Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Great Conjunction

Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment scene in the Sistine Chapel
I've been reading a lot about the apocalypse recently. 

From the Greek, Apo-calyptein, which means literally to "unveil," the word apocalypse can conjure up a mixture of horror, bewilderment, perhaps amusement (see: zombie apocalypse), and certainly a healthy dose of curiosity. 

Eschatological imagery in literature and art presents the culminating moment of human history, potentially its final moment, envisioning the point at which the current world order is subverted or completely obliterated by new order. 

Fear of the apocalypse, as well as a desire for it, has inspired messianic movements through the ages in many different parts of the world. Prominent thinkers throughout history have developed and promoted prophecies that reveal what they believe to be the date or the form of the End Times; sometimes these prophecies induce the laughter of skeptical men, but other times they are met with a fervent hope that they be true. I've been reading about cases in which masses of people have hoped for those prophecies to be true...

The Judge, doin' work. (Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment scene in the Sistine Chapel)

At first I found it baffling and counterintuitive that people should be motivated by a desire for the end of the world (wouldn't that indicate a suicidal distain for the world, for humanity?). Eventually, after reading multiple accounts of various cultural-historical millenarian movements, I believe I'm beginning to develop an idea of why hundreds, even thousands, of people have come to harbor a profound longing for humanity's final cataclysmic event.

-The most obvious source of millenarian yearning must be violent and relentless oppression. In a world in which physical, emotional, and intellectual suffering is imposed upon one group of people by another, the powerless and anguished group not only wishes for the downfall of their torturers, but for the complete and permanent annihilation of the system or circumstances that made their oppression possible in the first place.

-At the same time violence and oppression stirs a desire for cataclysm among its victims, it can also stir those same desires in the would-be neutral populations. Those who bare witness to the epic failures of humanity can lose their faith in man's ability to govern himself and thereby desire to bring about or witness the end of his reign. An irrevocable transformation, eliminating man's power over himself and the world would forever shift the responsibility off judgment to a realm out of man's reach.

-The apocalypse is a momentous change, but a change that doesn't necessarily mean the end of all things. It is the end of what we have come to know of the world, but that does not mean that everything will cease to exist. A cosmic cleansing of souls or of the material world may take place, or Cthulu could come out of his eons-old hiding place to wreak havoc on our planet. Regardless of the outcome, the world grows old and with it, our deep curiosity to see it turned upside-down. Not even our wildest imagination of the future can be totally discounted; there is no way to positively disprove even the most bizarre post-apocalyptic visions-- utopia? dystopia? They're both fair game.

Ringing in my ears as I type this are the eternal words of Aughra from "The Dark Crystal"(start the video at 3:53). As she scuttles around her model of the cosmos, she tells her gelfling visitor about the Great Conjunction-- a moment when three suns will align and the order of the world will be transformed. With a deliciously haughty attitude, hands on hips, she harrumphs and brushes off the consequences of such a great conjunction, as if it were a routine event that every age must confront... "End! Begin! All the same. Big change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad."

I am going to be writing a series of posts on these messianic movements. The first post will discuss Antonio Conselheiro's messianic movement in the Brazilian hinterlands at the end of the 19th century. Future posts will include the Taqui Ongoy movement of Peru and the secular millennial rhetoric propagated through climate change theories. If I have time, there may even be more posts in the series (I'm thinking about doing one on Isaac Newton's or Antonio Vieira's theories). I hope you enjoy them!


  1. I am looking forward to reading more of these posts -- end time stories are in their way as powerful and compelling as creation stories -- because they so resemble each other.