One well known theme of cult activity is that of apocalypse – that the world is about to come to an end. I’ve dealt with the most well known cases in Cult Suicides, but the ‘tradition’ is far more widespread.
Sometimes the process can appear almost comical, rather than tragic, as we shall see. And we shall also attempt, here, to come to an understanding of what impulses may be behind this idea of mass destruction. Well, it isn’t exactly destruction.
NOT AN END BUT A BEGINNING
This is the essence of the End Times - not destruction per se, but renewal; the removal of problems in the world, to be replaced by Paradise. The Hebrews first devised such a concept in the 6th century BC, when they were first exiled from their Promised Land.
They developed the idea of a Messiah, or Saviour, who would come to save them. To Christians, Jesus was this person, but when his death didn’t provide Paradise, the idea of the Second Coming of Christ was born.
Many End Times predictions have been made, one of the earliest being that of 12th century Bishop of Armagh, St Malachy.
On a visit to Jerusalem he had a vision in which he saw all 112 popes from 1143 to the Second Coming. To put this in perspective, following the death of John Paul II, there are only a couple left before the end of the world.
NOSTRADAMUS AND ASTROLOGY
French ‘seer’ Nostradamus made a famous prediction - supposedly - which clearly didn’t come true. He wrote of the end of the world in the year 1999 and seven months However, Nostradamus wrote many of his predictions in astrological terms.
The use of the number ‘seven’ is deeply mystical - at the time, seven ‘planets’ formed the astrological clock. As for the year 1999, this is a final year symbolically - of an astrological cycle.
The history of the world does, infact, revolve in 2,000 year astrological cycles. Six thousand years ago we were in the cycle of Taurus, represented by the Bull. Civilisations of the time were known to venerate bull cults as their major deities.
The Bull finally came to a sticky end when the Bull-god Minotaur was destroyed in the labyrinth of ancient Knossos on Crete, signalling the rise of the cycle of Aries. The popular deity of the time was the Ram, remembered today as the goat-headed symbol of the Devil.
The Ram became the Devil as we entered the cycle of Pisces 2,000 years ago, and Christianity replaced the previous pagan deities. Pisces is represented by the fish, which is also the symbol of Jesus. With the year 2000 we entered a new cycle of Aquarius.
THIRD SECRET OF FATIMA
Another famous prediction is the Third Secret of Fatima, known only to the pope. In 1917 three children witnessed a globe of light that spoke with a woman’s voice near Fatima Portugal.
Venerated as the lady of the rosary, she supposedly gave the children secrets of the world. One of the children, Lucia, became famous and claimed to have further visions, finally writing the Third Secret in 1943.
Popes who have read it are appalled by our future. However, it is interesting that both the vision and final ‘secret’ happened at crucial times in both world wars. Prediction? Or an expression of fears for the future?
Some prophets have taken action concerning Apocalypse in the past without violence or suicide. Massachusetts farmer, William Miller - born in 1782 - became convinced that the Book of Daniel predicted the Second Coming between March 1843-44.
In the 1830s he began preaching, gaining a following of thousands. As the date arrived, thousands gathered to be taken up to heaven in the rapture. When it didn’t come, he recalculated, and again thousands gathered.
Failing once more, many of them went hungry after getting rid of their belongings or ignoring their farms. Remnants of the Millerites did, however, form the later Seventh Day Adventist movement.
A previous episode had occurred in the UK. Elspeth Buchan was a Scottish preacher in the Tayside area during the late 18th century. Teaming up with the Rev Hugh Whyte, he preached God would make himself known to Miss Buchan, and any followers would be taken up to Heaven without having to die.
Gaining a large following, on the appointed day the Buchanites cut their hair, leaving only a tuft by which to be caught up, and assembled on a hill. Miss Buchan waited amongst them, on a raised platform.
However, instead of going up to heaven, the platform collapsed. By the time of her death in 1791, she told followers that she may seem to die, but would really be going to heaven to prepare the way for them, returning in six months time. Despite her failure to attend, Buchanites continued to exist for fifty years.
A related phenomenon broke out on a number of South Sea islands. In 1871 a Russian Count arrived on a Melanesian island in the Pacific and gave western gifts to the inhabitants to pacify them.
Soon, he was being treated as a god, and the strange phenomenon of the Cargo Cult had begun in the region. As westerners arrived on the islands, the natives took more gifts; a process increased as Christian missionaries arrived.
So besotted were they that when a US base appeared in 1940 on Tanna, locals improvised uniforms and spoke into empty tins, mimicking radio communication.
A definite morality arose in which foreigners who gave gifts were good, whilst those who didn’t were evil. However, it was all for a cause. They believed that such gifts and adoration would increase their lot.
When this failed to happen, disaffection broke out, and the islanders realised western presence was wrong. At this point, hopes of a Messiah they called Jonfrum arose, who would sweep away the invaders.
A distinct form of liberation theology, his name came from the hope of the arrival of ‘John from America’, who would give all western possessions to them and take the westerners away.
We can see, in the Cargo Cults, the entire process in microcosm. A culture develops of a form of ‘outside’ spirituality which guides, but also offers a form of salvation.
For a time, the hope of salvation satisfies, but eventually people begin to ask when this salvation will actually come. And when it doesn’t, questioning begins, and within this questioning the idea of a ‘Messiah’ arises who will take the people out of their present society and provide a new ‘paradise’.
It is in this process that extreme cult activity can be the result, not so much of a form of death, but of transition.
© Anthony North, December 2007
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