Yearning for the apocalypse, part III

In part I and part II the question was posed what the source of the demand for apocalyptic stories was in our societies. The discussion made it plausible that there is in fact a strong cultural diversity in terms of Doomsday stories: they are prevalent in the West, where their ancestry stretches back to at least the Zoroastrians and probably Assyrians. Yet, in Hinduism the version is so weak that it would be fairer to speak of no major apocalyptic stories and they seem largely absent in Chinese and Aborigines culture too. Alan mentioned that they were prevalent on the other hand in nomadic cultures of the Americas though once again absent in the Mayan culture.

Taking this at face value and thus wondering what on earth the commonalities are between the cultures that have a strong line of apocalyptic thinking and those that do not, we can knock off some possible contenders quite easily: any theory dependent on the actual level of disasters is off the table for the Chinese have probably seen bigger famines and wars than anyone else, and modern societies cannot compete in terms of aggregate violence and upheavals with hunter-gatherer societies like the Aboriginal one. So the real level of aggregate dangers won’t have much to do with it. Ditto goes for anything based on the need for public good provision.

The distribution of apocalypse seekers also seems to cancel out the likelihood of genetic explanations wherein there would be some psychological trait shared more between the apocalypse yearners: if the Indo-Europeans in North India dont have these apocalypse stories and the Indo-Europeans forming the bulk of Northern Europe and North America, then genetic explanations are out.

So we need to think of something unconnected to genes, real risks, or even aggregate level of societal complexity.

As Sam Wylie and several others note, an intermediary in the demand for apocalypse story seems to be the general stories about time: hunter-gatherer or early agricultural societies had circular notions of time. Spirits born and reborn. The same points visited again and again. One needs more linear notions of time, with the ensuing possibilities of progress and end-points to find apocalyptic stories plausible.

To buy into that general line of thought one would then need to think of these ‘notions of time’ stories as an unconsciously believed and then looked-for mental model of how everything works. The mental model of time would then be applied to any other story and stories that violate the dominant ‘time story’ would simply not sound plausible. Even scientific theories and religious theories then have to fit the same basic storyline for the audience to buy into them. Apocalyptic scientists in that kind of theory are merely enacting a storyline accepted by their society already used to such stories.

Where do these underlying time-stories come from though? They may be embedded for a long time and be slow to change, but they clearly do change so one is then looking for commonalities across the apocalypse cultures that explains the different conceptions of time. A key data point would then focus on the supposed lack of apocalyptic stories amongst hunter gatherers. As economists convinced it is all incentives in the long run, we would want to link the time stories to economic realities and incentives. If the economic reality is that the real source of wealth and security is factors totally outside of ones control, such as when one is dependent on wildlife, the floods or rains, then the basic story will be a fatalistic one of accepting fate and of being part of either an eternal renewal or essentially stagnant situation.

The question would then arise what it is about Western society that dislodged the eternal cycle or stagnation theme. One hypothesis is that continuous competition between expanding and changing kingdoms created, at the top of society, a kind of ‘do or die’ culture prone to believing in coming catastrophes. The basic story of those societies would then be dominated by the reality of constant political upheaval at the top even if for the average member of the population there was not much difference with other societies. Since hunter gatherer societies have no elites and their lives consist much less of a conscious and planned struggle for power with the other elites, the theory would seem to fit their reality.

For this kind of ‘warrior elites give rise to all-or-nothing stories’ hypothesis to be true though, the basic political constellation would have to be similar across the apocalypse cultures. Nomads, Assyrians, Europeans, etc., would have to be in this constant elite strife state whilst at the level of the elite things would have to be different for the Mayans, Chinese, and others without apocalypse stories. Hmmm.

An alternative tempting possibility is that we are looking at some off-shoot of forward-looking behaviour, i.e. the idea  that one naturally is drawn to Doomsday stories if one habitually scans into the far future as a consequence of material or political circumstances. Particular apocalypse stories then fit whatever source of fear people can be lead to believe in, but the general prevalence of them would then be an unintended consequence of the demand for forward looking behaviour.

This would require that Europe and nomadic cultures are more forward looking than others. It fits the ill-used term ‘Judeo-Christian spirit of inquiry’ line, but I cannot really see how Northern India and the Mayas would differ from the Europeans on that score. Plenty of navel gazing about human insignificance and the future of the soul in Indian culture. Hmmmm.

A final possibility is that it fits a story of ‘ever present sin’ in the sense that cultures in which there is an open acceptance of the notion that we are all sinners inevitably gets an outlet in the ultimate ‘come-uppance’ of those sinful tendencies. In terms of the prevalence of ‘sin’ as a recurring theme, this story fits modern Western societies beautifully and also is a snug fit to medieval Catholicism and the Zoroastrians. It would also seem to fit India and China where, as far as I know, the ‘we are all sinners’ line is not the dominant story.

The deeper question would then become what generates the sin-story. A tempting possibility is that the story of sin creates a need for salvation and absolution which in turn gives a role to religious intermediaries selling salvation. It is a bit in line with what Tel was advocating with his implicit line that sin is an invention of people trying to control us for their own reasons. Hence perhaps the existence of an intermediary layer of religious interpreters endogenously gives rise to a sin-story. One would then have to argue for some underlying difference in the structure of religion between regions which is not immediately obvious. And it is in fact on reflection not entirely convincing that a belief in sin is all that specific to apocalyptic religions or cultures. Surely every culture with a degree of hierarchy in it (which is basically all of them after hunter-gatherers) has people controlling others by any means possible so no reason for a set of them to miss out on a good trick the others did find. There seem to be plenty of sin-stories in Indian society (plenty of shame and looking for purity).

If I reflect on each of the above hypotheses, I don’t really find any of them all that convincing though the first one seems more plausible than the later ones. Perhaps Stephen Bounds is right that it is more or less accidental as to which cultures get into quite persistent ‘linear time-stories’ and which do not.

Let us thus simply call it a socio-economic mystery yet to find a plausible theory.

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10 Responses to Yearning for the apocalypse, part III

  1. Alan says:

    The Maya were in a continuous state of catastrophic warfare. Until the glyphs could actually be read the prevailing theory was that a cool elite of serene priestly astronomers were writing down their wisdom for the ages. The glyphs were cracked some time ago now and the story is competing dynasties, state and city collapse, and constant, brutal warfare.

  2. Tel says:

    Yet, in Hinduism the version is so weak that it would be fairer to speak of no major apocalyptic stories…

    Mother Kali represents at least three of the horsemen from Western mythology — Famine and Death most obviously, but Kali herself is a weapon of War created by Durga for the purpose of defeating the demon Raktabija. Despite being the unparalleled mistress at arms, having the great mental focus of a yogi, combined with truth, beauty, purity and feminine ferocity, Durga’s precise and lethal strikes were useless against Raktabija, whose spilled blood simply regenerated another version of himself. Frustrated, Durga unleashed the black handmaiden, set in motion the dance of Kali, and got the job done with somewhat embarrassing humongous collateral damage.

    Oh well, sometimes you just have to break a few omelettes with your big bazooka.

    The moral of this story is… well this is Hinduism so BYO interpretation… but without doubt it is something to do with sin and apocalypse.

    See also: Kilo Ampere Linear Injector.

  3. Tim Macknay says:

    It is indeed a mystery. Equally mysterious is why an increasing proporiton of the demand appears to be for apocalyptic stories specifically involving zombies.

  4. RHTGreen Elsewhere says:
  5. Paul Frijters says:


    thanks. The plot keeps thickening. How certain are you\we that the Mayans dont have Apocalyptic stories though?

    stories of destruction in past struggles between divine entities are of course normal, but its visions of the future we are into here!

    hahaha. I have never seen the appeal of the idea of zombies myself, but perhaps you want to try your hand on explaining what about them makes so many people by a movie ticket to go see a few more. Mindless persecution perhaps?

    • Tim Macknay says:

      It’s quite mysterious to me, Paul. It could be a combination of the more general escape fantasy of an apocalypse providing a release from the perceived constraints of civilised urban life, and a sort of sublimated violence fantasy – the ability to engage in essentially unlimited violence without moral qualms, since the victims aren’t human. But who knows?

      • Alan says:

        The Maya calendar extends millions of year into both past and future. Their longest unit of time, the alautun, is 23 040 000 000 days. Their universe simply lasts too long to think seriously of them as having an apocalyptic expectation. You can also contrast Maya and Aztec responses to the conquistadors.

        The Maya resisted Spain and then Mexico into the early twentieth century. The Mexica interpreted the conquistadors into their apocalyptic horizon and their confederation collapsed within a matter of months. There were also huge internal stresses in the Mexica hegemony, largely driven by the ever-expanding call for sacrificial victims which was itself a result of apocalyptic ideas, that led most subject peoples to assist the Spanish.

  6. Tel says:

    Paul, I think I can find more Hindus predicting that the Kali Yuga ends in 2012 than you can find Mayans willing to explain how their calendar works.

    Actually I have always been suspicious that the Mayan “long count” only has 360 days in a year, and simultaneously we know they spent a lot of time observing the stars, and they had 5 “dead days” each year. Seems ridiculous to think that they let the long count wander arbitrarily through the seasons, they would be unique amongst cultures if they did that. More likely they stopped the clock during the “dead days” since nothing officially happened on those days, no need for them to be designated a date. Even more likely the priests threw in an extra “dead day” every so often when the stars were slipping behind, thus keeping the seasons neat and keeping the priests in a job. The upshot being that 2012 is nowhere close to the correct long count cycle. That’s my theory… your Mayan may vary!

  7. Alan says:

    The Maya had three different calendars. The counting system is vigesimal. Regular numbers are in 20s, 400s, 16000s etc etc. Calendar numbers are by 20s, then 360s, then 129,500s etc etc. The different multiplier was to keep the calendar related to the tun.

    1. The tzolkin (sacred year) was 20*13. It is the only count that contemporary Maya still observe. 2. The haab (infelicitously the vague year) was (20*18)+5. The tun (tropical year) was 20*18. 20 tun made a katun. 20 katun made a baktun, one of which ends on 21 December 2012 or

    The tzolkin had largely ritual purposes and was used throughout Mesoamerica. The haab was for agriculture and also used throughout the region. There was a thing called the calendar round which involved 52 haab. The Long Count was used for historical events, kings for instance tended to build something spectacular if they reached a katun since their accession. The Long Count prolly goes back to the Olmec. At the time of the conquest only the Maya used the Long Count and contemporary Maya do not use it.

    There is incidentally a system of bar and dot numbers that only takes 3 symbols to represent any number.

  8. john r walker says:

    Paul, have you read Stephen J Gould’s book, Time’s arrow, time’s cycle. Its an interesting and quite deep examination of how these two profound metaphors of time interplayed and interacted in the birth of modern geology and the concept of deep time.
    Re: apocalypses: we all know that the world will one day end; sun will explode and humans are likely to be long extinct by then. The appeal of apocalyse predictions is probably that they pin and illusion of ‘definiteness’ on an event that is intrinsically unknowable.

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