By Patricia Hickson
UO folklorist Daniel Wojcik studies beliefs about endings. He will be traveling to the Yucatán to be at the epicenter of the “apocalypse tourism” phenomenon expected for the predicted end of the Mayan calendar (and end of time) on December 21, 2012.
In case you haven’t heard, the world is ending—again. The precise end date is December 21, 2012, the upcoming winter solstice. By some interpretations, this is the last day of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar. In other words, when the calendar ends, so does the world.
It’s also the birthday of Daniel Wojcik, an associate professor of English and director of the folklore program, who just happens to be an eschatologist—a person who studies “the last things” and beliefs about the end times.
According to Wojcik, there are thousands of web pages and a mountain of books offering support, survival advice and spiritual guidance to help you prepare for the coming apocalypse and whatever comes after. But he would tell you not to worry too much. From his perspective, the 2012 end date is just the latest of hundreds, if not thousands, of predictions about The End.
For much of the last three decades, Wojcik has been researching end-of-the- world beliefs. His book on the subject, The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism and Apocalypse in America (1997), has made him a sought-out source for the press. Last year he was a go-to expert for a series of articles published by the CNBC News Network in conjunction with their documentary, Apocalypse 2012.
While apocalyptic beliefs are usually portrayed as fringe—e.g. the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown cults that led to mass suicides—Wojcik says the idea of a worldly cataclysm followed by regeneration of the earth is actually a mainstream narrative in many societies.
“It is an enduring, pervasive and extremely significant phenomenon that has existed historically and cross-culturally,” he said.
While he takes the subject very seriously, Wojcik also clearly appreciates the pop- culture artifacts of apocalyptic belief. The walls of his office feature a large chalk drawing of a mushroom cloud, images of a zombie apocalypse, flying saucer folk art and doomsday film posters, including one titled “Apocalypse Culture Cinema” from a film festival he organized at the UO in 2008.
End-Times Mythologies, Sacred Narratives
To underscore the pervasiveness of doomsday beliefs, Wojcik points to the end-times mythologies and sacred narratives of the world’s major religions (see below). Add to this the eclectic mix of modern apocalyptic visions, reflected in beliefs about environmental destruction, looming pandemics, extraterrestrial invasions and nuclear Armageddon.
Despite the recurring “last day” predictions over the centuries, Wojcik is anything but dismissive of 2012 concerns. His perspective is respectful. Studying end-of- the-world prophecies, he says, reveals issues of ultimate concern, the deepest fears and biggest questions of human consciousness: What happens at the end? What is the meaning of human existence? Why is there suffering in the world and how will it be resolved? What is the fate of humanity?
“I’m not into mocking these beliefs,” he said. “I’m interested in the meaning and cultural influence of these ideas. From the perspective of the study of society, religion and human psychology, it is significant that so many believe the world is ending.”
Moreover, he is sensitive to the fact that predictions of the end often emerge around times of crisis.
“There is a relationship between apocalyptic speculation and times when people feel societal traditions are being abandoned or destroyed, or when there is an increased sense of suffering or threat in the world,” he said. “From a believer’s perspective, an apocalypse offers the promise of a better world and the end of something terrible.”
The expansion of Greek conquest in the Near East around the fourth century B.C., for instance, gave rise to Persian, Egyptian and Hebrew millennial movements. Texts from these cultures predicted the arrival of a divinely sent ruler who would defeat the Greeks, restore true religion and create a golden age.
Similarly, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament was written during the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians and foretells the destruction of the oppressors and the coming of a perfect world.
More recently, in the late 1800s several Native American prophets described an event that would end oppression by whites (in some versions of the vision the earth would open up and swallow the oppressors), reinstate traditional culture and reunite the living with dead relatives and ancestors who would return.
A Millennialism Mash-Up
Present-day apocalyptic beliefs are no exception to this pattern. Dire scientific predictions related to overpopulation, climate change and environmental degradation— combined with fears about nuclear war, terrorist attacks, national and global financial meltdowns and other societal upheavals— create what Wojcik calls a “period of severe anxiety” that makes the possibility of an apocalypse seem more real.
When combined with religious beliefs, such secular predictions and circumstances can take on spiritual significance. Several modern Christian sects, for instance, associate the possibility of nuclear annihilation with biblical prophecies of a fiery cataclysm—and, more importantly, redemption.
Thanks to the Internet, today’s profusion of fears now cross-pollinate in ways never before possible. Wojcik calls it a “millennialism mash-up,” with believers across the globe exchanging, merging and reposting predictions about end-of-the-world scenarios.
Reinterpretation is a hallmark of doomsday forecasting. “End-times enthusiasts consistently reimagine and transform theories and beliefs to make them relevant to their world views,” he said. “The traditional angels of the past are transformed into benevolent beings in flying saucers, and then the flying saucers are reinterpreted as apocalyptic UFOs flown by fallen angels.”
The 9-11 attack, for instance, has been appropriated by religious groups, conspiracy theorists, militarists and others as a sign that the end is near.
Current anxiety over global conditions is reflected by recent public polls. A 2012 Reuters survey of more than 16,000 people worldwide found that about 15 percent believe the world will end during their lifetime and two-thirds of those fear that the supposed end of the Mayan calendar signifies it could happen this year. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 found that 41 percent of people in the U.S. believe that Jesus Christ will either “definitely” or “probably” return to the earth before 2050.
Wojcik is not sure if this represents a higher percentage than those fearing the end of the world at the turn of the millennium, the year 2000, when Y2K concerns were rampant. But he is certain that 2012 fears are imbued with much more religious significance at the level of popular or “folk” belief. The apocalyptic ideas tied to Y2K mostly centered on the fear that computers would shut down when the year rolled from 1999 to 2000, resulting in massive infrastructure meltdowns around the world. Not so 2012, an end-time prediction associated with universal forces beyond the power of humans to create or control.
No matter what the source of the prediction, however, Wojcik emphasizes that most doomsday prophecies are ultimately positive from the perspective of believers.
“There is promise in the millennial narrative,” he said. “It is part of what makes the belief so enduring.”
This optimism, he says, extends even to secular apocalyptic scenarios, where “there is this undertone of ‘let it all come crumbling down,’ and then we can go back to living a more simple way of life, maybe as a tribal society, some sort of imagined utopian existence.”
The Earth Will Be Purified
This fall Wojcik is teaching an upper- division course, Apocalypse Now and Then: The End of The World in American Culture and Consciousness.
While the timing of the class capitalizes on the current apocalyptic fervor, Wojcik is using the opportunity to lead his students through serious research questions and theoretical models of eschatological belief and discourse.
These include three categories of millennialism: catastrophic millennialism, avertive millennialism and postmillennialism.
Catastrophic millennialism is the most fatalistic of the bunch. It is the prediction that a disaster, completely unavoidable and totally devastating, will befall humankind, ending life as we know it. This is the apocalypse in the traditional sense of erupting volcanoes, tidal waves, floods, earthquakes or nuclear war.
Often catastrophic millennialism anticipates a destruction that will purify the earth, with the chosen ones surviving on a renewed and cleansed planet. Widespread belief in the Rapture of the righteous prior to the destruction of the world is a classic example of catastrophic millennialism.
Avertive millennialism, in contrast, puts forth the notion that humans can prevent an apocalyptic catastrophe and bring about a golden age. This thought system is often associated with New Agers, such as those who participated in the Harmonic Convergence of August 16–17, 1987.
Organized by visionary Jose Argüelles, the convergence was purportedly the world’s first globally synchronized meditation. Its purpose was to create a planetary signal of positive intention that would align the spiritual and mental energies of humans, preventing both worldly cataclysm and metaphysical calamity and ensuring a more positive future for the earth. Argüelles died in March 2011, but his followers are organizing a similar synchronized meditation event for December 21, 2012, to avert catastrophe and bring about collective salvation.
Consistent with the optimism of avertive millennialists, postmillennialists (sometimes also referred to as progressive millennialists) believe that humans, acting in accordance with a divine plan, will usher in a new era of utopia. With postmillennialism, no catastrophe is associated with the creation of terrestrial paradise. Rather, the transition to a better world results from change that is enacted gradually by people working to fulfill divine mandates.
As American as Baseball and Hot Dogs
Wojcik finds postmillennialism particularly interesting because of its link to religious and social reforms in U.S. history. In the introduction to his book, he points to historians and social scientists who have described the preoccupation with millennialism as central to American history and consciousness, just as deeply embedded in American culture as baseball and hot dogs.
During the American Revolution, the idea of America as a promised land animated popular rhetoric about the war; many ministers preached that a liberated America was the place where Christ would return to erect his kingdom, thereby justifying the revolution on religious grounds. The idea that humanity holds responsibility for fostering a new and more perfect world has permeated the American consciousness ever since.
This perspective laid the postmillennial foundation central to the emerging worldviews of several nineteenth-century religious movements including those of the Shakers and Mormons.
The Shakers believed that their founder Mother Ann Lee was the embodiment of Christ’s Second Coming and that God’s millennial kingdom had been initiated, to be revealed in full as human beings perfected themselves. The Shakers strove to obtain this perfection by practicing celibacy, gender equality, community and confession.
Postmillennial beliefs are also regarded by some theorists as the ideological catalyst for early feminist consciousness, slave revolts and labor reform.
Suffrage leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, for instance, spoke of women gaining the right to vote as a millennial turn of events that would usher in a new age of gender equality and world peace.
“Postmillennialists see themselves as carrying out God’s will,” said Wojcik. “In some cases this has meant fighting for a freer, more equal and more utopian society.”
While such ideas may have inspired positive social reform in America, Wojcik notes that a belief that one is acting in accordance with the will of God can also justify acts of violence, even genocide.
Leaders in the Nazi Party, for instance, believed they were working to actualize a new world according to a millennial plan. Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, seen from a Western perspective as repressive, has sometimes been characterized as a postmillennial movement.
This fall, Wojcik’s students will examine these historical precedents of apocalyptic belief and explore how beliefs are being shaped today, with special emphasis on the role of the Internet. According to the syllabus: “Idiosyncratic online users fascinated by end-times possibilities can now disseminate obscure theories and racist, homophobic, sexist and anti-Semitic ideas that may reach millions of people, and perhaps provoke acts of hatred and violence.”
At the conclusion of fall term, Wojcik will head south for his upcoming end-of- days birthday to document the “apocalypse tourism” and end-of-the-world pilgrimages to ancient Mayan temples such as Chichen Itza in the Mexican state of Yucatán. This is the site of one of the largest Mayan cities and the epicenter of activities related to the December 21, 2012, prediction.
Although armed with a couple of camcorders, Wojcik said he really isn’t bringing anything different than the average tourist would pack for a tropical locale. He expresses more concern about crowds of anxious seekers than impending global catastrophe. But that’s exactly the draw.
“I just can’t pass it up,” he said. “What does 2012 mean to so many believers? I just want to see and be a part of it. For me, it is the ultimate birthday party.”
God of Light Vs. Spirit of Evil. One of the world’s oldest apocalyptic traditions persists today in Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran, which is based on the revelations of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Formulated in sacred texts that date from the sixth century BCE, Zoroastrian eschatology foretells cycles of cosmic time involving the struggle between the god of light (Ahura Mazda) and the spirit of evil—a conflict that culminates in the arrival of a savior-figure, an apocalyptic battle, the defeat of evil, the raising of the dead, the flooding of the earth with molten metal, a final judgment and the creation of a purified new world.
Endless Cycles of Destruction, Re-creation. Hindu eschatologies, such as the Vaishnavite tradition, embrace a view of cosmic time as cyclical and infinite, involving an endlessly recurring series of worldly destructions and re-creations. In classical Hindu mythology, the world goes through a cycle of four cosmic ages, or yugas, beginning with a golden age and gradually declining over time, ending with the most degenerate age, the kali yuga. Described as a time of war, greed and degradation, the kali yuga will conclude with a final battle between the demons who rule over the age and the god Kalki, the last Avatar of Vishnu, who appears as a warrior, saves the righteous and defeats evil. The world is then completely destroyed before the earth is created again.
A Bodhisattva Will Restore the Dharma. Within various Buddhist traditions it is believed that the Buddha’s teaching (the Dharma) will decline over a period of three successive ages, eventually disappearing completely as humanity becomes increasingly selfish, violent and depraved. In some Buddhist eschatologies, a savior Buddha or bodhisattva will appear to restore the Dharma. In Tibetan Kalachakra traditions, the savior-figure is said to come from the hidden kingdom of Shambhala, and as the twenty- fifth and final Kalki King, he will incarnate in the world during a time of war and evil to bring about paradise on earth.
The Flood. Sacred narratives about a cataclysmic flood recur in world mythology and religion, from the well-known account of Noah and the Ark to the Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian versions of Gilgamesh (pre-2000 BCE) with its flood hero Utnapishtim. Comparable narratives occur in Mesoamerican mythology and among the Maori people of New Zealand as well as in Native American, Australian Aboriginal and Chinese traditions. In most, the flood is sent by deities to punish humanity and a hero survives the deluge by following divine warnings and building an ark, raft or other vessel. In Greek mythology, Deucalion and Pyrrha escape the great flood in an ark; in Hindu cosmologies, Manu builds a huge boat to house two of each animal; and in Hawaiian tradition, Nu’u and his family survive the flood in a house-boat that eventually lands on top of Hawaii’s highest volcano, Mauna Kea.
The Book of Revelation. This last chapter of the Bible’s New Testament describes an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and the establishment of a millennial realm. Based on the visions of John of Patmos, the esoteric language and symbolism of Revelation has evoked diverse interpretations, with its imagery of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, terrifying beasts, angelic beings, the judgment and fall of Babylon and the Mark of the Beast. In this prophecy, the end of the world is preceded by a period of increased sinfulness and depravity, followed by a time of tribulation and the rise of the Antichrist, after which Christ returns and defeats evil at the battle of Armageddon, ushering in a millennium of peace and justice.
The Day of Doom. In Islam, revelations given to Muhammad and recorded in the Qur’an predict the imminent destruction of the world (the “Day of Doom”), the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment of humanity. In this tradition, at the end of time the physical world will become unstable, with mountains turning as pliant as wool and the sky torn asunder. Assorted Islamic apocalyptic traditions also include the appearance of the Dajjal (the “false messiah”), the return of Jesus to bring justice on earth and the coming of Mahdi (“the rightly guided one”) as the redeemer of righteous Muslims before the final destruction of the world.
Ghost Dance. The Native American Ghost Dance movements of the 1870s–1890s arose as a response to catastrophic oppression. Stressing the revival of traditional ways of life, Ghost Dances were performed as a means of seeking divine intervention, in which the white oppressors would be destroyed and ancestors and herds of bison would return to a cleansed earth. The violent suppression of the Ghost Dance and the massacre of more than 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890 remains an emblematic event in the history of the slaughter of Native people and destruction of their culture.
Dreamtime. In the cosmologies of some Australian aboriginal groups, the ritual performances of Dreamtime stories are enacted in part to sustain and renew the world. Among the Warlpiri people, for example, ancient sacred songs and ceremonies are believed to be unalterable and eternal; their cyclic enactment ensures the continuation of life and averts apocalypse. Failure to correctly perform these sacred ceremonies and mythic narratives will endanger or end existence.