It was an obscure dating system of a long-dead civilization. Then one paragraph in a 1966 book. Then a foreign film. A U.S. television special. More books and a flurry of magazines. A worldwide harmonic convergence.
And in retrospect, that was the small stuff.
After the Internet hit, and social networks showed how quickly panic can go pandemic, the thing wrapped itself around our imaginations like a python.
It's 2012. We're all gonna die. Or become enlightened. Or something.
"There's conspiracy theory versions, Christian versions, Buddhist and Muslim versions. ... Once technology started to let it go viral, it became this sort of monster."
That's Kevin Whitesides, who wrote a thesis on 2012 millennialism for his master's degree in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Whitesides did his undergraduate work at Humboldt State University, and he's back in Eureka for now before starting on his doctorate.
If you've got a 2012 question, he probably knows the answer.
He knows where the French have cordoned off a mountain path, worried it will be overrun by people hoping to survive the coming flood. He knows about the panicked emails NASA keeps getting, asking about planetary collisions. He knows that of the 3,000 or so recent books delving into the year of doom, 1,000-plus have "2012" emblazoned on their covers.
He knows that back in 1987, thousands of people converged on sacred spots worldwide because a one-time art history professor named Jose Arguelles said it would avert the 2012 Armageddon.
"His idea was that they needed to get 144,000 people to go to these sacred sites all over the world and just sort of meditate and pray at the same time," Whitesides said. "If that didn't happen then we'd be on the road to bad things in 2012 ... and if it did, utopia in 2012."
Press reports on actual attendance are widely contradictory, Whitesides said, but at the time Arguelles told the media that it worked.
Oh, and that round calendar, the iconic image of Mayan doom? Whitesides points out that it's Aztec, not Mayan. No one has found any Mayan calendars, at least in the physical sense of a stone, mural or monument meant to depict the passage of time. There are just dates, found on artifacts here and there, from which a calendar system has been deduced.
The leap from a few dates to global disaster began in this one paragraph that Whitesides sent us from Michael Coe's book, The Maya:
"The idea of cyclical creations and destructions is a typical feature of Mesoamerican religions, as it is of Oriental. The Aztec, for instance, thought that the universe had passed through four such ages, and that we were now in the fifth, to be destroyed by earthquakes. The Maya thought along the same lines, in terms of eras of great length, like the Hindu kalpas. There is a suggestion that each of these measured 13 baktuns, or something less than 5,200 years, and that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the thirteenth. Thus, following the Thompson correlation, our present universe would have been created in 3113 BC, to be annihilated on December 24, 2011, when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion."
Uh, yeah. Last year.
Coe tweaked the dates in later editions.
There have been lots of other troubling 2012 dates, too, but Dec. 21 has edged ahead in popular imagination, although the exact timing seems iffy. Maybe sunrise. Maybe 11:11, but whether a.m. or p.m. is disputed.
Whitesides will watch Dec. 21 unfold at Chichen Itza on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where he'll be joining a group of scholars. Around the world, he expects parties and indifference, enlightenment and death.
"I have no doubt that people will have all sorts of spiritual epiphanies," he said. "There's going to be all sorts of self-fulfilling prophesies," because believers are psychologically primed for something big, in good ways or in bad. "There will be lots of unfortunate situations with people getting really scared or thinking they know what to do, like jump off a rock and fall into a time portal."