What is the history of apocalyptic mythologies?
The fear of the unknown makes a large part of many mythologies for cultures around the world in ancient and even modern times. The end of the world, or the apocalypse as commonly known, is a genre of mythologies that reflects our deepest fears not only for ourselves but usually our society and culture. This could be, at times, based on some reality or stories of crises for a given culture or society, while at other times it represents a warning that society should heed or even change its ways before it is too late.
Old World Apocalypse Stories
Eschatology is often the part of theology or belief structures that are associated with end times. Cultures that discuss the end of the world sometimes differ in their timelines as to how and when the Earth ends. In fact, some earlier Bronze Age religions from 3000-1000 BCE seem to suggest that the end of the world had happened with the great Flood.
The Flood story from ancient Mesopotamia indicates that Utnapishtim, who is similar to Noah as being the man saved by the gods from the great Flood, represents a time when the world was ending as the gods were angry. Utnapishtim was the last hope for humans saved from this earlier world. A different world, one representing a new birth of cities and civilization, begins after the great Flood. Similarly, in Greek mythology, periodic waves of destruction by floods and fire occurred. The world, as it is known, 'ends' but is reborn as the gods allow a new rebirth, even if the world looks or is different from the previous world.
On the one hand, it is not precisely a cyclical evolution of life, similar to east Asian beliefs. Still, it is not a simple linear beginning and end process to life on Earth that is more common in later Western beliefs. Life changes and the gods can destroy that life, but renewal is possible and happens periodically. Perhaps the apocalypse we are more familiar with has similarities to the Zoroastrian story on Judgment Day and end times.
In the classical and best-known version of Zoroastrian end times, Ahura Mazda, the great Lord, will rectify the evil in this world by creating a great fire that will consume all evil. Angra Mainyu, the evil being, will be destroyed, and the resurrection of those who are kind and righteous will occur at the end times. This will lead to a new Gold Age, which will be Paradise that includes a virtuous life. Those who are evil will be judged and condemned by Ahura Mazda.
Ragnarok is the Norse mythology about the end of the world, which will entail a giant battle between the gods and giants made of frost and fire. The world will be destroyed in the process of this battle, once again in a type of great Flood (Figure 1). The remaining gods will meet once again, and two humans will repopulate the world. Similar to the Christian apocalypse, there will be a series of signs about the end times. First, there will be a long winter that lasts for a year, called Fimbulvetr. Then three different rosters will give a warning about the end of the world and the coming battle.
In one form of Buddhism, the end times will be preceded by great greed, lust, violence, impiety, murder, sexual sin, and general societal collapse. The teaching of Buddha will be forgotten and even relics destroyed. However, the world will return to a new Golden Age, with the coming of the Maitreya that restores and makes the world remember the teachings of Buddha. In Hinduism, the end of the world is not a single process but occurs in cyclical timelines, entering phases that last 4.1 – 8.2 billion years. There are four main phases during a cycle, with the world becoming progressively impious, violent, and full of moral decay. The dharma pillars will be reduced to one, which is true in the final phase.
Kalki, an avatar will appear on a white horse and will restore humanity with a pure mind. The cycle then begins anew as it enters another phase that repeats after the old world is destroyed. However, at some point, the larger universe is destroyed, and another will be born as Brahma, the creator god, returns to singularity. So there are even cycles within cycles as the entire universe and not just our world is renewed.
New World Apocalypse Stories
Many of the apocalypse stories in the Old World deal with righteousness and the failure of humans and their behavior in the times they occur before the end of the world. The Mayan apocalypse is based on a cyclical calendar made of 144,000-day-long cycles, which reflect the length the world lasts. After this time, something that would end the world would happen.
However, unlike the other religions mentioned, there is no cosmic battle or contest between good and evil. The world simply ends but is then reborn to start the calendar again (Figure 2). According to some, the last cycle began in 669, which is a date based on a carving found, and was supposed to end on December 21, 2012, which had led some to believe the end of the world in our own time would occur to that date. However, no set time can be derived from Mayan belief, even if the calendar used is believed to start from a given date. Thus, many scholars dispute the idea that 2012 was supposed to be the end of the world in the Mayan calendar.
Aztec beliefs also reflect a cyclical world. There had been five worlds so far, the so-called five suns representing the new suns for each planet. Aztec beliefs and practices have revolved around their fear or belief in end times. Human sacrifices were intended to appease Tzitzimitl, that is the stars, who can destroy the Sun. Other sacrifices were also intended to placate the gods. If the stars and associated gods are angry and are successful in their assault on the sun, then the world will go black, and there will be a catastrophic earthquake. The Tzitzimitl will slay Huitzilopochtli, their brother, and all of humanity will perish because of this.
However, it is likely another cycle would begin, and another Sun created to spell the beginning of humans once again. The reality for both the Maya and Aztec end times, similar in some way to the Old World, is there are many versions of related stories, and the myths are not consistent, making it hard to judge what the 'classic' version would be. Often, these stories were more oral. Other surrounding tribes and native groups believed in similar myths with variations. In North America across the United States and Canada, some native groups also thought that we are living or have lived in different episodes of the Sun or Earth.
In those cases, different events occurred that led to the destruction of the world, including comets having destroyed the world. It is not so much human behavior that leads to this end of the world but the gods or spirits creating this fate.
In comparing some of the central apocalyptical beliefs in the Old and New Worlds, several key themes are evident. For the New World, some myths do seem to have cosmic battles between the stars, sun, and heavenly bodies, but they are not put in a context of good versus evil or some great cosmic battles. The Old World myths, on the other hand, often emphasize a kind of judgment and major battle between good and evil. Interestingly, most of the myths we have about end times come from the 1st millennium BCE or later.
Before this, myths seemed to imply that the world had been already destroyed in the Great Flood, at least in the eyes of Near Eastern societies and perhaps Greece as well. A type of final judgment becomes more important later on, even when the religions differ as to the nature of life, with Western beliefs and those of the Near East emphasizing a linear view of end and beginning. At the same time, in east Asia and South Asia, it was more common to see a cyclical process of destruction and renewal. In the New World, it was more similar to Asian beliefs, in that there is a process of renewal and destruction.
However, this did not mean that people were evil, or there had to be a good reason for the end of the world. Some Aztec beliefs suggested failure to sacrifice could cause the end of the world, but this does not imply that it is a type of moral failing. It merely means a god or gods would not be happy and that alone could end the world. Christian and Islamic beliefs are more similar to the Zoroastrian belief of end times. In these beliefs, resurrection and final judgment also allows those who are righteous to live in a post-Earth paradise. In the Norse tradition, after the great cosmic battle, life begins anew but not precisely in a cyclical process as it is in Hindu beliefs but rather than a new form, in many ways similar to the Flood story with a man and woman starting humanity again.
For the Old World religions and belief systems, particularly for the Near Eastern and European cultures, the concept of end times or eschatology is central to belief systems, where it justifies worship and beliefs in how you live your current life. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the end of the world is also external to events of an individual, and renewal is seen as part of the process of life itself.
While there is a lot of diversity about the end times and mythology that go along with this, there are also several common themes. The concept of the apocalypse was relatively recent in human history, where we do not see any evidence for this in early Bronze Age cultures. However, by the first millennium BCE, emerging Old World religions begin to incorporate belief systems that revolved around the end of the world or at least the end of the current world, with some emphasizing it as a time of judgment and the cosmic battle between good and evil.
In the New World, beliefs about the end of the world were not as central to the overall belief systems, but they also played a role in shaping practices, including human sacrifices in the Aztec culture. Placating a god from destroying life as it was known seems to have been a critical motivation for human sacrifice. Nevertheless, these belief systems indicate a wide diversity of practices and ideas about the end of the world. Still, they also perhaps reflect a common fear and understanding that life itself was always potentially fragile, and societies could collapse.
- For more information on known mythologies on the end of the world in Europe and Western Asia, see: Ballard, M., 2011. End-timers: three thousand years of waiting for Judgment Day. Praeger, Santa Barbara, Calif.
- For more on Norse and East Asian mythologies on end times, see: Körtner, U.H.J., 1995. The end of the world: a theological interpretation , 1st ed. ed. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.
- For more on the Mayan beliefs, see: Hayes, Bernard. 2018. Mayan Mythology: A Concise Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Sagas, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mayan Myths. Amazon Digital Services LLC.
- For more on Aztec beliefs and myths, including related cultures and other Native American cultures, see: Johnson, W.G. (Ed.), 2017. End of days: an encyclopedia of the Apocalypse in world religions. ABC-CLIO, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, California, pg. 253.