Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Atlantis and the Mayan apocalypse

It has been estimated, by those anonymous people who make passive voice estimates, that Friday will be the most annoying day ever on Facebook and Twitter. Friday, of course, is 12/21/12 (21/12/12 to our European friends), the Mayan apocalypse. Except it's not really, but we'll get to that in a moment. Friday is the end of the longest cycle of the very complex Mayan calendar. I'm sure you've heard about it. You're going to hear about it today and you'll hear a lot about over the next couple days. Gun control, fiscal cliffs, and Mayans will dominate the news until Saturday morning when the news cycle will switch over to last minute holiday shopping, dieting, party tips, and something some Kardashian was seen wearing. The news cycle is much shorter than even the shortest cycle on the Mayan calendar. Anyway, here's my contribution to the annoyingness.

Everyone is talking about the end of the Mayan calendar (which it's not), but not many are talking about the beginning. The Mayan calendar is made up of cycles within cycles overlapping other cycles. The equivalent in our Gregorian calendar is the cycle called months. This cycle has an irregular size of 28, 29, 30, or 31 days. Twelve months make up a year. Ten years make a decade, ten decades a century, ten centuries a millennium, and so on. While the days reset to one at the end of every month and the months reset to January at the end of each year, the years never reset to one; we simply add a new digit to the left-hand side of the year figure (e.g. year 99 became year 100, not year 0). Overlapping this set of cycles is the cycle of weeks. Seven days make a week, but neither months nor years sync up with an even number of weeks. The week cycle only matches up with the month/year cycle after fourteen years. That's how the Mayan calendar works with two exceptions. First, the Mayan system is much more complex than the Gregorian. Second, the Mayan has a largest cycle after which the whole thing resets. Anthropologists call that cycle "the Long Count" and it is 5125.366 years long. On Friday, the current Long Count will end. Friday night, the Mayans will have quiet celebrations of thanksgiving for the departure of the annoying American tourists.

The start date of the Mayan calendar was 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u. On the Gregorian calender, that day was Sunday, August 11, 3114 BCE. That was the day of the creation of the current world. To the Mayans and their successors, the Aztecs, the Long Counts were distinct creations. The Western equivalents were the Greco-Roman ages of mankind. According Hesiod, the Classical Greek, the ages were the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the present Iron Age. Ovid, the Roman, eliminated the heroic age. To Ovid, things had been going straight downhill since the beginning of time. If we wise moderns were to continue the pattern, the most recent periods would be the Industrial Age, Steampunk, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, and Reality Television. Or something like that. The Mayans, like Ovid, believed we are living in the fourth creation. The Aztecs, like Hesiod, believed we are in the fifth. We don't know a lot about how the Mayans perceived the previous creations. One interesting clue is that we have found inscriptions referring to dates before August 11, 3114 BCE. This would seem to imply that there is continuity between the creations, not complete destruction followed by a completely new creation. We'll find out if that interpretation is correct on Saturday.

The end date of the Mayan calendar is not the only date that has attracted the attention of Western fringe thinkers.

Otto Muck (1892-1956) was a German engineer. During World War II, he invented the schnorkel, which allowed U-boats to stay underwater for long periods of time, and worked on the V-2 rocket, which allowed them to bomb London and Amsterdam. Whatever we might think of the immediate uses to which those two inventions were put, we have to admit that they were the products of solid engineering; they worked. If that was all we knew about Muck, it would be easy to form an image of him as a sober, practical thinker not inclined to wild flights of fancy. In speaking of Hitler, Hermann Rauschning wrote, "In the depths of his subconscious every German has one foot in Atlantis." Muck was that kind of German.

The general stereotype of fringe writers is that they are bitter outsiders and sloppy thinkers. Quite often, that's true. However, there is another type of fringe writer. These people are usually well educated and successful in some field that requires strict intellectual discipline. Because of that success, they feel confident challenging the experts in fields unrelated to their own. For some reason, engineers are particularly vulnerable to this kind of hubris. Engineers figure prominently among the ranks of evolution and climate deniers.

Back to Muck's Atlantean foot. After the war, Muck wrote his own Atlantis book, Atlantis: Die Welt vor der Sintflut (Atlantis: The world before the Flood), which was published just before his death in 1956. Muck was that rare Atlantis writer, someone who added something new to the same old recycled stuff. Usually, the only novelty in each year's batch of new Atlantis books is if someone has found a new location for the island. Frankly, we're running out of places. Muck took his tips from the father of Atlanteology, Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901). He took Plato literally. In Muck’s book, Atlantis was a big island directly opposite Gibraltar, it housed a bronze age empire, and it sank in one day and one night. Donnelly believed that a near collision between the Earth and a planet-sized comet (an idea Immanuel Velikovsky later borrowed with barely a nod to Donnelly). Muck modified the comet into a direct hit by and asteroid. Muck's asteroid broke up over the Southeastern United States, peppering the Carolinas with thousands of small meteors that created tiny lake formations called the Carolina Bays. The main core of the asteroid plowed into the sea west of Atlantis puncturing the oceanic crust, deflating it like a leaky waterbed, causing Atlantis to sink beneath the waves. The usual catastrophes followed. Volcanoes erupted. Dark clouds blotted out the sun. Mammoths froze. Mile-high tidal waves and earthquakes destroyed civilization. Puzzled Sargasso eels wandered around, wondering what happened to their favorite rivers. Fire fell from the sky. Some guy in Iraq loaded his family and farm animals into a big boat and survived it all.

In a new touch, Muck explained that the sinking of Atlantis freed the Gulf Stream to warm Northwestern Europe, ending the Ice Age. This, he explained, was a vital piece in his reconstruction. Another original piece in his version was that most of the dust from the volcanic eruptions gathered over Northern Europe, lingering for 2000 years, cooling things so the Fennoscanian ice sheet didn't melt too fast (he isn’t clear why the much larger North American ice sheets didn’t melt too fast). Even though nothing except some hardy moss could grow under the dust cloud, tens of thousands of former Atlanteans followed the retreating, gradually growing paler in their gloomy, new homes.

Muck's method will be familiar to students of catastrophism and fringe history. He combs through geology and mythology, cherry-picking mysteries that need solving and evidence that might be interpreted to support his grand unified theory of the past. He ignores any suggestion that the mysteries or the evidence might not relate to the same time. He leans on hyperdiffusionism to explain similarities between human cultures. Just as you can't have catastophism without frozen mammoths, you can't have Atlantis without pyramids. Muck has both. This is where the Mayans enter the story.

Naturally, Muck has pictures comparing Mesopotamian and Mesoamerican step-pyramids. Naturally, he tries to relate the Mayan language to Basque. Naturally, he cherry picks Mayan mythology for any mention of a catastrophe in the distant past. However, this is another place where he manages to introduce something new into the Altlantean canon. Muck uses the Mayan calendar to date the sinking of Atlantis. First, Muck slices a thousand years off Plato's plain statement that Atlantis sank 9000 years before Solon heard the story in Egypt, to come up with a date of 8560 BCE. Next he crunches some numbers from the Mayan calendar to come up with a real starting date of June 8, 8498 BCE, which is close enough to Plato. Muck came up with his starting date for the Mayan calendar by rationalizing that, since the current age actually began on the last day of the previous Long Count, we must actually say their world began on the first day of that Long Count. According to the current best reading of the calendar, that would have been in 8239 BCE, not 8498. We should cut him some slack on this; we've made great strides in reading Mayan since he wrote. Channeling his best Bishop Ussher, he puts the catastrophe at 8:00 PM, Mayan time. As far as we know, the Mayans did not use Daylight Savings Time. This alone proves the superiority of their ancient wisdom.

Muck's book wasn't translated into English until the 1970s. By then, his geology was painfully out of date due to the plate tectonics revolution of the sixties. Since then his science has fallen even further out of date. According to his calculations, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere quadrupled in the catastrophe, (making things comfy after the ice age) and the ozone was almost completely eliminated (which let in just enough radiation to mutate the northern Atlanteans into white folk). According to computer simulations of the Chicxulub meteor (the dinosaur killer), Muck's impact wouldn't merely have ended a Bronze Age civilization, it would have exterminated most life on Earth. The geology of most Atlantis theories is just as ridiculous, but for some reason his book never really caught hold in the Atlantis community. After first editions of the English edition appeared in the major English speaking countries, it wasn't reprinted.

Even though his theory was nonsense, Muck deserves credit for one thing: he treated the Mayans with far more dignity and respect than earlier Atlantis writers. Most of his predecessors dismissed the modern Mayans as dumb savages who had nothing to do with Atlantis or the builders of the great Mayan ruins. If they had any part at all in the Atlantis story, it was as brutal invaders who destroyed the beautiful civilization bequeathed to America by the Atlanteans. Muck wrote nothing of the sort. To him, the American Indians were one and the same as the Atlanteans. It was they who brought civilization to Europe, displacing the inferior types who had been there before, and not the reverse. There is an echo of the "noble savage" romanticism of Karl May, whose adventure stories were popular in Muck's youth, rather than the vicious racism of the Third Reich of his mature years.

Here's to Mayans! They survived the sinking of Atlantis; they'll survive Friday.

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