The Ancient Roots of Doomsday Prophecies

How it Ends: The Ancient Roots of Doomsday Prophecies and End of the World Beliefs


Hollywood’s obsession with the End of Times is not over yet – Armageddon, Deep Impact, Doomsday, Legion, Thor: Ragnarok and 28 Days Later, are just a few of the blockbusters, out of hundreds, that deal with mankind’s demise. And now, yet another apocalyptic film is set to be released. ‘ How it Ends ’ imagines how a sudden societal collapse could occur in the modern U.S. as a result of a geological apocalypse. But man’s obsession with the end of the world is not a new one. 

Doomsday prophecies are as old as recorded time.  For as long as humans have existed, there has been a fear of an apocalypse or ‘end of times’, when the gods wish vengeance upon their people, when humans pay for the sins of their fathers and forefathers, and when the demons of the world rise up and devour all that is good.  Prophecies of the end of times stem from the mythologies of civilizations past: the Norse story of Ragnarök, the tale of Noah and the Flood, and the Biblical apocalypse.  Though these civilizations are all thousands of years in the past, the same fear that drove them to make these myths—the fear of the unknown—continues to haunt the human race today.

Supposedly, the earliest prediction of the end of the world came from the Assyrians, a powerful Mesopotamian culture that lasted for roughly two thousand years.  A tablet was found dating back to sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE that bears the first known prophecy of the end of days.  According to the translation, it claims that the earth was in its final days in those years, and that the world was slowly deteriorating into a corrupt society that would only end with its destruction.  Though it is not known who wrote this inscription, and where specifically the tablet came from, it is a fervent example of how far back in human history apocalyptic prophecies world began.

An Assyrian Tablet from 2800 BC bears the first known prophecy of the end of the world.

An Assyrian Tablet from 2800 BC bears the first known prophecy of the end of the world. Photo: Assyrian Tablet from Nineveh, northern Iraq. Credit: The British Museum

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of apocalyptic events that will define the end of the world, where giants of frost and fire will together fight the gods in a final battle that will ultimately destroy the planet, submerging it under water. According to the legend, the world will resurface, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors.

The downfall of the AEsir

'The downfall of the AEsir'. The heavens split and the 'Sons of Múspell' ride forth upon the AEsir at Ragnarö. The Norse apocalyptic battle, Ragnarok. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Numerous other prophecies have appeared throughout history pertaining explicitly to the mortal fear of the ‘Second Coming of Christ’ —the belief that a day will come when humankind would be judged for all of their sins, and Christ would battle the Anti-Christ, Satan, and a False Prophet in the biblical Armageddon. The Four Horsemen, traditionally named War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death, will ride during the Apocalypse. Most, if not all, prophets claimed that preceding the enormous battle would be the Rapture, where the purest of humankind would be removed from the Earth before the battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ.  The expectation of this event and the fear of what would happen to humankind during it called for various people from numerous religious and ethnical backgrounds to try to predict the event so those alive could prepare for what they believed was an inevitable end, and so those soon to be born could be taught to live a pious life to survive such an ending.  The belief in Armageddon and the Rapture primarily stems from the Bible and biblical translators and interpreters, however the cryptic and symbolic language used in the text creates quandaries about the appropriate date and time of the so-called Second Coming.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. ( Wikimedia Commons )

It was also feared for a long time that the year 1000 AD would be the end of the world.  Y2K created the same type of millennia fear, as it was assumed that the '00 of 2000 would be misread in computers as 1900 and create a bug that would force all technology to fail, causing worldwide confusion and tremendous destruction.  New millennia, years ending in '99, and the beginning of new centuries have all been subject to doomsday prophecies in the past, and the present era is no exception to that.  Uncertainties about the future continue to plague the human race, such as the recent belief that cataclysmic events would transpire on or around 21 December 2012, a date regarded as the end-date of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.

Mayan calendar on parchment.

Mayan calendar on parchment. Source: BigStockPhoto

More recently, there has been a doomsday theory put forward in relation to the four blood moons appearing in the twelve months between April 2014 and September 2015, which are said to be an indication of the end because such an occurrence is so rare.  Despite the advancement of the human race, and the technological tracking abilities at their disposal, new and unknown events and situation remain terrifying, leading many people around the world, known as ‘Doomsday Preppers’ to continue preparing for the ‘end of the world as we know it’, seeing such as efforts as a more ideal option than risking being blindsided.

It is clear that fear is the driving factor behind the prophecies of doomsday throughout human history.  The effort of mapping out the future—when the end will come, how the end will come, and who will survive it—is, and has always been, an attempt to outsmart circumstances that are not within human control and cannot be within human control.  Though many people know and understand this, it has never stopped humans from trying to predict the outcome.  It is safe to say that as long as life on earth continues to grow and thrive and even encounter devastating calamities, doomsday prophecies will continue to prevail.

Featured image: Depiction of Mayan Apocalypse. Source: BigStockPhoto


Boserup, Mogen, "Fear of Doomsday: Past and Present," Population and Development Review , 4.1, (March 1978), pp. 133-43.

Lemprière, John. Universal biography: containing a copious account, critical and historical, of the life and character, labors and actions of eminent persons, in all ages and countries, conditions and professions (E. Sargeant: BLANK, 1810).

Lewis, James R., "Doomsday Prophecies: A Complete Guide to the End of the World," Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9.1, (August 2005), pp. 121-122.

Strauss, Mark. "Ten Notable Apocalyrses That (Obviously) Didn't Happen: Apocalyptic predictions are nothing new—they have been around for millennia," Smithsonian, November 2009.

Thompson, Damian. The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium . (University Press of New England: New Hampshire, 1997.)

By Ryan Stone


myths may be related to the inner process of transformation. The destruction of the personal world of an individual and the recreation of a new world. We are heroes of our own stories and on our journey at some point we do see the end of "times"....the end of the old world and the beginning signs of a new. Maybe it is just perception that is changed as the initiate sees the signs of change and know without a doubt that the Phoenix is about to burn up in order to create a new world from the ashes. "What God did not create will turn to ashes" reminds me that what I see around me is illusion and distorted images. What is real will remain as the Lion retakes the throne of this world from the Lizard.

Roberto Peron's picture

So refreshing to read a comment written by someone who actually knows what in the hell they are talking about.  And your last paragraph says it all in a nutshell.  Quote:

"All of this lore has been hidden from us in the last centuries by those who have a VESTED INTEREST in keeping us ignorant and FEARFUL.  Therefore, the propagation of myths as literal history is encouraged by religions AND academia."

It's all about control of the masses and keeping us in subjection to their TERROR!  

Thank you Ishtar.


A very wise man once said to me: “The only difference between history and mythology is that mythology is true.” If you don’t get that, then you probably won’t get the rest of my comment.

The author is quite correct that the End of Days scenario, usually some sort of flood or cataclysm, is found in the myths of all cultures, but myths were not created to record history or to predict events other than those in the heavens. It is a metaphorical teaching about astronomical cycles, and anyone can predict the end of an astronomical cycle if they know how to measure it, which the ancients did. It is usually described as some sort of flood in the ‘waters of the firmament’ or a cataclysm in the heavens; it wasn’t about such a disaster on Earth. The waters of the firmament were part of their cosmological cognitive framework.

A recent example of this metaphor in action was the much touted End of the World ‘prophesied’ in the Mayan calendar of 2012. Those of the more observant among us will have noticed that the world didn’t end on December 21 2012, or even come close to it. There was no great deluge or cataclysmic asteroid attack ... that’s because the calendar is recording an astronomical cycle. The ancient myths, included those cited by the author above, also contained information about these cycles but in the form of a metaphor. An astronomical cycle can sometimes billions of years and the stories contained in the myths describe the birth, death and then rebirth of those cycle, usually in the form of the birth, death and resurrection of a saviour king.

All of this lore had been hidden from us in the last centuries by those who have a vested interest in keeping us ignorant and fearful. Therefore, the propagation of myths as literal history is encouraged by religions and academia.

I believe your very much accurate even on a deeper level. I believe we are born with knowledge of all the ages, but due to life and weve been conditioned to accept any answer not challenge when we know the opposition is damaging humanity as a whole. We second guess our 3rd and rely too much on the approval or opinion of others. We were given the secrets to gates, doors and tunnels in galaxies far away. Codes and blue prints no one could fathom .However im just ranting......i know nothing

No, it's not clear. It's extremely ignorant to assume that. You seem to jumble all "fears" into the same category in this rubbish article.

"I think the most "clear" thing, is that something will indeed happen, and has happened prior. That's what was written. That it will simply happen again. Fear? No."

And yet again how many people invariably know or understand basic concepts of right and wrong by that same "little voice called consciousness" and cannot dismiss it no matter the situation? We were made to know! For it never to be absolutely dismissed in exactly the same way. Death is nothing to fear, and every ounce of pain you've ever felt invariable taught you that it abates for one reason or another given time. People work themselves into manic states over many things, but Proverbs 16:9 speaks to these things. "A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps."


Next article