Apparently the world is going to end this week. That’s what the Mayans said anyway, though I’ve heard this might be a misinterpretation. Hey, Mr Editor- should I even write this column, since I might not live long enough to get paid?
Oh, alright then.
I’ve long been fascinated by The End. In fact I once spent a year reading exclusively about the Apocalypse, and my head was duly filled with the wonderful and terrifying visions of countless prophets and messiahs. Some of these fellows were dangerous, most were not. After a while I developed a fondness for certain seers. Here are some of my favorites.
1) Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) was a rabbi from Izmir in the Ottoman Empire, who early in his career suspected that he might be the Messiah. He was soon outraging his fellow Jews by violating sacred taboos, and enjoyed a colorful career as a wandering heretic. Self-doubt eventually set in, but then he met a man who had seen Zevi in a dream and recognized him as the Messiah. Instantly Zevi regained his confidence and began prophesying the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom and the return of the Israelites to the Holy Land, causing enormous excitement in the Jewish Diaspora. He sailed to Istanbul where he was promptly arrested, and chose conversion to Islam over execution.
What I like about him: Zevi had some hard times, but he never gave up. On top of that, he was extremely cheeky. After embracing Islam, Zevi hinted to his old followers that he didn’t really mean it, and that he was still the Messiah. They believed him, and a few centuries later these heretics were running schools and even educated Ataturk.
2) Lodowick Muggleton (1609- 1698) was an English tailor who in 1651 discovered that he was one of the two Witnesses mentioned in Revelation 11. Muggleton revealed that God was a man between five and six foot tall and that there was no point in praying. His followers met in pubs, didn’t seek converts, and spent three centuries waiting for a Last Judgment that never came.
What I like about him: By all accounts Muggleton was extremely un-charismatic, but he nevertheless managed to forge a group that survived until 1979, when the last Muggletonian died. That’s impressive. Also, I appreciate his gift for invective. He was constantly cursing his enemies, and especially hated Quakers, e.g.: “I do pronounce Thomas Taylor, Quaker, cursed and damned, both in Soul and Body, from the Presence of God, elect Men and Angels, to Eternity.”
3) Alexander Scriabin (1872- 1915) was a celebrated Russian composer who just happened to believe that he was God. Thus he composed The Mysterium- a piece of music so incredible that Scriabin believed its performance over seven days in the Himalayas would literally dissolve the universe, after which a new and better one would take its place. Unfortunately a pimple sprouted on God’s lip, became infected and then gangrene devoured his face. He died. The Mysterium was never finished.
What I like about him: He had the courage of his delusions, matched with an extraordinary talent.
4) Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was not only one of the greatest scientific minds of any age, but he was also TOTALLY HOT for the apocalypse. He worked for years on an interpretation of the books of Daniel and Revelation, ultimately writing as many words on the Last Days as he did on gravity, while writing many more still on astrology. Newton predicted that the world would either end in the early 1800s or in the year 2000. He was wrong on both counts.
What I like about him: Newton’s prophetic obsessions contradict the dry dogmas and simple formulations of tiresome Culture Warriors. For instance, a few years back the atheist philosopher AC Grayling declared to The Guardian that he was working on a ‘secular Bible’: “My Genesis is when the apple falls on Newton’s head.” Evidently, Grayling doesn’t know much about Newton.
5) The Prophetic Chicken (1806-?) In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) Charles Mackay describes an incident in Leeds in 1806 when a hen laid eggs inscribed with the words ‘Christ is coming’. According to Mackay, “Great numbers visited the spot, and examined these wondrous eggs, convinced that the day of judgment was near at hand.” Cue much prayer and repentance, but then “some gentlemen” visited the hen while she was laying a miraculous egg and “…soon ascertained beyond doubt that the egg had been inscribed with some corrosive ink, and cruelly forced up again into the bird’s body. At this explanation, those who had prayed, now laughed, and the world wagged merrily as of yore.’
What I like about her: Mayan Doomsday watchers take note, for this chicken revealed a lot about human nature.
As for me, I’m with Martin Luther on this one. When asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow he replied: “I would plant an apple tree today.”
Enjoy your apocalypse.