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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.

Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.

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Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?

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Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.

Resurrection (Christopher Ulrich, circa 2005 to 2011, oil on canvas)

Resurrection (Christopher Ulrich, circa 2005 to 2011, oil on canvas)

As we drift towards the darkest night of the year, it is an ideal time to check out some dark and troubling artwork.  This is a painting by the contemporary artist Christopher Ulrich, a painter who creates fractured fables out of traditional religious iconography.  In this work “Resurrection”, the world is entering the final apocalypse.  A heavenly paladin fights the great dragon in the background as vast mythical beasts fill up the sky.  Lightning crackles from their eyes as the world is remade.  Naturally, the end of times is when the devout are resurrected in the flesh, and the savior passes through the world granting bodies to the devout.  In the midst of terrible chaos, he stands beneath a proud lighthouse and dispenses miraculous rebirth while a lambent mother goddess stands at his side and helps him in his task.  Of course the end of the world offers some surprises for everyone, and the deity of resurrection does look a trifle different than one might imagine, but coming back to physical life after the body has disintegrated (as the world tumbles down, no less) has always been a chancy proposition anyway.

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

Fifty years ago marked the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  The entire US military was operating at DEFCON 3–and Strategic Air Command had moved up to DEFCON 2 (a readiness condition which indicates that “nuclear war is eminent”).  As part of these protocols, the Air Force moved nuclear armed interceptor aircraft to smaller airports along the northern border in preparation for a Russian strike.

A F-106A with a Russian TU-95M

On the night of October 25, 1962, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a commando stealthily climbing over the perimeter fence to sabotage the base.  The guard fired at the intruder but missed all his shots. He then sounded the alarm.  The proper alarm rang at several nearby bases, but at Volk field in Wisconsin, the alarm system was wired incorrectly.  Instead of an intruder alarm, the klaxon for nuclear war sounded.  The pilots duly got in their F106-A jets (each of which was equipped with a nuclear rocket) and prepared to fly north for the last battle.

Just as the planes were taking off, a truck sped onto the field flashing its lights.  The false alarm had been caught in time and the interceptors did not launch.  Decades later the Air Force declassified documents relating to the incident.  The shadowy saboteur was revealed to have been a bear.

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The incident was quickly forgotten because it was only one of an astonishing number of near misses in the subsequent days of the crisis.  On October 27th, 1962 alone there were multiple live-fire accidents and misunderstandings: the world nearly ended several times that day.   That morning, a U-2F spy plane was shot down over Cuba by means of a Soviet surface-to-air missile and the pilot was killed.  Later that day a US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft was fired on and one was hit by a 37 mm shell.  The US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” on Soviet submarine B-59 which was armed with nuclear torpedoes (however one of the three Soviet fire officers objected to launching the weapons).   Over the Bering Sea the Soviets scrambled their MIGs in response to a U2 spy plane and the Air Force in return launched their F-102 fighter aircraft.

After a bewildering storm of desperate diplomatic negotiations which were interspersed with apocalyptic bluster, the American and Soviet administrations began to back down from the confrontation.  The Kennedy administration dispatched negotiators to meet with representatives of the Soviet Union at Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant, and a deal was reached over the fortune cookies and chopsticks.   The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba and America, in turn, pulled nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy.

It’s easy to look at the news today and feel a sense of despair about the world and its inhabitants, but it is worth looking back a half a century to the sixties when the world was a much more stupid and dangerous place.  Everyone drove giant unsafe cars with big fins.  Lobotomy was a common medical procedure.  China and India were actively fighting a war.  But, above all other concerns, the Soviet Union and the United States eyed each other beadily and prepared to destroy the world in response to a bear or a spy plane or an insult in a Chinese restaurant.

After the Cuban missile crisis ended, the STRATCOM stood down from DEFCON 2 on November 15, 1962.  Although the armed forces have returned to DEFCON 3—medium readiness— a few times since then (notably during the Yom Kippur war and on September 11th) the nation has never again gone to DEFCON 2.

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