Did the ancient Mayans predict the end of the world?

The end is near. Or is it here?

You can be forgiven for believing it is.

Volcanoes in Alaska, earthquakes in Italy, war in the Middle East, floods in the Midwest.

And don't forget Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

If an $11 trillion debt and your shrinking 401(k) aren't causing you enough anxiety, here's another set of numbers to worry about: Dec. 21, 2012.

That date marks the end of a 5,000-year epoch as determined by the Mayan Long Count calendar, a device that ticks off days since the Mayan mythical creation date in 3114 B.C. It's been hijacked by New Age seekers and seers who interpret its end date as representing either a shift in human consciousness or an apocalyptic event.

Without the portent they impose upon it, the date marks the winter solstice and four shopping days until Christmas, and has the significance of the flipping of an odometer.

But to deny the date's influence is to ignore the network of books and Web sites that promote it, and the end-time themes that are appearing in dramatic narrative.

The two strands intersect literally this fall in the disaster film "2012," which asks: "How would the governments of our planet prepare 6 billion people for the end of the world?"

Doomsday also is the subject of films like "Knowing," in which solar flares threaten Earth; "Watchmen," whose characters are concerned about a nuclear war; "I Am Legend," in which mankind has been decimated by plague; and "Terminator Salvation," in which machines destroy humanity.

Sometimes, havoc rather than destruction is portrayed. In "Angels and Demons," due in theaters May 15, Tom Hanks battles a shadowy group called the Illuminati. On Fox TV's "Fringe," something called "the Pattern" is responsible for a series of ghastly events.

Modern popular culture is rife with such art-imitates-life metaphors. Radioactive creatures ran rampant in Japanese films post-Hiroshima. Cold War and Red Scare-era films were portraits of mistrust and uncertainty.

And much escapism produced since 9-11 is distinctly dystopian.

Dave Gibbons, who illustrated the "Watchmen" graphic novel upon which the movie was based and wrote the book "Watching the Watchmen" about his creative process, said his own "absurd" duck-and-cover experiences influenced the way he portrayed the Cold War atmosphere in the book, written by Alan Moore.

"There have always been doomsday scenarios, from prehistory through the Bible, to modern fiction," Gibbons said in an audio file sent in response to a reporter's questions. "I think it's a perennial concern of mankind that it will just come to an end someday."

Rather than attach any significance to prophecies or conspiracies to doomsday, Gibbons suspects "that if it ever does happen, it will be on a Tuesday afternoon. When no one's looking."

"Going back 300 years ago, it was witches and supernatural beings," said Robert Bonadurer, director of the Daniel M. Soref Planetarium and Humphrey IMAX Dome Theater at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

"And as we moved into the space age, it was flying saucers."

The current round of doomsday scenarios is simply the latest in a long line of such manifestations, said Bonadurer.
Apocalypse now?

And they are a sign of the times.

Jeffrey Kaplan, associate professor of religion at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said doomsday concerns appear at times of the greatest social stress.

"And certainly we are living in one right now," he said. "And when fear rises, millennial and apocalyptic beliefs crest."

Apocalyptic texts are common to all religions, and most of them celebrate "what comes after the end. The new beginning," said Kaplan, author of "Millennial Violence: Past, Present and Future."

"Go into any church on Sunday and you'll find a room full of millenarians. It's very mainstream."

But when people act on such beliefs and try to "force the end," he said, violence can occur. "That type of violence is a subset of terrorist groups."

This possibility concerns the most objective observers.

Brian D'Amato is "very skeptical" about 2012 prophecies, but he worries about "trends intersecting around now, or around then, that are very disturbing," like climate change and species extinction.

"There is no reason the same people who shoot up a school or civic organization can't get hold of ricin or anthrax," said D'Amato, author of "In the Courts of the Sun," a literary thriller set in modern and ancient Mayan times that combines the scientific and fantastic. In his book, characters seek to prevent an act of end-times violence.

John Major Jenkins, a writer and independent researcher whom The New York Times described as bringing "academic rigor" to the discussion of the Mayan calendar, said doomsday prophecies made in association with the 2012 date "are more revealing about the preoccupations and biases of our own culture" than anything the Maya believed.

But "now that there's such hysteria projected onto that date, there's a sociological probability" something could occur, he admitted.
In the Maya of the beholder

Jenkins said his research revealed that the Mayans believed the date presented an opportunity for "transformation and renewal."

Daniel Pinchek is similarly oriented. Pinchek, author of "2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl," whose title refers to a mythical beast, said that although he "is not a fundamentalist" about the date itself, "it's clear that we're in an amazing process right now, and it's extraordinary the Maya targeted this particular time like a bull's-eye."

Pinchek, founder of the Web magazine realitysandwich.com and the social network evolver.net, believes 2012 is "an opportunity to create a new awakening" and to use "the ethical capacities we've developed to make a world that works for everybody."

But it is unclear what, if anything, the date meant to the Maya, said Andrea Stone, professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"It would have been the conclusion of a major calendrical cycle . . .  but we have no idea of how they saw the implications of the end of that cycle or if they worried about it," said Stone, whose specialty is Mayan art and hieroglyphics.

The Maya flourished in Central America from about 300 B.C. to 900 A.D., when their civilization disappeared for reasons mostly unknown, although millions of ethnic Maya remain. Four ancient Mayan texts survived the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors, and what is known about them today is drawn from these writings and archaeological finds.

A display of Mayan pottery and figurines at the Milwaukee Public Museum calls them "the Greeks of the New World."

"The Maya were great astronomers," D'Amato said, and they were "especially concerned with solstices and equinoxes."

This dovetails with Jenkins' research that shows the 2012 date coincides with what he describes as "a rare astronomical alignment" of the winter solstice sun and the axis of the Milky Way, called the galactic or celestial equator.

Bonadurer, an astronomer, explicitly disputes this: They do not align on that date, he wrote in an e-mail.

For her part, Stone calls "the solstice thing interesting."

The Maya "loved these kinds of alignments," she said. And they saw the Milky Way as a "path, a road, a river." But, she said, they were unaware of the celestial equator. And she said they did not invent the long count calendar, but borrowed it from neighbors and refined it.
Learning from apocalyptic fear

While some in the academic and scientific community refused to speak on the topic, Bonadurer embraces 2012 as an educational opportunity.

"We don't want people to be scared of the future, but to embrace the joy of learning, and that is a fantastic process," he said.

Stone thinks Mayanists "are not too unhappy" about the attention, which means they are studying "one of the coolest cultures in the world."

And she equates the transformative possibilities the date represents to some with an experience she had at an open-air Art Garfunkel concert.

"The sun was setting, the crescent moon appeared and Venus, as the evening star in opposition to it, was intensely bright as he was singing," she said.

"And it was so incredibly beautiful I was totally inspired by it and jealous of the Maya. This was the kind of thing they paid attention to. So I don't begrudge the New Age people for getting that kind of inspiration from their calendar and their great cycle of time.

"It is," she said, "something to respect."

By Duane Dudek of the Journal Sentinel