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apocalypse wow
September 24, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Apocalypse Wow

Tales of those who thought the end was nigh



I don’t want to startle anyone, but the world is already over. The apocalypse has been and gone several times, actually. Or at least it was meant to. We’re hurtling towards the end of 2012, and thus far the failure of the Mayan calendar to account for any year after has yet to produce the end of the world. Such a let down. Apocalypses are constantly being predicted, although the promised doomsday has failed to eventuate thus far. I can only empathise with those for whom the continued existence of mankind is a deep disappointment. 

It’s hard to tell when this sort of thing first became, well, a thing. There are the classics, of course: most organised religions contain at least one brimstone-y End of Days scenario. It’s like they were afraid they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t. In fact, we’ve even given a proper sciencey-sounding name to the study of the end of the world—eschatology—which the Oxford English Dictionary handily describes as “the department of theological science concerned with the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.” The word apocalypse itself comes from apocálypsis, the Greek word for the revelation of something hidden, so strictly speaking most of us are using the word wrong.

One of the earliest recorded examples of doomsday soothsaying comes from an Assyrian tablet dated to 2800 BCE which, roughly translated, predicts that “our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end.” In a way, they were right, because in a sense their civilization did crumble and disappear, although one does wonder what was considered degenerate some five thousand years ago. Even the Bible has inaccurately dated the apocalypse: Jesus coyly implies in Matthew 16:28 that his return would occur during the lives of his contemporaries. They must have been very put out when he didn’t.

The most striking thing about those predicting the End of Days is the way in which they usually contort information to suit their purposes. Michel de Nostradame, more usually referred to as Nostradamus (presumably because it sounds more exciting,) was an apothecary, plague doctor, linguist and author best known for his treatise on all things apocalyptic. The Prophecies, published in 1555, is a collection of loosely organised astrological divination presented as nonspecific descriptions of events that might happen in the future.

You have to feel a little bit sorry for him, really: people have asserted at different times that Nostradamus predicted both World Wars, 9/11, the rise of Napoleon, the Holocaust, Great Fire of London, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Apollo moon landings and even Princess Diana’s death despite the fact that his prophecies were relatively specific: his main concern was that the Saracens were going to declare a holy war on Christians and end the world, and that didn’t exactly end up happening, did it?

This total misinterpretation of things has frequently had completely awful results. Charles Manson believed that the Beatles’ White Album was providing him with tantric knowledge of an impending apocalyptic race war (or ‘Helter-Skelter’) that he and his ‘family’ would instigate via a series of horrific murders which they would pin on African Americans via the crudest means possible, usually by leaving politically charged graffiti written in the victim’s blood at the scene.

Doomsday cults are serious business (although if you  snicker to yourself a little bit nobody would blame     you.) Heaven’s Gate, a ‘UFO Religion’ based in San Diego, California, believed that an alien aircraft was hiding behind the Haley-Bopp comet and that their suicide would allow them to reach it and ride away into the cosmos while the Earth withered.

As part of the enlightening process members were supposed to abandon all traces of human-like characteristics: sexuality, names, family, possessions and so on. On March 26, 1997, police found the bodies of 39 members of the group, several of whom had also castrated themselves in preparation for their new, un-gendered alien bodies. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. Goodness knows why.

A full list of doomsday cults would be absurdly long and depressing. Here’s a few, though: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a Ugandan cult which set the date for the End of the World as January 1, 2000. When that didn’t happen, they merely postponed it till March 17 and had an enormous party where they roasted three bulls and drank seventy crates of soft drink (which sounds like a lot, but I guess you don’t get many chances to actually party like there’s no tomorrow).

When the world again failed to end the cultists were understandably a little peeved and began to challenge the group’s leadership whose reaction was to kill the entire church by locking them in a boarded-up chapel and blowing it up. Another account is that they were so disappointed by the world’s continued existence that they committed group suicide.

Famously, 918 members of the People’s Temple, a Christian communist cult/church/community/I’m- not-quite-sure-what-to-call-these-anymore, died on their Guyana commune when their leader instructed them to drink grape Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. The event was the largest non-natural loss of American life until the attacks on the Twin Towers and just under three hundred children died too.

If you’re feeling really morbid, you can listen to an audio recording of the suicide and accompanying sermon ( It’s not for the faint- hearted, though. Truly chilling stuff: here is a group of people who were so critically disillusioned with the way the world worked that, as far as they were concerned, it was “over” and they might as well jump ship sooner rather than later.

I suppose the question is why some people are so infatuated with the idea of the world ending. One particularly powerful argument often bandied about is that of the deviancy amplification spiral: Eileen Barker, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics who has written extensively on cults and new religions, argues that the controversy that inevitably springs up around otherwise peaceful new religious movements can cause them to turn to violent behaviour in reaction.

In other words, moral panic usually precedes a religious group flying spectacularly off the rails and killing themselves. Who really knows? Maybe one of them is right—2012 isn’t quite over. Just don’t say Nostradamus saw it coming. ▲

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