Damian Thompson, from The End of Time

[Click on image to enlarge] An Anglo-Saxon Monk called Byrhtferth >> note 1 once observed that one thousand, or rather M, should be regarded as a 'perfect number'. Writing soon after the year 1000, he based his argument on the theory that the history of the world had been divided by God into consecutive periods of a thousand years each. But, he added helpfully, "these ages did not consist of perfect numbers of years". Some were longer than others.

Confusion about the meaning of the millennium is an enduring feature of Western civilisation, and the predictable reawakening of interest in the subject during the 1990s has done little to clear it up. Most people are aware that there is more to the millennium than the mere passing of 1,000 years. They do not need to be told that the crossing of such a barrier has psychological ramifications, and they may already feel mild twinges of that anxiety and excitement which the [British] media has dubbed "Pre-Millennial Tension." They also know that it is associated with outlandish behaviour on the part of groups labelled "millenarian." But they are often surprised to learn that the Millennium (with a capital "M") is used as a technical term by theologians and social scientists, and that it has nothing to do with the date. Furthermore, very few of those movements which history calls millenarian have been inspired by the years 1000 or 2000.

[Click on image to enlarge] So what, precisely, is a millenarian? Used, in its strictest sense, the word applies to people who live in daily anticipation of the dawn of the "Millennium" described in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. This text, otherwise known as the Book of the Apocalypse, is the last and most controversial book of the New Testament: it consists of a series of fantastic visions of the End of Time in which the forces of God and Satan do battle amid scenes of stomach-churning violence and cruelty. Towards the end of the book, the battle ceases for a period of a thousand years, during which Satan is caged and Christ and his saints reign on earth. This is the Millennium, and those believers who expect this thousand-year paradise to dawn at any moment are therefore millenarians.

[Click on image to enlarge] As the study of human behaviour evolved, it became clear that, although belief in an imminent new world seems to result in specific patterns of behaviour, the phenomenon is not confined to literal belief in the Millennium of Revelation. . . . Millenarianism can incorporate the ideas of almost any religion and, indeed, those of secular ideology. Modern sociologists cheerfully apply the word millenarian to groups ranging from Islamic Mahdist >> note 2 movements to Melanesian cargo cults. >> note 3 There is also widespread support for Norman Cohn's suggestion that both Marxism and Nazism represent forms of secular millenarianism. They certainly appear to fit the definition of the phenomenon in the American Encyclopaedia of Religion as "a belief that the end of the world is at hand and that in its wake will appear a New World, inexhaustibly fertile, harmonious, sanctified, and just." (Millenarian conceptions of justice, it need hardly be said, are not those of the International Court of Human Rights.)

The history of the past 2,000 years suggests that people who believe that their world is moving inexorably towards a total and miraculous transformation, in which old scores will be settled and the Elect rewarded, will react along broadly similar lines. All millenarian movements are distinguished by the abnormal behaviour of their adherents, which can range from retreat to the wilderness to await the End to acts of unimaginable violence designed to bring it about. Either way, there is a tremendous release of emotional energy which gives these movements a sense of mission. The same patterns crop up in movements separated by vast stretches of space and time. There is a pronounced tendency, for example, for millenarian groups to veer towards extreme attitudes to sexual behaviour, in which sex is either forbidden or to be enjoyed indiscriminately. The millenarian sense of identity, too, is distinctive. It invariably possesses a narcissistic, self-righteous quality - and small wonder, since these groups believe that only they will witness, and survive the End. It is also paranoid. As the American historian Richard Landes argues: "Anyone or any group so instrumental in the final battle must expect the ubiquitous forces of evil to target them particularly." >> note 4

The fanatical behaviour of millenarians, therefore, is intimately connected to their distinctive beliefs. But sociologists and historians are often far more interested in why such movements rise than in the (to them) distasteful details of their eschatological >> note 5 fantasies. And this is where they cannot agree. There have been attempts to cast all millenarians in the role of proto-revolutionaries. The phrase "relative deprivation" is employed to describe the economic imbalance leading the dispossessed to develop uncontrollable resentments against the established order which are then channelled not into political activism but into fantasies of invulnerability and escape. There is a school of thought which insists that millenarianism always springs from the clash of cultures, one technologically superior to the other. Another theory focusses on natural and economic disasters, which it maintains are the only phenomena sufficiently disorienting to produce millenarianism.

[Click on image to enlarge] All these theories marshal evidence from widely differing cultures. The disaster school, for example, points to the reappearance of processions of revolutionary flagellants >> note 6 immediately after the outbreak of the Black Death, >> note 7 and to the military defeat and forced migration which preceded the American Indian Ghost Dance. >> note 8 The latter, though, fits equally easily into the theory based on the clash of cultures. The point is that these supposedly rival theories of millenarianism are not always mutually exclusive. And nor, it should be said, are any of them entirely satisfactory. Why were millenarian movements thrown up by drought in late-nineteenth-century Brazil, but not by the infinitely more severe Irish potato famine? By the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 but not by the Second World War? Perhaps the notion of a unified theory of millenarianism is as illusory, and as outdated, as the comprehensive history of historical development.

[Click on image to enlarge] Yet it would be ludicrous to deny that political and economic change cannot be the major factor in producing this strange mind-set. Psychological studies of people caught up in millenarian movements suggest that they do not attract a significantly higher proportion of the mentally ill than conventional religions or political parties. We can therefore hardly escape the conclusion that millenarianism often arises from feelings of deprivation in matters of status, wealth, security or self-esteem. Furthermore, it will tend to spring up during periods of crisis, which, in the words of one commentator, >> note 9 can be "as blatant and acute as the sack of a city or as subtle and prolonged as the passage from isolated agrarian community to industrial megopolis." In other words, it can occur at almost any time, anywhere.

[Click on image to enlarge] The real problem with theories of millenarianism is the narrowness of the concept itself. It is not quite the same thing as apocalyptic belief, which maintains that mankind is nearing the End of the World as we know it, but does not necessarily imagine a violent or sudden change. All millenarianism is apocalyptic (from the Greek word meaning "to unveil"), but all apocalyptic belief is not millenarian: far from it. Classic millenarians, from self-flagellating medieval peasants to Sioux Ghost Dancers, are often people who, if not clinically mad, have reached what George Rosen has called "the wilder shores of sanity." They are relatively easy to distinguish from the population at large, and never more so than at the moment. We see this in the disturbing phenomenon of doomsday cults and sects, which is assuming greater prominence as we approach the end of the second Christian millennium. The world is still trying to make sense of the gas attack on the Tokyo underground >> note 10 by the unquestionably millenarian Aum Shrinrikyo cult. The terrifying prospect of cult members releasing poison gas into the nerve centre of our cities reinforces our image of millenarians as outsiders, alien invaders. It reinforces the comforting and misleading impression that there is no common ground between fanatical millenarians and the rest of society.


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