms part of the private consultation. However there is an obvious problem to the matter we are now considering. If a delusion can be established only after a full assessment of the person in a clinical consultation which usually follows the person seeking clinical help then how can we reasonably discuss the Mayan Apocalypse as a delusion if a delusion follows this private assessment? The answer that I propose is that we must describe a subtly different phenomenon and we must amend the definition accordingly in order to meaningfully discuss an important cultural issue.
The Cultural Delusion or Delusional Meme
In order to discuss the so-called Mayan apocalypse prediction I propose the use of a distinct term – the cultural delusion or delusional meme. This is not related to the individual but instead refers to a statement of belief or idea which is owned by a culture. This makes it distinct from the delusional belief that is held by an individual. There are a few more differences though and I will now explain these.
Defining the Difference Between Cultural Delusions and Delusions
I will now use this term and make some small amendments to the delusion to arrive at the definition of a cultural delusion. The cultural delusion no longer has to be unshakeable. That is clearly impossible as it is simply a statement. However it can be pushed vigorously in the media or within the community. The statement of belief must be false. The cultural delusion has a number of other properties which distinguish it quite clearly from the delusion. The cultural delusion must predispose the individual towards a delusion or a related form of illness. In other words the cultural delusion can cause illness and this is a key feature. The remaining feature of a cultural delusion is its expendability. In other words is it essential for the culture. The culture is a function of many people. If a feature of that culture causes illness in many people then it cannot be healthy for that culture. By considering an aspect of culture in this way the culture can slowly be modified so that it is health promoting.
Why Do We Need the Cultural Delusion Construct?
The cultural delusion is a useful concept which enables flexibility in discussion of cultural phenomena. Suppose for instance that we had wanted to know if people were experiencing delusions in relation to the Mayan prediction. Firstly we would need to set up the research study, drawing up the plans for the study and then going through the rigorous process for gaining approval. Next we would need to select people for the study who were willing to participate. Then it would be a matter of conducting the study, undertaking the detailed assessments and drawing conclusions about whether individuals were experiencing illness in relation to this prediction. The process can take a long time and we may not even answer simple questions about the effect that the prediction might have on people.
Instead of focusing on a person’s psychopathology we can take the investigation one step further away. Culture is readily accessible. There is ample evidence to suggest that people’s inner experiences are affected by the world around them. Events happening within culture can and do relate directly to a person’s mental state. The construct of a cultural delusion therefore affords us the possibility of looking at culture directly and in real-time. We can use a variety of methods to do this. Furthermore we know that culture plays a significant role in our internal life and this is unsurprising as meaning is an important aspect of culture. Another benefit of the cultural delusion is that it enables a more general discussion with communities being able to identify candidate cultural delusions which might otherwise not have come to attention. Such candidates for cultural delusions would need to then be assessed in the research setting once identified.
In this instance there is another benefit. The prediction is time limited. It expires at the end of December 21st 2012. Furthermore we are able to monitor some of the discussion around this prediction. The drawbacks are that we will still not be able to link it definitively to illness unless we have information relating to specific clinical assessments. However we can triangulate our findings with other evidence to increase the likelihood of identifying a link. We do not necessarily have to restrict ourselves to health consequences. Cultural delusions may also lead to economic consequences with event data being more accessible. When we have drawn conclusions then further research will be needed in order to link this with clinical findings and this will need to go through the rigorous research process.
Cultural Delusions and Memes
In order to discuss this more fully we must turn to phenomenology which is the approach used to describe the inner workings of the mind as well descriptive psychopathology. We will also turn to Professor Richard Dawkins. Dawkins in his work ‘The Selfish Gene‘ describes the term meme (Dawkins, 1976). A meme is an incredibly useful term which means an idea which can exist within the mind and which can be transferred from one person’s mind to another. In this case we can think of the meme as a belief. Dawkins goes further and draws an analogy with genes. The fittest memes survive and are transferred to more minds. In this sense a cultural delusion is a statement of belief which can be transmitted through media such as the web, books and television to an audience. Drawing an analogy with a virus, the cultural delusion can lie ‘dormant’ in a Mayan inscription until the inscription is transcribed many thousands of years later when it may once again inhabits the mind albeit in a possibly ‘mutated’ form (i.e not true to the original meaning).
Can Cultural Delusions Contribute to Shared Delusions?
In the International Classification of Disease (10th Revision) there is a condition referred to as ‘Induced Delusional Disorder’ (ICD-10, 1992) and in DSM-IV this is referred to as ‘Shared Psychotic Disorder’ (DSM-IV, 1994). In the literature these conditions have their basis in nineteenth century French descriptions of delusions affecting two people – Folie à Deux (Lasègue and Falret, 1877). The basis of Folie à Deux is that one person is delusional and causes a second person to share their belief with delusional intensity. Effectively the delusion has been transmitted from one person to another. There are variations in which more than two people are involved – Folie à Trois (Fernando and Frieze, 1985), Folie à Famille (Wehmeier et al, 2003), Folie à Quatre (Mela et al, 1997), Folie à Six (Dippel et al, 1991) and Folie à Plusieurs (Kelly, 2009).
The means by which transmission of delusions occurs has been less well explored. Ramachandran and Manickam address this in a 1997 paper in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (Ramachandran and Manickam, 1997). Here they propose that transmission of delusions in a case of Induced Delusional Disorder is facilitated by ‘unsubstantiated beliefs’. The cultural delusion expands on the concept of an ‘unsubstantiated belief’ and offers a foundation on which to further refine this construct. However it should be noted that shared delusions usually involve quite close contact between the pair members and more than a simple awareness of the delusional meme in the second person. Developing delusional beliefs in response to these memes in the absence of a delusional other would likely require a combination of vulnerability factors and other factors which increase the focus on the meme. Delusional responses to the cultural delusions may be much less likely than neurotic responses.
Can Cultural Delusions Contribute to Mass Hysteria?
Many cases of mass hysteria have been documented in the scientific literature. The phenomenon is relatively straightforward in that a false belief is circulated which triggers physical symptoms in people in the absence of an organic disorder (i.e there is no physical illness). There has been an attempt to categorise mass hysteria into two forms – one in which people show a marked anxiety response without an increase in their movements and the other which is characterised by an increase in movements (Wessely, 1987). However closer analysis in a subsequent study revealed that both the increase in anxiety and motor activity coexist (Ali-Gombe et al, 1996). Indeed anxiety disorders feature increased motor activity which would be in keeping with these findings.
In contrast with shared delusions, descriptions of mass hysteria suggest that this neurotic response can spread quickly amongst many people. Furthermore this can be triggered by a simple statement which later proves to be false. In other words the culprit in many cases may be a cultural delusion as I have described it above. There have been many cases reported as mass hysteria in the scientific literature and these have followed certain themes either in the precipitant or the response
- A transient inability to walk (Loa, 2010)
- Dancing movements – hysterical Chorea (Giménez-Roldán and Aubert, 2007)
- Response to an odour in a school (Small et al, 1994)
- Suspected infectious disease (Chowdury and Brahma, 2005)
- Syncope (Roach and Langley, 2004)(Mkize DL and Ndabeni RT, 2002)(Levine, 1977)
- Monkey Men victims (Verma and Srivastava, 2003)
- Family psychogenic blindness (Ziegler and Schlemmer, 1994)
- Phantom rockets in Sweden (Bartholomew, 1993)
- Toxic fume exposure (Alexander and Fedoruk, 1986)
- Generalised illness (Small and Nicholi, 1982)
- Benign Myalgic Encephalitis (McEvedy and Beard, 1970)
There are other cases which have been reported in the media. I will not refer to them as mass hysteria (unless otherwise stated) in the absence of the relevant scientific literature but will include them here because of their similarity.
- The War of the Worlds Broadcast in 1938. Many people tuned into the Orson Welles production and thought they were listening to a news broadcast. Many people fled in an effort to escape from the calamity that was being described on the show.
- The Tanganyika laughter epidemic. This took place in a school in Kenya in 1961 affecting 95 people who laughed for between a few hours up to 16 days. The school was closed and the episode spread to a neighbouring school.
- A mass fainting episode in Tanzania. This occurred at the time school exams were being taken. The examining medical officer is reported to have described the girls as experiencing neurosis.
- The Dancing Plague of 1518. This was an episode in which people in Strasbourg danced in the street for up to a period of several days. Some people were reported to have died from exhaustion.
- Strawberries with Sugar Virus episode in 2006. 300 children at multiple schools experienced symptoms similar to those of a fictional child on a television show.
- The June Bug episode. In 1962 many workers at a factory in the US manifested symptoms thinking they had been bitten by bugs in the factory.
Vulnerability factors include age (Boss, 1997) and early loss (Small and Nicholi, 1982). There have even been papers exploring the link with Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious (Bobrow, 2011). This is not too far fetched as we are constantly exposed to memes in the media. Over the course of time repeated exposure of this information (which I suggest would apply to memes) would be converted into our long term memory (Morrow et al, 1999). This in turn may alter our automatic responses to situations. This could explain one aspect of what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious. The concept of mass hysteria is not without controversy and Bartholomew has argued against the concept of mass hysteria suggesting the use of the term ‘collective exaggerated emotions’ instead (Bartholomew, 1993). However there are well known culture-bound syndromes which bear similarity to mass hysteria. Koro is the most well known of these syndromes (Roy et al, 2011).
Short Video Biography of Carl Jung
Several authors have considered the optimal management of episodes of mass hysteria. Small and Borus have also discussed the role of media in modifying outbreaks (Small and Borus, 1987). Balaratnasingam and Janca advocate appropriate responses from the government, the media and the medical community in addressing mass hysteria (Balaratnasingam and Janca, 2006). They also suggest that episodes of mass hysteria may become more common with time.
Film and Literature Relating to the Mayan Apocalypse
Mayanism is literature about the Mayan civilisation which has been associated with the New Age belief system. Mayanism is distinct from the scientific and historical study of the Mayan civilisation (who in contrast are referred to as Mayanists). The Mayanism literature is most relevant to the predictions which have been made for December 21st 2012 and which I will outline. The Mayanism literature has three strands
1. Ancient alien contact with the Mayan civilisation
2. The relation of the Mayan civilisation to lands which have been submerged following a flood.
The first two strands suffer from a lack of evidence with the alien strand also running into difficulties from constraints imposed by the laws of physics (given the extensive distances between the Earth and the nearest habitable planets in the Milky Way for which there is currently no evidence of life).
Alien contacts with the Mayan civilisation were promoted in the work ‘Chariots of the Gods‘ by Erich Anton Paul von Däniken. This book is estimated to have sold 63 million copies. This book has also influenced a significant number of other works. It has been suggested that von Däniken may have been influenced by Carl Sagan’s work ‘Intelligent Life in the Universe‘ which includes discussion about possible contact with alien life forms (which was also explored in ‘Contact‘ another of Sagan’s works). The ancient astronaut meme can be traced back to the short story ‘At the Mountains of Madness‘ by H.P.Lovecraft published in the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories in 1936. This story explores the possibility of ancient astronauts contacting human civilisation but takes place in Antarctica. The recent film Prometheus also explores the concept of ancient astronauts. The global income for the film was estimated at $402 million which is a useful proxy marker for how much awareness has been raised recently about these memes. The TV series ‘The X-files‘ also featured a plotline with aliens colonising the Earth with December 21st 2012 being a significant date.
In ‘The Ancient Maya ‘, Ernst Wilhelm Förstemann interpreted the Dresden Codex. In his reading, the Codex predicted a flood. The meme about an ancient mother progenitor civilisation can be traced back to the author and politician Ignatius Donnelly who published ‘Atlantis: The Antediluvian World‘ in 1882. In this book, Donnelly proposes that Antarctica was the location of Atlantis. A year later he published ‘Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel‘ in which he proposed that a comet impact with the Earth 12,000 years ago caused destruction of the ancient progenitor civilisation. In his work, Donnelly refers to cracks in the Great Lakes but his hypothesis has been challenged by the subsequent development of the theory of Plate Tectonics.
A Video Illustrating Principles of Plate Tectonics
The film 2012 was released in 2009 and explored an apocalyptic scenario in 2012. The Institute for Human Continuity website was a successful prerelease marketing campaign to raise awareness of the issues explored in the film. The film includes references to solar flares heating up the Earth’s core, tidal waves and earthquakes. The film generated revenue of approximately $700 million at theatres globally. The film was influenced by the book ‘Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilisation‘ written by Graham Hancock and published in 1995. The premise of the book was that Antarctica moved due to shift in the poles of the Earth and resulted in a displacement of an ancient civilisation to different parts of the world giving rise to the Olmec and Maya civilisations. This book is estimated to have sold more than 3 million copies around the world.
In Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization’s End, Lawrence Joseph produces an extensive list of events which may contribute to the cataclysm which he expects on or around December 21st 2012. Joseph however qualifies his prediction by stating that the events would occur within the era of 2012 meaning that they do not specifically have to occur on December 21st. ‘2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl’ is written by Daniel Pinchbeck and covers a broad expanse of material. Pinchbeck has written that he was in communication with Quetzacoatl and that 2012 would bring about a change which was determined by the human race. Among the possible changes he predicts in 2012 are catastrophes or a ‘new leap in human consciousness’. Along the way he discusses crop circles and aliens. The ‘new leap in human consciousness’ does not appear to relate directly to the statement about 2012 being the end of the world although his alternative proposal does.
Terence McKenna proposes that the King Wen sequence of the I Ching codes for mathematical sequences that can be used in predictions. He wrote a software program to run simulations using fractals. McKenna interpreted the results to mean that an Omega point occurs in 2012 in his book ‘Timewave Zero’. The significance of this event is interpreted in terms of interconnectedness.
There are other works that I will not cover here. In addition to this there have been songs referencing December 21st 2012 as well as spoof videos on YouTube. Therefore it can be readily seen that discussion of issues relating to the prediction date back to the nineteenth century, includes a diverse range of communities and has enjoyed popular appeal judging from box office takings and book sales. Therefore the general prediction about December 21st 2012 being significant is not isolated but fits into these other discussions. However the more specific prediction about an end of the world dissociates the prediction from many of these discussions.
Predictions That Have Been Made
1. The Earth will collide with a planet called either Planet X or Nibiru. The history behind this is rather complex and is associated with several distinct theories about an additional planet in the solar system. Proponents of such theories argue that evidence has been concealed. Dr Mike Heiser has examined the Sumerian artefact VA243 which was cited as indicating a missing planet in the original theory. In his analysis Heiser concludes that the objects being referenced are stars rather than planets and therefore this is an erroneous hypothesis based on a misinterpretation. There is also a discussion by NASA scientist David Morrison in this video.
2. The Earth and Sun will align with the Milky Way’s galactic meridian during the Winter Solstice in 2012. These events occur approximately every 25,800 years. This has been a core theory associated with the Mayan Apocalypse statement.
Video Overview of the Winter Solstice Including Astronomical Explanation
Milky Way Timelapse Footage over Lake Tekapo
Time Lapse Footage of the Milky Way
There are several problems with this
a. The Mayans did not attribute much significance to the Winter Solstice (see this piece by Mark Van Stone at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies).
b. According to a paper in Nature the alignment took place 3 million years ago and the sun is now moving away from the galactic meridian.
c. The Earth and Sun frequently align with the galactic meridian – just not on the Winter solstice. Therefore even if there were any significant events resulting from this alignment they would have occurred repeatedly in the recent past.
d. There is no evidence that an alignment between the Earth, Sun and galactic meridian has any significant consequences.
3. Catastrophes of a general nature including food shortages, cataclysmic storms as well as increasing gas and oil prices which will interfere with civilisation.
4. A Venus transit will occur when Venus crosses between the Earth and the Sun. There are variations on this theme. NASA responds by stating that such transitions have a negligible effect on the Earth and the next transition is not on 21st December 2012 but a few decades away instead.
5. A solar maximum will occur causing solar flares that will interfere with communications equipment and widespread destruction. The following NASA video addresses these predictions.
6. A geomagnetic reversal. One prediction is that the magnetic poles of the earth will reverse. In the NASA video above, this prediction is discussed. There is also another discussion of this prediction here. Essentially the magnetic fields do change but very slowly (over millions of years). Furthermore the magnetic fields do not disappear but instead become more complex during the transition.
Oceanographer Lisa Taux Discusses Here Research into the Earth’s Magnetic Fields and Also Makes Predictions About Their Change Over the Next 500 Years (42 minutes long)
7. The return of Quetzacoatl (Aztec snake deity) or Kukulcan (Mayan snake deity). There has been a suggestion that Quetzacoatl and Kukulcan are roles. Although Mayan mythology anticipates a return of Kukulcan no specific date is given and is therefore not directly relevant to the 21st December 2012.
8. A collision of the comet Elenin with the Earth and the belief that the astronomer Elenin (who discovered the comet) does not exist. The details of this prediction (which were made elsewhere) as well as the fate of the comet are discussed in this article.
Rendezvous with a Comet – A Brief Overview of Comets
9. A zombie apocalypse. This was referred to by the Australian Prime Minister Julie Gillard in relation to the Mayan calendar although this appeared to be a light-hearted announcement not meant to be taken seriously.
10. The eruption of the Yellowstone Volcano. This was qualified by saying it may occur in the ‘era’ of 2012. As such it is not directly relevant to the 21st of December 2012.
The Yellowstone Supervolcano
11. The descent of Balon Yokte is predicted by the Mayans. Balon Yokte is a Mayan Deity associated with war. Turning to Mark Van Stone again a reference to Balon Yokte is made in Tortuguero Monument 6 (7th Century AD) by Stephen Houston (see here also). Houston and van Stone conclude that the inscription refers only to the construction of a monument to Balon Yokte.
Barbara Macleod Reading from Tortuguero Monument 6
12. The Winter Solstice will bring a new Mayan age which will bring destruction. This is another core prediction in the Mayan Apocalypse statement. However van Stone remarks that the Mayans anticipated that the calendar would continue ‘without interruption’.
Some Final Thoughts on the Mayan Civilisation
With regards to the sources of material, Mark van Stone comments that this is fragmentary. Furthermore there was historic revisionism and even geographical variation in the mythology of the Mayans and Aztecs. Indeed there are 22 living languages in the Mayan area alone showing how rich the cultural diversity is in this region. Mark van Stone has interpreted some of the Aztec mythology as this is better preserved than the Mayan mythology. However there is considerable overlap between the two in many central aspects of the mythology. Van Stone remarks that caution is needed in this interpretation as there is a risk of projecting our own cultural values onto the mythology of the Mayans and Aztecs.
Van Stone also remarks that the Mayans often made mistakes in their calculations and did not go back to correct them. van Stone comments that Barbara MacLeod has done a lot of work suggesting that the Mayans were aware of the precession of the equinoxes and they would have held a special significance. The unit of time which indicates half of a precession cycle is a 3-11-Baktun which is found on several inscriptions. However this hypothesis is not without controversy and there are others in the field that disagree.
Visualisation of the Precession of the Equinoxes
Solstices and Equinoxes seen from Space
One interesting point about these prophecies is that the Mayan civilisation itself has ceased to exist. It is curious that we are concerned with what is now being predicted. The predictions should have enabled the Mayans to anticipate the end of their own civilisation. If they didn’t then they were false. If they did predict the end of their civilisation then further predictions would cease to be of value as there is no continuing Mayan civilisation. Alternatively the predictions may apply to an alternative civilisation such as ours. However this would imply that the Mayan prophecies have abandoned the Mayans and ‘jumped’ onto another civilisation.
Mark van Stone interprets the Dresden Codex as referring to an event some 34,000 years before Creation and intriguingly suggests that the Neanderthals may be relevant to this time period (p.56). This however raises a more significant issue. The South Americas have been populated by humans only recently. Humans left Africa 75,000 years ago. At this time the first humans made contact with two other hominin species – Denisovans and Neanderthals before migrating to Australia. Modern populations in Australia have small amounts of DNA inherited from these two species (see here also).
The Mayan calendar in previous cycles refers to a time before the original populating of the Americas by ancient humans (15000 to 17000 years before present) and must therefore refer to the time of the migration of humans out of Africa, across Asia and the Bering Strait before reaching the Americas. This journey would have brought ancient humans into contact with several intelligent hominin species that existed around that time including Homo Floresiensis, the Red Deer Cave people, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. In South American populations there is evidence of small amounts of DNA inherited from Neanderthals just as there are in other modern human populations.
There is an abundance of evidence regarding the populating of the Americas which consists both of dating of sites of occupation as well as DNA analysis of modern populations in the Americas. Although some of above material may appear counterintuitive this is the result of scientific investigation which has been borne out by repeated replications studies and triangulation of these results with other sources.
The most likely explanation for the Mayan long calendar is that in the absence of watches and clocks, the Mayans relied on the movement of the Earth around the sun and moon around the Earth as markers of time and also to aid in exploration of surrounding areas. Time is an important ‘anchor’ in any society and learning to read the sky and make predictions would presumably be a very important skill. How the Mayans developed writing, pyramid building, burial rituals, sculpture, astronomy, mathematics and organisation of complex societies is another matter which is far from clear. There is no doubt that this relates to the even more ancient but equally accomplished Olmec civilisation. There are many mysteries to be explored and we must leave this to the archaeologists and professionals from related disciplines to properly investigate this.
Perhaps what we are guilty of is seeing the ingenuity of an ancient civilisation and projecting our own values and fears onto this civilisation. Professionals such as Mayanists, archaeologists, historians and linguists continue to present their findings for those who are interested in learning more about the Mayan civilisation.
Cultural Delusions Step By Step: The Cultural Context of this Cultural Delusion
Let us consider the belief more explicitly
‘The world will end on December 21st 2012 because this has been predicted by the Mayans in their long calendar prediction and Mythology’
If we consider this in relation to UK culture we may explore the above concepts more concretely. UK culture is diverse and there are many subcultures. However according to the mid-2011 Census there is no Mayan religious community identified. The Mayan civilisation lasted until the late seventeenth century in South America. Although the Mayan civilisation generates considerable interest from a historical perspective, in terms of active practitioners the Mayan civilisation does not obviously persist in the UK.
Where is the Social Anchor for this Statement?
If there was a substantial community of Mayan religious practitioners in the UK and the assertions emanated from this community we may reconsider. Nevertheless as there is not a practising community there is no social community to anchor this belief to. The prediction is dissociated from an underlying UK community.
What are the Consequences of the Alleged Mayan Prediction?
Looking very specifically at the prediction of an end of the world on the 21st December 2012 we can see if there are any events reported in the media. Indeed there are several
1. Two rural counties in China sold out of candles. It was believed that there would be 3 days of darkness starting on the 21st December.
2. People have been converging on the French town of Bugarach in the belief that on December 21st they will be rescued from an apocalypse by a spaceship if they assemble at the tall mountain next to the village. A police presence is being established to prevent a large influx of visitors on the said date and to prevent access to the mountain which was the site of a tragedy in 1995.
3. Reuters surveyed people in China. 20% of the people surveyed thought something would happen on 21st December.
4. There have been an estimated 60 million posts on China’s Weibo about the alleged end of the world date.
5. One man in China has spent the last year and $300,000 building 7 lifepods. Nevertheless he is also reported to be anticipating a mass production of his devices in the future.
6. One man is waiting at Bell Rock in Sedona for a cosmic portal to open up so that he can jump in.
7. Inmates in one Russian prison are reported to have been afraid about a pending end of the world. The report suggests there have been seizure like episodes and also one prisoner thought the Earth would swallow them up and ran away with the other prisoners doing likewise.
8. In the Republic of Buryatiya people have been stocking up on candles.
9. In the town of Omutnisk people have also been stocking up on candles.
10. In Siberia, an entrepreuner has sold several thousand emergency kits.
11. Some people are converging on the Turkish town of Sirince believing that it has ‘positive energy’.
12. An Italian contractor has been asked to build more than 10 concrete bunkers in anticipation of an apocalypse.
Drawing Final Conclusions About the Alleged Mayan Prediction
In summary I have argued that the specific statement about the world ending on December 21st 2012 has a number of problems.
1. Maya scholars disagree that the Mayans prophesied an end of the world on this date
2. Mayan scholars assert that the Winter Solstice was not significant to the Mayans
3. The Winter Solstice is a special event only in terms of the sky view seen on the Earth’s surface. In other words it is significant for skygazing
4. There is no significance to the Winter Solstice date in terms of alignment of the Sun, Earth and the galactic meridian. Indeed the Sun has been moving away from the galactic meridian for over 3 million years.
5. The solar flare activity has diminished relative to previous years.
6. Magnetic field reversals occur over long timespans and do not disappear suddenly even during transitions.
7. For other predictions there is no obvious reason why this specific date should be of significance.
However the Mayan civilisation is credible and with good reason. All humans on the Earth today are related through a common ancestor who lived probably less than 200,000 years ago. It is only natural for each of us to be curious about the downfall of a great civilisation built by people who were distantly related to us. The Mayans eclipsed other civilisations at a similar time in terms of their achievements. Even by today’s standards the Mayans had an incredible grasp of time and used a calendar which is very sophisticated. The Mayans were very well organised and had a sophisticated culture. When their calendar works we marvel at their ingenuity.
In civilisations around the world, the course of the Earth relative to the Sun and the moon relative to the Earth are key features in Calendar systems. The Precession of the Equinoxes has been culturally encapsulated in societies across the world. However the Mayan Long Calendar was an effective time keeping mechanism. Imagine if a wristwatch was locked away and then discovered two thousand years in the future. Suppose that the watch was started and as the numbers transitioned from 23.59 to 00.00 it was thought to be of great significance and people started to worry that the world was about to end. We might laugh at this but by taking a particular interpretation of Mayan mythology which is controversial we may simply be misinterpreting a very sophisticated time keeping mechanism.
The ancient Greeks produced the Antikythera mechanism. This is a remarkable device that dates back some 2000 years and enabled them to work out the date of the next Olympic events. A reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism is shown below. The Antikythera mechanism borrowed from Babylonian and Egyptian methods for calculating lunar and solar cycles. Time is a key feature in the development of civilisations and mathematics is absolutely essential for this.
A Lego Reproduction of the Antikythera Mechanism Which Was Used to Calculate Future Olympic Dates
Subdividing Cultural Delusions
We have thus established that the end of the world will occur is false according to the above arguments. Returning to the definition of cultural delusion we can see that the prediction does not have a social anchor – it is disenfranchised from culture. Furthermore there is evidence that people have been distressed by this prediction or that they have focused significant resources on preparing for an apocalypse. We may therefore summarise this prediction as a false belief which is culturally dissociated and with evidence that it has caused distress. The belief has been promoted by the Entertainment Industry through films which have been extremely popular. In this regards though, the entertainment industry has done what it is supposed to do – entertain. People want different things from films – even to be frightened and perhaps one effect has been for this meme to become more prominent as a result.
I will subdivide the cultural delusions as follows as this will be of further benefit.
1. Closed cultural delusion
2. Open ended
3. Semi closed
The closed cultural delusion is quite clear. If suddenly there were a number of people stating that on December 21st 2012 a green man would appear on the moon and would appear visible under the telescope on a certain date then I would class this as a closed cultural delusion. In advance the specifications are quite clear – it can be tested and falsified at a specific time.
With regards to an open-ended delusion I would define this as one in which there are no clear specifications. Therefore the falsification cannot occur. To take the green man on the moon example,this may occur when many people within a culture start to say that a green man will appear on the moon at a future date. We can never discount this possibility because the following day after being discounted the green man may appear. However with the alleged Mayan prediction we are quite lucky to have a specific date. On 21st December we will be able to demonstrate that the world is still here.
This is as a Semi-Closed Cultural Delusion
Finally I will refer to this type of delusion as being a semi-closed delusion. This is one in which specific and generalised claims are made. In the statement above we can see on the 21st December we will have verified that this event will not have taken place. Similarly we can test the specifics of the Mayan prediction by triangulating with the archaeological evidence. However there is another part which is quite vague – that this will be the end of the world. Semi-closed and open cultural delusions can parent other types of delusions in a family tree analogy. Since the end is vague it is left for other people to draw their conclusions. Thus a number of variations on the cultural delusion can be generated each of which fills in some of the details (or else the original cultural delusion remains as it is).
How Can We Manage Cultural Delusions?
In relation to the Mayan prediction it is important that the public are reassured. In this regards the UK press has produced numerous articles dispelling the notion of an apocalypse on the said date. Education and reassurance are powerful health promoting tools in this instance. There will also be other cultural delusions which may be expected to impact adversely on health and the economy. We need only think of the MMR vaccine controversy or the Tulip Bulb Bubble to see the many possibilities there are for further exploration. The cultural delusion is distinct from the delusion. The latter results from a clinical assessment of a person’s mental state. In contrast the initial assessment of a cultural delusion can be owned in the initial stages by the community. At the later stages when successful candidates have been identified they can then be analysed in the research setting. The cultural delusion offers society a tool for self-modification by isolating illness precipitating components of culture and facilitating a more detailed assessment of their impact.
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