Since the Apocalypse failed to occur in 2000, there is a new end of the world being prophesied: December 21, 2012. Apparently, the ancient Mayan calendar “reset” itself on this date, the end of a “Great Cycle” (1). As this date corresponds to a significant astronomical event, the Sun crossing the Equator of the Milky Way, expectations of a ‘new’ apocalypse are on the rise (2). In this context, what strikes me is how a prophecy that has been made more than one thousand years ago by an obscure culture is making headlines today. It made me think about the long lasting power of the millennial tradition in Western culture. Chances are, if nothing of note occurs on 21 December, the attention will be focused on 2060, the date Isaac Newton predicted for the apocalypse (3). Apocalyptic-millennial thinking is nothing new to the West: it has been pervasive for two thousand years or more, and no past ‘failed’ prediction impeded believers to move on to another apocalyptic date. To observe millennial thinking in process and its results, I’m going to briefly look at a “case study”: the Renaissance.
Before proceeding, perhaps it would be useful to differentiate between “apocalypse” and “millenarianism”. Apocalypse refers to the tragic events at the end of days: the emphasis is on catastrophe, suffering, dramatic events, portents and death. Millenarianism, on the other hand, is a belief in the transformation of the world into a better place. I see these as two sides of the same coin: apocalypse is the destructive aspect, and millenarianism the positive, constructive side. They do not have to occur together, but most often they do: a more or less dramatic change has to take place for the world to be transformed.
Let us then wind back to the early days of the Renaissance. The 1300s had already been obsessed with apocalypse and millennialism (4). Yet in the 1400s this fervor was pitched to a new height due to an astrological prophecy called the “great conjunction theory” drawn by an Arabic philosopher named Al-Kindi (5). Al-Kindi based his speculations on the astrological ‘great conjunctions’ between Jupiter and Saturn that occur typically from 20 to 20 years (the last Great Conjunction occurred, incidentally, on May 31, 2000). However, Al-Kindi connected this astrological fact to millennarist beliefs, arguing that once every few centuries major historical change would occur (6). This theory became quite a ‘popular culture’ phenomenon in the era, with famous astrologers like Roger Bacon and Johannes Kepler contributing to the debates. Thus, in 1484 the great conjunction became associated with major millennial and apocalyptic expectations (7,8). Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 was apparently connected with such millennial beliefs (9). Renaissance itself, as a movement originating in Florence, cannot be divorced from apocalyptic thinking: Marsilio Ficino, the would-be theoretician of the Renaissance, continuously spoke of the coming ‘golden age’ (10).
1484 passed without an apocalypse, but astrologers later observed that it did mark an event with great consequence for Christianity: the birth of Martin Luther (11). In any case, the 1484 prophecies did not cease the apocalyptic vogue of the period: instead, astrologers moved on to another great conjunction, due in 1604 (as a side note, there was a supernova in 1572 that caused widespread apocalyptic predictions as well). In expectation of a major event, a great number of intellectuals of the period devoted themselves to discovering a ‘universal language’ (which came to be accepted as being that of mathematics) and a ‘universal science’ (12). While 1604 did not bring the apocalypse either, it had an impact on the intellectual life of Europe, causing a reformatory fervor. Science itself can attribute at least some of its growth to millennial expectations of the age (13, 14). It was in the framework of ‘millennarist science’ that Newton spent a great deal of his time trying to divine the end of the world.
As Landes observed, all scholarship on millennialism starts from the premise that all apocalyptic prophets have been wrong (15). That may be true from a black and white standpoint. Yet we can only think for a moment the impact that millennial and apocalyptic beliefs have on society. There is the dark side: believers like those of the Heaven’s Gate that committed mass-suicide in expectations of the apocalypse; but there is also a bright side, which encourages activism, soul-searching and positive social change. In the above story, we can see that astrological predictions of the apocalypse or millennium fostered, for instance, the cultural pursuits of the Renaissance, the scientific inquiries of the early modern Europe and enlightened monarchs. In the end, it is perhaps safe to say that millennial thinking has a definite impact on societies by speeding up their dynamic – for good and for bad consequences.
This has been just the beginning of a discussion that could delve into thousands of millennial movements; heavy books have been written on this topic and many more will be. It is certainly a fascinating topic that is linked to our aspirations at an individual and societal level. Whether we like it or not, this topic affects us profoundly. We may not believe that 2012 or 2060 or perhaps some scientific experiment gone wrong as the Large Hadron Collider will be the end of us, but the possible signs of catastrophe cannot fail to move us at a deeper level. What we do with that feeling is up to us – hopefully we can channel it in a positive direction.
(1) Anonymous. 21 December 2012 – The Mayan Calendar End-Date . Online. Available at: http://www.crawford2000.co.uk/maya.htm . Accessed on 1 Dec 2008.
(12), (14) Barnes, R. (1988). Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation . Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
(5), (6), (7), (11) Culianu, I.P. (2003). Eros and Magic in the Renaissance . Bucharest: Polirom.
(4) Garin, E. (1990). Astrology in the Renaissance: the Zodiac of Life, trans. by Carolyn Jackson and June Allen. London: Arkana.
(10) Hedesan, D.G. (2008). Mercury and the Expectations of World Renewal in the Renaissance. Unpublished, Presented at Bi-Annual ASE Conference, Charleston, USA.
(9), (15) Landes, R. (2001). The Fruitful Error: Reconsidering Millennial Enthusiasm – Review of Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages by Eugen Weber. Journal of Interdisciplinary History , 32(1), pp. 89-98.
(13) Noble, D. (1997). The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention . New York, Penguin.
(2) USA Today . (2007). Does Maya Calendar Predict 2012 Apocalypse? Online. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2007-03-27-maya-2012_n.htm . Accessed on 1 Dec 2008.
(8) Weinstein, D. (1958). Savonarola, Florence, and the Millenarian Tradition. Church History , 27 (4), pp. 291-305.
(3) Wikipedia . (2008). Isaac Newton’s Occult Studies. Online. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newtons_occult_studies . Accessed on 2 Dec 2008.