When Prophecy Fails: December 21, 2012
The forecast for end times on December 21, 2012 has its origins in José Argüelles’ 1987 work titled The Mayan Factor, Path beyond Technology. In speaking of the Mayan calendar, Arguelles’ outlined the prophecy:
The Mayan calendar system was not to measure time but to record the harmonic calibrations of a galactic synchronization beam, 5,125-years or 5200-tun (360-day cycles) in duration. According to the time science of the ancient Maya, a great moment of transformation awaits us at 2012, when we pass out of that beam.
The only subject Arguelles and Mayan scholars such as David Stuart seem to agree is the “turn of an important cycle, or as they put it, the end of 13 bak’tuns.” The Mayan prophecy, with its many iterations and interpretations of the Long Count calendar, is linked with Nostradamus, a “Galactic alignment,” a midpoint in time between the ages of Pisces and Aquarius, pole shifts, and asteroids and comets hurling towards earth. The Net and paranormal radio have been abuzz with these elaborate end-of-the-world narratives for a decade or more, causing much speculation and rebuttal.
Perhaps in response to the tragic 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides, influenced by the alleged arrival of the Hale Bopp comet, NASA created an impressive array of materials disputing various Mayan related doomsday prophecies, including a FAQ addressing on solar storms, meteor strikes, Planet X (which the Sumerians called Tiamat), and a video. Huffpost, as I write this post, is live-blogging the Apocalypse.
Fervent millennial beliefs, or eschatology, are not a 21st century development, particularly in the United States. For example, the Second Awakening brought William Miller’s predictions of the end of the world that would occur between March 21, 1843-March 21, 1844. When Christ didn’t return to earth during the year, a revised end was put in motion to the date October 22, 1844, but this ended in the Great Disappointment. In 1926, The Order of Christian Mystics members Dr. Frank Homer Curtiss and Mrs. Harriette Augusta Curtiss reviewed earth cataclysms in their book Coming World Changes. The Curtiss’ included prophecies regarding “coming troubles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (p.18-19) and a Mexican prophet named “Enoch”:
“Terror-stricken by prophecies of the world’s end in 1926 made by Enoch, a prophet of the Mexican people in Nogales, Sonora, hundreds of residents of the Mexican border town to-day began religious preparations for ‘the end.’ Enoch said the coming year will be a succession of tremors over the earth. Cities will be leveled and the loss of life will be tremendous, he predicted. As the earthquakes subside, he prophesied, a terrible heat will settle upon the earth and dry places will ignite.” (p.20)
History and prophecy aside, the classic sociological work by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (University of Minnesota Press: 1956), When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, is of immense value to the study of Mayan end time prophecy. Festinger, Riecken and Schachter’s case study of unfulfilled prophecy concerned a devastating flood that would affect large parts of the United States. This prophecy was transmitted to housewife Mrs. Marian Keech by spacemen and forecast to occur on December 21 (1954).
Mrs. Keech, whose real name was Dorothy Martin and altered to protect confidentiality, received transmissions via automatic writing from a being she referred to as Sananda, who “identified himself as the contemporary identity of the historical Jesus – his new name having been adopted with the beginning of the ‘new cycle’ or age of light” (p. 36). From the Lake City Herald in September:
Prophecy from Planet Clarion
Call to City: Flee The Flood.
It’ll Swamp Us on Dec. 21,
Outer Space Tells Suburbanite
Lake City will be destroyed by a flood from the Great Lake just before dawn, Dec. 21, according to a suburban housewife. Mrs. Marian Keech, of 847 West School street, says the prophecy is not her own. It is the purport of many messages she has received by automatic writing, she says… The messages, according to Mrs. Keech, are sent to her by superior beings from a planet called ‘Clarion.’ These beings have been visiting the earth, she says, in what we call flying saucers. During their visits, she says, they have observed fault lines in the earth’s crust that foretoken the deluge. Mrs. Keech reports she was told the flood will spread to form an inland sea stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, she says, a cataclysm will submerge the West Coast from Seattle, Wash., to Chile in South America. (Festinger, Riecken and Schachter, 1956: p.30-31)
To examine the flood prophecy, the authors’ (p.25) test out the theory of “dissonance and consonance” in terms of how “cognitions” act to form beliefs and opinions, both confirming and disconfirming prophecies and complex belief systems. Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s model illustrates how deeply held beliefs are maintained and socially supported, even when they are not fulfilled. From its early beginnings in Usenet groups, the Net has been a perfect proving ground for millennial theories (not exactly conspiracy, but this is a post for later), which like the Mayan calendar prophecy can be better dissected and understood using Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s method:
Let us begin by stating the conditions under which we would expect to observe increased fervor following the disconfirmation of a belief. There are five such conditions:
- A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
- The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo.
- The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
- Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief. The first two of these conditions specify the circumstances that will make the belief resistant to change. The third and fourth conditions together, on the other hand, point to factors that would exert powerful pressure on a believer to discard his belief. It is, of course, possible that an individual, even though deeply convinced of a belief, may discard it in the face of unequivocal disconfirmation. We must therefore, state a fifth condition specifying the circumstances under which the belief will be discarded and those under which it will be maintained with new fervor.
- The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct. (Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, 1956: p.4)
When the flood prophecy failed to manifest, Mrs. Keech/Martin and her followers reevaluated messages from the space brothers and were reassured they “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction” (p. 169). Too detailed for this post, in followup interviews with flood-spaceman prophecy believers, Festinger and his co-authors did find that “social support” for beliefs were not only sustained, but reinfused with new direction and interpretations. At the conclusion of the Mayan calendar’s 13 Bak’tuns, new beliefs generated post-prophecy echo Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s model, especially principle #5 in that the “galactic bridge has been established…spirals of light are entering the center of your head … generating powerful vortexes that cover the planet.” 
. For detailed history of millennial movements, see Benjamin McArthur’s (1996) Millennial fevers, Reviews in American History, 24(3), 369-382, various works by the Millerites at Internet Archive, Ruth M. Bloch’s Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought 1756-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1985), Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Harvard University Press, 1992), and of course, When Prophecy Fails.
. It is also interesting to contrast Chinese authorities’ reaction to Mayan doomsday prophecy with Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s (p.230) followup report on the consequences of (failed) prophecy as menace and threat to social equilibrium:
…On the morning of December 26, a warrant was sworn out making specific charges against Mrs. Keech and Dr. Armstrong.
The police themselves seem to have been reluctant to set the legal machinery into motion. They telephoned Mrs. Keech’s husband to inform him of the warrant and warned him that, unless meetings and gatherings at his home were at once brought to an end, they would serve the warrant. Furthermore, they strongly hinted that, once legal action began, the community could try to commit Mrs. Keech to a mental hospital.
. For an indigenous perspective of the Mayan end of the Baktun, see James Rodriguez”s report from Huehuetenango, Guatemala and news of Mayan Priests Denied Access to Ceremonial Places in Guatemala (Renata Avila, December 22, 2012).