Myths from several different traditions address the subject of eschatology, the study of last things, or ends. Just as creation myths explain how the world came into being, eschatological myths envision the way that it will end. Stories of the apocalypse offer revelations, prophetic visions of the cataclysmic destruction of the cosmos. In many of the narratives, the violent destruction of the universe leads to the birth of a new, and often better, world. In others, the apocalypse either marks the end of all time and a return to chaos, or it heralds the end of all earthly life and the beginning of existence in eternity. In those myths wherein the world is reborn after its destruction, the apocalypse serves a function similar to that of the deluge: like the flood, the catastrophe that destroys the world cleanses and renews it.
Like other apocalyptic literature, the myths that foretell the end of the world frequently make use of suggestive images or symbols. Many of the accounts are particularly interested in interpreting signs that the world’s destruction is imminent, and therefore offer vivid descriptions of the events that will inevitably lead to Armageddon. Several recurring themes appear among these visions of the last days of the earth. In many myths, both the disintegration of the world’s society and the degradation of the earth’s environment signal the approach of the apocalypse. For example, a decline in morality often becomes evident near the end of time. The final age of life on earth is frequently described as a period of confusion, violence, lawlessness, and unremitting warfare. It is also a time of natural disasters: the droughts, storms, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes that plague the earth during its last days bring with them famine, suffering, and disease. In some accounts, a sign that the end is near appears in the heavens when the sun and moon grow dim and the stars fall to the earth. Sometimes monsters or demons emerge near the end of time, and some myths represent the apocalypse as a great battle between the forces of good and evil. In several myths the end comes when a final reckoning occurs on a Day of Judgment.
The apocalyptic vision of the Norse tradition that is recorded in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda provides an extraordinarily detailed account of the end of the world. Because the inevitability of fate is central to the Norse worldview, the particular sequence of events that leads to Ragnarok (the gods’ destiny) is represented in their myths as being preordained. As Snorri Sturluson recounts it, long before the actual coming of Ragnarok the gods are well aware of the natural omens that will signal the beginning of the end, and they also know what must happen when Heimdall’s horn summons them to meet the evil monsters and their old enemies, the giants, on the battlefield. Odin and the other Norse gods live with the understanding that their world is doomed, but they are well prepared to meet their destiny with fortitude, for they always know exactly how it will unfold.
Norse myths are interconnected in intricate ways, and it is therefore in the story of Loki and Balder that the stage is first set for the coming of Ragnarok. When Loki, the cunning trickster, causes the death of Balder, the most virtuous and the most beloved of the gods, the world begins to become increasingly wicked. Bloody wars rage among human beings, and the gods must constantly do battle with the giants and the trolls. After three years of violent warfare, a terrible winter called Fimbulvetr marks the next stage of Ragnarok’s approach. Fimbulvetr lasts for three long years during which the sun does not shine and no plants can grow upon the earth. After this period, Hati, the wolf that pursues the sun, manages to catch it and swallow it, and a second wolf, Skoll, catches the moon. Surt, the giant who rules the fiery realm of Muspelheim, sends flames into the sky that cause the stars to fall to earth. All of these events signal the coming of the end, and, when one morning the golden cock that lives in the home of the gods hears his crowing answered by the black cock that roosts in the underworld called Hel, the last day of the world begins.
On the day of doom mighty quakes split the earth open and cause mountains to crumble. Loki, securely bound since the death of Balder, breaks free of his fetters, and so too do his son Fenrir, the monstrous wolf with gaping jaws, and Garm, the evil hound of Hel. The World Serpent named Jormungard, another of Loki’s sons, rises from his home in the sea, spitting poison into the sky and causing huge waves to wash across the land. The ghostly ship Naglfar, made from nail clippings taken from the dead, rides upon the waves with Loki at its helm. From Muspelheim, Surt and his hordes of fire demons surge across the rainbow bridge called Bifrost, causing it to break. When Heimdall, the god who guards the rainbow bridge, sees all his enemies converging on the battlefield known as Vigrid, he blows upon Gjallarhorn to alert the other gods that Armageddon is nigh.
On the plain of Vigrid the gods and their enemies engage in mortal combat. Odin, the leader of the gods, meets his death when he is swallowed by Fenrir the wolf. The mighty Thor kills the World Serpent, but before he can move nine paces from the corpse, Jormungard’s deadly venom causes his death. Frey, the god of fertility, is killed by the evil giant Surt, and one-handed Tyr and Garm the hell-hound slay one another. Heimdall, the trumpeter, does battle with Loki, and these two age-old enemies also kill each other. Vidar, one of Odin’s sons, avenges his father’s death when he slays the ferocious wolf by ripping Fenrir’s hideous jaws apart and splitting open its head. After the battle is over and corpses litter the plain, the fire giant Surt sets the world aflame.
Although Ragnarok’s holocaust brings to its end the world of the gods, in Norse tradition the apocalypse does not mark the end of time. The sun, just before the wolf swallows it, gives birth to a daughter, and after Ragnarok is over, the new sun rises in the sky. A new moon and stars begin to shine as well, and a new rainbow appears in the place of Bifrost. Odin’s sons, Vidar and Vali, survive the day of doom, and Balder is freed from his confinement in Hel. Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni, also survive, and these two inherit their father’s magic hammer, Mjollnir. The last of the gods gather at the place that once was Asgard, the home of the gods, and together remember the times of the past. In addition to the gods, two human beings escape Surt’s conflagration. When flames engulf the earth, Lif (life) and Lifthrasir (will for life) seek refuge in the branches of Yggdrasil. There they survive by drinking the life-sustaining dew of the World Tree, and when the new sun rises in the sky, they venture forth to give birth to a new race of human beings.
In Indian tradition, as in that of the Norse, the cosmos is reborn again after its destruction. However, while the Norse apocalypse ends an era that will never be repeated, in the Indian worldview the destruction of the world occurs within an endless cycle of recurring ages. During the Maha Yuga, or the “great age,” life on earth becomes increasingly dangerous and difficult throughout the passage of four lesser eras. By the end of Kali Yuga, the last and the shortest of these lesser ages, most of the earth’s human population has succumbed to the ravages of warfare, famine, or natural disasters, and many other people drown during the pralaya, the period of dissolution that precedes the beginning of another Maha Yuga. At the end of a Kalpa, a cycle of one thousand Maha Yugas, the earth, finally depleted of all its resources, is completely destroyed. The Kalpa is one day in the life of Vishnu, who in the form of Shiva-Rudra takes one night that is as long as the day to destroy the cosmos. In India’s vision of the eternal cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, the universe is then re-created at the end of the night, when Vishnu awakens in the form of Brahma.
In Hindu tradition, the apocalypse known as Maya Pralaya, the “great dissolution,” begins with one hundred years of drought. Shiva-Rudra, the destroyer of all life on earth, enters the seven rays of the sun and draws up all the water in the world. At the end of this period, called “the sucking of the waters by Rudra,” all the moisture in the cosmos is contained within the sky. Shiva-Rudra then causes the rays of sunlight to turn into seven suns, and these suns set the world on fire. After the heavens, earth, and underworld have all been consumed by flames, Rudra, the storm god, exhales gigantic, multi-colored clouds that flash with lightning and roar with thunder. Rain from the monstrous clouds quenches the holocaust and then continues to fall for one hundred years, and the heavens, earth, and underworld are all inundated. Vishnu, as Shiva-Rudra, exists alone in the watery void, for all gods and living things perish in the fire and the flood. For one hundred years Vishnu exhales a mighty wind that blows the storm clouds from the sky, and then he sleeps until he awakens as Brahma, the creator of the universe.
Among other stories in which the destruction of the cosmos leads to its rebirth is one from Native American tradition. In a myth of the Cherokee, the world is drowned when the strip of rawhide that holds the earth above the primal waters grows old and finally breaks. Whereas it is a flood that washes the world clean in many other apocalyptic narratives, in this account the earth is cleansed when it is submerged. Like the Norse and the Hindus, the Cherokee people view the destruction of their world as part of the endless cycle of the birth, death, and regeneration of all life, for each time the rawhide breaks, the Great Creator lifts the earth from its watery grave and then refashions the world.
In other myths of the apocalypse, including examples from Central Asian, Mesoamerican, and Native American traditions, the world is not re-created after its destruction. In these tales, where there is no vision of an afterlife that follows life on earth, the universe ceases to exist when the apocalypse occurs. The world is destroyed, according to ancient Mongolian accounts, when its mountains turn to dust. At that time, Erlik Khan, King of the Underworld, at last seeks revenge for an injustice he suffered at the time of creation. Accompanied by nine iron warriors riding iron horses, Erlik Khan emerges from the bottom of the sea on the day of doom. Terrified people seek help from the gods when their slaughter begins, but even the gods cannot stop the bloodshed. When Karan and Kere, Erlik Khan’s mightiest warriors, emerge from the Underworld to strike down Sagjamuni (the Mongols’ name for the Lord Buddha), the earth is utterly destroyed by the flames that erupt from Sagjamuni’s blood.
Although the apocalypse envisioned by the Mongols does not come about until all their mountains have eroded, eons in their future, the end of all time is nevertheless perceived to be inevitable. In stories told by the Aztecs, Cheyenne, and White River Sioux, the complete destruction of the world is also seen as inevitable, but these myths detail the ways in which the people try to forestall the coming of the day of doom. In the Aztec tradition, the fifth world is the last one, and after a tremendous quake destroys it, the earth is not re-created. According to the Aztecs, human sacrifice is required to prolong the age of the fifth world, for the ritual letting of blood keeps the sun in motion—it is when the sun stops that the earth begins to quake and the apocalypse occurs.
In the Cheyenne account, the cosmos is destined to vanish into a bottomless void when the Great White Grandfather Beaver of the North finishes gnawing through the wooden pole that supports the world. Because the Great Beaver gnaws faster when he is angry, the Cheyenne are careful to avoid invoking the wrath of the Beaver: they do not eat the beaver’s flesh, and they do not hunt it for its pelt. According to the White River Sioux, the task of prolonging the existence of the world falls to Shunka Sapa, a gigantic black dog. The black dog sits and watches the ancient, wizened woman who has been stitching her porcupine-quill blanket for thousands of years. From time to time the old woman gets up to stir the pot of berry soup that has been simmering on her fire for thousands of years, and each time she does this, Shunka Sapa removes quills from her blanket. As she works on her blanket, the old woman is also stitching the destiny of the world, for as the Sioux tell the story, the day when the old woman completes her design of porcupine quills will be the last day of the earth.
In yet another set of stories, the apocalypse that brings about the death of the temporal world also marks the time when eternity begins. Unlike the myths that envision the world’s life as cyclical, as existing within the eternal pattern of birth, death, and regeneration, the millennial accounts link the destruction of the world to the end of time itself. In many of these prophetic tales, social order and moral responsibility are described as having given way to confusion and wickedness near the end of time, and the apocalypse, therefore, is frequently regarded as the occasion for a reckoning, a time for final judgments. The reckoning characteristically takes the form of a mighty battle that is followed by the raising of the dead on a Day of Judgment. Virtue triumphs over evil when the old, corrupt world is destroyed and replaced in eternity by a new order of existence.
According to Persia’s Zoroastrian tradition, the last days of the world unfold during an epoch called the Age of Iron, a time of ceaseless struggle between the forces of good and evil. On one hand, malicious demons invade Persia, bringing with them earthquakes and drought, starvation and disease, but on the other, three saviors arise to represent the enduring powers of virtue. The sun and moon grow dim during the Age of Iron, a time of darkness in the world, but a shower of sparkling stars signals the birth of Aushedar, the first of the saviors. Like the other holy saviors, Aushedar is born of a young virgin who becomes pregnant while she bathes in a sacred lake that contains the seed of the prophet Zoroaster. A savior is born every one thousand years during the Age of Iron, and each of the holy men advances the cause of virtue throughout his lifetime. During the time of Aushedarmah, the second of the saviors, the hideous dragon Azhi Dahaka is finally defeated and killed. Soshyant is the savior when the world is destroyed, and it is he who presides on the Day of Judgment.
In the Zoroastrian vision of the apocalypse, the old world is destroyed when its mountains are melted and the molten metal from them spreads across the earth. The sheet of molten metal effaces the landscape, smoothing the earth’s surface until it assumes the state of perfect flatness it possessed at the beginning of creation. In this fashion the world is cleansed of all evil and its demons are all killed. On the Day of Judgment Soshyant raises the dead and reunites all people’s bodies and their souls. The wicked spend three days and nights suffering in hell to cleanse them of their evil deeds and then, their virtue restored, they join the righteous in a new paradise on earth. When the hot metal sweeps across the old earth, the people pass through it as though it were water, for in eternity death no longer threatens them. The apocalypse, in the Zoroastrian worldview, expunges evil from the world and thus restores the perfection of the earth’s original creation.
Like the Persian account of the apocalypse, millennial narratives from both the Islamic and Christian traditions also envision a great battle between the powers of good and evil, numerous omens signaling the last days of the world, and a final day of judgment that marks the end of earthly life. In these apocalyptic tales, however, the wicked are condemned to hell forever as punishment for their evil, and only the righteous spend eternity in paradise. Prophetic writings from both traditions offer warnings about the many dangers of the last days of the earth. Islam’s Hadith, for example, predicts the coming of the Antichrist, and Christianity’s Gospel of Saint Mark warns of the appearance of numerous false prophets. Monstrous creatures also arise in accounts from both traditions: the Hadith tells of the re-emergence of Gog and Magog, monsters once captured and imprisoned by Alexander the Great, and Saint John’s Book of Revelation describes the emergence from the sea of the blasphemous beast with its seven heads and ten horns. In both the Islamic and Christian visions of the apocalypse, the people of the world’s last age are visited by epidemics, plagues, and famines, and catastrophic earthquakes and storms cause them to suffer greatly. In both traditions the righteous are at last rewarded for all that they have suffered when they are granted eternal life in paradise on the Day of Judgment.
Whereas the blessed are immediately separated from those who are damned in the Christian account of the Last Judgment, in Islamic tradition the deeds of all who are judged are weighed on a great scale. When the angel Israfil blows for the third time on his trumpet, the scale of reckoning descends from the heavens. The sins of every person are then balanced on the left side of the scale, and all the good deeds of each person’s life are balanced on the right. When one side of the scale outweighs the other, the judgment is apparent, but when the two sides are equally balanced, a penitent soul must cry out for the mercy that is granted whenever the appeal is heartfelt and sincere. The judgment takes one hour, and after the weighing of the souls, all of the judged set out upon the bridge that leads to paradise and crosses over hell. The bridge is sharper than a sword and as narrow as a hair, and while the blessed have no trouble crossing it, those who are damned falter and then drop down into the gaping mouth of hell.
The earth is destroyed by a variety of means in stories that envision an apocalypse. Accounts of conflagration and deluge are fairly commonplace, and these destructive forces usually serve the purpose of cleansing the earth before it is reborn. This is the case in the Norse tale, where the old world of the gods and giants is immolated before a new sun begins to shine, and in the Cherokee myth, where the world is washed clean when it is submerged in the primal sea. In the Hindu tradition, a new Kalpa begins only when the cosmos has been twice purified, first by a holocaust and then by a cleansing flood. The sheet of molten metal described by the Persians also serves to wash the earth, eradicating its imperfections and purging it of evil.
When the world is not reborn, the means of its destruction bring about the state of chaos that existed before it was created. In the story told by the Cheyenne, the cosmos is enveloped by the fathomless chaos of the void when the Great White Beaver finishes gnawing through the pole, and in the Aztec tale the earth collapses into chaos when a mighty quake shakes it apart. In these myths the apocalypse occurs when the life of the world has run its full course and therefore has come to its inevitable end in the condition of disorder from which it arose. In the myth of the White River Sioux, the world must come to its end when its order is complete, when the last porcupine quill that reveals its design is stitched into place, and in the story told by the Mongols, the history of the world comes full circle when Erlik Khan, who has waited since its creation to destroy it, exacts his revenge.
In the apocalyptic narratives that describe the temporal world’s annihilation on the Day of Judgment, the earth and its people are characteristically assaulted by multiple destructive forces during their last days. The wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and appearances of monstrous creatures all reinforce the idea that the destruction of the world is a necessary outcome when life on the earth becomes increasingly intolerable. In these visions of the apocalypse, retributive justice restores the order that is lost during the chaos and confusion of the last days of the earth. The wicked, who have fostered the eruption of disorder, are duly punished, and the righteous, who have endured lives of misery, are granted the consolation of eternal bliss in paradise.
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