Is it really the end of the world? Our history of the imminent apocalypse

The Mayan calendar ends this week, but will the world?

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You might have heard that the world is due to end, for the umpteenth time, on Friday.

This time it’s the Mayans getting in on the act. Their Long Count calendar, which started in 3114 BC – yes, that’s a pretty long count – ends on 21 December.

In the countdown to the date there have been reports of panic buying in Russia and America and NASA has even brought out a video to refute the claims of the conspiracy theorists.

But it shouldn’t take rocket scientists to explain that just because a calendar ends, the end of the world doesn’t necessarily follow. It just means that the calendar starts again at the beginning of its cycle, just like ours does at the end of December. Just because our calendar is coming to its end, we don’t all go into a frenzy of panic buying and manic partying like it’s the end of the world every December, do we?... Oh... we do... But you see what I’m getting at.

Anyway the point is that logic has nothing to do with belief in an imminent apocalypse or with its enduring popularity. A brief look at the tragi-comic history of apocalypticism will show us that the world has been about to end pretty much since it began.

Some of the earliest myths that humanity has preserved are about apocalyptic events like floods sweeping humankind off the face of the Earth. It’s right there in the first book of the Bible which, funnily enough, also ends with the apocalyptic Book of Revelations. In Jesus’ time too there was a widespread Jewish belief in the immanence of the end with the arrival of the Messiah. John the Baptist believed in the impending apocalypse and many scholars believe that Jesus himself preached the coming of the apocalypse in his own lifetime.

Messianism has always been closely connected with the end of the world and history is littered with self-proclaimed Messiahs, the strangest perhaps of which was Moses of Crete. In the 5 century AD Moses promised, like his namesake, to part the waters and lead his followers from Crete back to Palestine. On the pre-ordained day he led his disciples to the sea where they leapt like religious lemmings into the decidedly unparted waters, there only to drown or make it back to shore looking dishevelled and rather silly and, one imagines, with a few choice questions for ‘the Messiah’. Moses himself “disappeared” presumably on the first boat out of there.

The millennium is another phenomenon that attracts apocalyptic theories like a black hole. The first millennium was no different to our own with hundreds of thousands of people across Christendom readying themselves for the final curtain. According to 10 century religious chronicler Ralph Glaber, all across Italy and France communities went out of their way to renovate and update there churches at huge expenses of money and labour, all so that they might have the “seemliest” edifice when Judgement Day arrived – a judgement day which they presumably thought of as a Godly version of ‘Grand Designs’.

Apocalyptic beliefs are present at the very founding of modern England. Our Domesday Book – commissioned by William the Conqueror for tax purposes – was thought by much of the population to be the ‘Book of Life’ of Revelations, a book which was thought to signal the end of the world upon its completion.

And if you think the greatest scientific minds are free of such rubbish you would be very mistaken. Isaac Newton, widely regarded as the greatest physicist of all time, spent much of his life and mental energies scouring the Bible for clues to the date of the end of the world – a date which he calculated as 2060... Not quite on the same level as calculus or the three laws of motion.

Moving onwards, in 1806 in Leeds people seemed to forget their Yorkshire level-headedness for a time while they joined in a bout of apocalyptic mass hysteria regarding a hen. The fowl in question was laying eggs with the words “Christ is coming” written on the side. The fervour subsided however when it was discovered that the owner of the hen had been writing the messages himself then stuffing the eggs back inside the distraught bird. History doesn’t record what happened to the poultry-owning prankster but one can imagine a few scenarios where the locals put him through a similar ordeal to the one he had inflicted on the hen.

So much for the past. Before we start feeling superior to our ancestors, we should perhaps take a look at our own, supposedly enlightened times. These have seen possibly more apocalyptic ravings than any other. It started with the Millennium and the widespread worry that the ‘Y2K’ bug would wipe out all our computers leaving the world in a post-apocalyptic wasteland devoid of online shopping and porn. More recently, last year, there was the case of Harold Camping, who predicted that the ‘Rapture’ would occur on 21 May. When the day came and went, raptureless, he claimed that this was actually the spiritual ‘pre-rapture’ Rapture paving the way for the next, and very real, physical Rapture, which would occur on 21 October. When this day passed uneventfully he wisely shut up before emerging earlier this year to apologise about the whole Rapture thing.

Which brings us back to the present day and the Mayan calendar. This has now become entangled in an unholy alliance with a ‘psychic’ called Nancy Lieder who claims that she is in contact with aliens. Her alien buddies have warned her that Earth will suffer a collision with a rogue planet called ‘Nibiru’ on the 21 of this month. What most of her followers don’t mention about psychic Nancy is that she made a similar prediction in 2003, which, when it didn’t occur, she claimed was just a “white lie”.  As the supposed originator of surely the world’s first apocalyptic white lie, Nancy at least has something to be proud of.

I have a superstitious fear of tempting fate, but even I will make two very strong predictions. The first is that the world will not end on Friday, and the second is that pretty soon afterwards, someone will come up with the next date for Armageddon. I don’t know why we have this ongoing obsession with annihilation but I think it might have something to do with an unsatisfied need for meaning and a collective repression of thoughts about death.

But death is inevitable and can’t be buried away for too long. Periodically it must be vented. At such times it comes belching out like blood-red magma, fountaining upward in eruptions of mass hysteria about the death of everything.

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