If you’re reading this, then you’re probably very scared. The world is about to end - on December 21st to be exact. No Christmas Turkey for you. Sorry, but it’s a fact: the Mayans said so. How did they know? Oh, something about calendars.
On the other hand, perhaps the world won’t end. I mean, it’s had so many opportunities already and-nothing doing. Why should the Mayans know more about the End Times than David Koresh anyway? Experts on Mesoamerica pour scorn on the apocalypse of 2012, just as St. Augustine rejected the claims of prophets 1500 years ago.
No, the truly interesting thing about 2012 is the fact that other cultures, radically alien from our own, have their own prophecies of The End. Apocalyptic is usually associated with the Abrahamic religions: the Jews have the Book of Daniel, Christians add Revelation while everybody knows how mushy Mahmoud Ahmadinejead feels when he contemplates the Mahdi. But eschatological anticipation is much more widespread.
For instance, the Aztecs had a precise timetable for world-annihilation. Every 52 years the world completed a cycle after which the destruction of the universe was expected to follow. Terrifying, no? That’s why on the eve of Doomsday priests would cut open a human being and rip the still beating heart out of his chest, as an offering to the gods. If morning arrived, then the gods had accepted the sacrifice and the world would continue to exist for another 52 years. If it did not, well… fortunately they had not yet been forced to face that situation.
The Aztecs also awaited return of the white bearded Quetzalcoatl, who, it was prophesied, would return at the End of Time to usher in a second Golden Age. When Hernan Cortes arrived in 1519 he was catastrophically misidentified as the god, with well-known consequences.
Apocalypses were common in North America too. Many of the Indian wars had an End Times aspect. In 1762 the ‘Delaware Prophet’ appeared in Ohio with an apocalyptic vision of a continent cleansed of white men and subsequent regeneration. The legendary Chief Pontiac formed a grand confederacy of the north-western tribes, intent on fulfilling the prophecy. He failed.
In 1805 another Ohio prophet, Tenskwatawa, explained that the White Man ‘grew from the scum of the great water, when it was troubled by an evil spirit’. He recommended dance as a means of causing a Euro-holocaust. The prophet’s brother, Chief Tecumseh preferred fighting, and formed a great union of tribes, even allying with the British in 1812 to fight a last war against the forces of evil. You know the rest.
The last Indian prophet, Wovoka, emerged in the late 1880s. He too predicted an apocalypse for the White Man but insisted on sacred dances not violence. The ‘Ghost Dance’ religion spread far and wide, but when the warlike Sioux converted the Federal authorities became anxious. In December 1890 the Sioux convened for a mass dance at Wounded Knee, wearing magic ghost shirts to protect them from the white man’s bullets. Soon 200 men, women and children were dead, many shot in the back as they fled the government’s Hotchkiss guns.
Some speculate that these apocalyptic scenarios were spawned by a fusion of indigenous beliefs with Christian doctrines derived from missionaries. Perhaps that’s true sometimes, but it’s obviously false in the case of Aztec apocalyptic, while messianic Maitreya Buddhism likewise developed independently of the Abrahamic faiths.
Early prophesies indicated that Buddhism would fall into oblivion 500 years after Siddartha. When it didn’t, Doomsday was postponed another 500 years. The faith survived. After this second disappointment, there was no consensus on how long Buddhism would last. The good news was that when Buddhism did die, this catastrophe would be reversed. For in a few billion years’ time a future Buddha known as Maitreya would bring enlightenment to the world.
Maitreya Buddhism took deepest root in China. In the late 13th century, when China was governed by a Mongol dynasty known as the Yuan, a secret society known as The White Lotus assumed leadership of the resistance to foreign tyranny. The White Lotus believed in the imminent arrival of the Maitreya and a coming heavenly kingdom of peace and global unity.
In 1352 the apocalyptic warriors led an uprising that began in the city of Guangzhou. A former beggar monk named Zhu Yuanzhang took control of the unrest, successfully spreading revolution to all of China. Peasants flocked to the White Lotus banner thanks to Zhu’s integrity- he enforced the sect’s religious precepts even during the worst of the fighting, forbidding his soldiers the usual perks of war- raping virgins, stealing, that sort of thing.
In 1356 the White Lotus captured Nanking, and the city became the centre of a revolution which raged for thirty years until the Yuan were defeated. Zhu then founded the Ming dynasty that would rule China for the next three centuries. Even the name ‘Ming’ has its roots in Zhu’s apocalyptic beliefs as it is derived from Big and Little Ming Wang, the two ‘brilliant kings’ dispatched by the holy Maitreya to restore justice and peace to the earth.
The White Lotus society reemerged in the late 18th century to fight the Manchurian Qing dynasty. This uprising was crushed in 1804, but a few decades later a startling fusion of Eastern and Western apocalyptic would spawn a truly catastrophic vision of the End. In 1837 a provincial schoolteacher named Hong Renkin failed his civil service exams and had a vivid dream during which he learned that he was Jesus’ younger brother. He took the name Hong Xiuquan and raised an apocalyptic army to fight the Qing and bring heaven to earth. Xiuquan’s forces were only defeated after some 20 million people had died.
And so it goes: the Mayan prophecy by contrast is pretty toothless. It has spawned a few bad movies, and lots of New Age gibberish. And given the history of apocalyptic movements, that’s probably for the best.