Part Three: Millennialism and our Hopes and Fears
Whether or not you believe in battles between the forces of light and darkness, this idea nevertheless occupies an important place in a substratum of collective belief in Western culture and across the world. In other words, we all can be affected by these ideas without even knowing it.
The idea of light-and-darkness is as old as the hills. The alternation of night/day and winter/summer has been a fundamental human experience throughout time. The interaction of light and dark created life.
The ancient British built enormous stone circles oriented to the varying rising and setting points of the sun and moon - critical points in this cycle of alternation. To the Chinese, yang and yin interlocked inseparably, and all creation was seen to result from infinite variations of these two polarities which together make one.
As prehistory unfolded, people became increasingly habituated to hurting and harming one another. A shock to human values and sensibilities, this brought up the ‘problem of evil’. What made people do this? Was there an evil force causing people to act anti-socially or to go against the Laws of Creation?
Thus arose the idea of a universal battle, not merely an interaction, between the forces of light and darkness. This is generally known as dualism. In this scenario, light became ‘good’ and darkness ‘evil’. This idea was strong for ancient Persian Zoroastrians, though it probably originated in central Asia, plausibly in the High Altai mountains.
While it has always been commonly known that misconduct leads to unhappy consequences – karma or ‘just rewards’ – this extension of the idea had a big effect. It had become global, cosmological.
One of the major Persian gods was Mithra, god of contracts and the covenant with the Creator: ancient people perceived that they had a deal to fulfil with the gods. Humanity was seen to be failing in its agreement.
This became the root of another idea, Millennialism, the notion that there would be an inevitable pay-back to be made for the evil accrued by humanity. ‘Evil’ had become endemic, and this would lead to an inevitable global conflagration. The pure, the faithful – those who redeemed their sins through faith or penance – would all be saved by the angels, emissaries of the gods.
They would be reborn into a cleansed, perfected heaven on earth, lasting a thousand years. In ancient times, ‘thousand’ meant ‘uncountably many’ (today we say ‘zillions’). The world’s sinners, poor wretches, would be removed, packed off to hell or burnt up in the fire. And here’s the bottom line: the Reckoning would happen soon or within the forseeable future, and suddenly.
This was a cosmology of despair and helplessness, though its believers didn’t see it that way – after all, they were The Pure, who deserved salvation. It also perhaps reflected a perception that humankind was becoming badder. Standards of human morals were deteriorating: this will have been as deep and vexing an issue then as it is today.
Millennialism as a Big Idea is attributed to the Persian prophet Mani, alive around +250 in Sasanid-ruled Persia. The idea was older, preached by ancient Zoroastrian Magi – such as those who had visited the newborn Jesus. It predated Mani, yet Mani popularised it, and then the Manichaeans, fleeing persecution by the Zoroastran Sasanids, spread it to other lands.
It became known as manichaeism. Mani gave it a fundamentalist edge, urging people to purify themselves, to make ready for the big showdown. This notion became famous in the West through the Book of Revelations, which vividly described the details of the conflagration.
Manichaeism migrated to Europe through the Bogomils and Cathars, medieval dissidents who saw life as a moral battle against darkness. The world was dark, and they, or at least the perfectae amongst them, were responsible from bringing light to the world. They criticised Church authorities, whom they saw to be acting in league with dark forces.
The Cathars were duly annihilated in the 1200s, and only the hills of Bosnia saved the Bogomils from destruction, though they later disappeared when the Turks conquered the area in the 1400s.
Millennialism was rife in medieval times. Life was hard and unsettled, and the world had too much injustice and made too little sense: millennialism acquired a political edge. The rich were now seen to be evil and the paupers were saints who would inherit the Earth. This was a religious precursor to revolutionary communism.
‘The End is Nigh’ sits firmly in the background of our cultural repertoire. It comes up in unsettled times. In times of despair, people have wondered when this vale of tears would ever end. It’s a deeply-embedded feeling, that a Reckoning might come – perhaps in our time.
This idea is still with us today in the background of our awareness. The lurking prospect of nuclear winter, toxic disasters, anthrax wars or genocide outbreaks suggests the looming of ultimate evil or the nearing of a great retribution.
The beliefs of cults, background collective beliefs and suppressed unconscious imagery tend to coagulate around millennialism. It is replicated in modern form in big Hollywood movies, typically screening showdowns between good and bad guys.
We live apparently in a rational world, yet so many things fail to make sense. From one viewpoint, life goes on as normal, while from another viewpoint, everything could go horribly wrong. Millennial notions are publicly unacknowledged – except by Jehovah’s Witnesses and some New Agers.
Yet a hidden belief in the battle between the forces of light and darkness is nevertheless deeply interwoven into our beliefs. It also affects our unconscious behaviour.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.