666: The number of the beast (and, gulp, today's date)

According to Revelations, they are the devil's own digits. They have even been used to 'prove' that Nero and Ronald Reagan were Satan in disguise. So it is little wonder Doomsday obsessives believe the world will end today. Oliver Duff reports
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The Independent Online

If you are reading this article, you clearly weren't struck by a satanic comet and destroyed in a fireball on your way to the newsagents.

Of course, that is no guarantee you are safe: until midnight tonight, none of us can be certain the scheduled Armageddon has missed its appointment. Doomsday obsessives believe that 6/6/06 will be "a day of satanic power" marked by the firing of demonic galactic missiles at earth.

Others believe today will draw us closer to "the rapture" - when the Lord calls his Christian faithful up to the heavens. (Non-believing mortals will know this has happened because millions of born-again evangelicals will disappear overnight; a not-altogether unwelcome development for atheists.) Several websites help prepare for the Lord's arrival: raptureme.com has a "rapture index" which has moved to 156, warning believers it is "time to fasten your seatbelts".

The alleged apocalypse is no less eagerly anticipated by marketing and film executives, for whom it is, literally, a once in a century chance to claim "666" as their own. Twentieth Century Fox are releasing a remake of the classic horror film The Omen this evening. The latest instalment of the "Left Behind" Christian apocalyptic novel series, The Rapture, hits bookshelves. Right-wing American commentator Ann Coulter also launches her latest tract on "godless liberals". The thrash metal band Slayer starts its Unholy Alliance Tour.

So how did this ungodly fuss begin?

THE BOOK OF REVELATION

You find the origins of 666's bad rep in the final book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation - in its visions of the destruction of the world. Satan is defeated, the last trumpet sounds and Christ triumphs.

The literal interpretation of Chapter 13 is that the presence of the Antichrist, a false prophet sent by Satan, marks the end of time - that there will be a period of "trials and tribulations" before the expected return of Jesus.

The Antichrist will attempt to win supporters through miracles and will kill those who refuse allegiance. The Antichrist's rule will be totalitarian: the mark of the beast is imposed on everyone, and "no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark".

The key passage reads: "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: For it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six." So begins the hunt for the Antichrist, in order that he may be known and defeated. Hence the superstition about 666 entered Christian folkore.

However, this is, liberal theologians point out, a fundamental interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

As the Anglican priest and author Revd Lionel Fanthorpe puts it: "It is important to place the Book in historical context. If you or I were Christians in the first century, when Nero was persecuting Christians, then we would have been rather foolish to carry a book attacking the emperor by name.

"So they used code: the mark of the beast, 666, identified Nero, who they believed would be judged and destroyed by God. This was written to comfort the persecuted Christians that God would save them. Other readings are a misunderstanding."

The writer Robert Graves supported a similar theory, albeit pointing the finger at the emperor Domitian.

MEDIA HIJACKING

However, as the cynical media adage goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The imagery of the beast and the idea that he may be among us are potent and lucrative. Ever since spooky nanny "Holly" became obsessed by a demonic rottweiler and hanged herself during a child's birthday party (The Omen, 1976), the number 666 has gripped the popular imagination.

That film - with the exception of The Exorcist, which predated it by three years - is the all-time classic of satanic possession. The Omen tells the story of a well-off couple (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) whose child is swapped at birth (6am on 6 June, of course). They become the unsuspecting parents of Damien, a quiet five-year-old boy who happens to be the Antichrist destined to destroy the world. A monk tells Damien's father (Peck): "For everything holy, there is something unholy. That is the essence of temptation." The tension is maintained through chilling symbolism: the birthmark of the number 666 on Damien's scalp; the ever-present crucifixes; the wallpapering of a room with pages from a Bible; the pole falling from a church spire that impales the prophetic Father Brennan (who warns of the destruction Damien will wreak). Jerry Goldsmith's dramatic musical score won him an Oscar. To the delight of horror fans, Damien murders his unborn sibling, mother and father and embarks on the downfall of mankind. His staggeringly evil, infantile gaze into the camera is the film's sign-off. Three sequels and a remake followed.

Pulp Fiction was one of many films to adopt The Omen's symbolism: the evil Marcellus Wallace's briefcase - key to the plot - could be opened using the combination 666. Others range from Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange to End of Days, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Devil's Advocate (starring Al Pacino as Satan, tempting Keanu Reeves into fathering the Antichrist).

The number 666 enjoys special significance within the sometimes Satan-worshipping world of death rock and metal. Iron Maiden famously released an album called The Number of the Beast. During recording, their producer Martin Birch had a car accident one night. The cost of damage to his vehicle was £666. Scared witless, he quibbled over the bill and got the sum changed.

The symbolism has even strayed into the rather more family-friendly world of musicals. Andrew Lloyd-Webber's The Phantom of the Opera opens with an auction scene in which the lot number of a chandelier is 666. Other references to 666 slip in everywhere from Stephen King to Slipknot and South Park.

THE "PROOF"

The media myth has been sustained by hexaphobics' unearthing of pieces of "evidence". Chief of these were the assorted misfortunes and near-death experiences to allegedly befall cast and crew members of the original Omen. The planes of Peck and scriptwriter David Seltzer were struck by lightning. Harvey Stephens, the actor who played Damien, has written his car off six times. (His 19th birthday party at London's Hilton hotel came to £666.) Peck had a lucky escape after cancelling his seat on a flight to Israel which then crashed, killing all passengers.

A warden at the safari park used in the "crazy baboon" scene (when the animals recognise that Damien carries the mark of the beast, so attack the family car) was killed by a lion. There were further animals jitters when the rottweilers hired for the film attacked their trainers. Crew members survived a head-on car crash on the first day of filming.

The actor Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Father Brennan in the remake of The Omen, has revealed how his brother recently died after drawing three sixes in a card game - "the Devil's hand" (actually rather good, if you are not superstitious). Postlethwaite said that the sudden death had "not necessarily got anything to do with the film", but added: "I think things like that do happen and it's just sometimes we're not sensitised enough to see the connection." Production was reportedly marred by a series of mysterious events - exploding lights; blurred, unexplained images allegedly appearing in photographs; a special effects supervisor recording an unprecedented metre reading of 666. The film's director John Moore rather boringly writes off the 666 theories as "voodoo nonsense ... very debilitating because you invent problems for yourself".

Tell that to terrified businessman Keith Tagliaferro, the owner of an ancient purple Ford Capri with the registration plate ARK 666Y. He had the car "exhaustised" after he claimed a woman with burning eyes began staring into the rear-view mirror. A mechanic once fled after the car started to rock and turned itself on; on another occasion a nearby shed burst into flames but left the car untouched; and Mr Tagliaferro's goldfish died after he left pictures of the Capri near its bowl. He has also been struck by lightning.

WHO IS THE ANTICHRIST?

Candidates for the Antichrist have almost invariably enjoyed considerable influence over their publics - and so, for some reason or another, upset 666 conspiracy theorists.

Ronald Reagan was claimed to be the Antichrist because his first, middle (Wilson) and last names each have six letters. He and Nancy were obviously spooked by the theory: in 1989, when they moved to their home in the Bel Air area of Los Angeles, they changed the address from 666 St Cloud Road to 668.

The idea that 666 is a code to help current Christians identify the Antichrist is fuelled by various schemes giving letters number values to "prove" individual vendettas. For example, by using A=100, B=101, etc, the name Hitler comes up as (yes) 666.

Other more spurious candidates include Princes Charles and William, Bill Gates, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela and 50 Cent. Some believe that Satan will rise from within the European Union, possibly incarnate in the form of Javier Solana.

The finger has also been pointed at the incumbent Pope: a popular urban legend counts the Roman numerals of the Latin name for the seat of the Pope (Vicarius Filii Dei). The sum? 666. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code led to suggestions the Antichrist might have been King Arthur.

The correlation between the number 666 and actual events more commonly comes in the form of psychopaths inspired by occult teachings who then commit atrocities in the name of the Antichrist (or to save the world from an Antichrist, depending on the sufferer's delusion).

Luke Mitchell, who killed his boyfriend 14-year-old Jodi Jonesone - one of many "Satanic" boyfriends to have murdered his partner - scribbled 666s on his schoolbook and wrote: "I have tasted the Devil's green blood."

Going further back in time, perhaps the most notorious of all the self-ordained Antichrists was Aleister Crowley, the sex-obsessed Satanic "magus" of Leamington Spa, who was christened "The Beast" by his mother for his rebellious behaviour - and so took to the role with gusto. He died in 1947, a lonely heroin addict in a boarding house in Hastings.

A candidate less likely to be the antichrist is Brighton pensioner June Dumas. The retired nurse, who was born weighing 6lbs 6oz at 6am on 6 June 1940, is 66 today.

Ms Dumas has had no problems with evangelicals picketing her home in Hove, east Sussex, but nevertheless faces this birthday with dread. "I have a got funny feeling it could be my expiry date," she said. "I have always thought that 66 would be it. My mum, who was a psychic, told me to watch myself when I turned 66 because of the date. I am superstitious and really quite concerned about it. It's silly really."

She added: "I plan to take things really easy. I'm intending to do all my jobs today so that I don't have to use the car tomorrow because I've had a few nasty accidents in the past."

The superstitious widow said she did not plan to celebrate her birthday by watching the remake of The Omen. Instead she will go to the casino with her partner Paul. She expects to lose big. But so long as she survives she will marry him.

THE TRUE NUMBER OF THE BEAST

Ms Dumas may have nothing to worry about. Last year brought a rather disappointing revelation (ahem) for theological scholars, telly evangelists and death metal bands. A newly discovered scrap of the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament seemed to suggest that when it came to the mark of the beast, they had the wrong number. In fact it was the rather less ominous 616.

Magus Peter H Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan, New York, responded, saying Satanists were happy to start using 616 as the number of the beast if that scared Christians more.

If the classicists are right and the hullabaloo about 666 is a 2,000-year-old mistranslation, then we ought to turn up for work today. Revd Fanthorpe will. "I'm always prepared for surprises," he said, "but I have my diary full for the rest of the week."

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