Ten Notable Apocalypses That (Obviously) Didn’t Happen
Apocalyptic predictions are nothing new—they have been around for millennia
1. The First Warnings From Assyria
An Assyrian clay tablet dating to around 2800 B.C. bears the inscription: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”
The world didn’t end (just look around), and despite the plague of corruption and petulant teenagers, four centuries later the Assyrians would establish an empire that eventually encompassed most of the Near East. The Assyrian Empire came to an abrupt end in 612 B.C., when its capital was attacked by the Babylonian army. Still, by the standards of ancient empires, 18 centuries wasn’t such a bad run.
2. Crusaders’ Concerns
Pope Innocent III relied upon apocalyptic theology in his efforts to rally Europe to launch a fifth crusade to capture Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the Ayyubid Empire. He identified the rise of Islam as the reign of the Antichrist—whose defeat would usher in the Second Coming.
In 1213, Innocent III wrote: “A son of perdition has arisen, the false prophet Muhammed, who has seduced many men from the truth by worldly enticements and the pleasures of the flesh… we nevertheless put our trust in the Lord who has already given us a sign that good is to come, that the end of this beast is approaching, whose number, according to the Revelation of Saint John, will end in 666 years, of which already nearly 600 have passed.”
The predicted date was 1284. Seven years later, the last crusader kingdom fell, when the Sultan Khalil conquered the city of Acre, in present-day Israel. The rest of the world, however, remained intact.
3. Botticelli Paints His Fears
The Renaissance is remembered as a golden age of art and learning, but the era also marked a resurgence in apocalyptic prophecies. The reason? “Advances in time keeping and in astronomy encouraged standardization of the calendar,” writes David Nirenberg, a professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, “while a string of calamities (from the European point of view], such as the Turkish conquest of Constantinople… fomented a new numerological apocalyptic interest.”
Expectations of the apocalypse found their expression in the art of the period—most famously in The Mystical Nativity, painted by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The lower part of the painting depicts several small devils wedged under rocks or pinned to the ground, while a Greek inscription offers this gloomy prediction: “I, Sandro, painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the eleventh chapter of St. John in the second woe of the Apocalypse in the loosing of the devil for three and a half years. Then he will be chained in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture.” (That would place the apocalypse at around A.D. 1504.)
Art historians believe that Botticelli was influenced by the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola—a Dominican monk who urged both rich and poor alike to repent for their sins and renounce worldly pleasures. Certain that the apocalypse was near, Savonarola predicted, “the sword of the Lord will come upon the earth swiftly and soon” in the form of war, pestilence and famine.
4. The Germanic Flood That Never Came
In 1499, the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Stöffler predicted that a vast flood would engulf the world on February 20, 1524. (His calculations foretold 20 planetary conjunctions during this year—16 of which would take place in a “watery sign,” a.k.a. Pisces.)
In Europe, more than 100 different pamphlets were published endorsing Stöffler’s doomsday prophecy. Business boomed for boat-builders, not least for German nobleman Count von Iggleheim, who constructed a three-story ark on the Rhine.
Although 1524 was a drought year in Europe, a light rain did fall on the designated day. Crowds of people—hoping to gain a seat on Iggleheim’s ark—began to riot. Hundreds were killed and the count was stoned to death.
Stöffler later recalculated the actual date to be 1528, but by then his reputation as a soothsayer had been ruined. That’s kind of a shame because, according to a story told in 1558 by German historian Hieronymus Wolf, Stöffler once predicted that his life would be endangered by a “falling body.” He chose to spend that day indoors, where, during a discussion with friends, Stöffler reached to grab a book from a shelf, which came loose and smashed him on the head, seriously injuring him.
5. Black Skies Over New England
At 9 a.m. on May 19, 1780, the sky over New England was enveloped in darkness. An 1881 article in Harper’s Magazine stated that, “Birds went to roost, cocks crowed at mid-day as at midnight, and the animals were plainly terrified.”
The unnatural gloom is believed to have been caused by smoke from forest fires, possibly coupled with heavy fog. But at the time, some feared the worst. “People [came] out wringing their hands and howling, the Day of Judgment is come,” recalled a Revolutionary War fifer.
The “Dark Day” ended at midnight, when the stars once again became visible in the night sky. But lingering concerns about a pending apocalypse prompted some people to seek out an obscure Christian sect—the Shakers—who had recently settled near Albany, New York. A splinter of the Quaker movement, the Shakers preached complete celibacy as the true path to redemption. The Shakers knew an opportunity when they saw one and embarked on a 26-month mission throughout New England, which brought them hundreds of converts.
The most famous individual to emerge from the “Dark Day” was Abraham Davenport, a member of the Connecticut legislature, which was in session when the sky blackened. Members of the legislature, fearing the apocalypse had come, moved for adjournment. Davenport is said to have responded: “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” The New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier commemorated Davenport in a poem first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866.
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