The end of the world, or just another day?

Millennium panic is growing but it's still nothing to how humanity reacted the last time around
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's always tempting to think that the problems we face outstrip those of any previous time. With the approach of the next millennium - for which Wednes-day night was only the pre-dress rehearsal - people are already starting to worry. What if the champagne runs out? What if (as one employment agency wailed last week) people actually decide they'd rather celebrate than work as a waiter, leaving nobody to hold the canapes? Perhaps we'll need robots to do it.

As doom-mongering goes, this hardly compares with the end of the last millennium. Then they expected nothing less than the Antichrist. In 998, the French monk Abbon, later to become abbot of Fleuri-sur-Loire, wrote that monks were preparing for the Last Trump. They expected there to be "nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear of what is coming on the world". Floods, plagues, famines, earthquakes, solar and lunar eclipses and lightning were all assumed to be part of the package.

Our predecessors were more strict in observing the meaning of centuries than us: rather than marking the end of the first millennium at midnight on 31 December 999, they waited patiently for another year.

That year - 1000 - was, as it happens, quite eventful. There were earthquakes across Europe and severe famine, caused by crop failure and a growing population. A comet appeared: one commentator, Trithiem, wrote that it was taken to be such an important sign that "many who thought that it proclaimed the last day were frozen with fear".

Then on New Year's Eve, 1000 AD, a huge crowd gathered in Rome, awaiting the end of the world. Pilgrims flocked to Palestine, hopeful that they would see the advent of the Saviour as the Last Trump sounded. Midnight came, but nothing happened - there wasn't the chanting countdown that we have nowadays as we await the New Year's hour.

In Rome the moment ended bathetically: Pope Sylvester II came out to the balcony, blessed the crowd and sent them home. In Palestine the moment passed peacefully too, and Christendom awoke with a sigh of relief on the first day of the year 1001.

That was followed by a period of intense church-building across Europe, partly as a symbol of thanks, and partly because previously it had hardly seemed worth the effort, given that the world was going to end. As a Cluny monk wrote in 1004: "It was as if the whole world, having cast off its age by shaking itself, were clothing itself everywhere in a white robe of churches."

THEIR experience has plenty of relevance to us today. We too are suffering from PMT - Pre-Millennial Tension - but only some of it is religiously inspired, although that religious undertone has been heightening in the past few years. Don't forget the 39 people of the Heaven's Gate cult who committed suicide last year, convinced that Comet Hale-Bopp was masking a UFO which had come to pick up their souls.

The year 2000 is such a tidy date that a number of religious groups have decided that it must be the end-point for the world. This century, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been prone to predict the Second Coming ahead of schedule. The first such prediction was for 1914, changed to 1918 when the former date proved a disappointment. That was supplanted by 1925; then, by the Second World War (which was reckoned to be "the months before Armageddon"); then, in a 1960 forecast, 1975 was the date to pack our celestial bags. The latest predictions hint that the end of the 20th century will be the end of earthly work too.

Presumably, religious groups which make predictions like this also expect the wheels to fall off their cars when the mileometer hits 100,000 miles. The beginning or end of a decade, or a century, or a millennium, is entirely an artefact of civilisation. While it is easy to see that a year really is celestially determined, being the time it takes for the Earth to return to the same point in its orbit around the sun , any further arrangement of years into blocks is artificial.

If, for example, by some quirk of evolution we had eight digits rather than 10, we would count in octal - and the millennia would roll around every 512 years, instead of every 1,000.

Some will, in any case, have to wait longer than others. Nepal has a different calendar and celebrated the year 2000 some 50 years ago. Muslim countries, whose dating starts from the time of the prophet Muhammad, have another 583 years to go. For them it is still 1417. And the Chinese New Year isn't at the start of January at all: it depends on the lunar cycle.

Yet there is something about a big round number that excites people. The astronomer Patrick Moore has said that he expects thousands of UFO sightings at the turn of the century: "The millennium will send them all bonkers," he said, "but they'll be waiting another 1,000 years before they see any little green men."

The rise of the New Age movement, with its emphasis on ancient "cures" can be seen in the same context. And there is a perceptible rise in the media's willingness to give such claims room.

But like the interest in the end of the century itself, this may just be an artefact of something else - in this case, the ever-expanding variety of media catering for all sorts of niches. Polls suggest that people are no more credulous now than they used to be. A US poll in 1989 showed that 42 per cent of people believed in life after death, and 42 per cent didn't. When the survey was repeated with the same questions in 1996, the figures were 39 per cent and 44 per cent. Only flying saucers showed a small rise in advocates - 21 per cent of respondents said they believed that they did exist in 1989 (compared to 69 per cent who said that they didn't) but this had increased to 24 per cent saying yes in 1996 and 67 per cent no.

THERE'S a good chance that the decade following this one will see pre- millennial tension dissolve in a burst of rationality. When on the stroke of midnight we do not all turn into pumpkins, nor are carried away on UFOs, nor killed outright by some act of God, it will at last be possible to start thinking ahead again, just as the people of Europe did when they began building churches after the last big calendar change.

It is easy to underestimate what a mental block the year 2000 represents. In 1989, a survey by the Financial Times of the environment section of the London Library found that 90 per cent of specific forecasts ended at the year 2000. And even though it's 1998 now, I would bet that few of your friends are making specific plans for the year 2000. For 1998 and 1999, sure; for 2001, 2002, 2003, perhaps. But the year itself? Somehow, we mentally shy away from it.

Still, even with the growing number of quasi-mystical TV series like The X-Files, there's little chance that we will see a wide-scale repeat of the events of early 1988, when Charles Taylor, an American "prophecy teacher", declared that the Second Coming was due that September and would occur in the Holy Land. He advertised a tour there to coincide with the marvellous date, price $1,850. The cost, the advert noted, included "return if necessary". It was.

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