People are idiots. People listen to Justin Bieber records, people eat chicken from buckets and people paid to see Transformers 3. Therefore, it’s no wonder that when someone says an ancient civilisation, a magic book or a man in the sky told them that the world will soon end, many many people believe them. So in honour of it being yet another final day on Earth, let us bring you a low down on some of the best apocalypse predictions of all time.
Before we’d even properly got going as a human race, people were already looking forward to the end of time. Famous wolf-suckler and city-founder Romulus is said to have chosen the spot for Rome based on the appearance of 12 eagles and so naturally, people assumed that the capital of the empire would last a mere 120 years: 10 for each eagle. Makes sense when you think about it.
Doomsayers love a round number for some reason and few are rounder than 1000AD. Some historians believe that a thousand years after the baby Jesus came along, people across Europe prepared for the end. Charles McKay wrote: “The scene of the last judgement was expected to be at Jerusalem. In the year 999, the number of pilgrims proceeding eastward, to await the coming of the Lord in that city, was so great that they were compared to a desolating army. Most of them sold their goods and possessions before they quitted Europe, and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy Land. Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins. It was thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near.”
1st February, 1524: London
Astrologers (that famously reliable group of people who should be legally obliged to have “” tattooed on their foreheads) predicted that a great flood would engulf the city. Sure it’s not a world ending thing but it did cause over 20,000 people to leave the city and the Priory Church of St Bartholomew to build an elevated fortress filled with supplies. When the year proved to be unusually dry, the astrologers played the “ohhh, I forgot to carry the one – what am I like?” card and said that the world would actually end in 1624 when everyone would conveniently be dead anyway.
Sometimes “the truth” can come from the humblest of places and this was never truer than in 1806. ‘The Prophet Hen of Leeds’ was a mysterious chicken who suddenly started laying eggs inscribed with the warning: “Christ is coming”. In a surreal scenario of Charlotte’s Webbian proportions, the locals swooped on the location, repenting of their numerous sins (it was Leeds after all) and begging God for forgiveness. However, it transpired that the only one having to suffer agonizing pain was the chicken herself who, after her eggs were written on in acid and ink by the farmer, would have her produce…returned from whence it came. Mackay says “At this explanation, those who had prayed, now laughed, and the world wagged as merrily as of yore,” so it kind of makes it all OK.
1910: Halley’s Comet
By this time, a bit like shampoo companies, crazies were having to back up their theories with something slightly resembling science and so the passing of Halley’s Comet provided a great opportunity. It was said that as the Earth passed through the comet’s tail, the minute amounts of cyanide would kill the entire population. People made thousands selling anti-comet gasmasks, anti-comet pills and anti-comet umbrellas (presumably followed by “I survived Armageddon and all I got was this lousy waistcoat” waistcoats).
Some credit must go to 19th Century uberlad Mark Twain for his own personal prediction:
“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
He died the day after the comet passed. Which must have been at least some consolation.
20th Century: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Of course, the true spiritual home of the apocalypse is the USofA (Chris Columbus thought the world would end in 1658 so they got off to a bad start) and the most prolific predictors are the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Branching off from the Bible Student Group (who had already woken up 5 times to be surprised that the world hadn’t ended) the JWs believe that the apocalypse has already started. The Watchtower predicted that the Armageddon would culminate in 1914 and that the “Gentile times” would end. In a way, he was kind of 4% right as over the next 5 years, 17 million would die in the First World War and as many as 50 million would die of Spanish Flu.
The past century has included a prediction about once every decade. The current forecast is, the rapture will occur before the generation overlapping with the 1914 generation dies. Bless: you’ve got to admire them for trying.
1969: Charles Manson
In a time when the end of the world felt like a real possibility thanks to nuclear warfare, a number of predictions ended in definite tragedy. Musician and cult leader, Charles Manson, believed that the way to initiate “the apocalyptic race war” (which was foretold, no joke, by the Beatles) would be to order the brutal murder of several families. Similarly, after the world failed to end before 2000, approximately 778 followers of a Ugandan movement committed suicide or were murdered. These tragic events (as well as the hundreds of rapture induced suicides) show the terrible power that doomsaying cults hold.
Fortunately, the consequences for most people believing that the year 1999 would be the last were simply red faces and a waste of money. Again, a slight whiff of science and the mass media generated huge levels of concern that the date ticking over would cause all the world’s computers to crash simultaneously. Instead, around $300 billion dollars was spent preparing for the disaster that was clocks looking a bit silly and people pretending they’d travelled back in time.
2011: Harold Camping
You may remember the practice apocalypse a couple of years back that was the “Bible guaranteed” Rapture promised by Christian radio presenting nutjob Harold Camping. By analysing the best-selling novel, the Rapture was set for 21st May 2011 thanks to the following logic:
5=atonement, 10=completeness and 17=heaven. I shouldn’t even have to tell you this stuff it’s just that obvious. I mean – durrrr.
1st April 33AD (when Jesus died, before resurrecting himself shouting APRIL FOOL!) is 1978 years and 51 days before 21st May 2011.
(Atonement x completeness x heaven)2=(5x10x17)2=722,500
Coincidence? I THINK NOT! This was staring us in the face all along and we didn’t realise it!
Strangely, something must have gone wrong with the maths because May 22nd rolled around and everyone still had jobs and families and mortgages. Apart from those people who’d spent their entire lifesavings to fund Camping’s $100 million advertising campaign.
Camping pulled the classic “actually, no, it’s actually going to happen in October” but by this point, people were bizarrely beginning to doubt what he said.
21st December 2012: Mayan Calendar
So this brings us up to today and the real end of the world. This one’s got to be right, I mean, it’s got Mayans and they invented chocolate so they can’t be wrong. The essence of this prediction is simple: an ancient civilisation wrote down a calendar and because they need to buy a new one, the world is going to end.
The Mayans were pretty impressive: they invented a calendar with a unit called the b’ak’tun that lasts 144,000 days. I once bought a calendar that lasted 18 months and even the concept of that proved too much for me so I don’t know how they handled planning stuff hundreds of years in advance. Getting worked up about this is like getting worked up about having to take down “Fluffy Kittens in Welly Boots 2012” and replacing it with “Sexy Nuns Having Fun 2013”.
However, there is definitely something we can predict: Facebook will become unbearable over the next 24 hours as people celebrate their new lease of life and those who truly believe breathe a sigh of relief and laugh it off with the rest of us.
The Real Apocalypses
What’s scary is people don’t recognise the real apocalypses we face. Climate change truly threatens to destroy the Earth as we know it and yet we continue to burn down the Amazon. Heart disease will kill about a quarter of us but we still keep shovelling mini lasagne bites down our gullets. Every year 1.8 million children die from diarrhoea alone and yet we bought 27 million Furbies in 1998 so we’d have ickle pink fwends to talk to when we felt lonely oo look you can change their hair and they learn words and their ickle beaks go uppy downy like they’re eating oh let’s get 3 so they can talk to each other.
The fact is, we get so worked up about magic apocalypses we can’t do anything about because we can’t face the real apocalypses the world is facing every single day. And that’s sad.