Ancient Religion And The End Of The World: What The Ancients Thought About The Concepts Of Time And Eternity

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Doomsday scenarios and prophesies of a pending apocalypse, said to be revealed in ancient texts, are often exaggerated and taken out of context.

In recent popular fiction, the Mayan Calendar foretells the end of the world down to the exact day. This notion of an approaching end of history was, in fact, unthinkable to most ancient people.

The Division of History

The most notable exceptions to this were the Etruscans of ancient Italy. Pre-dating the Romans, this civilization was known to have placed a great deal of faith in omens, soothsayers and prophets. They went so far as to foretell the fall of their civilization, which was to happen after ten epochs had unfolded. Yet the exact boundaries of these epochs were open to interpretation. When the Roman poet Virgil wrote in the first century BCE, he alluded to a coming “Golden Age” which was thought to coincide with the tenth epoch.

The Zoroastrians of Persia also had a highly developed division of history. They allowed for 3,000 years of creation, followed by three periods of 3,000 years during which the forces of the god of light would battle the forces of the god of darkness. The end of each of these periods would be marked by widespread disasters finally ending with the arrival of a new savior.

These beliefs influenced the Hellenized Jews and early Christians, who also developed a series of apocalyptic prophecies. The Jewish versions often used the idea of ten generations in similar fashion to the Persian divisions of history. In fact, in some cases it is difficult to distinguish between the ancient Persian and Jewish texts that deal with apocalyptic prophecies.

Pop-fiction aside, most ancient cultures had a different idea of the passage of time than these apocalyptic traditions, and the Mayan beliefs are with that majority.

The Mayans

The Mayan calendar is based on a cyclical concept of history/time and is generally represented with a circular image. The confusion in the interpretation of the Mayan Calendar arises from the several different counts that it uses. There is a Sacred Round of 260 days used for ceremonies, and a solar year of 365 days.

However, it is the so-called “long count” which has caused so much confusion for scholars. The long count, which begins in August of 3114 BCE, was preceded by 13 periods, called baktuns, which ended with the creation of the world. The coming date of December 20, 2011 is believed to correlate with the end of the present cycle of 13 additional baktuns and marks the beginning of another.

The Mayan Calendar is based on the belief that 13 different gods each shoulder a portion of the time represented by the calendar. When the thirteenth god is done shouldering its burden, time is passed back to the first god and the system repeats. What makes the long count unique is that, since the days of the Maya, it has yet to fully turn on its temporal cog.

The Mayan belief in a cyclical nature of time was common among ancient peoples across the world. These ancient belief systems usually held that the gods were responsible for keeping chaos in check and allowing for the sun to rise each day.

The Near East And The Conquest Of Chaos

Calendars and the concept of time developed side by side with religious beliefs. At the foundation of these beliefs were the rituals which bound the people to the gods. the gods, in turn, kept their bargain to hold up the sky or abate the waters of the abyss.

The Sumerians are likely the first civilization to have devised the approximately 365 day solar calendar, which they divided into 12 months of roughly 30 days,based on the lunar cycle. They equated the beginning of time with the creation of the world, which was attributed to whichever creator god was currently in favor.

In Babylon, Marduk was believed to have ended the primordial chaos by destroying Tiamat and creating the earth and sky. For centuries the Babylonians celebrated a New Years Day festival to keep the pact of creation with Marduk.

The Hittites and the ancient Syrians held similar beliefs that the world had emerged from chaos and that would remain so as long as the proper rituals were observed. These ancient people did, of course, realize their own physical mortality. Yet they explained this contrast between the brevity of life and belief in eternity by creating myths of an afterlife.

For the Babylonians, Hittites, and Syrians, life was to be cherished because the afterlife offered little hope but a gray and bleak existence. Ancestral relics, to which offerings were made, were often kept in the lower levels of Syrian palaces. This provided some hope of a more peaceful afterlife. However, the real masters of cyclical time and eternity where the Egyptians.

The Egyptians

In the various Egyptian creation myths, the beginning of the world comes more as a revelation rather than as a conquest of chaos. In the Memphite Myth, the god Ptah speaks and his words begin the flow of time. After this creation the gods themselves rule on earth for a period of time but then withdraw, leaving the king in place as a link to the eternal world of the gods.

The Egyptians believed this world would endure for “millions of years,” and those who followed the rituals could survive it all with the help of the gods. However, there were things that could go wrong if the rituals were not observed with diligence.

The daily concern was that the sun god Re would be consumed by the serpent Apophis on his nightly journey through the underworld. Another major concern for the Egyptians was the return of the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet. According to the myths, Sekhmet had once nearly destroyed the human race and was only mollified when she was tricked into drinking large quantities of beer.

Sources:

  1. Johnston, Sarah I. (Religions of the Ancient World, Belknap, Cambridge, 2004.)