This is part two of an ongoing Newsvine series investigating End Times theories. Part One, the introduction, can be found here.
The Lens of Apocalypticism
There are any number of ways in which armageddon could descend upon us, resulting in an End Times Scenario. And, almost all of those various mechanisms have been feared at one time or another in human history, a phenomenon that Lorenzo DiTommaso finds to be quite understandable.
"The world is often seen as terrible place, filled with oppression, injustice and the menace of death," says DiTommaso. "Apocalypticism provides a powerful response: The world is so bad, it can't be restored. So it will be swept away...Judaism, Christianity and Islam all forecast an apocalypse," he says. "The end of the world, typically with a judgment day and an Armageddon, reflects the desire to escape this existence, punish one's enemies and be vindicated in light of a higher power or transcendent reality."
A professor of religion at Montreal's Concordia University, DiTomasso sees today's apocalyptic worldview as being a product of our times, as much as any impending 2012 deadline.
"More and more people see the world through the lens of apocalypticism," he observes. "One reason is that things appear to be so irreparably broken: the environment, the economy, the political system."
And therein lies the danger, he warns. "At its core, apocalypticism is a simplistic response to complex problems – either good or evil, nothing in between. And it's an adolescent response, since it places responsibility for solving these problems elsewhere."
A Bad Star
Of course, such a response may not be entirely inappropriate if the problem itself emerges from elsewhere. And, such is the case with one threat sometimes cited as a source of impending apocalypse, the dreaded comet or asteroid strike.
This particular mode of cataclysm probably entered the contemporary dialogue most insistently due to the theatrical release of both Armageddon and Deep Impact, back in the late 90s. The highly coincidental debut of these two films was part of a new renaissance of disaster films, whose popularity as a genre continues today.
Disaster. It's an interesting word, really. Dis-aster, from the Greek "bad star", it reflects a long-held human fear of the appearance of new and threatening celestial bodies in the sky, increasing in size and danger as they approach. It's thought that one reason why comets were so feared as ill omens by the ancients is because of their anarchic behaviour. Unlike other bodies in the heavens which acted in accord with some form of order - setting and rising at certain times of the day, varying only with the change of seasons - comets, with their mysterious elliptical orbits, appeared out of nowhere, mocking human pretensions to knowledge, both esoteric and mundane.
To some observers in ancient times, comets appeared to resemble a sword or dagger in the sky; a sign of cosmic violence and the displeasure of the gods, and they were often regarded as ill omens, both for notable individuals and for humankind as a whole. In his book The Greatest Comets in History: Broom Stars and Celestial Scimitars, David Sergeant writes:
This was the comet that blazed in the skies of Rome following the assassination of Julius Caesar and which became immortalized by the Romans on the reverse of a coin bearing a portrait of Augustus struck in honor of the great Julius.
Shortly after the crowning of Harold of England, Halley's Comet made one of its periodic returns, terrifying the people and presaging Harold's fall at the hands of the invader, William of Normandy. The comet was considered such a harbinger of that defeat that it has been immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry.
It is even related that, In 1456, Pope Callixtus III was so discomfited by the return of this same comet that he took a rather unusual step:
Halley's comet was excommunicated as an agent of the devil by Pope Calixtus III, but it didn't do any good - the comet has continued to return!
Fear Etched in Human Memory
There were, of course, very good reasons for the births of these superstitions, and the association of comets with disastrous earth changes of the same sort that are often predicted for the End Times. Comets possess tremendous inherent destructive potential. A comet only a half a mile across, if it struck the earth, would release a million megatons of energy, enough to create global devastation killing millions. If this has happened before - and it almost certainly has - it would create a tremendous impression on the survivors - enough that they would almost certainly transmit the horror of the experience down through the ages in mythology, oral history and folkways.
It is possible that the fear would have etched in human memory after a huge comet crashed on Earth. Imagine the effect-there would have been smoke and fire, loss of life and property. Trees and crops would have been destroyed. People would have starved to death. The smoke would have darkened the skies for a long time. Chinese, Hindu, and Mayan myths tell the story of the great flood, which destroyed all life. There are allusions in the Bible too of the Great Flood. Plato refers to the lost world of Atlantis. Could a huge comet or asteroid cause the Deluge?
If fear of catastrophic destruction from the sky were embedded into the major world religions, it might suggest that those fears are evoked in warnings about their return; a cautionary note that could evolve over the years into the apocalyptic predictions we see in New Age thought as well as the Christian Bible.
"The end will come with a flood, and war and its miseries are decreed from that time to the very end." (Daniel 9:26)
"For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be." (Matthew 24:21)
"Immediately after the anguish of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the peoples of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." (Matthew 24:29-30)
And, indeed, it seems we do have evidence of historical celestial events infiltrating religious thought, as described by Patrick McCafferty and Michael Baillie in their book The Celtic Gods: Comets in Irish Mythology. They further advance the hypothesis that Celtic mythology as a whole, but ten specific stories, including the Arthurian cycle, the legend of Cuchulainnan, and the Beowulf saga are "coded accounts" of cometary strikes, and that the Celtic sky god Lugh was himself a comet.
They point to the evidence that encounters with comets have caused environmental downturns, a stance bolstered by evidence from paleoecologist Baillie's earlier works "A Slice through Time: Dendrochronology and Precision Dating" and "Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters With Comets".
If It's Happened Once....
Should we fear an End Times encounter with a comet? Is it likely that a comet could be the agency chosen to initiate The Tribulation? Certainly, as demonstrated by Baillie, cometary influence can have environmental effects, but what are the chances one would actually strike the earth?
If it's happened once, it can happen again.
And we are starting to see evidence that it has, in fact, happened before. In 2008, Douglas Kennett published an article in the journal Science suggesting that the Clovis extinction, at the end of the last Ice Age, could be blamed on the impact of comet fragments.
...it has emerged that one of the biggest calamities man has ever faced may have been caused by an apocalyptic strike by a comet, which broke into giant fragments, smashing into Earth.
Researchers from the University of Oregon say that they have found nanodiamonds scattered throughout North America in sediments, dating from the era that this extinction took place.
The scientists say the discovery shows that a high-pressure, high-temperature event such as a comet attack may have taken place there causing the epoch known as the Younger Dryas impact.
A comet - or, at least, a piece of one - may have impacted earth even more recently, as suggested by consensus around the cause of the so-called 'Tunguska event'. At 7:14 am on June 30, 1908, a fireball exploded in the sky over Siberia, flattening an area of Tunguska forest 7 kilometres in diameter, and stripping the branches from trees for another 30 km. While at first the agency was thought to be a meteor, the absence of a crater suggests to researchers a "vaporization" of the projectile - something more likely to occur from the 'dirty snowball' composition of comet as opposed to the more solid nickel-iron structure of an asteroid. In addition, as pointed out by Vassilii Fessenkov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the early 1960s, all evidence suggests that the projectile approached the earth after travelling in a retrograde direction - impossible for an asteroid, but not atypical of a comet. An impact by a chunk of comet would also explain various illumination effects seen accompanying the strike, as well as a decrease in atmospheric transparency, caused by the loss of tons of dust from the comet particle as it travelled through the atmosphere.
Science writer Surendra Verma, the author of The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball explains why science is sure that the event was caused by a relatively small fragment and not an entire comet. Simply put, the carnage was insufficient.
Comets usually pass earth with speeds greater than 160,000 kilometres per hour. If a comet a couple of kilometres across hits earth with such speed, it will gouge out a hole as big as a large city, spewing out so much dust in the atmosphere that the Sun will be blocked out for months. If it hits an ocean, the tidal wave will be up to 1 kilometre high and travelling at many hundreds of kilometres per hour and will submerge most low-lying regions. But the worst threat is fire -- fire caused by debris thrown into the atmosphere when the comet head explodes before hitting earth. Burning forests and cities will throw soot into an already clogged atmosphere. Then there will be acid rain - a rain of toxic gases and metals. Most plants will die, followed by marine creatures that live near the surface, nearly ending life on the planet.
Playing the Odds
Another possible celestial mechanism for apocalypse scenarios can be found in the form of asteroid strikes. It's a suggestion that must be taken seriously in the context of 2012 discussions, particularly because it's possible an asteroid strike may have been the event immortalized by the start of the Mayan Long Count catalogue whose termination is current causing such questioning. In 2008, a clay disk (known as the 'Planisphere') found in the ruins of the Sumerian Palace of Nineveh by Henry Layard in the 19th century was translated for the first time.
With modern computer programmes that can simulate trajectories and reconstruct the night sky thousands of years ago the researchers have established what the Planisphere tablet refers to. It is a copy of the night notebook of a Sumerian astronomer as he records the events in the sky before dawn on the 29 June 3123 BC (Julian calendar). Half the tablet records planet positions and cloud cover, the same as any other night, but the other half of the tablet records an object large enough for its shape to be noted even though it is still in space. The astronomers made an accurate note of its trajectory relative to the stars, which to an error better than one degree is consistent with an impact at Köfels.
The closeness of the 3123 BC date to the Mayan Long Count start date of 3114 is sufficient for some observers to suggest the two are the same event.
Today, astronomers track asteroids with some degree of care, in hopes of obtaining advance notice of an impact such as that at Kofels. They are quick to reassure us that the Near Earth Objects (NEO) are extensively catalogued and their trajectories understood, although we should perhaps be somewhat disconcerted that new NEOs continue to be discovered. One example of these is the asteroid Apophis.
Discovered with some alarm in 2004, Apophis is a 50 million ton asteroid on a close-to-earth orbit. Astronomers currently suggest that there is a 1 in 44,000 probablity of striking earth in 2036 -- a poor enough set of odds that specialized science circles have kicked off a new flurry of activity, examining possible deflection technologies. And, while the odds could be worse, the criticality of such an impact could not. Most of us are aware that it's widely thought that an asteroid strike some 65 million years ago caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. But not everyone knows why, and how. While the blast and immediate effects of what we have come to call the "K-T" event are intuitive and self evident, they are by no means the worst outcomes. Rather, it is the sunlight-blocking effects of the ash and dust injected into the atmosphere that had the greatest impact, changing climate suffiently to kill off 70% of the animal and plant species on earth.
It's a very serious threat, and one that is taken seriously enough that the U.S. government, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory conduct ongoing monitoring of near-earth objects, in hopes of detecting a 'planet-killer' early enough to do something -- anything to prevent it.
Still, it seems that both asteroids and comet trajectories are well-enough understood to provide us with a degree of assurance that the likelihood of a space rock smashing into our blue planet is highly unlikely, in the next 18 months, at any rate.
There are, of course other potential mechanisms for apocalypse lurking in the vastness of space. After all, as we've seen, we do live in a dangerous cosmic neighbourhood.
In our next article we will discuss The Search for Planet X.