The Doomsday Confusion: Mayan Calendar and Understanding the Misunderstood

By: Jahnavi Mukul, Manya Srivastava, Omkar Mishra, Rishi Ragesh 


The above stills are from a ceremony in 2012 in Tikal, which is an ancient Mayan city in northern Guatemala. The ceremony was meant to mark the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar.2 By looking at this picture, this essay aims to understand the global phenomenon of the fear of the world ending, spread by a historical misreading of the Mayan calendar, on the 21st of December 2012. The paper begins by providing a background and then mapping the social and political reactions to the event, to describe the phenomenon’s academic importance, before finally analysing the triggers and subsequent consequences of the phenomenon. This essay elaborates on the attempts to profit, both politically and economically, off doomsday fears. Further, the paper shall study the exoticisation that this phenomenon created towards Mayan culture and the Western vigour in appropriating and explaining their meaning.


The Mayan calendar which was at the centre of the hysteria surrounding the end of the world is known as the Long Count. Scholars state that the Mayans used the Long Count calendar during the Classic Period of their culture, which lasted from roughly 250–900 c.e.3 Sitler states that the usage of this calendar actually defines the Classic Period.4 For the Mayans, the misinterpreted end of the world, i.e, December 21st, 2012 simply marks the last day of the current b’ak’tun cycle, a period of 144,000 days roughly equivalent to 394 years.5 6 

Sitler states that José Argüelles, the Mexican-American spiritual teacher responsible for the so-called Harmonic Convergence that took place in mid-August 1987 capitalised on the misinterpretation of the calendar significantly.7 8 Argüelles believed that this earlier event marked “the exponential acceleration of the wave harmonic of history as it phases into a moment of unprecedented synchronisation,” which Sitler states signifies the cryptic nature of his work. 9 Argüelles is a well-known example of pseudo-spiritual leaders who Sitler labels as “dozens of highly inventive and often eccentric individuals” who had reached out to the New Age public with ideas surrounding the phenomenon of 2012. 10 

Politics of Profit and Loss 

This supposed end of the world was an event that was not specific to a community or locale, but something that would have affected the whole globe. This led to reactions that went far beyond just those in touch with spiritual communities. In popular culture, Hollywood tried to make money off this hype which included the major blockbuster- 2012. 

Politically, there were diverse reactions to this news. Some tried to profit off the narrative, while others tried to debunk this as a hoax. Vladimir Putin had disregarded this phenomenon, while the Bolivian president blamed international organisations for contributing to the rise of this hoax. There were politicians who made jokes about the current situation, for example, the Australian Prime Minister tried to make a video spoofing this phenomenon. The Chinese government started arresting cult members who had co-opted this movement as a narrative to attract more members to their cause. These cults argued that they would be the ones that will be the only chosen ones to survive this doomsday. From portable survival kits being sold to the public as the “Noah’s Arc” as well as bunkers that would save people, cultures and companies were trying to align with the narrative to make themselves profitable.11 

In Latin America, governments sanctioned festivities which brought in a major flow of tourism into the region. The organisation of such events not only attracted worldwide attention to the central American countries but also massively increased their tourism revenues, thus making the narrative even economically viable for them. 

The phenomenon of people completely believing that the “End of the World” is here can be linked to the idea of what Delf Rothe terms as planetary realism. According to Rothe, “planetary realism acknowledges that human history is embedded into broader temporal rhythms beyond the species’ control.”12 The idea of the end, brought people different reactions, some were left with a feeling of “letting go” and accepting the reality of the situation. Their idea of adapting to

this situation consisted of making their way to these destinations to witness this apparently surreal image of the world ending and mass salvation for the human race. Others who feared this end, in a last resort to hang on to their hope of “controlling time”, also “adapted” to the situation by flocking to these religious places to pray to save themselves. 

Constructed meaning, deconstructed myths 

The 2012 doomsday phenomenon stands witness to a meaning construction exercise that the West undertook via de-contextualisation and subsequent appropriation of Mayan culture. A prominent example of this was the narrative around the Mayan calendar which stands as a testimonial to this practice. The calendar faced an exoticised gaze and meaning projection from western audiences – in line with the pattern often exhibited in their treatment of significant global south relics. There are YouTube videos aplenty that attempt to deconstruct the hieroglyphics and inscriptions on it, completely removing it from the spiritual and social meaning it held for the Latin American indigenous communities. 

Such acts were met with opposition from the indigenous Maya religious organisations. The leader of one such organisation, Felipe Gomez, raised his voice against the commercialization of the Mayan calendar and the tourism activities promoted by the Guatemalan government. The usurping of an important spiritual day, for contemporary Mayans and other indigenous communities, through such means was spoken against. Gomez was particularly troubled by the hoax narrative being spread about Mayans calling it “folklore-for-profit,”13(JHU, 369). 

Sitler, in the 2012 follow-up to his 2006 paper, ascribes the Mayan phenomenon to the “Pizza effect.” He explains the effect as “a feedback loop in which cultural exports are re-imported along with added foreign components, subsequently reshaping the culture of origin”14(pg-67). He states that many Maya spiritual teachers incorporated several non-maya concepts into their work due to their mostly New Age audiences who’re from around the globe. This revised version was then presented to both Maya and non-Maya people as “ancestral indigenous teachings.” This revision of spiritual culture resulted in a rise of New Age belief systems like “Mayanism”. Mayanism, like many new religious movements, attempts to combine spiritual and “scientific” to build a belief system that appropriates the usage of Mayan symbols and ideas. They construct a myth of eternal return, sold under the guise of ancient Mayan faith, where dominant rationality and authority is rejected to gain a “New Age” consciousness15. 


This paper has been able to look at a spiritual phenomenon from the Global South and understand the global ramifications of its misinterpretation. By doing so, this paper has been able to establish how there is an exoticisation which takes place when Western citizens engage with cultures different from their own. Moreover, indigenous cultures are frequently treated differently across the globe. In the countries where they are the original citizens, their cultures are mobilised to benefit political and economic agendas. Outside of that too, their cultures are misrepresented and often play muse to a western audience, who further go on to profit from it

through appropriation. Thus, the 2012 phenomenon isn’t merely an internet hoax that went viral, but rather a consequence of the West’s long practice of meaning construction through uprooted histories.