The End Is NighSort Of
Last month's mass suicide by a San Diego UFO cult revealed the shadowy world of millennial doomsayers. But when will the end come for the rest of us?
By Matthew Richter
This really happened. I'm at home. It's late. I sit on the couch and turn on the television. On the screen is the Seal of the President of the United States, looking regal against a Columbia blue background. A voice is saying, "pulling together in a multinational effort to deal with this crisis. The people of the United States and of the earth have risen to challenges in the past, and we will, with the grace of God, meet this trial successfully." The voice doesn't really sound like Bill Clinton's, but it does have that ring of White House authority. "We have just launched all three space shuttles, in an attempt to get a better idea of what is happening."
A news anchor talks from behind a network anchor desk: "More reports of disappearances are pouring in from around the world. We take you now live to a press conference at NASA headquarters. If for any reason we should go off the air, please remain calm and, if you can, get yourself to higher ground." And sure enough, just as they cut to a panel of NASA scientists, sitting at a long table, obviously baffled by the surreal changes in their world, the screen bounces once or twice, rolls, and fades to a minute of white noise.
Finally, a Pat Boone look-alike walks in front of the static, wearing a yellow golf sweater and smiling reassuringly. Nodding slowly, he says, "When the Rapture comes, many will be perplexed by the sudden and radical changes around them. Don't be left behind."
I look at the cable box and realize it is tuned to the Trinity Broadcast Network. What I have seen was basically a test of Jesus' Emergency Broadcast System. The End, for the time being at least, had not come. But it will.
This is the End
"When you look at myths from around the world," says Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods, a brilliant overview of cultural mythologies, ancient architecture, and the end of the world, "you'll find they say very strongly and persuasively that from time to time the earth is afflicted by a grievous cataclysm, and when it is, mankind is forced to begin again like children, with no memory of what went before."
Cultural mythologies the world over, from Judaism to Seventh-Day Adventism, from Tibetan Buddhism to Hopi spiritualism, have prophesied a cataclysmic end to the world as we know it. Last week, 39 members of Heaven's Gate--a cult that believes a UFO allegedly riding the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet is coming to take them to a spiritual plane--overdosed themselves on phenobarbital and alcohol in a San Diego mansion, the largest mass suicide in U.S. history. In 1975, the founders of that cult toured Sonoma County, holding a mystical retreat atop Sugarloaf Mountain and recruiting local converts.
The grisly conclusion to their earthbound journey reveals the apocalyptic mindset that permeates millennial cults. And there are many.
The Maya are counting down to the end of the Fifth Age; evangelical Christians eagerly await the Rapture; the Hopi say we are living on borrowed time at the end of the Fourth World; and the Kaogi people of Mexico's Sierra Madre jungles have stopped spinning wool and weaving cloth in light of the impending catastrophe. Prophets from Nostradamus to Edgar Cayce, channelers from Madame Blavatsky to J. Z. Knight, have foreseen everything from polar shifts to cataclysmic earthquakes, from the resurfacing of Atlantis to the sinking of the Americas, all in the very near future.
But only a brave few have gone out on a limb and picked an actual date for The End. It is these brave few in which I'm most interested here.
In 1990, Elizabeth Clare Prophet drew her flock close to her holy self and dug deep into the forest floor of southwestern Montana. At midnight on April 23, 1990, she and the members of her Church Universal and Triumphant sat praying and waiting in their bomb shelters, listening intently for Gabriel's first trumpet blast, for the nuclear warheads to start flying; listening for any sign of the chaos that must have been raging overhead as the world came crashing to its end. Underground they had months' stores of dehydrated food, barrels of fresh water, first-aid kits, lots of weapons, and plenty of ammo. And they had their faith.
Four thousand people had collected at the Grand Teton Ranch to be among the saved. They quit jobs, sold homes, and bid farewell to family and friends. They were here to follow Ms. Prophet into the new age, through a nuclear holocaust and into a new, albeit radioactive, Garden of Eden.
As night fell on April 24, Gabriel's trumpet had still not sounded and the world had not yet ended. Prophet and her followers emerged from their shelters the next morning, confused but not defeated. Their prayers had saved the world, Prophet told her flock. Undaunted, she carried on, and today she sits atop a religious empire claiming thousands of members and churches in 40 countries.
It seems the failure of a prophecy is about the best thing that can happen to a prophet. Case in point: the Millerites. In 1818, William Miller was a poor New England farmer. When he announced that according to his Biblical interpretation the world would end in 1843, he unintentionally started a religion.By 1842 there were tens of thousands of Millerites, and by 1843 he was touring the country, preaching to thousands of devout followers.
But 1843 came and went, as did March 21 and Oct. 22 of 1844, two dates Miller picked after the initial Great Disappointment. Miller died in 1849, ridiculed in the press but not forgotten by his followers. In 1860 they formed the Advent Christian Church, and today there are millions of Millerites worldwide.
The Millerites weren't wrong, they simply miscalculated--the prophecy was a test of faith. Theoretically, by the time the year 2000 comes and goes, enough prophecies should have been disproven to make most of the people you know members of one prophetic group or another.
But lying on my couch that night watching the Jesus Channel, I realized that I simply wasn't ready. Had the world come crashing to its end that Thursday, I'd have been caught, well, lying on my couch. When the world ends, I want to be prepared. I just need to know when. I mean, I need to know exactly when. I won't be caught off guard again.
So on May 5, 2000, I'll be in a spaceship, orbiting around the planet with Richard Noone, "high above the whole mess." Richard Noone (word has it he wanted to change his name to "No One" but forgot the space) tells me that the entire crust of the earth is going to slip around its liquid magma core, putting Antarctica at the equator and Florida at the pole.
On May 5, 2000, the world is going to end.
Sun, Moon, Stars
It's called the "earth crust displacement theory," and it's an intriguing idea. The crust of the earth, or lithosphere, is about 30 miles thick, and rests on top of the liquid magma part of the planet, or the asthenosphere. The asthenosphere is gooey enough to keep the lithosphere in place. If it wasn't, the crust would be spinning around the planet's core all the time.
But Charles Hapgood put forward a theory, and Albert Einstein agreed, that the crust has slipped in the past, and will slip again in the future. What will trigger this slip? The largest mass on the planet--the Antarctic ice cap.
The icecap at the South Pole is almost three miles high and covers an area equal to the size of the United States and Canada put together. And it's off center. Einstein said it best: "The earth's rotation acts on this unsymmetrically deposited mass, and produces centrifugal momentum that is transmitted to the rigid crust of the earth. The constantly increasing momentum produced in this way will, when it has reached a certain point, produce a movement of the earth's crust over the rest of the earth's body."
The experience would not be unfamiliar to anyone who went through it before. The Hopi did, at the end of the Second World. As Hopi elder Oswald White Bear Fredericks tells it: "The twins [who held on to the world at its poles] had hardly abandoned their stations when the earth, with no one to control it, teetered off balance, spun around crazily, then rolled over twice. Mountains plunged into seas with a great splash, seas and lakes sloshed over the land, and as the earth spun through cold and lifeless space it froze into solid ice."
Noone loves pointing out where Einstein agrees with him. Noone explains his version of the icecap earth-crust-displacement theory in slightly less scientific terms than Einstein used: "It's like any woman can tell you about doing laundry," he says in his huffy Southern drawl. "If the clothes are off-center, it throws the machine out of kilter.
"I was looking at some of the Egyptian pyramid prophecies and found the date May 5, 2000," he tells me, not elaborating on where or how he arrived at his date. Working from the fact that ancient Egyptian culture had a highly advanced astronomy, Noone went to an astronomer and asked if anything special was up for the prophesied date. The astronomer pointed out that a conjunction, or syzygy, of seven planets and the moon would take place at noon on the given date.
That is to say, on May 5, 2000, at noon, if you look straight up, you will see the moon, the sun, Mercury, Venus, and (if you could see through the sun) Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn all clumped in a relatively small portion of the sky. The earth will be alone on one side of the solar system, with almost every other major object in the sky lined up overhead. This, according to Noone (and this is where he loses the Einstein support), will create enough gravitational force in the solar system to give the lithosphere the extra nudge it needs to start its "crust displacement," or shift. Gravity, pulling on the icecap, combined with the centrifugal momentum of the earth's rotation, is going to pull the ice around toward the sun, moon, and other planets.
Of course, all this could be averted. Noone maintains, "If we're awake to the problem, there may be a way to stop it. It's kind of late now, but you could alter ocean currents with giant black plastic mop-heads anchored in the sea." Short of that, he's going into space: "Orbit would be about the only safe place." Short of that, he's going back to his home in the mountains of north Georgia, near a freshwater lake. "Of course," Noone tells me as we hang up, "you'll find that if you talk to scientists about this, they'll say, 'Nothing like this could ever happen.'"
You can practically hear the bile dripping off that word "scientist"--Noone has dealt with his fair share of critics.
Enter Mark Hammergren, Scientist. Hammergren's at the University of Washington, in the astronomy department, and has problems with the May 5 date. In fact, he thinks it has "absolutely no basis in scientific fact."
Noone and I accuse Hammergren of being the enemy of reason, a non-cataclysmic "scientist" stuck in the dogma of old theory; a traditionalist. Hammergren explains to me that, to the contrary, he is "very much a cataclysmic scientist, concerned very directly with the end of the world." Oh.
Hammergren believes that giant asteroids or comets have in the past, and will in the future, come crashing to earth, changing the face of the planet forever. But he can't tell me exactly when. Which means he is of no further use to me.
I hang up with Hammergren and turn my attention to another favorite date of millennialists the world-round: Sept. 17, 2001, the day the world is going to end.
On Sept. 17, 2001, I'm going to be with Moira Timms, "performing the most ancient and spiritually potent of all Egyptian rituals, Raising Ejed, at the Second Pyramid in the Gizeh Plateau, one of the main nodal acupuncture points on the global energy grid."
The Great Pyramid at Gizeh is, indisputably, the most massive human-engineered thing on the planet.
Moira Timms, a New Age lecturer and author in Eugene, Ore., is interested in another feature of the Great Pyramid (or "peer amid," as she points out): a 6,000- pyramid-inch-long "prophetic timeline" that starts in 3999 B.C. and ends on Sept. 17, 2001. She points to the research of Dave Davidson, who first published the idea of a timeline in 1925. She also argues that the pyramid prophesied the beginning of the First World War, the Great Depression, the beginning of the nuclear age, and the Harmonic Convergence of 1987.
She looks forward to what Sept. 17, 2001, has to offer--the "end of the world as we know it," which according to her isn't necessarily an evil thing ("Interestingly," Timms points out, "evil is live spelled backwards.") She intends to live through the end of the pyramid timeline and enter, spiritually cleansed, into a new age of enlightenment.
On Sept. 17, 2001, she and I will be in Egypt, raising the old Ejed, our chakras running smoothly and our karma primed for rebirth. But Moira is smart. Or just wary. She makes no promises about her prophetic date of choice.
There are other interpretations of the pyramid timeline, as she points out, interpretations that yield end dates of Aug. 20, 2011, March of 2029, and, as we have seen, May 5, 2000. So the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, the first wonder of the world, still can't tell me when to fill up the van and head for the hills.
Because I'm depressed by this, Moira suggests another date, one that's "written in stone," so to speak: Dec. 23, 2012, the day the world is going to end.
On that day, I'll be with Michael Coe, the man largely responsible for breaking the Maya code. We'll be in the Yucatán, the cradle of one of the weirdest cultures the planet has produced--the Maya. Michael and I will be reading his favorite passage from the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimín as we wait for the end: "The sky is divided and the land is raised. Then occurs the great flooding of the earth.
"The ending of the word, the folding of the Katun."
Dec. 23, 2012, is actually 4 Ahua 3 Kankin, and it is the final day of a countdown that started on 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, or Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. The 5,125-year interval is the Mayan Tonatiuh, or Fifth Sun. The Mayan calendar has been steadily counting down, for more than five millennia, to a global cataclysm that will, according to the Popul Vuh, end life on the planet as we know it.
We might want to pay attention to it--the Mayan calendar was, until we put satellites into space in 1958, the most precise way we had of charting our path through the solar system. Our calendar, the Gregorian calendar, assumes a solar year to be 365.2425 days long. The Mayan calendar assumes a solar year to be 365.2420 days long. The exact length of a solar year is, in fact, 365.2422 days, making the Maya slightly more accurate than the Europeans a few thousand years later.
The Maya also had figured out some fairly esoteric math, such as metrical calculation, place numeration, and the abstract concept of zero. And this from a culture that hadn't invented, or at least didn't use, the wheel. Eric Thompson, an archaeologist who worked extensively in Central America, asks, "What mental quirks led the Maya to chart the heavens, yet fail to grasp the principle of the wheel; to visualize eternity, as no other semi-civilized people has ever done, yet ignore the short step from corbelled to true arch; to count in millions, yet never learn to weigh a sack of corn?"
The Maya shared a belief with hundreds of other world cultures that theirs was not the only age of humanity; that successive ages come and go, each brought to its end by some sort of monstrous global cataclysm. The thing that held the Maya together as a culture was their preoccupation with their calendar. With time. With a finite amount of time--a little over 5,000 years. If you had asked a Quiché Maya 3,000 years ago when the world would end, he would have said Dec. 23, 2012.
Unless, of course, said Quiché Maya happened to be standing next to Herbert Spinden, who would have said the date is actually Dec. 24, 2011. There are, truth be told, two differing interpretations of the Mayan calendar. Michael Coe believes one, and Herbert Spinden believes the other. It turns out that for a calendar that can accurately span eons, we can read it only to an accuracy of plus or minus six months.
Once again, my search for The Date has been thwarted, and I start to grasp at straws.
I could go inland to southern Canada to avoid the "catastrophic land changes and flooding of all coastlines" that Edgar Cayce foresaw for late 1998. If I'm lucky, I'll also be around in 2100 when he is to reincarnate and survey the damage.
I could hide in a cave on Aug. 18, 1999, the date Criswell predicted for The End, the day a "black rainbow will encircle the planet earth." But Criswell (best known as the narrator of director Ed Wood's B-flick Plan 9 from Outer Space) also predicted that by 1977 the English Channel would be so shallow you could walk from France to England, that humans would be living on Venus and Neptune by March of 1990, and (my favorite): "I predict paste-on bikinis for women and clamp-on bikinis for men."
I could go to Arkansas, to an area that's going to be thrust 2,000 feet into the air by a massive earthquake and survive the flood Dolores Cannon predicts for 2029. Or 2011. Or 2002. She's not sure. Her interpretations of Nostradamus' prophecies aren't very precise. I could fall in love with Baby Jesus and wait for the Rapture, but who knows when that's going to happen.
At the very least, I might want to get the hell away from Mt. Rainier, which, according to psychic Michael Scallion, is going to blow this summer. After the eruption, there will be massive earthquakes, sinking everything west of Bellingham, Wash., into the sea. Scallion predicts quakes up and down the West Coast next fall, finally establishing Phoenix, Ariz., as the major Pacific port of the United States.
You're Gonna Die
"Hell, when you're talking about the end of the world, who gives a damn exactly when it's supposed to happen. I mean, really, a year here or there doesn't seem to make that much difference." This voice of reason belongs to author Graham Hancock.
History is littered with discarded millennial prophecies. In every generation since the dawn of civilization there have been those who believed that they were going to see The End in their lifetimes, that they would watch the earth plunge into darkness or emerge into light. Just because we humans count in a base-10 system and we're coming up on a big old base-10 millennium doesn't mean that end-of-the-world millennialists are more likely to be correct now than a thousand years ago.
But there is another, perhaps more compelling, possibility: Maybe they are right. I find myself drawn to this possibility in the same way I'm perversely drawn to the sight of roadkill. It gives me a morbid thrill to think that maybe we will be the generation that sees the end of an age; that we stand the chance of being the next Chosen People; that the paramilitary survivalists living in compounds in Idaho, the suburbanites with bomb shelters in Issaquah, the drag queens living in basement apartments on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and the stoners sitting on mountainsides on the Peninsula will be the survivors of the world cataclysm everyone's been counting on since the beginning of our collective memory.
If only we knew the date, the exact time and date, of the end, then we might be among them, among the saved. Or we'd be dead. Maybe whatever's coming really will kill us all.
Death is a major component of almost all millennialism; you can only get something clean by getting something else dirty. Date-setting is another way of measuring our mortality in order to make the time we have left somehow meaningful.
Does a date even matter?
"The world is going to end for all of us," says Hancock. "This is one thing about which there is absolutely no doubt, that you or I or anybody else is going to face the end of the world within a certain very short number of years. You're going to die, I'm going to die. And you can count down as well as someone counting down to May 5, 2000 or Dec. 23, 2012. You know that in 100 years you're not going to be around. So you know that the world is going to end for you in 100 years."
But 100 years is different from, say, three years, four months, and 13 days, or 16 years, 11 months, and seven days. Knowing that smoking will kill me isn't making me quit; seeing a spot on an X-ray of my lung probably would.
What we do with that time is up to us.
"What is life about?" asks Hancock. "Is it simply a matter of fulfilling one individual lifetime and then dying and going to heaven or going to hell or whatever you happen to believe in? Or is there some kind of ongoing mission for humanity on the planet?
"If you feel that there is a long-term purpose to life," Hancock continues, "then the idea of the destruction of the earth, and the destruction of human life and the loss of human knowledge and culture with it, is really horrific. But we do that now. We go around as a society wiping out and obliterating human experience. This destruction of past knowledge is something we do anyway, even without global catastrophe."
This is a man who has spent decades of his life immersed in ancient cultures and their cataclysmic memories and prophecies. His work finds an elusive and powerful eloquence in the balance between rigorous science and mythology. He has watched as ancient cultures were all but erased from the planet, as the Great Pyramid became a tourist trap and the Maya calendar was printed on ash trays.
"We are a species that has a very large legacy of advice, intuition, warnings, and ideas, that has been passed down to us, that for some reason we choose entirely to ignore, and I think it's irrational of us to do that. The end is nigh. Very nigh."
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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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