Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The long history and bright future of the end of the world

Prophets are always disappointed dear Nostradamus. That's why new ones are always in the wings updating the catastrophes

-Andre Codrescu-

I remember the late 1970's when the new-agers were petting their pieces of quartz and telling us in solemn reverential tones that Mother Shipton had predicted the end of the world in 1982; although some said 1981.

The world to an end shall come

In nineteen hundred and eighty one.

Such is the malleability and durability of prophecy. Although prophecies said to be from the Yorkshire prophetess born in about 1488 were published in 1641, eighty years after the reported end of her days, they really didn't predict the end of the world but rather a series of catastrophes in the vague idiom of soothsayers and fortune tellers throughout time. In fact it's questionable that she ever lived, much more questionable that she was Satan's daughter, glowed in the dark and was not the fabrication of 17the century writers. Her prediction of the death of Cardinal Wolsey, for instance, was published years after the man died.

In the air men shall be seen,
In white, in black and in green….
Iron in the water shall float,
As easy as a wooden boat.

It wasn't until the mid 19th century in 1862 that Shipton's startling predictions of things like balloons and telegraphy and diving bells and England finally allowing Jews to live there appeared courtesy of Charles Hindley, who wrote it and publicly admitted of having done so. Of course he had predicted eighteen eighty one as the end time, but someone in the wings was happy to update it for the next century's crop of 20th century gulls.

Carriages without horses shall go,
And accidents fill the world with woe.
Around the world thoughts shall fly
In the twinkling of an eye.

Perhaps not so startling having been written in the age of steam transportation and the telegraph, of iron ships and submarine boats and hydrogen balloons, all of which existed already in Hindley's time. It's almost biblical in having predicting things ex post facto and passing off of current idiom as the dialect of the remote past. Any passing familiarity with late 15th century English should have set off alarms, I should think, but it's no surprise to find such ignorance amongst the hip and eager cognoscenti.

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous.

-Henry David Thoreau-

Few of the crystal gazers, if any, bothered to risk the delicious feeling of being in the know to the extent of finding out that it was a hoax. Indeed, even today one finds lengthy and utterly fictional web posts about stealing the prophecies of Mother Shipton from secret rooms at secret libraries where the scrolls had been hidden "by the government" so as not to panic the people. Delicious indeed and it seems to fill some human desire for arcana, for ancient wisdom and the cheap high it brings. There is always someone to fill that need whether it be political groups with dire warnings about NATO hiding H bombs under Philadelphia, Obama hiding death panels in his health care reform, Mayan prophecy or some equally ludicrous cataclysm from John of Patmos.

Certainly most things will in time have an end; perhaps time itself, but it's not so much the knowledge of the inevitable that intrigues us, enthralls us, but the idea that the processes of entropy, the chaotic randomness of the universe have something to do with our species and its thoughts and actions and the myths of our more ignorant ancestors. Secret, undetectable energies and entities with the secret hopes and fears are delectable and they distract us from the utterly uncaring, incomprehensible emptiness of existence. They create a universe in which we might mean something, might feel at least temporarily superior to the other lumps of fragile mortality around us and so in twenty one and eighty two, Old Mother Shipton will have predicted yet another end and perhaps the Mayans math will be updated or reinterpreted and mankind reprieved for a hundred years. Jesus' ETA will still be imminent, the hidden Imam about to be revealed and the last days yet at hand. We'll still wave pieces of quartz and utter powerful words and formulae from an invented past. We'll still have some ancient calendar and myth. We'll still follow, as we were meant to

One that would would fain seem wise and learnt, and is but a fool and an ignorant self-conceited gull.

-John Florio-

There will be no final day I hear
While prophets whimper in our ear
of signs and portents in the skies
and issue forth unending lies.

Into the crystal ball we'll gaze
the obvious shall seem a maze
But never mind and never fear
It won't all end until next year.

-Father Fogg-


Murr Brewster said...

Ah well. I intend to find someone who believes the world will end on such-and-such a date and ask them if they mind giving me their stuff. I'd give it all away, of course--I AM a liberal.

Capt. Fogg said...

I'd keep it - I'm a greedy liberal.

Baltazar said...

ronald reagan became president in 1980 - so we have to concider maybe the`world`did come to and - its just a real slow end

Capt. Fogg said...

He was one of the horsemen, for sure.