By Paula R. Stiles
We all know how the world ends in the abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam): fire and lightning and God’s wrath and a final day of judgement. Then all the good people go to Heaven and the bad people go to Hell. But what about everybody else? How does the world end for other cultures and religions?
Ancient Egyptians were not interested in the end of the world. They were exceedingly focused on personal immortality, and the idea of an afterlife that looked very much like this one, so that they saw the world as extremely stable and long-lived. It helped that Egyptian civilisation remained remarkably stable and unchanged for four thousand years. Even the past two thousand years have seen enough continuity that Egyptian villages today look much the way they have for six thousand years (even though other customs, like dress and language, have changed a great deal).
However, Egyptian visions of the end of the world did exist, projected however distantly into the future. They believed that the entire universe had been created out of the waters of chaos (Nun/Naunet) and would eventually subside under those waters.
Some myths from the few times of interregnum were less gentle. In The Book of the Heavenly Cow, a four-thousand-year-old theological interpretation of the chaotic First Intermediate Period between the Old and Middle Kingdoms that has been found on several tomb walls, Ra becomes convinced that humans no longer respect him as they should. He therefore sends the goddess Hathor to punish them. Normally a gentle cow goddess, Hathor becomes so angry at human disobedience that she turns into the fierce, lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet. She kills so many people that their blood runs like a river and creates a flood, which she drinks. Alarmed at this excess, Ra creates a lake of beer and dyes it red. Mistaking it for blood, Hathor/Sekhmet drinks it, gets drunk, and reverts to her gentle, cow self. Afterward, a disillusioned Ra withdraws from creation and the remaining gods must create a new world order, the world as we know it now. Meanwhile, the survivors of Hathor/Sekhmet’s massacre reestablish the human race.
For a culture that gave us the word “apocalypse”, Ancient Greek religion went about the end of the world in a surprising way: The world had already ended, more than once, before their time. The Greeks considered the creation of humans to be no great shakes to the cosmos, even an annoyance to the gods in one story. In this one, a Titan (an elder god from a previous patheon) named “Prometheus” created humans out of clay and gave them fire to survive.
In another, the gods experimented with different metals. This story comes from the Archaic Age poet, Hesiod (8th century BCE). In his Works and Days, he introduced the idea of “ages” of man (The Golden Age, Silver Age, etc.). First, the gods made a golden race, which lived in perfect bliss and survived after death as helpful spirits to later men. Then came the silver race, who were sometimes violent and did not survive death. The brass race was especially terrible, eventually killing each other. They were succeeded by the Age of Heroes, renowned in myth and legend. Hesiod believed he lived in the final and worst age, the Iron Age. This was the most vicious and short-lived of all. Eventually, the king of the gods, Zeus, would destroy them, too.
In another story, not unlike the story of Noah’s flood, the gods do destroy Mankind, with the exception of one faithful old couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha. When the couple survives and tries to repopulate the earth, the gods tell them to throw “the bones of your mother” behind them, meaning stones (Earth being the mother of all). So, this sixth race is made of stone.
I say “Mankind” because, except for the last story, humans are all men until the gods create the first woman, Pandora, give her all sorts of gifts, and send her down to punish men. Yeah…the Greeks weren’t what you’d call “feminists”.
According to a 12th century Javanese king, the Maharaja Jayabaya, a future incarnation of Buddha named “Satrio Piningit” will come and usher the Javanese into a new golden age. This messianic figure will be born into, and live in, humble surroundings, though his coming will be heralded by floods and volcanic eruptions. Rather than be elected as a ruler, he will be “hidden” from the rest of the world, yet eventually lead a revolution against the old order. It is also possible that he will be reincarnated more than once.
Jayabaya made other predictions about period in which Satrio Piningit would live (such as that society would have carts without horses) that some have taken to mean he will be born in the modern era. These predictions were used during the Japanese occupation of Java to justify the Japanese presence. Initially, some Javanese believed that the Japanese were the promised Satrio Piningit, but the brutal behaviour of the Japanese soon made them change their minds.
The Norse Ragnarok is a classic in apocalyptic literature. You think the Christian approach is harsh, with most people not seeing the end of the Apocalypse, being cast into the Pit forever? Well, there is no “after” in the Ragnarok – at least, not for those in this world. The Gods battle with Loki (the god of mischief and chaos), the Frost Giants, the Midgard Serpent (Jormungandr), and a huge wolf (Fenrir). In the resulting chaos, almost everyone on both sides is killed and one survivor burns up the rest of the universe. Stars fall, the sun dims, and the ocean covers the earth (Note how many of these myths begin and end with water). Out of the chaos and death of the old world, a new one will grow, with the roots of its own Ragnarok already planted. The universe will be repeopled by a couple, Lif and Lifthrasr.
If this sounds a bit christianised, it probably was. The Elder Edda, from which this myth comes, was a collection of oral pagan traditions that were later written down by Christian monks and poets around the 12th century. These chroniclers almost certainly put their own gloss on it, while ignoring aspects that didn’t fit what interested them (i.e., what couldn’t be fit into Christian dogma).
Speaking of “roots”, a related myth talks about an ash tree, Yggdrasil, that holds up the world. It has its roots in Niflheim (the realm of the goddess Hel), its branches holding up Valhalla, where the gods live. Midgard (where humans live) is the trunk. But though Yggdrasil is mighty, it is not immortal. The serpent Níðhöggr gnaws away at the root near Niflheim. Someday, he will kill the tree, bringing down the universe with it.
The Ancient Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism (which still exists today), calls the end of the world “Frashokereti“. Zoroastrianism is dualistic. The God of Light, Ahura Mazda, is in continual and equal conflict with the God of Darkness, Ahriman. All of creation, including gods and humans, choose their sides throughout history.
However, though this conflict has existed since the beginning of Creation, and the Light and Dark gods are equal, it is not eternal. Initially, Creation was pure and primordial, but the material part of it was then corrupted. This part is dominated by Ahriman. Eventually, Ahura Mazda will defeat Ahriman. Creation will be purged and become an eternal paradise, though the many creatures in it will retain their individuality. Also, much like Christianity, the dead will rise from the grave to be judged. Unlike Christianity, most of the evil people will only undergo three days of punishment and then be redeemed.
Many early, “Gnostic” Christians, including the young St. Augustine, were fascinated by the dualism of Zoroastrianism – seeing Christ as pure spirit and the material world as the realm of the Devil. Eventually, the mainstream part of the early Church rejected this doctrine as making Christ too removed from the world to appeal to humans and (especially) dangerous because its believers placed the Church hierarchy in the material world. This would therefore make the Church, including the Pope, an instrument of the Devil. Despite the suppression of this doctrine, Gnosticism has continued to crop up through history and still has adherents today.
The Epic of Gilgamesh has a really curious tale, in which Gilgamesh encounters an immortal man, Utnapishtim, who survived the end of the world and was turned into a god, due to his piety. A flood was unleashed by Enlil, king of the gods, against some rebellious junior gods. Humanity ended up drowned in the process. Warned ahead of time by another god, Ea, Utnapishtim built a boat, on which he placed animals and his family, and rode things out. Afterward, he was deified and his children repopulated the world.
Does this sound familiar? It should. According to biblical scholars, both the story of Utnapishtim and the story of Noah come from another, more ancient source that appears to be a record or vague memory of a real, local flood in the Mesopotamian region. As you can see from the other myths, though, flood stories are connected to apocalypse all over the world.
When the 19th century first began, Native Americans and First Nations people in Canada (like the mixed-race Métis) were still holding their own against the influx of European settlers. Plains Indians tribes like the Sioux were able to muster credible military force against the Europeans, despite considerable infighting among the Plains tribes. As the century wore on, epidemics and the destruction of wild game (especially the bison) drove the Plains Indians to starvation and desperation.
The Ghost Dance first appeared in 1869, among the Paiute in what is now northern Nevada. A Paiute prophet, Hawthorne Wodziwob, claimed to have had a vision in which the dead loved ones who had died in the terrible epidemics that were ravaging the Plains would return in a few years. The movement continued until Wodziwob’s death in 1872, then went dormant until another Paiute leader, Wovoka (AKA Jack Wilson), had a vision during a solar eclipse in 1889. Wovoka’s vision reiterated that the Paiute dead would return, but added a messianic element that the Europeans would also be driven from North America. Wovoka made further shamanic-style claims of protection from bullets and other harm. In order to bring about the prophecy, the Paiute had to engage in group rituals involving round dances.
Though Wovoka himself emphasised the non-violent aspects of his prophecies, two Lakota Sioux leaders, Kicking Bear and Short Bull, took a more revolutionary message from the movement, seeking to use it as a mystical way of ridding the continent of the European invaders. Needless to say, this did not go down well with the U.S. military. As the Ghost Dance grew and spread through the American territories, a confrontation seemed inevitable. On December 29, 1890, such a confrontation exploded into a massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. In the end, at least one hundred and fifty (Some reports say far more) Sioux men, women and children were killed, many of them by machine gun fire and being hunted down by soldiers. The soldiers also lost 25 men, mostly due to friendly fire. The Army later awarded the soldiers with 20 Medals of Honor, despite obvious signs that they had completely lost control, killed women and children, and quite a few of each other. Just one of those historical examples of how stupidity can be rewarded in this life, if it goes far enough up the chain of command.
Though the massacre and subsequent deaths of the more extreme leaders reduced interest in the Ghost Dance as a messianic movement, it still exists today as a spiritual movement along the lines of what Wodziwob and Wovoka originally had in mind. Similar messianic leaders in the 19th century were Louis Riel (A leader of the two Métis revolts in Canada, in 1870 and 1885) and Nat Turner (an African-American leader of a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831). In all of these cases, the leaders (and their followers) believed that they were major apocalyptic figures in Christianity. Wovoka and Wodziwob both cast themselves as shamanic versions of Christ (who was regarded as a powerful spirit). Turner had mystical visions in which he was visited by angels and saw signs of the Apocalypse in the sky. Riel believed he was an apocalyptic prophet.
Some Inuit believe today that, when the great Trickster Hero, Kiviuq, dies, that will be the end of the world. However, Inuit religious ideas, like those of the Paiute and Sioux, have also been great influenced by the arrival of Europeans. The introduction of Christianity to the Inuit resulted in a series of “Parousial” movements in the first half of the 20th century that attempted to combine Christian missionary teachings with the old shamanistic traditions. European authorities frowned on these independent movements (even though the missionaries, themselves, were neither orthodox nor well-educated). However, the movements were also dangerous for the Inuit culture because they tended toward the messianic and apocalyptic. For example, Inuit in the settlement of Payne slaughtered their dogs in 1920, convinced that traditional omens were heralding the Apocalypse.
A movement called “mumiksimaniq” (“turning over”) also occurred from the 1930s to the 1950s, in which messianic figures predicting the end of the world on specific dates would crop up. Their followers would gather, pray and dance, awaiting the day of Christ’s return. While scholarly views on this phenomenon are mixed to favourable, the movements (and missionary activity) did create tension and violence among the Inuit. One Inuit film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), portrays an early version of them in an extremely negative way. In the film, one such messianic leader withholds food from a visiting group of more traditional Inuit, literally starving them into giving up their old shamanistic ways and accepting his own twisted version of Christianity.
As in Java, Chinese Buddhists have some beliefs about a messianic figure, Prince Moonlight. In this case, however, some historical texts believed he will be reincarnated as a woman. This belief was used to support the claim during the Tang dynasty that the Empress Wu Zetian (624-710) was this figure, as a way to legimitise her rule. It was a way to justify her taking over as a female ruler in a patriarchal system (much like the Egyptian Hapshepsut, who declared herself Pharoah instead of her stepson).
Chinese Buddhist eschatology is cyclical and bears some similarities to Ancient Greek and biblical stories. East Asian Buddhists believe that Dharma (universal law) will gradually decline and disappear. People’s lifespans will range from immense (80 thousand years) to minimal (10 years), depending on their virtue, which will be determined by where the world is in the cycle. At the shortest point, humans will live only a “sword-interval” and murder each other indiscriminately. A few will hide in the wilderness until the slaughter ends, then reemerge to populate the world in a more virtuous way.
The Black Death (1347-53) was the (apparent) tail end of a major pandemic that struck Eurasia during the middle of the 14th century. It killed between one third and two thirds of the European population in a period of six years, then recurred every generation thereafter until the 18th century. Leaving aside the theories of a worse pandemic in the seventh century (as written about in a story from Historical Lovecraft) and, possibly, the colossal mortality in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans, this is the worst natural disaster in history.
Go into a grocery store or mall in a city or large town (where the death toll was highest). Look at the many people around you. Now, imagine that only half of you will be alive tomorrow, with the prospect that the rest of you might not last the week. No monsters to fight, no idea how to avoid it. Think about what that might do to you. Obviously, people believed it was the End of Days. We would, too.
Which brings us to the artistic motif known as “Danse Macabre“. Never heard of it? Yeah, you have. You just might not have heard of that name. But most of the dark images of Halloween derive from it. Previous to the Black Death, Europeans were relatively philosophical about dying. Once the Plague hit (in conjunction with the first decades of the Little Ice Age), attitudes really changed.
The Danse Macabre is a pictorial representation of a dance. Unlike the Ghost Dance, it doesn’t appear to have been a religious movement, or messianic, or even an actual dance (though there were people who mimicked it in theatre and other performance art). It was more like a mass spasm of despair. The motif started appearing in French art in the early 15th century and quickly spread all over Western Europe. In it, people young and old, both genders, and from all walks of life, are shown dancing. The dance partner of each one is a skeleton or decayed corpse, dragging that person off to Hell. Some representations include text that says, basically, “It doesn’t matter what you have – youth, beauty, health, wealth, or power. Death will get you in the end.”
The intent is penitential, to scare the Hell (literally) out of the audience. However, the popularity of the image also implies a grim sense of fascination with mortality through horror and reflects the continent-wide trauma of the Plague. It’s not unlike our modern fascination with postapocalyptic scenarios, particularly the universal obsession with nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. If there is nowhere to escape a fear, it will appear everywhere in a culture’s art.