The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millenniumby Damian Thompson
Damian Thompson examines the roots of millennial beliefs and its often unrecognized role in the development of modern society. He seeks to answer a number of surprising question, such as: Why to calendar changes have such a profound effect upon the human psyche? Why does the Catholic church attach such mystical significance to the year 2000? And why do the disembodied… See more details below
Damian Thompson examines the roots of millennial beliefs and its often unrecognized role in the development of modern society. He seeks to answer a number of surprising question, such as: Why to calendar changes have such a profound effect upon the human psyche? Why does the Catholic church attach such mystical significance to the year 2000? And why do the disembodied spirits channeled by New Age mediums point to the end of this millennium as a time of astonishing "earth changes"?
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A Brief History of End-Time
The Roots of Apocalypse
The measurement of time is inextricably bound up with belief in the supernatural. We need look no further for proof of this than the currents of revival and anxiety which are flowing through the world's religious communities as the year 2000 approaches. The American evangelicals whose frenzied scriptural arithmetic points to the Second Coming of Christ 2,000 years after his birth are engaged in an activity which has been threatening the stability of the Christian Church since the second century: they are trying to align God's calendar with man's. Liberal commentators who write them off as fundamentalist crazies are puzzled and sometimes frightened by the insidious appeal of their ideas. This is because they do not understand them.
The process of decoding scripture to unveil the date of the Second Coming, which invariably strikes Western cynics as deeply comic, is an expression of an urge far older than Christianity. The existence of a divine plan for humanity which can be glimpsed by arranging man's experience into epochs has been taken for granted in every society which has recorded history. Indeed, it explains why they recorded it in the first place. But the connection between time and belief goes deeper than that. In prehistoric times, and in primitive societies until well into this century, the supernatural and the passage of time as represented by the yearly cycle were so closely linked that they were virtually indistinguishable. And this fact, which modern man finds so difficult to grasp, is the proper starting point for a study of the millennium.
Almost everywhere, priests were the first specialists in timing. Freed from the necessity of growing their own food, they were able to keep a close watch on the sky's changing lights, and find the `right time' for food planting, for lifting the taboo on the new harvest and for ceremonies associated with the agricultural year. But it would be wrong to imagine that this primitive liturgy consisted of no more than a string of harvest festivals. In every such society, ceremonial also registered the effect of the passing year on the human psyche: there was invariably a point on the annual cycle at which demons, diseases and sins were expelled through fasting, purifications, ritual expulsions or the extinguishing and rekindling of fire. In many cases these ceremonies coincided with the celebration with the New Year, thus establishing a link between the regeneration of time and of the human spirit. And, even when they did not coincide, the fact that the purification occurred on an annual basis illustrates a vital point: that a vast range of cultures naturally reserved certain intense spiritual experiences to a specific moment in the year. The point of these experiences, however, was perhaps not so much to celebrate time as to escape from it. Mircea Eliade, this century's most influential anthropologist of religion, saw in the confessional ceremonies `primitive man's need to free himself from the recollection of sin, of a succession of personal events that, taken together, constitute history'.
If religion offered an escape from time, it also performed the very necessary function of moving it on. In the absence of a written calendar, the source of the priest's authority was often his right to identify the new moon, without which the agricultural year could not proceed and the people would starve. Just such a situation is described in Chinua Achebe's novel Arrow of God, set in a Nigerian Ibo village in the early colonial era. In the book, it is the special responsibility of the Chief Priest, Ezeulu, to spot the new moon in the sky -- not easy during the rainy season -- and to announce the time for such feasts as the pumpkin festival, at which his ritual dance cleanses the people from their sins. It is also his privilege, after hearing the voice of his god, to initiate the yam harvest, the equivalent of the New Year. But the story is set at a time when the old way of life is beginning to disintegrate. Ezeulu's authority is under threat from rivals, and he responds by failing to hear his god, Ulu, telling him that the time for the harvest has come; as a result, food stocks run low and the community suffers a time of great stress. It is `locked in the old year'.
Achebe's novel describes a society in which the coming of the moon is not yet seen as a natural, mechanical event but as a something that requires the intervention of a priest. Even in more sophisticated societies which had some knowledge of astronomy, and whose calendar had become one of the state's most powerful instruments of social control, the art of timing was still the preserve of the priesthood. This is not surprising: calendars were closely connected with people's religious beliefs and with the collective psyche. Wherever they appeared, they had the ability to change people's moods. The Maya of Central America, for example, felt an overwhelming sense of dread at the end of every twenty-day month, the last five days of which were believed to be a time of bad luck; and these feelings were magnified at the end of longer calendar periods. Calendars and time had to be treated with respect and great caution. In Assyria, priests in observatories informed the king of the sighting of the new moon; Julius Caesar had to consult the Pontifex Maximus when he wanted to improve the calendar. The word itself comes from the Latin verb calendare, meaning to call out, and is a memento of the Roman practice of sending officials through the streets to proclaim the start of the month after the priests had identified the new moon. To this day, in the Catholic Church, the dates of the movable feasts for the coming year are proclaimed from the pulpit, to a special chant on the feast of the Epiphany.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the cycle of the year in determining the structure, and to a large extent the theology, of all the ancient Near Eastern religions. The idea that Hebrew religion was sharply distinguished from neighbouring beliefs by its unwavering monotheism and a `linear' rather than cyclical view of history is no longer universally accepted. Anthropologists have even disposed of the notion that the Hebrews had a unique self-image as the `chosen people': there is a school of thought which says it was no different from other neighbouring peoples' sense of destiny. According to one recent authority, the Hebrew, Babylonians and Assyrians `shared a perspective concerning time and history that was so close as to be almost identical'. All three states were closely organised round the ritual observance of the cycles of the sun and moon. The division of the Hebrew state into twelve tribes, for example, is now thought to have been a deliberate replication of the months of the year.
Furthermore, all were strongly influenced by the Chaldean concept of the Great Year, which takes the movement of the sun as a model for the whole of human history and which spread throughout the entire Hellenised world. In the third century BC, the Babylonian astrologer Berossus popularised a version of the doctrine in which the universe is eternal but periodically destroyed and recreated every Great Year. He taught that when the seven planets assemble in Cancer, or the Great Winter, there will be a deluge; when they meet in Capricorn, at the Great Summer solstice, the entire cosmos will be consumed by fire.
The Babylonians and the Greeks, in common with many civilisations throughout history, believed that historical cycles would be endlessly repeated. The Hebrews were unusual (though again not unique) in believing in a single cycle. But they shared the assumption of the vast majority of societies that history moves through a predetermined process of birth and decay, with a flood taking place towards the beginning of the cycle and fire towards the end. Quite why flood and fire should occur in this order is a mystery; but the fact that they occur at all is evidence of the powerful effect of catastrophe upon the collective memory. Disaster, whether in the form of war, flood, exile or total cosmic destruction, appears to perform a vital function for societies which believe in a divine sequence of world history, repeatable or otherwise. These catastrophes are markers which help them to divide that sequence into phases, and to discover their own place in the eternal scheme. The concept of successive epochs punctuated by disaster is not, however, incompatible with the notion of world history as an infinitely expanded year. The division of history into four eras is found in apparently unrelated civilisations in Greece, Mesopotamia and India and includes both the classical series of `metallic' ages (the age of gold, silver, bronze and iron) and the Hindu system of four yugas. All are probably inspired by the four seasons of the year, and may have a common origin in a neolithic creation ceremony: we can never know for sure.
There is no mystery, however, about the inspiration for the Great Week, a hugely influential theory which divided history into seven phases based on the seven-day week. This was Jewish in origin, but was taken up by the classical world and accepted by both the early Christian millenarians and their opponents; its influence can still be felt today in the activities of some born-again Christians who are expecting Christ to initiate the final `day' in human history. The Great Week is, of course, based on a man-made unit of time rather than naturally observed phenomena such as the movement of the sun or the moon. But one should not read too much into this: the roots of the Jewish obsession with the number seven lie in Sumer, often considered to be the first civilised society, where seven became the number of days in the week precisely because it was divinely inspired. Divide a lunar month of twenty-eight days by the sacred number four, and one arrives at seven, which for the Sumerians was the number of the known planets, of the gates between the overworld and the underworld, and of the winds which represent time rushing by.
Although, as far as we know, the Sumerians thought in terms of a fourfold division of history and had no concept of a Great Week, they were entirely familiar with the notion that history progresses in phases consisting of a specific number of years. Their most important unit of time was the sar of 3,600 years, which was used as early as the third millennium BC in the Sumerian king list. No fewer than six of its eight monarchs are said to have ruled for multiples of 3,600 years, a record which is preposterous even by the generous standards of biblical longevity; but it is important to bear in mind that such calculations were central to Sumerian theology. The notion that one could date historical events with reference to a king's reign lay far in the future. The sar was the ultimate expression of the number six, whose connection with time in ancient Mesopotamia has given us our sixty seconds and sixty minutes; 3,600, being six squared times one hundred, seems to have been the number of the universe itself. It was also ten times 360, the number of days in an ideal year, a fact which has been described as `the first evidence we have that the Sumerian city-states of the third millennium BC, the very beginning of the literate period, were organised according to a cosmic law of recurrent seasonal cycles'.
The ornate number-mysticism which gave birth to the sar survived well into medieval times through the influence of Plato, for whom its components -- the solar number twelve and the lunar number thirty -- were proof of its compatibility with the dimensions of the ideal society. The medieval world believed that Plato had proposed a literal Great Year of 36,000 years, and for centuries a belief in historical cycles of this length coexisted uneasily with Great Week mythology. It still figures prominently in Islamic tradition and modern astrology: the New Age belief that the world is moving inexorably through a precession of the equinoxes towards the Age of Aquarius is built on the concept of the Platonic year.
In fact, it is unlikely that Plato believed in the literal truth of his numerology: such calculations expressed an ideal which reflected a higher level of truth than historical reality. We need to remember this when considering the maze of historiographical theories devised by the ancient world. Virtually every numerical figure possesses a hidden significance which subverts any attempt to take it at face value. The purpose of these historical schemes is to align human behaviour with the divine plan, not the other way round. This is the context in which we should see the ancient world's periodic anniversary celebrations, such as the Hebrew jubilees. Held after seven sets of seven-year `weeks', these were a response to a law set out in Leviticus which allowed anyone forced to sell ancestral lands to reclaim them every fiftieth year. This, in principle, would have restored the structure as it had been divinely ordained in ancient days. In practice, historians are not sure that this was ever put into effect; the point is, however, that the jubilee -- a concept with which we are still familiar, and which was arguably a forerunner of our system of centuries -- was designed to bring society back into line with the just cosmic order. In our own day, it has become the inspiration for the Roman Catholic Church's celebration of the year 2000.
The fact that this sort of realignment was regarded as urgently necessary by all the ancient Near Eastern societies brings us to the question of where, exactly, they placed themselves in their respective cycles of birth and decay. For the Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks and early Christians, as well as for the main Indian religions, the answer was roughly the same. Mankind had, through failure to observe divine law, reached a late stage in a sequence which would culminate in the destruction of the world, usually by fire. It is true, of course, that in some of these cultures an endless succession of repetitive cycles means that there is no true eschatology (concept of the end): in Hinduism and Buddhistm, there is only an individual escape from the wheel of death and rebirth. But their belief in a downward spiral of world epochs, often separated from each other by individual catastrophes, to be followed by fire and a new beginning, is strikingly similar to Babylonian, Iranian and some Greek theories (to which some authorities believe they may be related). And if we overlook for the moment the distinction between single and multiple cycles, the theme of epochs brought to an end by human wickedness, and of closeness to the End, emerges as the common denominator of the world's historic religions.
Belief in moral decline is an inevitable accompaniment to the nearly universal belief in an original paradise. The primordial paradise, characterised by perfection, abundance and purity, appears in all religions originating in the Middle East and in most of the world's tribal mythologies. Often this happy state has been lost through some tragic aberration on the part of mankind. The oldest surviving description of paradise comes from the Sumerians, who around 4000 BC described a magical land of Dilmun: `That place was pure, that place was clean. In Dilmun the raven croaked not. The kite shrieked not kite-like. The lion mangled not. The wolf ravaged not the lambs... None caused the doves to fly away.' All this happened a long time ago, `when there was no fear, no terror' and `man had no rival'. According to linguists, the Sumerians gave the Hebrews the name for their paradise, the Garden of Eden. But no other connection between the two myths has been discovered; indeed, all the ancient paradise stories are apparently independent of each other, despite such recurring themes as the primordial garden. If they have a common ancestor, it may well lie so far back in prehistory that it also gave birth to African, Aboriginal Australian and American Indian myths. These conceive of paradise as a time before a moral fall, in which man did not need to work and lived in harmony with the animals. The primitive belief in the moral superiority of ancestors may have its roots in a single preliterate tradition; or it may be an intrinsic feature of human psychology. As with the fourfold division of history, we shall never know for sure.
Nor is it clear why so many civilisations believed in a progressive decline. But having developed that concept it is not surprising that they should have placed themselves towards the end of the process. It might seem an obvious point to make, but it is easier to imagine the past than the future. A detailed scheme of future phases in world history can never hope to carry the weight of a retrospective analysis which explains the dire state of the world. And, in any case, a theory which envisages moral deterioration over a long period starting from now, as it were, devalues the images of current depravity on which religious belief inevitably feeds. Even Indian traditions which present the grim possibility that the present wickedness will endure for thousands of years emphasise that this age, the Kali yuga, is the final one before the renewal of creation. At any rate, the sense of debasement, of accumulated moral failure which can be remedied, if at all, only by correct behaviour, is a poignant feature of many ancient texts.
`I wish I were not of this race, that I had died before or had not yet been born,' wrote Hesiod, a Greek farmer from the eighth century BC whose epic Works and Days is our earliest account of successive races of gold, silver, bronze and iron. `This is the age of iron,' he lamented. `Now, by day, men work and grieve unceasingly; by night they waste away and die. The gods will give harsh burdens, but will mingle in some good; Zeus will destroy this mortal race of men.' Hesiod's historical scheme is either four- or five-fold, depending on whether one counts the age of gold as history or paradise. According to Hesiod, the gods on Olympus made a golden race of men who lived when Zeus' predecessor Cronos was king in heaven. `Like gods they lived with hearts free from sorrow and remote from toil and grief; nor was miserable age their lot but always unwearied in feet and hands they made merry in feasting, beyond the reach of all evils. And when they died, it was as if they were given over to sleep.' The golden race disappeared when Zeus came to power in heaven, and were succeeded by a silver race who, while heroic, were morally flawed. From then on, each epoch ends in disaster. The silver race's violent behaviour and neglect of their religious duties led Zeus to replace them with men of the bronze race, who soon exterminated each other. They were succeeded by the heroes of antiquity, who represented an improvement in the quality of human stock. But they perished in war and adventures and were succeeded by the age of iron.
The metallic metaphor also crops up in Iran, in a Mazdean book, the Sudar-nask, which refers to ages of gold, silver, steel and iron. Here the theme is also moral deterioration, but leading to a final cleansing fire. Hesiod, in contrast, seems to offer the possibility of some sort of salvation through correct behaviour. Works and Days can be read as a manual for surviving the misery of the iron age by acting in conformity with the divine will. It contains advice on such mundane matters as when to plant and harvest, when to set sail and when to urinate. (`Do not make water standing towards the Sun, unless he has risen or set,' advises Hesiod.) The implication is that, if enough people live in harmony with the cosmic order, mankind may yet succeed in breaking out of the cycle of decline. This possibility is also present in later Greek and Roman treatments of the myth and may help to explain its enduring appeal. Plato, for example, was profoundly depressed by the thought that he had been born into the latter stages of the iron age, but did not rule out the prospect of escape. `We must do all we can to imitate the life which is said to have existed in the days of Cronos; and, in so far as the immortal element dwells within us, to that we must hearken, both in public and private life.'
In its wish to recapture the golden age, Greek thought is not unlike the Hindu and Buddhist vision of an impending return to the first age. This may be no coincidence, since Indian and Greek religions also share a belief in a four-fold historical division. The Hindu epic the Mahabharata describes the Krita yuga, the perfect first age, in which men were so saintly that they were not required to perform religious ceremonies: `The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening of the years; there was no hatred, or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear.' This is followed by the Treta, Dvapara and Kali yugas, the last being the current age of decadence. As in other traditions, the end of each age is hastened by individual catastrophes. In Hinduism and Buddhism, however, there is a distinctive understanding of moral decline as a process of forgetting one's true identity and purpose as a result of distraction by the physical world.
The similarities between classical and Eastern visions of the historical cycle have been seized on eagerly by proponents of the theory that the Judaeo-Christian `linear' conception of time is unrelated to other time-systems. The fact that this claim is often made by those who believe that only Judaism and Christianity are divinely inspired is, in a way, a perfect illustration of the intertwining of religious belief and systems of measuring time. But the linear/cyclical distinction is a crude one, to say the least. It often makes more sense to talk of single and repeatable cycles, though even here Judaism and Christianity do not stand on their own. The Persian Zoroastrian religion also envisages a final end to history after a cosmic struggle between good and evil souls.
The Hebrews' sense of history has more in common with cyclical pagan religions than Jewish and Christian propagandists would have us believe. Nicholas Campion, in his monumental study of historical schemes, The Great Year (1994), sees the Hebrew conception of history as a wave alternating between successive renewals of God's covenant (with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David) and divine punishments for disobedience (the Flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, exile in Egypt, Philistine oppression and Babylonian exile). This is not a history of progressive moral decay, it is true; but for the Hebrews, as much as for any other ancient people, the driving force behind history was catastrophe brought about by immoral behaviour.
Yet by the second century BC there was something new in the air. Put very simply, the Jews started thinking in terms of a glorious new world rather than a return to their ancient ideal, the Kingdom of David. It was a shift of emphasis which was to change the course of human history. Christianity would not have been possible without it.
As we have seen, the early religion of the Hebrews saw moral behaviour -- that is, obedience to God -- as the key to the restoration of the Kingdom. In this, it strongly resembled the Greek faith in rules of behaviour which would bring about a return to the golden age. There is even a parallel with Eastern writers who proposed ways in which the end of the Kali yuga could be hastened, bringing about the return of the Krita yuga -- return being the operative word. But the radical Judaism of the last centuries BC, and subsequently Christianity, offered a more exciting prospect. If we think in terms of Eliade's idea of a universal longing to escape from time itself, we can say that they opened up a new escape route, leading forwards rather than backwards. It was mapped out in a new literary genre called apocalypse, from the Greek Apo-calyptein, meaning `to un-veil'. Apocalyptic literature takes the form of a revelation of the end of history. Violent and grotesque images are juxtaposed with glimpses of a world transformed; the underlying theme is usually a titanic struggle between good and evil, though the narrative tends to be obscured by complex allegories rooted in number-mysticism. Apocalypticism has been described as a genre born out of crisis, designed to stiffen the resolve of an embattled community by dangling in front of it the vision of a sudden and permanent release from its captivity. It is underground literature, the consolation of the persecuted.
This certainly applied to the Jews, whose history up to the destruction of the temple in AD 69 was one of a series of trials and disappointments: collapse of the Davidic kingdom, Babylonian exile, Seleucid oppression and Roman invasion. And it was in response to this sense of repeated failure that the vision of the future in the Hebrew scriptures gradually shifted from prophecy to apocalypse. Apocalypticism differed in vital respects from the earlier Jewish prophetic tradition. The old Hebrew prophets were chiefly concerned with the triumph of the Jewish people over their enemies. The apocalyptic texts put the struggle firmly in the context of good versus evil, light versus dark. Furthermore, they carry this battle into the realm of the supernatural. The Book of Daniel, the only full-scale apocalypse in the Hebrew bible, was written around 168 BC, during the Greek Seleucid occupation of Jerusalem. It includes the revolutionary concept of resurrection of the dead: this must have been a powerful inducement to continued resistance at a time when Jews were being martyred for their faith. And, crucially, it even hints at the date of the final establishment of God's kingdom. (This feature explains both its dubious standing in rabbinic Jewish tradition, which tends to be anti-apocalyptic, and its hold over generations of literal-minded Christians.)
What lay behind this astonishing shift in approach? It is important to know the answer to this question, for what we are effectively talking about is the origin of the modern notion of the End of the World. The answer, according to an influential school of thought led by Professor Norman Cohn, is that apocalyptic faith -- that is, belief in a new world occupied by the just after a period of crisis and judgement -- was not invented by the Jews, but borrowed by them from the Persians. In Cohn's view, apocalypticism was first manifested in the teachings of Zoroaster, a prophet from Central Asia who probably lived around 1400 BC, whose teachings of a coming battle between good and evil became the official religion of the Persian Empire. Zoroaster, originally a priest of the traditional religion, spoke of a coming transformation known as `the making wonderful', in which there would be a universal bodily resurrection. This would be followed by a great assembly, in which all people would be judged. The wicked would be destroyed, while the righteous would become immortal. In the new world, young people are forever fifteen years old, and the mature remain at the age of forty. But this is not a reversion to the original paradise; nothing in the past approaches its perfection. It is the End of Time.
Since we know so little about Zoroaster, we cannot know exactly why he developed the world's first eschatological faith. It may well have been a response to profound change in the world in which he lived, from one of peaceful herdsmen to a restless and warlike society in which military prowess was valued above all. Zoroaster, says Cohn,
is the earliest known example of a particular type of prophet -- the kind commonly called millenarian -- and the experiences that determined the content of his teaching seem also to have been typical. Prophets who promise a total transformation of existence, a total perfecting of the world, often draw their original inspiration from the spectacle not simply of suffering, but of one particular type of suffering: that engendered by the destruction of an ancient way of life, with its familiar certainties and safeguards.
The End of Time, in other words, appeals most to people who are disorientated, whose identity is under threat: people such as the Jews. Zoroastrian visions of resurrection, judgement and reward, with which the Jews would certainly have been familiar, must have offered a thrilling prospect to a nation whose self-image was at once so strong and so frequently challenged. It is little wonder that these visions were slowly appropriated, to emerge in dramatic form during a period of unique stress and excitement.
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