Beliefs About The End Of The World From History That Make "Trumpocalypse" Look Tame

Coppo di Marcovaldo

If you believe we're living in the end times, you're likely not alone, and not only because living in Trump's America seems to be a constant cavalcade of dire, escalating warning sirens. Historically, beliefs about the end of the world have been common, with religious systems incorporating it keenly into how they viewed the world; indeed, as we'll see, many of them wrote the history of humans as a series of elaborate narrow escapes (Noah's Flood, near-death by rampaging holy cow) that would keep happening until it was all over. Hardly cheerful. But at least nobody in the current visions of the world's end is going to be eaten by giant mysterious cannibals, or surrounded by billions of demon kings. Small mercies.

Beliefs about the end of the world can actually cause quite a lot of scholarly argument; there's an ongoing discussion, for instance, about whether or not medieval Europeans were terrified of the year 1000 as the potential year of the Christian Apocalypse. (Current verdict: probably not.) Apocalypse predictions are also vulnerable to media mistreatment and sensationalism, understandably enough. This is a pretty ancient phenomenon: we know, for instance, about a woman called Thiota who caused havoc in 847 in Mainz by declaring the world was shortly going to end, gathering a bunch of followers (including priests) and getting very rich in the process, until the Church forced her to stop. Considering our fondness for a good apocalypse tale, the furore over the Mayan calendar "prediction" of 2012 isn't surprising, though Mayan thinking about history was in fact cyclical, and they just thought 2012 was the start of a new cycle.

A note: I'm going to use "apocalypse" to mean "the event that means the end of the world," even though the word technically really only applies to the Christian end-times described in Revelations. It comes from the Greek and is widely understood to just mean a world-ending situation, though, so a bit of shorthand is useful.

That Apocalypse Could Only Be Avoided By Offering Human Sacrifices

Codex Magliabechiano

Aztec religion was fairly unique in that it was basically entirely structured around avoiding apocalypse. According to Aztec belief, the world was currently in the "fifth sun" stage of creation, with four suns preceding it that had been created and destroyed, and working to stave off the fifth sun's ending was a daily effort. Nature and the continued rising and falling of the sun were powered by the sacrifice of other gods, and humans were totally indebted to them for it. To keep things going, pay off the debt, and stop the world from ending, the Aztecs were prone to sacrificing basically anything that moved or was valued. The highest sacrifice, though, was human blood and the heart.

To be offered as a human sacrifice, with a lot of attendant pomp and fuss (big temples and ritualistic bloodletting), was a way to keep the blood of the sun moving and match the sacrifice of the gods, and if you didn't do it, the world would fall apart around your ears.

That We Narrowly Avoided Death At The Hands Of A Bloodthirsty Cow

James Wasserman

Like several religions, the ancient Egyptians viewed humanity's current status on earth as one of several in a series of mini-apocalypses and rebirths. Their belief about how the contemporary Egyptian world might end (submerged into the rising waters) isn't nearly as interesting as one of the apocalypses it survived: near-death by holy cow.

According to Egyptian myth, the sun-god Ra became indignant about humanity's lack of respect and decided to unleash the wrath of the cow-god Sekhmet, who proceeded to cause utter havoc, killing humans left and right in a massacre that flattened civilization. She sustained herself, as you do, by drinking the river of blood that ensued. Ra eventually repented and, before Sekhmet could kill absolutely everybody, produced a river of beer dyed blood-red, which the cow-god drank, driving her to complete intoxication and sending her to sleep. Humanity escaped to annoy the gods another day, and Sekhmet became the benevolent goddess Hathor, presumably through the power of a hangover.

That The Righteous Would Drink Wine Mixed With Bull Fat

Jean-Pol Grandmont

We tend to think of Greek and Roman gods as the dominant religions of the ancient world before Christianity came along, but there was also a weird little cult that attained serious prominence for a while, including some Roman emperors: Mithraism. And it involves a bull as well.

Worshipping Mithra involved believing that the world was created via the sacrifice of a great white bull, so it made sense that their vision of the end of the world would also involve bulls. Plus, as with several other visions of the apocalypse, it involves anointing the followers of the religion as "saved" and everybody else as doomed. For followers of Mithraism, this meant the god Mithra would come back to earth, slaughter another bull, mix its fat with wine, and give the drink to all loyal believers, making them immortal.

That Seeing The Damned In Hell Would Be The Best Thing Ever

Folio 108, Limbourg Brothers

The early Christian author Tertullian, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries, talked famously about the apocalypse — and part of the reason his words are so famous is that Friedrich Nietzche took massive exception to them. Tertullian, in his vision of the world as the Christian apocalypse hit and sinners went to hell while the saved went to heaven, dwelled on the fact that those who'd been spared would actually be able to peer into hell's depths and witness the torture of the damned:

“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause."

Nietszche, of course, would use this as his justification for interpreting all religious belief as a kind of elaborate love for revenge.

That True Believers Would Have The Help Of Ghost-Soldiers

Hampden C Dubose

Dating from the fifth century, the Divine Incantations Scripture is a bit of an oddity: it preaches an altered version of the beliefs of Chinese Taoism, with a huge emphasis on the end of the world. And what it comes up with is pretty remarkable.

According to the Scripture, the apocalypse was on its way rapidly, and conversion was the only way to save people from the upcoming cataclysm. The faithful, it said, would be protected by 30,000 "celestial elite troops," 800,000 "protectors from the six-fold heaven" and billions from other parts of heaven — which would be necessary, because 80 million ghosts would be coming to annihilate the unfaithful, including tiny water-ghosts made up of drowned people. The elite troops were actually demon kings, which could be controlled by reciting the text and keeping it close. Insurance, you might say.

That We'd All Be Eaten By Cannibalistic Monsters

Biblioteque nationale de France

The legend of Gog and Magog as agents of evil that will appear at the end of the world has found its way into Christian, Jewish, and Islamic texts, and still pops up regularly. In a more ancient form, though, it was a bit less abstract. Gog and Magog were meant to be foreigners (of unclear type, probably adjusted to whatever suited the person telling the legend) held at bay behind a mythical wall know as the Gates Of Alexander, which was supposedly erected by Alexander The Great to protect the West from rampaging hordes on the Caucasus. (No, he didn't build one.)

In early Islamic and eastern Christian sources, people disagree about whether Gog and Magog are meant to be individual people, whole cultures, or the names of lands, but they do note that they're meant to be cannibals. Medieval maps of various places viewed as hostile, such as Syria, include Gog and Magog hanging about looking sinister and eating people. Racist as hell.