Devoured by a giant squash, engulfed by flood or flames, frozen in a nuclear winter or new ice age, mankind has looked to The End with fear and fascination since the dawn of civilisation.
Nature’s cycles — day succeeding night, the four seasons — long fed fears of being plunged into eternal darkness, or an endless winter.
“Before the great monotheistic religions, most ancient civilisations lived in fear that these cycles would one day stop,” explained the historian Bernard Sergent, author of a recent book exploring 13 apocalyptic myths.
The Aztecs believed there was a chance that — once every 52 years — the sun would no longer rise, so they ordered copious human sacrifices to ensure it did.
But rather than The End of all things, throughout history a good old apocalypse has often been viewed as a way to reset the clock, divide good from evil and start anew.
Derived from ancient Greek, the word means “revelation”. Chosen to figure in the Bible, the Apocalypse of John is just one of the many world’s end scenarios that were in circulation in early Christian times.
The Book of Revelation, the last in the New Testament, describes a string of cataclysmic events that annihilate part of life on Earth, culminating with the announcement of the Second Coming of Christ.
Islam also offers a repertoire of tales of mass destruction — by sandstorm, invasion or fire.
Plague, famine and brutal wars made Europe in the Middle Ages, to many, seem ripe for extermination — leading to a flourishing of prophecies the world would end in 1,000 AD, just as doomsayers would foretell The End a millennium later.
At the start of the Renaissance, the Anabaptists were convinced the end of the world was nigh, and that it was vital to “rebaptise” adults before it came.
“What is most often at stake is being called to account by the gods, or by nature, it’s about being punished for defying some higher order,” said Jean-Noel Lafargue, author of a study of world’s end myths through history
“Today we no longer need Gods to make us tremble. Man-made disasters suffice. That’s what changed in the 20th century.”
For thousands of years water was the apocalyptic weapon of choice.
For Judeo-Christians, the flood evokes the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, but the motif of a deluge sent upon man by an angry divinity stretches back deep in time.
In Mesopotamia all-engulfing flood myths date from Sumerian times, between the fourth and second millennium BC, as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature.
Ancient Greece and Rome had their share of floods, too: from the Greek deluge of Ogyges — named after a mythical ruler — to Atlantis, the legendary island swallowed up by the sea, as recounted by the philosopher Plato.
At the dawn of our era, a deluge myth told by a small people from the Near East, the Hebrews, went on to become the most famous of all.
According to the Book of Genesis, God decided to rid Earth of men and animals, instructing a single, “righteous” man, Noah, to build an ark to save himself and a remnant of life.
Fire usually comes just before, or after a flood.
Greece, Scandinavia, India and native American cultures all spoke of the annihilation of early mankind by flames.
Africa and ancient Egypt had no flood myths, but West African folk tales do speak of a “devouring gourd”, or calabash, that swallows up entire settlements, homes, livestock, even the whole of mankind.
“I think it’s part of the human make-up, part of the human psyche somewhere, to have a fascination with the end of the world,” Jocelyn Bell Burnell, visiting professor of astrophysics at Oxford, told AFP.
In the globalised 21st century, the apocalypse — on the silver screen — most often comes as a pandemic or climate cataclysm, but the most enthusiastic doomsayers will doubtless be stockpiling supplies as December 21 supposedly marked by the Mayan calendar as a world’s end moment, draws near.