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Cathy Free: Free Lunch: End of the World? Not so fast

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 12 2012 12:14 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — If “Prepare for the end of the world” is written down in your day planner for Dec. 21, here’s a bit of advice from Peggy Cain:

Don’t mention it to the Mayans. They think we’ve gone nuts.

Cain, a professor of education and Latin American studies at Westminster College who lived for five years among the Mayan people and takes students to study in Guatemala every year, knows a thing or two about the Mayan calendar. There’s one hanging on her wall, booked with appointments for Dec. 22 and beyond.

Although it’s not the long-count Mayan calendar, the one that ends after a 5,125-year run next Friday, Cain’s Mayan solar calendar is cyclical, meaning that as sure as the sun sets and rises, time will go on.

“Keep your plans for the 22nd,” she says, “because when this long-count calendar ends, another one — the 14th long-count calendar (a 144,000-day cycle called a baktun) — will start.”

In other words, it’s unlikely that you’ll be waking up in New Zealand after a cataclysmic pole shift anytime soon.

“All of this end-of-the-world nonsense is just an excuse for people to make money through fear-mongering,” says Cain, 51, who recently met me for a Free Lunch of veggie stir-fry and steaming cups of Mayan cacao mocha at Salt Lake City’s Cafe Solstice — an appropriate place to discuss the hoopla surrounding this year’s winter solstice.

“Some people like to be scared, I guess,” she says, “but the Mayan people definitely think we’re a little wacky. There’s really no evidence that any of their ancestors ever predicted that the world would come to an end on Dec. 21st or any other day. It’s not going to happen.”

Cain, who recently gave a presentation at the Clark Planetarium about Mayan calendar myths, has amassed a small collection of jokes about the apocalypse that is supposed to hit us next week just as we’re finishing our Christmas shopping.

Her favorite shows a harried business executive telling his assistant to book meetings with people he doesn’t like on the Mayan calendar. Another cartoon shows an ancient Mayan carving calendar dates onto a stone. “Why are you ending with Dec. 21, 2012?” somebody asks.

The Mayan shrugs, replying, “Because I ran out of room.”

Cain takes a slow sip of her Mayan coffee and smiles. “The early Mayan people were so intelligent — not only did they give us chocolate and coffee, they came up with the concept of zero,” she says. “They observed the sun, the solstices and equinoxes and mapped them very carefully and patiently over time, so they could keep track of the raining season and know when to plant their corn.”

The idea that their meticulously planned calendar would one day inspire people to stock up on bullets and beef jerky is humorous but also befuddling to modern-day Mayans, says Cain, especially with so many bizarre theories afloat about what will happen on Dec. 21.

“Probably the weirdest thing I’ve heard is that a planet called Nibiru is going to crash into the earth,” she says. Other theories involve immense fires caused by solar flares and space aliens who will swoop to the earth to save a select few.

Anyone tempted to spend thousands on emergency supplies should save their money, says Cain. If the world were to end, it’s unlikely that a backyard bomb shelter and a two-year supply of chili will help.

“My advice is to relax and reflect on what’s well in the world and how we might be living better for our planet and in our relationships with other people,” says Cain, who plans a quiet winter solstice celebration with her 15-year-old daughter, Emma, over a pot of Guatemalan hot chocolate.

“The Mayan belief system is very much rooted in harmony and balance,” she says. “So let’s be thankful that the sun comes up every morning. Life will continue.”

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