Quetzalcoatl, from the Borgia Codex.

Quetzalcoatl, from the Borgia Codex.

Review of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (by Daniel Pinchbeck)

I’ve had a longstanding interest in counterculture and pseudoscience, the legacy of a lifelong fascination with science fiction and fantasy literature that led me to an interest in ancient Mesoamerica when I was in high school. In Fall 2006, I’ll be teaching “Archaeological Myths & Realities,” a course that is a direct outgrowth of one called “Fantastic Archaeology” that I helped Stephen Williams to develop at Harvard when I was a graduate student in the early 1980s. My decision to offer this course, which I don’t teach that often, was spurred by last year’s heated debates in Kansas (where I live) questioning evolution and advocating theories of “intelligent design.” The course is intended to be an exercise in critical thinking and has always had a component on Creationism, so it seemed appropriate to revisit the issue along with a variety of other topics in the pseudoscience genre.

I’ve also been stimulated by years of discussions about “shamanism” in Precolumbian culture, including the ancient Maya, and about the possible use of psychoactive substances for inducing trance states, stimulating creativity and insight, and contributing a distinct cast to the nature of leadership, the treatment of disease, and the creation of myth and art throughout the Americas. A lecture on the possible use of psychotropic plants in the Central Andes (where there is physical evidence for the presence of Anandenanthera colubrina in Late Preceramic contexts) led me to a 2002 book by journalist Daniel Pinchbeck, “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.” Pinchbeck is one of several authors who have been encouraging a “revival” of shamanism. He is also an experienced, professional journalist who has written for the New York Times magazine, Wired, Esquire, ArtForum, and other major media, and in my mind is the most articulate. His writing is elegant and sophisticated, peppered with allusions to philosophy, literature, art, and current events. The book begins with a history of hallucinogens in American culture and then winds its way through an account of a DMT-induced epiphany at Palenque that reinforced Pinchbeck’s critique of perception, rationality, and social values. Although he starts out well, it is clear by the end of the book that the author crosses a line of rationality into the stuff of pseudoscience.

Earlier this month, Penguin Group released Daniel Pinchbeck’s second book: 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. I don’t have the time for a full review now (especially one that addresses his acceptance of ESP, crop circles, alien abductions, and the like), but I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a preview of how a book that is probably circulating among our students and the general public presents ancient Mesoamerican culture and belief systems. I think it’s important to recognize that this is not a typical mass market paperback or vanity publication, but one being marketed by a major international press.

The premise of the book, stimulated by a personal revelation to Pinchbeck by an avatar of the ancient deity Quetzalcoatl, is that December 21, 2012 will accompany a global shift in consciousness prophesied by the ancient Maya. It is disappointing that Pinchbeck, who claims substantial research and journalistic skills, did so little homework on Maya scholarship. His extensive bibliography cites only three references by academicians on the ancient Maya: Freidel et al.’s Maya Cosmos (1993), Coe’s The Maya (1999), and Diamond’s Collapse (2005). There is an extensive discussion, including a brief biography, of José Arguelles and similar treatments of Graham Hancock, John Major Jenkins, and Carl Johan Calleman, but only one brief interview with an academic Mesoamericanist: A discussion with David Freidel (p. 228) that touches on “critical debunking,” Maya history, and Arguelles’ misinterpretation of the Mesoamerican calendar. (David will be amused to learn that he’s critiqued for rejecting the notion that the Maya had “direct meetings with metaphysical realities.”)

Despite his claims of extensive and careful research, Pinchbeck perpetuates some of the most persistent myths about the ancient Maya. At the beginning of a section entitled “The Loom of the Maya” he writes: “This is the standard perspective from which we view the civilization of the Classical [sic] Maya, which flourished in the jungle-covered Yucatan Peninsula from AD 250 until it vanished, suddenly and completely, in the ninth century…” He repeatedly conflates and confuses the Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs, asserting that, “Every fifty-two years, the number and day-sign of the Tzolkin match up with the same date on the civil calendar of the Haab, inaugurating a new cycle. On these occasions, the Maya threw a ‘New Fire’ ceremony, putting out all the fires throughout the Mayan lands for one night, rekindling them the next day, and forgiving debts.” It is clear that he relies upon non-academic authors for his information, referring to Palenque’s most famous king as “Pacal Votan” or simply “Votan.” There are references throughout to Maya and Toltec “predictions” that inspired the title of the book.

The book’s most egregious shortcomings are its disregard for the perspectives of both contemporary indigenous Maya and current academic scholarship. The ancient Maya are presented as a virtually blank screen upon which all manner of New Age hopes and dreams can be projected. The living Maya are completely ignored. Pinchbeck asserts, “Even a cursory examination of Mayan imagery and myth suggests that this civilization was based on different principles, with a completely alien mind-set, from anything we know today.” I would hope that a conversation with a living Kaqchikel, Quiché, Tzutujil, or Yucatec tradition keeper would soon dispel that notion. However, I also cringe to think what will happen as tourists and seekers bring Pinchbeck’s biased perspective to Mayaland. Although the book was begun in 2003, there is no mention of the Preclassic, including the ongoing research by Richard Hansen’s RAINPEG project and Bill Saturno’s well-publicized and spectacular finds at San Bartolo. There is also little to no acknowledgement of either the Postclassic Maya experience or the long history of Mayas in the highlands. I think it’s fair to say the book ignores most of what scholars have discovered about the ancient Maya and Mesoamerica in general. (There is not even one mention of Teotihuacan, home to the most spectacular Feathered Serpent Pyramid of all.)

Pinchbeck not only ignores recognized Maya scholars, but repeatedly implies that there is validity to remarks by authors such as Hancock, Arguelles, Calleman, and Jenkins. He also relies upon a trademark literary device of pseudoscientists: The provocative question. An example (p. 245) is his use and followup of a quote from Jenkins:

“‘We may propose a complex Maya science of shamanically invoking a ‘wormhole’ in local space-time, an opening to the transdimensional realm that ultimately gets its power from the Black Hole within the Galactic Center, and traveling through it to other worlds,’ Jenkins notes, ‘Is such a scenario just a fanciful fairy tale, or could it have involved the actual activities of Maya kings and shamans?’ And if they practiced such techniques, can they be relearned by us?”

It’s difficult to say whether 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl will become a blockbuster like Von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods,” but Mesoamericanists should steel themselves for a new round of misconceptions and outlandish claims. It seems likely that this book will gain some additional attention on the coattails of Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” due for release in December. Even if 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl gleans only a small percentage of the hype generated by Dan Brown’s work of fiction, The DaVinci Code, being splashed across the covers of TIME, U.S. News & World Report, and even the latest MAD magazine, this book will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on a segment of the population. The best way to address it is to take a deep breath and prepare ourselves for yet another “teaching opportunity,” making an extra effort to keep actual scholarship on the ancient Maya in the news.

I’ll have my job cut out for me this Fall in addressing the issues of Creationism and “intelligent design” in Kansas. However, the Bosnian pyramids and now 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl make it clear that scholars must not only contend with assertions of the Religious Right but also the Spiritual Left. It seems easy to ignore this stuff and brush it aside, but I think we ignore pseudoscience at our peril. The press thrives on controversy. Like it or not, I have a feeling it will only increase as we approach