Eschatology 101
Article by Gareth Wigmore
Additional Writing by Michaela Upton

Eschatology is not the sort of ology that one comes across every day. The word means “doctrines concerning the last things” and its usage is somewhat confusing. It is connected to life after death, but we’ll leave that subject for another time and use this feature to discuss the other matter that it is concerned with, which is the end of the world.

The final book of the Bible, Revelation, concerns the time when Christ shall come again to rid the world of the terror and anarchy that dominates it, and usher in a new world in which the Church will triumph and rule. The early Christians thought that the Roman world around them was so appalling that Christ would surely return in their lifetimes, and were rather disappointed when this turned out not to be the case.

The signs of the impending apocalypse are clear, despite being predicted too eagerly by the first Christians. In Chapter 24 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass... nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.” What’s more, Jesus goes on to add, “And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another... Immediately... shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven”.

This is, of course, a standard pattern of ideas about the end of the world: normal society breaks down, the sun disappears from view and the earth is ravaged with disaster. It is especially like the Norse myth of Ragnarok (see boxout). So, we’ve got something to look forward to, then – especially as there have been plenty of predictions of the end of the world to coincide with the millennium that is about to fall upon us.

The passing of millennia are associated with the end of the world – and therefore with the start of a new world – probably because they mark a symbolic ending, a point when we can begin again with a thousand sets of New Year’s resolutions. Also, chapter 20 of Revelation confusingly uses the word “millennium” to measure out several different periods in the process of the world’s ending. So the 1,000th anniversary of Christ’s birth became a significant date for Christians, and when the earth carried on quite happily into a second millennium anno domini, the year 2000 took on similar overtones.

And now it’s here. This year, we’ve all heard plenty about the end of the world. One interpretation of an especially vague prediction by the 16th Century prophet Nostradamus caught the attention of many in July. It suggested that a “great king of terror” would descend from the skies and that war would “reign happily”. Combined with another unfounded interpretation of a Nostradamus prediction, this led to many suggestions that the apocalypse was on its way, and doom-mongers tied all this up with the total eclipse that Britain witnessed in early August. Interestingly, this contradicts Nostradamus, who foresees events until 3797AD. Fortunately, the summer passed without any hitches; no one descended from the skies at all (unless Nostradamus was a bit out and was predicting something about John F. Kennedy Jr) and the end was definitely not nigh.

That’s the summer out of the way – let’s see if we can survive the winter! The frightening thing about some prophecies is the way in which they become almost self-fulfilling. If you know that you’re clumsy, you’re more likely to be nervous when you pick up a precious object; if you’re nervous, you’re more likely to drop it. The idea of some sort of global catastrophe in 1999 is ingrained in our culture in sources as diverse as Space: 1999 and the song by Prince.

And it seems as though humanity will live up to the hype. The millennium bug is an undeniable reality, and no one really knows how it will affect us. Our comfortable lives of personal computers and mobile phones is seriously in jeopardy, at least in the short term. I can live with that, but I rest less easily at night when I think about the vulnerable computer chips in every nuclear weapon and power station in the world. There are some poor and disorganised nuclear powers – some nuclear devices even went missing during the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Fimbul Winter of Norse legend--never-ending blizzards with the sun utterly blocked out--sounds all too like a nuclear winter for comfort.

FLOOD MYTHS

One of the striking things about many eschatological myths is that they are not literally about the end of the world. The emphasis is generally on rebirth and the world’s being cleansed so that a new start can be made. The most obvious example of this is the story of Noah’s flood, which everyone knows from the first book of the Bible, Genesis.  In it, God is displeased with mankind and decides to wipe His creation out, but warns the virtuous Noah so that he can put himself, his family and a pair of each animal into an ark that will survive the great flood.

But most people are unaware that there are similar flood legends in almost all the ancient mythologies. In fact, flood myths are so prominent and widespread that they are surely derived from one common source, an actual disaster that must have seemed like the end of the world, and which wiped out an enormous part of the earth’s population.

The Greek counterpart to Noah is Deucalion, who survived a deluge caused by Zeus when his father, the Titan Prometheus, warned him to build an ark. Though the stories have some differences ­– Deucalion and his wife are the sole survivors and do not save any animals – the link between the two is made explicit by the fact that both Noah and Deucalion are credited with the invention of wine.

The Titans in mythology could also be classed as being the end of one era and the beginning of the next, an era which is ruled over by the Olympians. This subject is touched upon in the Xena: Warrior Princess episode The Titans. When Gabrielle unwittingly releases three of their number from their prison in Tartarus they immediately set about retaking the world that was taken from them by Zeus and the other gods. This idea is reiterated during the episode The Deliverer; when Ares reminds us of the Olympians triumph over their predecessors as he warns Xena about the imminent arrival of Dahak. This establishes the idea of an end of the world saga, created by the shows producers, by comparing it to an already existing myth.

As the Dahak arc continued to unfold in both shows, with episodes such as Gabrielle's Hope, Maternal Instincts and Sacrifice in Xena and Armageddon, Faith, Descent and Redemption in Hercules our heroes came closer to the world as they knew it ending. With each passing story we were once again reminded of the death and destruction that Dahak would bring, how the blood of innocents would wash the land, the pantheon of gods would fall and the new world of Dahak would be born.

The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh has its own flood myth, with Utnapishtim in the role of Noah. As well as this, there are similar Indian and Chinese legends. The Chinese one puts a twist on it: its hero, Yu the Great, saves China from flooding by inventing water outlets that allow the land to be reclaimed. That should remind fans of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys of the hero’s fifth labour, which was to clean the cattle dung out of the stables of Augieas, and which was accomplished by altering the flow of a couple of rivers.

The Gilgamesh of the Hercules series would become a servant to Dahak and help the god to manifest himself physically into this world after his failed attempt in Sacrifice. After Hercules defeats Gilgamesh and watches as Iolaus die, the son of Zeus would then have to watch as his best friend, now joined with Dahak, sets about achieving his ambition of taking over the world. As Iolaus/Dahak begins to build an army of followers it would seen that the end is in site, but the strength of friendship between Hercules and Iolaus finally wins out and Dahak's evil is banished from this world.

It seems though the shows writers are unable to stay away from this idea and the finale of the fifth season of Hercules would once again have our dynamic duo fighting against an Armageddon. This time, in Revelations, it comes in the form of Archangel Michael and the Four Riders of the Apocalypse. As the four plagues are sent upon mankind Hercules, along with the resurrected Iolaus and a reluctant but frustrated Ares, do everything within their powers to save the world. Once again it is a selfless act on the part of Hercules, refusing to allow Death to take Iolaus from him again, that gives Michael the proof that mankind is worth saving.

From the outset of these two shows the producers have always stated that the evolution of the series was to portray the downfall of the gods. This may not take place in a cataclysmic battle between good and evil, heaven and hell or mortal and immortal but with the simple choice that mankind must make for itself. Both Hercules and Xena have never depended upon any of the gods for help, choosing to look to themselves, and having faith in themselves to succeed.

The 100th episode of Xena, Seeds of Faith, begins as the title suggests to sow the seeds of the changing faiths and beliefs in our characters. Eli ponders that mankind does indeed have the power to take their destiny into their own hands, taking power away from the gods and giving it to the mortals. The fourth season episode Déjà vu All Over Again, set in modern day American shows us a God of War who is rendered powerless, stating that not being worshipped will do that to you. From this we can presume that Xena, Gabrielle and Eli were successful in showing others the way forward and in effect causing their own end of a world scenario, but instead of resistance this time the end is welcomed, with the promise of a new beginning.

RAGNAROK

The Norse myth of the end of the world is the basis for a two-parter in the fifth season of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. With its usual cheeky disrespect for legends of any sort, Hercules uses this myth, known as Ragnarok, entirely to its own ends, taking what it needs to make a cracking story and leaving everything else behind.

The first sign of the impending Ragnarok is the death of the god Balder, which is shown in the first of the two episodes, Norse by Norsevest. Balder is supposedly impervious to all weapons, but his mischievous brother, Loki the trickster-god, brings about his death. In the episode, Loki tricks Hercules into pricking Balder with a tiny dart that has been poisoned so that it will kill even a god.  This is a re-telling of what happens in the myth, except that it is the blind god Hodur who is tricked into slaying Balder. Norse by Norsevest goes on to show Thor the thunder-god being defeated by the half-mortal Hercules in battle, the second sign that the Ragnarok is near, but this has no parallel in myth.

The series’ third sign of Ragnarok – the blinding of Odin that is shown in the second episode, Somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge – does not bear any relation to the real myth either. Ragnarok was really to be heralded by dreadful winters, culminating in a permanent one that rejoiced in the name of the Fimbul Winter, during which the fabric of society would be pushed to breaking point: fathers, sons and brothers would kill one another, communities would collapse and all vows would be forgotten. Monsters imprisoned in the bowels of the earth, including Loki and his children the wolf Fenris and the serpent Jormungand, would be let loose to attack Asgard, the home of the gods. In Hercules, Loki regularly changes shape to become a wolf, though Fenris and Jormungand are themselves absent.

Ragnarok was to be the end of the world, but, like the flood myths, it was just the end of the world as we know it. The old order of the Norse gods would die in its struggle with the freed monsters, but a new order would rise in its place. Some gods and men would survive Ragnarok and the new world would not be troubled by the ancient evil that had destroyed itself in its attack on Asgard.