The End Approacheth… and Recedeth: Apocalypse as Myth

La Mojarra Inscription - Mayan Long Count Date

The world is coming to an end.

Perhaps it will be on this year’s winter solstice, when the Mayan calendar says that the current pictun or aeon will end, and the universe will be obliterated and reconstituted– as it is supposed to have been seven thousand years or so ago. (Like Hindus, Buddhists, and many physicists, the Mayans believed that history moved in cycles rather than a straight line.)

Or perhaps it will be in five billion or so years, when the sun goes nova, burning the earth to a crisp.

Or perhaps it will be some other form of metaphysical or manmade apocalypse.

What is certain is that the idea of apocalypse — the myth of the word’s end — exercises a real, enduring power over the human imagination. Not a year goes by when some would-be prophet or other begins counting down to doomsday.

However history plays out over the coming months years around Tel Megiddo in the West Bank, we have fought the battle of Armageddon over and over again in our minds. Apocalyptic books and stories are all around us.

Why? Why are we so drawn to the thought of the end of the universe?

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, said:

    We must not understand apocalypse literally, not as some physical destruction and judgment on the world, or as something that is going to occur in the future. . . .
    The mystical theme of the space age is this: the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. The world as the center of the universe, the world divided from the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which love is reserved for members of the in-group: that is the world that is passing away.
    Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic worldview, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious—that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth—that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbors, in our enemies, in all of us.
    —Joseph CampbellThou Art That, pp. 107–108.

By this view, stories of the end of the world are not to read literally, but myths — as metaphors for the psychological and spiritual crises through which we are passing as individuals and as societies. They are expressions of our perpetual struggle to escape an old world or to create to a new one.

The world is coming to end.

Every day.

And every day we can begin it anew.

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