Apocalyptic prophesies that went out with a whimper
These end of times predictions didn't live up to their hype.
If the end is nigh—or tomorrow, according to the end of the Mayan calendar which abruptly stops on Dec. 21, 2012--then it wouldn’t be the first time. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have predicted humanity’s extinction.
Not all omened end times attract attention. Some are more flamboyant--with their comets, planetary alignments, Antichrists and UFOs--than others.
Here are famous predictions that clearly didn’t bring about the end of the world, but offer us perspective on mankind’s enduring sense of precariousness.
13. An Assyrian annihilation, 2800 BC
In Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, the author mentions an ancient tablet from the cradle of civilization that describes end times that sound remarkably like our own. Dated around 2800 BC, the tablet reads: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Apparently not.
But snotty kids and aspiring authors must seem bleak in every millennium.
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12. Early Christians and Christ’s Second Coming, 1st and 2nd centuries CE
Many proto-Christians anticipated that Christ would return to earth within a generation of his death, thereby ushering in the end of the world. Evidence for this lies in several biblical verses, particularly Matthew 24:34. In the 2nd century, Montanus, along with two companion prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla, claimed to embody the Holy Spirit and to espouse a Third Testament. In it he claimed that the world would end within the century.
11. The First Millennial Apocalypse, 1000 CE
Pope Sylvester II helped fan the flames of millennial furor by assenting that, yes, the world would probably end when the calendar year turned from three digits to four. Due to high illiteracy rates and the relative newness of the Gregorian calendar, many of the Pope’s subjects may have been unaware of the cataclysmic annual change, the original Y1K. Nevertheless, many Europeans still found opportunities to riot.
10. The Fifth Crusade, 1284 CE
Six hundred and sixty-six years after the birth of Islam, Pope Innocent III declared that the defeat of the Muslim faith, which he referred to as “the beast,” would bring about the Second Coming of Christ. His papal bull, Quia major, launched the Fifth Crusade in 1213, which sought to capture Jerusalem prior to the Apocalypse. Not only was the Fifth Crusade a failure for Europe (in Egypt, the Sultan Al-Kamil’s army defeated the crusaders in 1221), 1284 also proved to be a dud as doomsdays go.
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9. The Black Death, 1347-1350 CE
Mass graves, blackened flesh, deserted villages and famine signaled to many existence’s end. Given that between 30 and 60 percent of the European population was annihilated during the 14th century--when the pandemic was at its height--destruction understandably seemed evident. Additionally the Hundred Year war between England and France brought further instability, and deaths, to the plagued population.
8. Sandro Botticelli’s “The Mystical Nativity,” 1504 CE
Increasingly sophisticated technologies during the golden age of Florentine art paired with influential religious demagogues (such as the friar Giorlamo Savonarola) encouraged an end-of-time outlook. In this environment the great Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli constructed “The Mystical Nativity.” Above the joyful painting are dour Greek words that refer to “the second woe of the Apocalypse.” In the first person, Botticelli predicts that the end will come in three and a half years, or in 1504. Yet his painting still hangs for all to see at the National Gallery in London.
7. Johannes Stöffler’s flood, 1524 CE
Respected German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Stöffler claimed that a great flood, caused by a planetary conjunction in Pisces, would submerge the earth on February 20, 1524. Citizens bought into the deluge prediction, buying provisions and commissioning boats. Count von Iggleheim built a three-story ark that he docked on the Rhine. On the fated day a few raindrops did fall, causing a melee near von Igglehim’s barge and the Count’s stoning.
6. The Great Disappointment, 1844 CE
When things don’t go as planned, it results in disappointment. When the Second Coming doesn’t come as prophesied, the anticlimax incites the Great Disappointment. Followers of Baptist preacher William Miller dutifully gave away all earthly possessions and prepared for Judgement Day on October 22, 1844, as Miller had prophesied based on his interpretation of the Book of Daniel. When his predictions proved inaccurate, Millerites were pilloried in the press; some suffered violence and several churches were burned.
5. The Giza Pyramids, 1881 CE
The palindromic year 1881 proved a favorite for prophets of doom. One of the more popular theories, and the most parodied, came from the Astronomer Royal Charles Piazzi Smyth, who believed that he found the key date for the Apocalypse in the measurements of the Giza Pyramid, which he believed to be built by the biblical Noah using the sacred ‘pyramid inch’. The Bible Student movement adopted his ideas. They first prophesised the Second Coming in 1882, and then in various subsequent years until 1911.
4. Halley’s Comet, 1910 CE
Parisians blamed its reappearance for the flooding of the Seine. The British thought that it augured a German invasion. Fearing its toxic tail, Americans bought gas masks and comet pills. Halley’s Comet panic spanned the globe. An Oklahoman group even attempted to sacrifice a virgin to spare the earth.Not everyone interpreted the celestial body as cause for cowering. Rooftop viewing parties were that year’s most celebrated fetes. And the novelist Mark Twain accurately predicted that his own death would coincide with the comet’s return since his birth had aligned with Halley’s debut.
3. Planetary alignment, 1982
1974’s best-selling book The Jupiter Effect presaged that the alignment of planets on the same side of the sun would spur a cataclysm of events: advanced gravitational forces, increased sunspots and changes in the earth’s rotation. Ultimately, the San Andreas Fault would erupt, leading to multiple earthquakes. It all sounds pretty farfetched, but authors John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann’s combined pedigrees (Cambridge astrophysicists) lent the book gravitas resulting in international unease.
In 1983, Gribbin and Plagemann issued another bestseller, The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, suggesting that the public’s appetite for destruction is insatiable.
2. Y2K, 1999 CE
Some of the globe’s most eminent institutions expressed concern about how their computer systems would handle the “Y2K Bug.” The International Monetary Fund warned of potential chaos. Then U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan fretted that companies would stockpile resources. Some international papers posited accidental nuclear deployments. This anxiety was further fueled by timely interpretations of Nostradamus’ “1999 quatrain” that prophesised of a “great and terrifying leader from the sky.”
1. Large Hadron Collider, 2008 CE
Buried 570 feet beneath the Swiss-French border, this Big Bang simulator smashes protons at 99.99 the speed of light. Since the 1990s, media outlets have speculated that recreating the conditions under which the earth was formed could create a black hole that would swallow our planet. Physicists countered that the world is continually subject to particle collision and cosmic rays that would have created a black hole by now if one were possible. But then again physicists operate under non-zero probability, so anything is possible.
Photo: Angelo Cavalli/Getty Images
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