John Scillitani does not want to be seen as a fanatic. As the proprietor of 2012apocalypse.net, one of the top Google hits for searches on the Mayan apocalypse, he'd be easy to paint in that way: His site features pictures of nuclear explosions, images of meteors hitting Earth and a variety of less-pleasant predictions from the darker parts of the Bible.
But over the phone, Scillitani comes across as friendly and likable. He has a family and a job — he's a real estate agent in California — and although he worries about the way the world is going, he says, he's not cowering in a bunker waiting for the end of the world to come.
"I'm just reading stuff and seeing some coincidences that are kind of eerie," Scillitani told LiveScience. He said he put together his site during "a phase" of intense reading about 2012 apocalypse predictions.
"I just love the mythology of it, and you watch a couple shows … then you start doing research and going, 'Oh my god, there's this' and 'Oh my god, there's that,' and you start taking the numerology and trying to match stuff up," he said. [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]
Scillitani is not alone in his fascination with 2012 prophecies. The crux of these prophecies is the Maya Long Count calendar. An important cycle of this calendar draws to a close on Dec. 21, 2012. But while most media have painted Mayan apocalypse believers as misguided doomsday prophets, the reality is not quite so simple.
In fact, the cult of Maya enthusiasts is much more varied — and much more adaptable — than the media have given them credit for. While it's true that some fear the end of the world, many others look forward to Dec. 21 as a day of transformation and spiritual awakening. Predictions are as numerous as believers, and have even seeped back into modern Maya culture.
"There are all kinds of lines of thought," said Dirk van Tuerenhout, an anthropologist and curator of "Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History," an exhibit ongoing at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
It's impossible to quantify how many people believe something notable will happen on Dec. 21, and equally impossible to determine how many think that "something" will be apocalyptic. The online world of the Mayan apocalypse is chaotic and anarchic. Dueling interpretations and infighting appear common, and it can be difficult to tell who truly believes in the prophecy and who is a huckster looking to draw in the gullible.
The basic beliefs, however, all stem from the Maya Long Count calendar, one of three calendars used by the ancient Maya of Central America. On Dec. 21, 2012, our modern calendar coincides with the end of a 144,000-day cycle, or b'ak'tun. Two ancient carvings, one discovered this year, reference the date. The first, which dates back to about A.D. 669 and which was found in Tortuguero, Mexico, mentions the return of a deity associated with calendar changes on that day. The second, found in Guatemala, dates back to about A.D. 696. In that text, a struggling king attempts to shore up his rule by linking it to the 13th b'ak'tun that ends this year.
Historians, archaeologists and Maya experts are quick to point out that neither carving is apocalyptic. Nor did the Maya see the end of the calendar as the end of time itself.
"It's absolutely not the end," van Tuerenhout told LiveScience. "This is just one calendar being exchanged for another."
Maya civilization peaked and collapsed before about A.D. 1000, though descendents of the empire still populate Central America. Westerners exposed to the concept of the Maya calendar imbued it with their own traditions, often drawn from the apocalyptic predictions of the Bible.
"It's that world of the ancient Maya colliding with the Western world, which has all kinds of religious traditions firmly anchored in these end-of-the-world types of beliefs," van Tuerenhout said.
Much of the current Maya concern traces back to a 1966 book "The Maya" (Thames & Hudson) by Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe, who briefly suggests the Long Count calendar might have been used to predict Armageddon. Other Maya experts contest this claim, but the fiery story has mutated and grown online.
For example, Azerbaijani-American author Zecharia Sitchin, who believed humans arose from extraterrestrials, also formulated the idea of planet Nibiru, an undiscovered body orbiting in a huge elliptical path in our solar system. This idea was later picked up by Nancy Lieder, the proprietor of Zetatalk.com, who says she channels the messages of benign aliens. In 2003, Lieder warned that Planet X or Nibiru would sweep by the Earth, killing most life on the planet. [Doom and Gloom: Top 10 Post-Apocalyptic Worlds]
That didn't happen, of course, but the idea of a deadly planetary collision stuck. A collision with Nibiru is one common theory of how the world will end on Dec. 21. [11 Failed Doomsday Predictions]
Not the end, but a beginning
Other believers don't expect a fiery death, but a beautiful rebirth. The spiritual organization Foundation for the Law of Time, for example, believes Dec. 21 will usher in a new age.
"It's a time when there is an opportunity for spiritual rebirth and a transformation of consciousness, which has to do with the identification of the metaphysical realities, which will help manifest a global culture of peace," John Hoopes, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas who has tracked the online surge in 2012 apocalypse theories, said of the group's beliefs.
New Age subcultures are major drivers of 2012 Maya beliefs, Hoopes told LiveScience. The demographic is "spiritual, but not religious," Hoopes said.
People "are putting together their own practices that draw from Tibetan Buddhism and Tantrism and yoga, but also alchemy, astrology and tarot," he said. "It's what other authors have referred to as the invention of a sacred tradition, but it's very eclectic and pulls on stuff from around the world."
Not only that, but the modern world is chaotic and confusing, said Robert Sitler, a professor of Latin American studies at Stetson University in Florida and author of "The Living Maya: Ancient Wisdom in the Era of 2012" (North Atlantic Books, 2010).
People worry about climate change, species' extinction and environmental degradation, Sitler said.
"There is, I think, an attraction in looking back to cultures that we imagine had a better way of doing things," he told LiveScience.
What the Maya think
Of course, Maya culture still exists — even if the empire is long gone. Sitler has interviewed a number of Maya people on their thoughts on the 2012 phenomenon, starting about six years ago. At first, he said, it was a bit like asking the average American about important dates in the Julian calendar, the calendar that Europeans stopped using in 1582.
"When I first started going, nobody knew what I was talking about, nobody had ever heard of it," Sitler said. "That's because that calendar fell into disuse a thousand years ago."
But intense media attention brought the calendar back to the Maya's attention, Sitler said. Out of 100 Maya, he said, "99 of them could care less about any of it," because they're busy with their daily lives. But because that culture sees ancestors as a source of wisdom, many Maya welcomed the import of their own history with open arms.
"There are Maya celebrations scheduled all over Mexico and Guatemala" on Dec. 21, Sitler said.
The Maya scoff at the idea the world will end on that date, he said, but tend to see it as the beginning of a new cycle. The importance of this cycle is often tied to the political issues affecting various regions, Sitler said. One group originally from the rainforest sees the new cycle as ending the world of vegetation or requiring some sort of environmental rebalancing. Another group that has clashed with the Mexican government sees the end of the b'ak'tun as heralding their political victory.
In many ways, the 2012 fever echoes earlier writings by outsiders who simply got the Maya wrong, Sitler said.
"It is in many ways unfortunate, I would say. There's a lot of hysteria, and the vast majority of the information online is simply inaccurate or misrepresents the situation. But there's very little that can stop that from taking place," he said. "People believe what they want to believe."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.