Apocalypse Anytime

By Kathryn Denning

This FUSE article from issue 36-3 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

It’s 2013, but what time is it? Does apocalypse lie before us, or behind us?

Apocalypse is most often used to mean “the end of the world.” But if we go back to its original meaning, apocalypse technically means “revelation,” and eschaton is the “end of days.” [1] So, for example, the Book of Revelation is an apocalypse — the vision which St. John saw from his none-too-cosy prison cell on Patmos, and relayed in a letter to his loyal followers, a vision which describes eschatological scenes with the Horsemen (envoys of pestilence, war, famine and death), fire in the sky, seas turning to blood, a highly imaginative menu of plagues, a war in the skies between monsters and angels, and generally epic heavy-metal mayhem, ending with, of course, the happily-ever-after survival of the righteous in the eternal Kingdom of God, and the exceptionally stylish obliteration of everything and everyone else.

There are some intriguing elements in the classic Judaeo-Christian apocalypse, of which Revelation is the best known. First, there is the revelation from another dimension (the Divine). Crucially, there is a statement of the future that places us in time and tells us where we are in the path of History. Narratives can then include features like a breach of impermeable boundaries (e.g., the dead rising), the appearance of beings with strange powers, a war (or a change in order) in which the righteous emerge triumphantly despite having been persecuted.

Apocalyptic literature made sense as a genre of political speech and prophecy 2,000 years ago in the context of its origination. The early Christians were indeed a persecuted minority, and it may have been a tremendous consolation to the oppressed to think that their God was promising a better future through prophets. Of course, apocalyptic prophecy would have also encouraged maintaining community cohesion and religious observances, since doing so would bring happy everlasting life, whereas not doing so would result in, well, the nastiest things imaginable.

But here’s the amazing thing. This story of how the world will end — and the very notion that it will — has endured for millennia, migrating around the world, and becoming a dominant ideology within a modern superpower with a massive nuclear arsenal. It has survived into an era when the human imagination is expressed in recorded music, films, video games and virtual reality, an era when humans have actually left our home planet and looked down upon it from the heavens, and an era in which the Bible is by no means the only a source of revelation. It has been 2,000 years of “the big one is coming soon.”

The recent Maya 2012 prophecies [2] followed this classic form, with only minor variations. The revelation was purported to have come not from God, but from a wise ancient society who had predicted exactly when time would run out. (Actually, the Maya never said that, but this didn’t seem to matter much.) The prophesied disasters involved galactic alignments, near-Earth objects and magnetic pole reversals instead of plagues. But the overall shape of the expectations was remarkably consistent with the ancient Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition, even though it was coming from modern New Age authors and purveyors of Hollywood films.

The ingredients of the Maya 2012 phenomenon ultimately consisted of the following: an enduring substrate of Judaeo-Christian apocalypticism; the fabulous power of prediction and prophecy in the human imagination; a decline in formal, traditional religion correlating with an interest in exoticized “ancient wisdom” from other cultures; a notion that archaeologists can recover supposedly long-lost knowledge, coupled with confusion about how exactly we should understand ancient myths; our developing historical knowledge that societies really do collapse and that nothing lasts forever; anxiety about very real threats from our own technology, like WMD and global warming; the dawning realization that outer space is dangerous; a lack of trust in governments; a lack of trust in scientists and experts, including a lack of ability to distinguish reliable information from the unreliable; and the fact that disaster sells in the form of books, films and TV specials, and bunkers for preppers. Notably, these ingredients aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

The 21 December 2012 date of the Maya 2012 predictions was only the latest in a long line of attempts to pinpoint when and how the world will end. It was a date that suited, for a while. For the apocalyptically-minded there will be more, derived from calculations based upon traditional religious texts, or based upon purported revelations from other otherworldly sources, like aliens or ancient societies. [3] And more generally, the ingredients for apocalypticism will continue to move and meld. Every society has had to create a way of structuring time. [4] That will forever be evolving. And every culture has a way of reckoning big-picture history: Where are we in relation to the beginning and the end? That, too, will continually develop, as global politics unfold and new ways of writing history emerge. And everyone has to reckon with death — our own, and that of others.

But despite all this continuity… is there a change in the air?

I wonder whether some of us are finally entering a postapocalyptic era — not by having survived an actual world-ending cataclysm or eschaton but rather, by getting over our obsession with apocalyptic prophecies. We have worked through The End so many times in art and the imagination, that some of our worst nightmares have been attenuated, or neutralized. For example, the dead rise all the time – in photos, virtual reality, museum exhibitions and zombie walks. But perhaps this domestication of darkness comes at a cost: Does it blind us to the pain of those who actually have survived the unimaginable? Do zombies fascinate us because we have not seen, and have not been, the walking dead?

Perhaps we can only now begin to ask: if the end is both always and never here, and if there is no judgement day but only a string of moments in which we must do the best we can, then how shall we live in time?


[1] I expand on this in Kathryn Denning, “Apocalypse past/future: Archaeology and folklore, writ large” in Archaeology and Folklore, eds. A. Gazin-Schwartz and C. Holtorf (London: Routledge, 1999). For key sources on apocalypses, see Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1982).

[2] Archaeologist Anthony Aveni provided helpful overviews and discussions in “Apocalypse Soon?” Archaeology 62:6 (November/December 2009); and Aveni, The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009).

[3] Personally, I’m expecting fuss in 2027, which is apparently when the Aztec said the sky monsters would descend, to end the Fifth Sun (i.e., the fifth cycle of creation). But I’m not exactly cancelling my plans for 2028.

[4] If we go back to first principles, there’s “real time” (days and years correlate to actual physical phenomena) and “culturally constructed time” (the work week, decades, centuries).

Kathryn Denning is an anthropologist and archaeologist at York University, where she studies and teaches subjects ranging from ancient societies and their lasting presence in our world today, to humanity’s expansion into our solar system and the scientific search for life elsewhere. She began considering contemporary apocalyptic narratives related to ancient societies during her doctoral work in the late 1990s, when it was already apparent that there would be a “Maya 2012” media frenzy. She remains fascinated by our engagements with the ancient, the power of apocalyptic narratives in the world, and our ideas about how histories end.





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