Myth, Eschatology and the Future
Destruction and Conceptions of Time
Many mythologies discuss the ultimate end of time, in which chaotic forces destroy the world. These myths are called eschatological (Greek eschatos: “‘last, furthest”) because they discuss the “ultimate” topics. Sometimes we see glimmers of hope through a new creation or in a better world after life on Earth has been destroyed in huge catastrophes. The mythical concept of time thus tends to be cyclical. Although belief in individual rebirth is one of the basic theories of afterlife, we can find a parallel to this view in cosmogonic myths about the rebirth of the universe.
Thus, in Hindu mythology, the demiurge Brahma recreates the universe time and again. Every day in Brahma’s life is a cosmic era (kalpa) that ends with the destruction of the universe. A kalpa is divided into one thousand mahayugas (“great periods”), life cycles of the universe. Each of them consists of four ages: krita, treta, dvapara, and kali. In the first age, righteousness rules, people live long, and they are healthy and happy. Humans later deviate from the truth, and diseases, disasters, and corruption appear. At present, we are in the middle of the most unfortunate age of kaliyuga, when unhappiness, pain, and corruption rule.
In some sources, these four ages are connected with different metals: gold, silver, copper, and iron. Such a doctrine of four ages was also known in ancient Persia (Basham 1959, 321). A similar concept of cosmic ages, including naming these ages according to the same metals, can be found in a work composed by the Greek poet Hesiod around 700 B.C.E. Thus, all these mythical doctrines seem to be related and perhaps even derive from the old Indo-¬European traditions. We can see that the pessimistic idea of decline and the devolution of human civilization is much older than the modern myth of evolution and the progress of humankind.
The world’s various mythologies present many scenarios for the future cosmic catastrophes that end life on Earth. The cyclical worldview itself promotes the belief that creation will ultimately lead to destruction and t of evil and injustice in the world. Finally, the world deteriorates so much from the primordial happy age that it needs to be purified. Thus, these scenarios are not completely pessimistic. After the cosmic catastrophe, there will be a renewal of life and a new, better world will be born.
In the Hebrew Bible, we find a flood myth in which the flood is meant as punishment for sinful humans who had been corrupted by fallen angels. Before the Deluge, evil murderous giants lived on Earth whose seed had to be destroyed. God had mercy only for the righteous Noah, who built a boat and saved humankind and the animals from extinction.
In ancient Indian myths, the equivalent of Noah is Manu, who saved a little fish. The fish warned him of a coming flood and told him to build a boat. Later, when Manu was drifting on the vast ocean in his boat, the same fish towed it to the peaks of the Himalayas, where Manu became the forefather of later generations. We can see that these myths about great catastrophes also are survival stories that tell of the continuation of life.
Other myths describe the destruction of the world through fire. Some Native¬ American visions of the future, such as the Hopi prophecies, foretell a period of chastisement known as the Great Purification that will lead to a fiery world cataclysm (Wojcik 1997, 9).
The depiction of Ragnarak (“fate of gods”) in old Germanic sources is one of the most elaborate myths of cosmic catastrophes. The sun is devoured by the demonic wolf Fenrir, and the evil god Loki leads the giants to fight against the gods. After a tremendous battle in which the gods perish, Earth and heaven are seized by flames and destroyed. Yet, even in this myth cycle, we find hope in the renewal of the Earth, which will grow plants again. A happy age of harmony and love will follow the great destruction.
Many myths depict cosmic conflicts in terms of military fights, such as the war between devas and asuras in Hindu mythology or the battle in heaven between St. Michael and Lucifer in Christianity. Little wonder, then, that in our present time of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear energy, the old eschatological myths have again become topical.
Myths that predict catastrophes precede our current awareness of the vulnerability and fragility of life on Earth. Before and during the last turn of the millennium, many people looked for signs that predicted the end of the world, as foretold in the Bible and other religious texts. Times of war, terrorism, and other crises bring eschatological myths to the center of attention and make us question the future of our world.
Images of mythic or military destruction draw our attention to the need to preserve social and political stability and to maintain balanced life on Earth. The fatal military catastrophe that completely destroys everything seems more pessimistic than mythical views about a happy renewal of life after the destruction is over. One hopes that, being aware of these dangers, humankind does everything possible to avoid the tragic end.
Questions to Think About
Basham, Al. 1959. The Wonder that was India. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
Wojcik, Daniel. 1997. The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. New York and London: New York University Press.