FAQ: Apocalypse 2012 Explained

If you happened to search Amazon.com’s bestsellers recently for “2012,” most of the top hits would have been guide books of various sorts – how to visit Disney World, how to ace the GMAT, etc. The number one book, however, was by a little-known author and won’t even be published until August: “The Source Field Investigations: The Hidden Science and Lost Civilizations Behind the 2012 Prophecies” by David Wilcock. At 528 pages, the tome will be anything but light reading. And it will be the latest of hundreds of books, videos, conferences and related products tied to predictions about 2012.

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The 2012-ers have pulled together archaeology about Mesoamerica, New Age spirituality, UFO stories about extraterrestrials, and left-field understandings about science to produce a prophecy that something Really Big will happen on December 21, 2012.

It's a confusing hodgepodge of ideas and predictions — so we've simplified matters. Read our FAQ — everything you need to know about Apocalypse 2012.

What’s special about the predictions about 2012?

Daniel Wojcik is a professor at the University of Oregon and the author of “The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America.” He’s been tracking the 2012-er phenomenon for a while. He says it shares qualities found in End Times predictions through the ages, but is very much the unique product of the Internet age where out-of-mainstream ideas can easily find an audience.

“The 2012 phenomenon is something new on a grand scale, as an eclectic and countercultural apocalyptic, in contrast to Christian evangelical apocalypticism,” he said. “And while 2012 is similar to Y2K fears, it is distinctive, much more of a millennial smorgasbord, a kaleidoscopic array of ancient and new prophecy beliefs.”

Plus, he said, it’s fun.

“I sense that a lot of people who are interested in 2012 are just plain interested because it is entertaining and weird, a new and alternative apocalyptic angle, and the ideas are so X-File, esoteric, and all over the map of belief, that you can find whatever you want in it, and then add your own doomsday ingredients to the millennial stew,” he said. “There is not only good old doomsday fear here, but also the hope of worldly transformation.”

Is there anything unarguable about the hoopla over 2012?

Pretty much everybody agrees on this much: The Maya peoples who spread across what is now Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala used a unique calendar that strung years together in long cycles. Many mainstream scholars agree that one of these cycles started in 3114 BC and will end next year.

Why the attention on December 21?

That’s where the disagreements start. Some of the people who study the Mayan calendar say that’s the day the current cycle will end. Others say picking the exact day is more problematic, given a diversity of opinion even among the Maya about the exact dates of the calendar. December 21 happens to be the date of next year’s winter solstice, which is a big deal for many of the 2012-ers. And it’s also tied to another real astronomical event: The earth and sun will be roughly lined up with the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

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What did the Maya think would happen when the calendar cycle ended?

Many Mayan scholars say it wasn't a much bigger deal than when the odometer on your car goes to all zeros. Others say there are interesting prophesies found in the Mayan record about events at the end of the cycle – stories as relevant to us as Norse tales of Ragnarok. And then there are those – the folks selling the books and attending the conferences – who say that the Maya were on to something profound.

Like what?

Depends on which 2012-er you talk to. Here's a mash-up: The people who created the Mayan calendar were extraterrestrials who wanted to let us Earthers know exactly when there would be a particular lineup of the Solar System and a beam emanating from the Galactic Center. That beam will affect human consciousness in either terrible or amazing ways. Maybe it will also have physical effects on the planet. And maybe how people respond will have something to do with whether we experience a catastrophe or a positive transformation. Maybe, the 2012-ers say, we can all help midwife a new spiritual age. The idea that everyday folk can influence how the End Times story comes out, what Wojcik calls "avertive apocalypticism," is central to the narrative for many true believers.

Who started this story?

A few scholars started paying attention to 2012 in the 18th Century, after Mayan inscriptions about their calendar were translated. But the modern circus probably started with former University of California art history professor, Jose Arguelles, credited as a co-founder of Earth Day in 1970. He started pushing his Mayan-linked ideas in the 1980s. Arguelles took an unusual astronomical event – a lineup of the planets on one side of the sun – and spun up the idea that August 16-17, 1987 would see a "Maya-Galactic Harmonic Convergence." His books and conferences got plenty of media attention and tens of thousands of people held mass events during the "convergence" that made for entertaining TV.

His prediction was tied to the Mayan calendar, and he subsequently became one of the better known promoters of the 2012 phenomenon. But Arguelles will not be around next year either to apologize or tell the world "I told you so." According to his organization's website, he died last month after saying that: " "I have done all that I could on this planet. I am being called to assist in the closing of the cycle from the Other Side."

If the Maya were so smart, why did their civilization crumble? Why were their descendents utterly defeated by a relative handful of Spaniards (and the illnesses they carried to the New World)?

Even Mayan scholars who reject any mystical interpretations of the culture struggle to explain why a remarkably successful civilization fell apart the way it did. Arguelles said the "seed Maya" with the real wisdom were galactic travelers who had moved on by the time the Mayan civilization collapsed. Some 2012-ers say the "seed Maya" will be back next year.

What kinds of groups have bought into the prophesies?

Here’s a partial list of the ideas that Wojcik says have mind-melded with the 2012 phenomenon: Planet X, Indigo Children, crop circles, I Ching, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere, and the writings of UFO-ologist Terence McKenna, who predicted that human knowledge would spike to infinity on December 21, 2012. In many cases, the predictions claim that the world as we know it will end. There is, as you’d expect, considerable disagreement even among the true believers about what will come next.

Can I pay money for 2012-related products?

Does Ursa Major circle Polaris? Apparently capitalism will survive into the New Age. You want a full set of “Mayan style crystal skulls?” Only $298. How about your very own Mayan Prophesy Medallion “with a museum quality Cherry Wood pocket case?” Only $55. Or maybe you want to join a community of like-minded people who would survive the Coming Whatever in specially constructed shelters? Pony up $25,000 for a membership.

"There is not only good old doomsday fear here, but also the hope of worldly transformation." -Daniel Wojcik, Author, "The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America"

Lot of them, though most have been vague. Many religious traditions include stories or general predictions about End Times. Judaism teaches of a “messianic age.” Islam has similar traditions of a time when a hidden prophet will emerge. But neither faith offers much in the way of a timeline. Christianity has End Times predictions deeply embedded in its DNA. Jesus is quoted as telling his followers that some “shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Later Christians have turned to specific parts of the Bible to figure out exactly when Jesus would return. Most of those Christians have been reluctant to set a precise date. But there have been exceptions.

Who were the Millerites?

They were one of the exceptions. They were followers of a New York farmer and lay preacher named William Miller. Based on his reading of the Bible, he predicted that Christ's second coming would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. As with the 2012-ers, he based his predictions on numerical interpretations of ancient materials. When nothing happened during his target year, he recalibrated his prediction to October 22, 1844. Historians say as many as 100,000 people counted themselves as believers. Many of his followers quit their jobs and sold their possessions as the fateful day approached. After the “Great Disappointment,” some of Miller’s followers helped form the Seventh Day Adventists.

How does Nostradamus fit into all of this?

No listing of End Times prophesies is compete without mentioning the 16th Century French astrologer Michel de Nostredame. He wrote hundreds of four-line verses that mixed clear statements with wildly poetic metaphor. His followers say that the poetry was prophesy. Here’s an example: “In the year 1999, in the seventh month,/from the sky will come the great King of Terror,/bringing back to life the great King of the Mongols./

Before and after, Mars to reign by good fortune.” The website of the Nostradamus Society of America says that this verse predicted the 9/11 attack. Seriously.

Have there been non-religious End Times predictions?

The biggest of these was probably the Y2K panic leading up to New Years Day 2000. It combined a quasi-religious anxiety about entering a new millennium with a real-as-rocks worry about electronic calendars in tens of millions of computers. The millennium didn’t actually change until 2001 -- there was, after all, no year “zero.” But experts warned that much of modern humanity’s electronic and technical infrastructure depended on computers that, because of an obsolete design, literally would not know how to compute time after midnight on the last day of 1999. On the one hand, this was a boon to computer technicians who spent several years reprogramming or replacing the equipment. On the other hand, it was a trigger for some people to stockpile essential goods and prepare for a calamity that never happened – modern, secular Millerites.

Apocalypse 2012
Apocalypse 2012

Why do so many people buy into End Times ideas?

Just as there are people who feel every era is the worst that's ever been, there are always people who hope that something better – or at least transformational – is right around the corner. Wojcik said that the 2012-ers' escatology, or ideas about End Times, has similarities to other ideas through the ages.

"2012 eschatologies have traditional aspects and share concerns in common with previous millennialist worldviews, such as a dissatisfaction with the current social order, a sense of imminent crisis and the loss of confidence in societal institutions to resolve current problems; and the desire for a transformative new age, to redeem a world verging on destruction," he said.

Modern America is particularly fertile ground, and not only for the 2012-ers, he said.

"In the United States, ideas about the end of the world are not limited to a handful of groups on the social margins, but are extremely widespread, and central to the belief systems of numerous Protestant denominations, Catholic apparitions of the Virgin Mary, New Age spiritualities, UFO religions, some environmentalist movements, and various other groups," Wojcik said. "Not to mention the explosion of literary and popular culture doomsday fare--the Left Behind series, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the film 2012, the relentless doomsday programming on the "History" Channel, and the ongoing enthusiasm for apocalyptic zombies."

"Apocalypse 2012" will air on Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 9 p.m. and midnight ET on CNBC. The documentary will repeat on Friday, December 21, 2012 at 8 p.m.