May 24, 2011

The End of the World

        As you may have noticed, on Saturday the world failed to end again.  But while the "Rapture" has, in my opinion, no basis in true spirituality, my brother pointed out that the End of the World is a great topic for fantasy (as is understood very well by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the authors of the Left Behind fantasy series.)  If you want to depict the depths of villainy and the heights of heroism which people can reach, the End of the World is surely the ultimate stage on which to see how they act.
        One of the more popular End of the World fantasies these days is the Mayan Long Count.  According to the ancient Mayan calendar, thirteen B'ak'tuns, each of which is approximately 394 years long, makes the Long Count (about 5125 years), which will be coming to an end on December 21, 2012.  This has given Hollywood and other fantasists a wonderful time imagining end-of-the-world scenarios, from earthquakes, to asteroids, to floods, to zombies.  It's all good stuff for exciting action and heart-wrenching emotion.  But even if you want to hedge your bets about the ancient Mayan belief system and prepare a little, just in case it turns out they were right about the end of the thirteenth B'ak'tun, you still don't have to worry.  The Mayans didn't actually expect any apocalypse to come in 2012.  At the end of the Long Count their calendar, just like ours, simply rolls over to day one of the next B'ak'tun.  But where's the fantasy fun in making a few resolutions about getting more exercise?  (Today, by the way, is 12 Ak'b'al' 11 Zip, according to this nifty Mayan calendar site.)
        So let's check out the Nibiru fantasy.  That has extra-terrestrials from the elliptically-orbiting "twelfth planet" Nibiru creating the ancient Sumerian culture… and due for another fly-by.  Presumed catastrophe to ensue.  It's rather sad when people try to claim that it's anything other than fiction, but you have to admit that it's classic sci fi.
        The Aztec myth of Five Suns has some nice features.  There's the usual arguing, incest, and murder that most gods seem to get up to, and which generally just annoys me (see my thoughts on Heroic Heroes.)  The interesting idea, however, is that there have been five ages, or five earths, each presided over by a different god taking a turn at being the sun.  Each of these ages concluded with the destruction of the world, after which the gods made a new earth, presided over by a new sun.  Wikipedia summarizes the history thus:
  • Nahui-Ocelotl (Jaguar Sun) - Inhabitants were giants who were devoured by jaguars. The world was destroyed.
  • Nahui-Ehécatl (Wind Sun) - Inhabitants were transformed into monkeys. This world was destroyed by hurricanes.
  • Nahui-Quiahuitl (Rain Sun) - Inhabitants were destroyed by rain of fire. Only birds survived (or inhabitants survived by becoming birds).
  • Nahui-Atl (Water Sun) - This world was flooded turning the inhabitants into fish. A couple escaped but were transformed into dogs.
  • Nahui-Ollin (Earthquake Sun) - We are the inhabitants of this world. This world will be destroyed by earthquakes (or one large earthquake).
I kind of like the thought of the entire world being destroyed by jaguars.  As for the fifth sun, when this age ends, that's it.  There won't be any more ages.  Or at least, the Aztecs didn't predict one.  But maybe they were merely sticking to history, and since five is all there had been so far, five is all they wrote about.  To get the fifth sun a god had to sacrifice himself in a great bonfire.  In the end, two gods went into the fire, becoming the sun and the moon, but you can see why there might not be any volunteers for the next round.  There are also some myths in which all the gods (except the wind) had to be sacrificed to keep the sun moving, so maybe there are simply none left.  End of the world.  (And of course those who equate the Aztec Suns with the Mayan calendar tell us that this age will end in  2012.  Too bad we get earthquakes instead of jaguars this round.)
        Any discussion of fantasy apocalypse has to include Ragnarök, the ancient Norse End of the World.  First come three winters without any summer between them.  Then Bad Stuff happens: fighting, slaughter, a lack of all human mercy…  Earthquakes set free the monster wolf Fenrir, who, along with the monster serpent Jörmungandr, destroys the earth.  The gods ride forth to battle, during which most of them kill each other.  The entire world is engulfed in flame and/or flood.  It's all pretty miserable, which is certainly consistent with the rest of Norse mythology.  But some versions do allow that a man and woman and a few gods might survive, and the earth could be renewed and enter an age of sweetness and light.  Hah.  Fat chance.  The Norse didn't know beans about sweetness or light.
        And then there's Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy version of apocalypse, in which Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.
        Pick your poison.  The End of the World comes in many forms, all full of possibilities for interesting speculative fiction.  As for serious views about the end of the world, I'm with Robert Frost.
     Some say the world will end in fire,
     Some say in ice.
     From what I’ve tasted of desire
     I hold with those who favor fire.
     But if it had to perish twice,
     I think I know enough of hate
     To say that for destruction ice
     Is also great,
     And would suffice.

[Pictures:  "The Revelation of St John: The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels," wood block print by Albrecht Dürer, 1497-8;
"Aztec Sun Stone" c. 1480, from the National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City (photo by El Comandante on Wikimedia Commons);
"The god Vidarr stands in the jaws of Fenrir and swings his sword," by W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda, 1908.]
Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost, 1920.


Pax said...

Then there is C.S. Lewis's final volume of the Narnia series. At least that one gives us each a choice.

Nan said...

I've always loved the idea of Aslan singing the world into being.Could we maybe have jaguars first and then some singing???

This post was very funny, Anne. Thanks.

The Beyond the Fringe skit on the End of the World is on YouTube. Not fantasy literature, but good for a giggle.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I confess I forgot all about Narnia when I was thinking of world-ends. But I second the motion for jaguars followed by singing!