2012: New Age Predictions

by John Mink
October 20, 2009
The two prior entries to the 2012: Truth, Fiction, and the Popular Imagination blog series introduced us to some questions surrounding the year 2012 and began to explore some of the sources of confusion as to what it means, starting with Millenariansm. This week, we move on to the ideas of the New Age movement, who have played a major role in the enormous and growing popularity of 2012 as a cultural phenomenon.

As mentioned in the previous blog, it is common for us to experience a profound sense of unease from the enormous complexities and troubles that are part of today's culture. The nature of our world economy and relative ease of high-speed modern travel has resulted in rapid technological change and an enormous increase in human migration that has diversified our societies (particularly urbanized ones) to a degree never seen before. These changes have the potential to bring wide prosperity and a greater understanding between different peoples, but they have also created a great deal of anxiety through both fear and curiosity about such changes. This societal anxiety, coupled with near-instantaneous access to vast stores of information on a global scale via the internet, has helped fuel an increased prominence of ideas that utilize aspects of both science and spirituality outside the realms and disciplinary criteria of traditional theology and scholarship. A diverse collection of authors and lecturers who propound such theories are often conflated under the term New Age, a philosophy that is oriented towards personal transcendence and spiritual transformation; powerful and tantalizing concepts in a world where a large percentage of people do not wish to participate in traditional organized religion yet yearn for the comfort and inner peace that is associated with faith-based belief systems (Encyclopedia Britannica).

New Age Thought


New Age thought combines selected aspects of metaphysical fields such as astrological study, popular psychology, and portions of Eastern sacred texts such as the I Ching and Boddhavista in novel ways while searching for answers to life's difficult questions (ibid.). Certain extremely popular authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (author of The Power of Now and A New Earth), have provided millions of people with counsel and guidance that they have found extremely valuable in leading richer lives through personal transformation. The ranks of the New Age authors also include best-sellers such as Robert Bauval (author of Sirius Rising and Talisman: The Sacred Cities and The Secret Faith co-authored with Graham Hancock), and Alberto Villoldo (author of Shaman, Healer, Sage; Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval). Many of these thinkers have in turn been influenced by pseudoarchaeologists and fantasists such as Erich Von Daniken, whose 1968 work Chariots of the Gods? posited that many of the world's ancient monumental civilizations were constructed under the direction of superior alien beings. In contrast with the apocalypse-minded millenarians, New Age spiritualists tend to see purported global changes in a positive light; with predicted events of a global impact often perceived as the "Dawn of a New Age" (Joseph 74-75).

The 2012 theme has emerged as a very popular subject in current New Age writings. The reputed significance of this upcoming date has been prominently explored by Daniel Pinchbeck (author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Graham Hancock (author of Supernatural: Meetings With The Ancient Teachers of Mankind), and John Major Jenkins (author of Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 and Galactic Alignment: The Transformation of Consciousness According to Mayan, Egyptian, and Vedic Traditions). Tens of millions of books have been sold between these authors, all three of whom operate as self-taught researchers independent of any established academic or institutional affiliation. All believe that the year 2012 will bring about a massive global change, positing a wide range of theories and philosophical ruminations using carefully-selected evidence of both a scientific and spiritual nature. In keeping with the freely-associative and pluralistic aspects of New Age thought, their works draw widely from a range of sources: Maya glyphic studies (epigraphy) and iconography, astronomical AND astrological observation, natural phenomena, and different indigenous practices and beliefs in both the Americas and beyond. These practices are widely known as shamanism.

Shamanism


Shaman is a word that stems from the language of the Tunguz people of Siberia; it refers to a practitioner of supernatural arts who can serve as a liason between the physical world and the spirit world (Lehmann et al. 98-99). The generic term shamanism has been used in the field of anthropology since the 19th century to describe a wide array of indigenous spiritual practices around the world including healing, sharing of myths and oral histories, divination, communicating with the dead, and any combination of these that are conducted by autonomous practitioners with relative leeway to conduct and interpret them as they see fit (ibid.). In recent decades, New Age authors have glommed on to shamanism as a catch-all for spirituality of all types that stem from practically anything besides the hierarchically-structured Abrahamist religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). This includes other rigidly hierarchical traditions such as Hinduism (Vedic) and little-understood ancient religions such as those of the Classic Period Maya, whose theology was closely tied to the power structure of highly-organized city-states - not autonomous spiritual practitioners like traditional Tunguz shamans (Hawley 318, Jenkins xxxix, Villoldo, Hobson 1-2). The term is constantly used when referring to various religious practices of indigenous peoples of the Americas, yet no Native American group traditionally refers to their own practitioners as "shamans" and are split between rejection of the term as an over-generalized imposition or reluctant acceptance of it for the sake of brevity when documenting and discussing their traditions with outsiders (Hawley 319-320, Hobson 7).

Pan-Shamanism


A major component of New Age thought is belief in what we will term a pan-shamanistic belief system. Pan-shamanism collects selected aspects of indigenous belief systems that originated from disparate, distinct cultures into an artificially contiguous school of thought. The writings of Graham Hancock rely on the idea that the great ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Pre-Columbian America were all descended from a single highly-advanced earlier civilization; a civilization whose secrets we can divulge through practices such as ritualistically taking the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca with a native Amazonian spiritual practitioner (called a shaman in Hancock's writings). While Hancock's ideas are painted with an exceptionally broad brush, even New Age authors who focus more on specific cultures assume the notion that modern spiritual practitioners within the Hopi, Maya, Huichol, Quechua, Tibetan, Vedic, and other traditions provide unfiltered, prophetic links with the spiritual leaders of an idealized ancient past rather than being a reflection of the complex histories, faiths, and desires of the modern peoples by whom they are expressed. For example, it is questionable whether the apocalyptic predictions of a modern Hopi spiritual practitioner can be considered to be a clear mirror of the purported eschatological (apocalyptic) visions of one of their distant pre-Columbian ancestors. Are not the modern Hopi's visions all but certain to be strongly influenced by a deeper historical awareness than their ancestor from a time before European contact? Similarly, would not a modern Catholic Priest hold a different view of the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, and the decisions of the Church at the time that made it possible, than his 15th-century counterpart?

Pan-shamanism at its most vigorous combines a range of quite generalized and more specific assumptions, like those discussed in the paragraph above, into theories that are highly questionable once scrutinized. Just as it would seem quite ridiculous for someone in modern Norway to invent a myth that Thor (the Norse god of Thunder) was the son of Zeus (the Greek god of Thunder) and try to pass it off as traditional knowledge, it is simply erroneous to assume that a modern Hopi spiritual practitioner and an Ancient Maya calendar priest who lived over a thousand years ago would have the same visions as each other; and for an author to seek out scant evidence of commonalities between them (as John Major Jenkins does on page 33 of the introduction to Maya Cosmogenesis 2012) while ignoring the vast bulk of profound difference can be seen as partially invalidating the overall belief systems of both the Hopi and the Maya. Similarly, Daniel Pinchbeck's writing in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl freely conflates the markedly different Aztec and Maya interpretations of the pan-Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl into a single form, and also operates on the assumption that the two cultures' calendars functioned in the same manner and produced essentially the same prophecies. In fact, the only calendars the Aztec and Classic Period Maya closely shared were the ever-repeating 260-day Tzolk'in and the 365-day Haab', NOT the Classic Period Maya Long Count calendar; the source from which the 2012 date is derived (Van Stone Appendix IV).

Misappropriating Scientific Data as Proof


Along with such questionable conflations of belief systems are heavy-handed attempts by New Age authors to use modern scientific and academically-tested data to verify the purported validity of their theories. Selected by the authors with the goal of proving their hypotheses, these analyses have produced a body of work that aspires to assure the reader that the theory is most likely correct by overwhelming them with a mishmash of selected data interpreted haphazardly; this is contradictory to scientific method, which demands that a hypothesis be tested against all reliable data available. Authors Graham Hancock and Patrick Geryl, for example, posit a hypothesis that natural phenomena such as increased sunspot activity and a magnetic field reversal will play a role in a predicted destructive/transformative 2012 event; broader scientific consensus, however, has dismissed these phenomena as minor nuisances not readily predictable to within the precise range of a calendar date.

Closing Remarks


It seems clear that New Age ideas about 2012, while generally less violent than those of the millenarianists, still carry the potential for serious misinformation when it comes to understanding the rich and complex calendars and belief systems of the ancient Maya. We will go into far more specifics about how these authors' interpretations, particularly those of the self-described 2102ologist John Major Jenkins, contrast with the conclusions of far more numerous but less-famous experts in the field of Maya studies during the next section of this blog: What do we know about what the ancient Maya thought with regard to December 21 (or 23) 2012, the end of the 5125-year cycle of 13 B'ak'tuns, how do we know it, and what exactly is so important about a B'ak'tun anyway? Read on...

References


Encyclopedia Britannica (2009). New Age movement. Online at Britannica Online

Joseph, Lawrence E. (2007). Apocalypse 2012: a scientific investigation into civilization's end. New York:Random House

Lehman, Arthur C. and Meyers, James Edward (1989). Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Mountain View (California):Mayfield Publishing

Hawley, John Charles (2001). Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies. Westport (Connecticut):Greenwood Publishing Group

Hobson, Geary (2002). The Rise of the White Shaman: Twenty-Five Years Later. From Studies in American Indian Literatures (SAIL) Series 2, V.14, N.2; Summer / Fall 2002

Jenkins, John Major (1998). Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. Santa Fe:Bear and Company

Villoldo, Alberto (2000). Shaman, Healer, Sage: How to heal yourself and others with the energy medicine of the Americas. New York:Random House

Van Stone, Mark (2008). It's Not the End of the World: What the Ancient Maya Tell Us About 2012. Located online at the Foundation For The Advancement Of Mesoamerican Studies website.


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Photograph of a Siberian <i>Tunguz</i> Shaman, early 20th century. Most anthropologists believe that the indigenous peoples of the Americas first migrated from Siberia into Alaska across the Beiring Strait land bridge between 13,000 and 18,000 years ago, and there are observed commonalities between certain native American traditional beliefs and Siberian ones. There is, however, no compelling evidence of any migration following the flooding of the Bering Strait land bridge at the end of the last ice age, and the continents' cultures developed separately over the course of the ensuing 10,000+ years.
The cover for John Major Jenkins' book <i>Galactic Alignment</i>, showing Chichen Itza's Temple of the Warriors superimposed over an image of the Milky Way Galaxy.
A poster for the 1970 film <i>Chariots of the Gods</i>, based on the bestselling book by Erich Von Daniken. The book posited the hypothesis that most of the ancient world's great civilizations were built with the aid of technologically-advanced aliens from outer space. The image shown here makes a visual inference that a Classic Period Maya carving from Palenque, shown at top, depicts an astronaut from outer space in flight posture (as per the lower image). The top image is carved into the stone sarcophagus of the great Maya ruler Pakal, and we know from both standard Maya iconography and reading its associated glyphs that it actually depicts Pakal metaphorically falling into the Maya underworld following his death.
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