No, we’re not reviewing the Hollywood movie effects reel for Weekend Review. We’ve got an essay on the apocalyptic controversy that inspired it.

In 2012, London, England will host the Olympics, the world will observe the hundredth anniversaries of both the Titanic disaster and of Alan Turing’s birth, and, if we believe internet buzz and popular rumor, the world will end. The reason for the belief? An ancient Mayan calendar ends its count.

This isn’t the first time the Mayan “Long Count” Calendar has entered popular culture.

In the 1970s, a rather odd notion took hold that the gods of various ancient religions were actually space aliens. The Mayan calendar marked the year— 2012— when the extra-terrestrials would return. Supporters’ evidence was, of course, laughable, but at least they held out some hope. The aliens, after all, might be friendly. I see little hope in an end-of-the-world scenario.

Perhaps we should examine the subject more carefully.

The Maya, an ancient American people, actually had several calendars. These include the Long Count Calendar. Just as we mark off year and decades and centuries, the Long Count marks great cyclical periods of time from the date on which the Mayans believed the world was created. December 2012 ends such a cycle.

Dr. Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, and one of the world’s leading experts on the Maya, says there is no reason to believe these ancient people thought the world would end at Long Count. Rather, it likely would have been a time for “huge celebration”—sort of like New Years squared. The claim that the Mayan calendar marks the end of the world is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in” (Quoted in G. Jeffrey McDonald, “Does Maya calendar predict 2012 apocalypse?” USA Today, Wednesday, March 28, 2007, p. 11D).

In short, some people have decided the world will end because an ancient calendar flips. This makes as much sense as expecting the world to end when we moved from 1999 to 2000. Come to think of it, back in the 1990s, quite a few people believed this would happen. I’ll let you determine for yourself how things turned out.

Even if the Maya did predict the end of the world— and they didn’t— why should we believe them? If the Mayan seers could foresee the future, why didn’t they make a prediction along the lines of, “watch out for the white guys in the large boats; they have guns”?1

As 2012 Apocalypse claims spread with the speed of a school rumour (and about as much accuracy) many people have started conflating the Mayan Calendar with Nostradamus. In recent months, I have heard people breathlessly announce that the Mayan Calendar predicted Adolf Hitler and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

No, that was Nostradamus. Except there’s no good reason to believe he predicted any of those things.

Nostradamus was a sixteenth-century French astrologer and healer who wrote a volume of poetry entitled Centuries which many people consider a book of predictions. At least, he allegedly wrote the book; its publication history remains sketchy, and many scholars dispute that he is the author. In any case, a book called Centuries exists, credited to Nostradamus, and it contains a lot of bizarre French poetry.

Few people bother to read the book. Let me assure you, it is long, tedious, and largely incomprehensible. So, instead of reading Centuries, people prefer to scope little internet forwards and grocery-store tabloid articles that selectively pick and translate lines and then rearrange them in the order of the events they supposedly predict. As stage-magician James Randi argues, one could probably get as good a set of predictions by treating the lyrics to classic rock songs in the same manner. Given enough time, I predict somebody will.

Hitler and 9/11 seem to be Nostradamus’s most popular predictions at the moment. It’s worth looking at these predictions before one examines his possible connection to 2012.

Centuries Five, Quatrain 29 reads:

Bêtes farouches de faim fleuves tranner;
Plus part du champ encore Hister sera,
En caige de fer le grand sera treisner,
Quand rien enfant de Germain observa

Translated, we have references to ferocious beasts, Germania (a part of what is now Germany), a child, and “Hister.” I grant, “Hister” does sound an awful lot like “Hitler.” It sounds even more like “Hister,” an ancient name, well-known in Nostradamus’s time, for the geographical region around the lower Danube River. Translate the lines into English, but leave “Hister” as “Hister” (or, better yet, change it to “Hitler”) and, hey, suddenly these lines sound like they might be describing World War II. Translate them accurately, so that “Hister” identifies the lower Danube River, and what they mean becomes a little less certain.

If the “Hister” prediction is a stretch, the 9/11 one should be dismissed out of hand. Several Nostradamus lines began circulating shortly after 9/11, along with claims he had predicted that horrible event. Unfortunately, most of these are fabrications that do not appear anywhere in Centuries. A Brock University student named Neil Marshall wrote some of these fake predictions after 9/11. His phony Nostradamus writings were supposed to show how readily ancient prophecies can be shoehorned to fit current events, and how seldom people bother to look up the original sources. He even dated his fake prophecies to a time after Nostradamus’s death. Few people noticed.

The most popular version of the 9/11 prediction reads:

In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror…
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city.

This prediction at least comes from Centuries. Unfortunately, it takes lines from two different parts of the book and combines them into one new quatrain. It also fabricates “the new century and nine months” as the time for the Great King of Terror’s arrival. Centuries actually reads “L’an mil neuf cens nonante neuf sept mois.” That would be July of 1999, noteworthy as a time when nothing terribly interesting happened.

Even if you still believe there must be something to Nostradamus, no reason exists to connect his writings to 2012. Centuries only occasionally identifies specific years. At no point does it mention the year 2012. Other lines refer to events occurring long afterward. A man who wrote predictions for the year 3797 surely did not expect the world to end 1,785 years before then.

Finally, 2012 doomsayers love to reference such things as the recurring solar maxima, the solar transit of Venus, and the quasi-mythical Planet X. However, some good may come out of this. Perhaps one or two people will be inspired to examine actual science and history, rather than simply believing ideas tossed about on Facebook user groups, at lunchtime bull sessions, and in poorly-written Hollywood disaster movies.

If you still believe the world will end in 2012, that remains, of course, your right. But in that case, I’d like to propose a friendly wager. Put on the table any amount you feel you can safely lose.

If the world ends, I’ll pay up as best I can.

1. “Also, considering exposing yourselves to cowpox.”