It is now time to pause, amid the eventful scenes through which we are passing, in order to consider this new fear of the end of the world with others which have preceded it, and to pass rapidly in review the remarkable history of this idea, which has reappeared again and again in the past. At the time of which we are speaking, this subject was the sole theme of conversation in every land and in every tongue.
As to the dogma “Credo Resurrectionem Carnis,” the addresses of the fathers of the Church before the council assembled in the Sistine chapel at Rome, were, on the whole, in accord with the opinion expressed by the cardinal archbishop of Paris. The clause “et vitam æternam” was tacitly ignored, in view of the possible discoveries of astronomy and psychology. These addresses epitomized, as it were, the history of the doctrine of the end of the world as held by the Christian Church in all ages.
This history is interesting, for it is also the history of the human mind face to face with its own destiny, and we believe it of sufficient importance to devote to it a separate chapter. For the time being, therefore, we abandon our role as the chronicler of the twenty-fourth century, and return to our own times, in order to consider this doctrine from an historical point of view.
The existence of a profound and tenacious faith is as old as the centuries, and it is a notable fact that all religions, irrespective of Christian dogma, have opened the same door from this mortal life upon the unknown which lies beyond, it is the door of the Divine Comedy of Dante, although the conceptions of paradise, hell and purgatory peculiar to the Christian Church, are not universal.
Zoroaster and the Zend-Avesta taught that the world would perish by fire. The same idea is found in the Epistle of St. Peter. It seems that the traditions of Noah and of Deucalion, according to which the first great disaster to humanity came by flood, indicated that the second great disaster would be of an exactly opposite character.
The apostles Peter and Paul died, probably, in the year 64, during the horrible slaughter ordered by Nero after the burning of Rome, which had been fired at his command and whose destruction he attributed to the Christians in order that he might have a pretext for new persecutions. St. John wrote the Apocalypse in the year 69. The reign of Nero was a bloody one, and martyrdom seemed to be the natural consequence of a virtuous life. Prodigies appeared on every hand; there were comets, falling stars, eclipses, showers of blood, monsters, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and above all, there was the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem. Never, perhaps, were so many horrors, so much cruelty and madness, so many catastrophes, crowded into so short a period as in the years 64–69 A.D. The little church of Christ was apparently dispersed. It was impossible to remain in Jerusalem. The horrors of the reign of terror of 1793, and of the Commune of 1871, were as nothing in comparison with those of the Jewish civil war. The family of Jesus was obliged to leave the holy city and to seek safety in flight. False prophets appeared, thus verifying former prophecies. Vesuvius was preparing the terrible eruption of the year 79, and already, in 63, Pompeii had been destroyed by an earthquake.
There was every indication that the end of the world was at hand. Nothing was wanting. The Apocalypse announced it.
But a calm followed the storm. The terrible Jewish war came to an end; Nero fell before Galba; under Vespasian and Titus, peace (71) succeeded war, and—the end of the world was not yet.
Once more it became necessary to interpret anew the words of the evangelists. The coming of Christ was put off until after the fall of the Roman empire, and thus considerable margin was given to the commentator. A firm belief in a final and even an imminent catastrophe persisted, but it was couched in vague terms, which robbed the spirit as well as the letter of the prophecy of all precision. Still, the conviction remained.
St. Augustine devotes the XXth book of the City of God (426) to the regeneration of the world, the resurrection, the last judgment, and the New Jerusalem; in the XXIst book he describes the everlasting torments of hell-fire. A witness to the fall of Rome and the empire, the bishop of Carthage believed these events to be the first act of the drama. But the reign of God was to continue a thousand years before the coming of Satan.
St. Gregory, bishop of Tours (573), the first historian of the Franks, began his history as follows: “As I am about to relate the wars of the kings with hostile nations, I feel impelled to declare my belief. The terror with which men await the end of the world decides me to chronicle the years already passed, that thus one may know exactly how many have elapsed since the beginning of the world.”
This tradition was perpetuated from year to year and from century to century, notwithstanding that nature failed to confirm it. Every catastrophe, earthquake, epidemic, famine and flood, every phenomenon, eclipse, comet, storm, sudden darkness and tempest, was looked upon as the forerunner and herald of the final cataclysm. Trembling like leaves in the blast, the faithful awaited the coming judgment; and preachers successfully worked upon this dread apprehension, so deeply rooted in every heart.
But, as generation after generation passed, it became necessary to define again the widespread tradition, and about this time the idea of a millennium took form in the minds of commentators. There were many sects which believed that Christ would reign with the saints a thousand years before the day of judgment. St. Irenus, St. Papias, and St. Sulpicius Severus shared this belief, which acquired an exaggerated and sensual form in the minds of many, who looked forward to a day of general rejoicing for the elect and a reign of pleasure. St. Jerome and St. Augustine did much to discredit these views, but did not attack the central doctrine of a resurrection. Commentators on the Apocalypse continued to flourish through the somber night of the middle ages, and in the tenth century especially the belief gained ground that the year 1000 was to usher in the great change.
This conviction of an approaching end of the world, if not universal, was at least very general. Several charters of the period began with this sentence: Termino mundi appropinquante: “The end of the world drawing near.” In spite of some exceptions, it seems difficult not to share the opinion of historians, notably of Michelet, Henry Martin, Guizot, and Duruy, regarding the prevalence of this belief throughout Christendom. Doubtless, neither the French monk Gerbert, at that time Pope Sylvester II., nor King Robert of France, regulated their lives by their superstition, but it had none the less penetrated the conscience of the faint-hearted, and many a sermon was preached from this text of the Apocalypse:
“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth … and another book was opened, which is the Book of Life … and the sea gave up the dead which were in it: and death and hell gave up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to his works … and I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
Bernard, a hermit of Thuringia, had taken these very words of Revelation as the text of his preaching, and in about the year 960 he publicly announced that the end of the world was at hand. He even fixed the fatal day itself, as that on which “The Annunciation” and Holy Friday should fall on the same day, a coincidence which really occurred in 992.
Druthmar, a monk of Corbie, prophesied the end of the world for the 24th of March in the year 1000. In many cities popular terror was so great on that day that the people sought refuge in the churches, remaining until midnight, prostrate before the relics of the saints, in order to await there the last trump and to die at the foot of the cross.
From this epoch date many gifts to the Church. Lands and goods were given to the monasteries. Indeed, an authentic and very curious document is preserved, written in the year 1000 by a certain monk, Raoul Glaber, on whose first pages we find: “Satan will soon be unloosed, as prophesied by St. John, the thousand years having been accomplished. It is of these years that we are to speak.”
The end of the tenth century and the beginning of the eleventh century was a truly strange and fearful period. From 980 to 1040 it seemed as if the angel of death had spread his wings over the world. Famine and pestilence desolated the length and breadth of Europe. There was in the first place the “mal des ardents,” the flesh of its victims decaying and falling from the bones, was consumed as by fire, and the members themselves were destroyed and fell away. Wretches thus afflicted thronged the roads leading to the shrines and besieged the churches, filling them with terrible odors, and dying before the relics of the saints. The fearful pest made more than forty thousand victims in Acquitania, and devastated the southern portions of France.
Then came famine, ravaging a large part of Christendom. Of the seventy-three years between 987 and 1060, forty-eight were years of famine and pestilence. The invasion of the Huns, between 910 and 945, revived the horrors of Attila, and the soil was so laid waste by wars between domains and provinces that it ceased to be cultivated. For three years rain fell continuously; it was impossible either to sow or to reap. The earth became barren and was abandoned. “The price of a ‘muid’ of wheat,” writes Raoul Glaber, “rose to sixty gold sous; the rich waxed thin and pale; the poor gnawed the roots of trees, and many were in such extremity as to devour human flesh. The strong fell upon the weak in the public highways, tore them in pieces, and roasted them for food. Children were enticed by an egg or some fruit into byways, where they were devoured. This frenzy of hunger was such that the beast was safer than man. Famished children killed their parents, and mothers feasted upon their children. One person exposed human flesh for sale in the market place of Tournus, as if it were a staple article of food. He did not deny the fact and was burned at the stake. Another, stealing this flesh by night from the spot where it had been buried, was also burned alive.”
This testimony is that of one who lived at the time and in many cases was an eye witness to what he relates. On every side people were perishing of hunger, and did not scruple to eat reptiles, unclean animals, and even human flesh. In the depths of the forest of Mâcon, in the vicinity of a church dedicated to St. John, a wretch had built a hut in which he strangled pilgrims and wayfarers. One day a traveller entering the hut with his wife to seek rest, saw in a corner the heads of men, women and children. Attempting to fly, they were prevented by their host. They succeeded, however, in escaping, and on reaching Mâcon, related what they had seen. Soldiers were sent to the bloody spot, where they counted forty-eight human heads. The murderer was dragged to the town and burned alive. The hut and the ashes of the funeral pile were seen by Raoul Glaber. So numerous were the corpses that burial was impossible, and disease followed close upon famine. Hordes of wolves preyed upon the unburied. Never before had such misery been known.
War and pillage were the universal rule, but these scourges from heaven made men somewhat more reasonable. The bishops came together, and it was agreed to establish a truce for four days of each week, from Wednesday night to Monday morning. This was known as the truce of God.
It is not strange that the end of so miserable a world was both the hope and the terror of this mournful period.
The year 1000, however, passed like its predecessors, and the world continued to exist. Were the prophets wrong again, or did the thousand years of Christendom point to the year 1033? The world waited and hoped. In that very year occurred a total eclipse of the sun; “The great source of light became saffron colored; gazing into each others faces men saw that they were pale as death; every object presented a livid appearance; stupor seized upon every heart and a general catastrophe was expected.” But the end of the world was not yet.
It was to this critical period that we owe the construction of the magnificent cathedrals which have survived the ravages of time and excited the wonder of centuries. Immense wealth had been lavished upon the clergy, and their riches increased by donations and inheritance. A new era seemed to be at hand. “After the year 1000,” continues Raoul Glaber, “the holy basilicas throughout the world were entirely renovated, especially in Italy and Gaul, although for the most part they were in no need of repair. Christian nations vied with each other in the erection of magnificent churches. It seemed as if the entire world, animated by a common impulse, shook off the rags of the past to put on a new garment; and the faithful were not content to rebuild nearly all the episcopal churches, but also embellished the monasteries dedicated to the various saints, and even the chapels in the smaller villages.”
The somber year 1000 had followed the vanished centuries into the past, but through what troubled times the Church had passed! The popes were the puppets of the rival Saxon emperors and the princes of Latium. All Christendom was in arms. The crisis had passed, but the problem of the end of the world remained, and credence in this dread event, though uncertain and vague,—was fostered by that profound belief in the devil and in prodigies which was yet to endure for centuries in the popular mind. The final scene of the last judgment was sculptured over the portals of every cathedral, and on entering the sanctuary of the church one passed under the balance of the archangel, on whose left writhed the bodies of the devils and the damned, delivered over to the eternal flames of hell.
But the idea that the world was to end was not confined to the Church. In the twelfth century astrologers terrified Europe by the announcement of a conjunction of all the planets in the constellation of the scales. This conjunction indeed, occurred, for on September 15th all the planets were found between the 180th and 190th degrees of longitude. But the end of the world did not come.
The celebrated alchemist, Arnauld de Villeneuve, foretold it again for the year 1335. In 1406, under Charles VI., an eclipse of the sun, occurring on June 16th, produced a general panic, which is chronicled by Juvénal of the Ursuline Order: “It is a pitiable sight,” he says, “to see people taking refuge in the churches as if the world were about to perish.” In 1491 St. Vincent Ferrier wrote a treatise entitled, “De la Fin du Monde et de la Science Spirituelle.” He allows Christendom as many years of life as there are verses in the psalter, namely, 2537. Then a German astrologer, one Stoffler, predicted that on February 20, 1524, a general deluge would result from a conjunction of the planets. He was very generally believed, and the panic was extreme. Property situated in valleys, along river banks, or near the sea, was sold to the less credulous for a mere nothing. A certain doctor, Auriol, of Toulouse, had an ark built for himself, his family and his friends, and Bodin asserts that he was not the only one who took this precaution.
There were few sceptics. The grand chancellor of Charles V. sought the advice of Pierre Martyr, who told him that the event would not be as fatal as was feared, but that the conjunction of the planets would doubtless occasion grave disasters. The fatal day arrived … and never had the month of February been so dry! But this did not prevent new predictions for the year 1532, by the astrologer of the elector of Brandenburg, Jean Carion; and again for the year 1584, by the astrologer Cyprian Lëowitz. It was again a question of a deluge, due to planetary conjunctions. “The terror of the populace,” writes a contemporary, Louis Guyon, “was extreme, and the churches could not hold the multitudes which fled to them for refuge; many made their wills without stopping to think that this availed little if the world was really to perish; others donated their goods to the clergy, in the hope that their prayers would put off the day of judgment.”
In 1588 there was another astrological prediction, couched in apocalyptic language, as follows: “The eighth year following the fifteen hundred and eightieth anniversary of the birth of Christ will be a year of prodigies and terror. If in this terrible year the globe be not dissolved in dust, and the land and the sea be not destroyed, every kingdom will be overthrown and humanity will travail in pain.”
As might be expected, the celebrated soothsayer, Nostradamus, is found among these prophets of evil. In his book of rhymed prophecies, entitled Centuries, we find the following quatrain, which excited much speculation:
Quand Georges Dieu crucifiera,
Que Marc le ressuscitera,
Et que St. Jean le portera,
La fin du monde arrivera.
The meaning of which is, that when Easter falls on the twenty-fifth of April (St. Mark’s day), Holy Friday will fall on the twenty-third (St. George’s day), and Corpus Christi on the twenty-fourth of June (St. John’s day), and the end of the world will come. This verse was not without malice, for at this time (Nostradamus died in 1556) the calendar had not been reformed; this was not done until 1582, and it was impossible for Easter to fall on the twenty-fifth of April. In the sixteenth century, the twenty-fifth of April corresponded to the fifteenth; the day following November 4, 1582, was called the fifteenth. After the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, Easter might fall on the twenty-fifth of April, its latest possible date, and this was the case in 1666, 1734, 1886, as it will be again in 1942, 2038, 2190, etc., the end of the world, however, not being a necessary consequence of this coincidence.
Planetary conjunctions, eclipses and comets were alike the basis for prophecies of evil. Among the comets recorded in history we may mention, as the most remarkable from this point of view, that of William the Conqueror, which appeared in 1066, and which is pictured on the tapestry of Queen Matilda, at Bayeux; that of 1264, which, it is said, disappeared the very day of the death of Pope Urban IV.; that of 1327, one of the largest and most imposing ever seen, which “presaged” the death of Frederick, king of Sicily; that of 1399, which Juvénal, the Ursuline, described as “the harbinger of coming evil;” that of 1402, to which was ascribed the death of Gian Galeazzo, Visconti, duke of Milan; that of 1456, which filled all Christendom with terror, under Pope Calixtus III., during the war with the Turks, and which is associated with the history of the Angelus; and that of 1472, which preceded the death of the brother of Louis XI. There were others, also, associated like the preceding, with catastrophes and wars, and especially with the dreaded last hours of the race. That of 1527 is described by Ambroise Paré, and by Simon Goulart, as formed of severed heads, poignards and bloody clouds. The comet of 1531 was thought to herald the death of Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I., and this princess shared the popular superstition in reference to evil stars: “Behold!” she exclaimed from her bed, on perceiving the comet through the window, “behold an omen which is not given to one of low degree. 150God sends it as a warning to us. Let us prepare to meet death.” Three days after, she died. But the famous comet of Charles V., appearing in 1556, was perhaps the most memorable of all. It had been identified as the comet of 1264, and its return was announced for 1848. But it did not reappear.
The comets of 1577, 1607, 1652 and 1665 were the subjects of endless commentaries, forming a library by themselves. At the last of these Alphonso VI., king of Portugal, angrily discharged his pistol, with the most grotesque defiance. Pierre Petit, by order of Louis XIV., published a work designed to counteract the foolish, and political, apprehensions excited by comets. This illustrious king desired to be without a rival, the only sun, “Nec pluribus impar!” and would not admit the supposition that the glory of France could be imperilled even by a celestial phenomenon.
One of the greatest comets which ever struck the imagination of men was assuredly the famous comet of 1680, to which Newton devoted so much attention. “It issued,” said Lemonnier, “with a frightful velocity from the depths of space and seemed falling directly into the sun and was seen to vanish with an equal velocity. It was visible for four months. It approached quite near to the earth, and Whiston ascribed the deluge to its former appearance.” Bayle wrote a treatise to prove the absurdity of beliefs founded on these portents. Madame de Sévigné writing to her cousin, Count de Bussy-Rabutin, says: “We have a comet of enormous size; its tail is the most beautiful object conceivable. Every person of note is alarmed and believes that heaven, interested in their fate, sends them a warning in this comet. They say that the courtiers of Cardinal Mazarin, who is despaired of by his physicians believe this prodigy is in honor of his passing away, and tell him of the terror with which it has inspired them. He had the sense to laugh at them, and to reply facetiously that the comet did him too much honor. In truth we ought all to agree with him, for human pride assumes too much when it believes that death is attended by such signs from heaven.”
We see that comets were gradually losing their prestige. Yet we read in a treatise of the astronomer Bernouilli this singular remark: “If the head of the comet be not a visible sign of the anger of God, the tail may well be.”
Fear of the end of the world was reawakened by the appearance of comets in 1773; a great panic spread throughout Europe, and Paris itself was alarmed. Here is an extract from the memoirs of Bachaumont, accessible to every reader:
“May 6th, 1773. In the last public meeting of the Academy of Sciences, M. de Lalande was to read by far the most interesting paper of all; this, however, he was not able to do, for lack of time. It concerned the comets which, by approaching the earth, may cause revolutions, and dealt especially with that one whose return is expected in eighteen years. But although he affirmed that it was not one of those which would harm the earth, and that, moreover, he had observed that one could not fix, with any exactness, the order of such occurrences, there exists, nevertheless, a very general anxiety.
“May 9th. The cabinet of M. de Lalande is filled with the curious who come to question him concerning the above memoir, and, in order to reassure those who have been alarmed by the exaggerated rumors circulated about it, he will doubtless be forced to make it public. The excitement has been so great that some ignorant fanatics have besought the archbishop to institute prayers for forty hours, in order to avert the deluge which menaces us; and this prelate would have authorized these prayers, had not the Academy shown him the ridicule which such a step would produce.
“May 14th. The memoir of M. de Lalande has appeared. He says that it is his opinion that, of the sixty known comets, eight, by their near approach to the earth, might produce a pressure such that the sea would leave its bed and cover a part of the world.”
In time, the excitement died away. The fear of comets assumed a new form. They were no longer regarded as indications of the anger of God, but their collision with the earth was discussed from a scientific point of view, and these collisions were not considered free of danger. At the close of the last century, Laplace stated his views on this question, in the forcible language which we have quoted in Chapter II.
In this century, predictions concerning the end of the world have several times been associated with the appearance of comets. It was announced that the comet of Biela, for example, would intersect the earth’s orbit on October 29, 1832, which it did, as predicted. There was great excitement. Once more the end of things was declared at hand. Humanity was threatened. What was going to happen?
The orbit, that is to say the path, of the earth had been confounded with the earth itself. The latter was not to reach that point of its orbit traversed by the comet until November 30th, more than a month after the comet’s passage, and the latter was at no time to be within 20,000,000 leagues of us. Once more we got off with a fright.
It was the same in 1857. Some prophet of ill omen had declared that the famous comet of Charles V., whose periodic time was thought to be three centuries, would return on the 13th of June of that year. More than one timid soul was rendered anxious, and the confessionals of Paris were more than usually crowded with penitents. Another prediction was made public in 1872, in the name of an astronomer, who, however, was not responsible for it—M. Plantamour, director of the Geneva observatory.
As in the case of comets, so with other unusual phenomena, such as total solar eclipses, mysterious suns appearing suddenly in the skies, showers of shooting stars, great volcanic eruptions accompanied with the darkness of night and seeming to threaten the burial of the world in ashes, earthquakes overthrowing and engulfing houses and cities—all these grand and terrible events have been connected with the fear of an immediate and universal end of men and things.
The history of eclipses alone would suffice to fill a volume, no less interesting than the history of comets. Confining our attention to a modern example, one of the last total eclipses of the sun, visible in France, that of August 12, 1654, had been foretold by astronomers, and its announcement had produced great alarm. For some it meant the overthrow of states and the fall of Rome; for others it signified a new deluge; there were those who believed that nothing less than the destruction of the world by fire was inevitable; while the more collected anticipated the poisoning of the atmosphere. Belief in these dreaded results were so widespread, that, in order to escape them, and by the express order of physicians, many terrified people shut themselves up in closed cellars, warmed and perfumed. We refer the reader, especially, to the second evening of Les Mondes of Fontenelle. Another writer of the same century, Petit, to whom we referred a moment ago, in his Dissertation on the Nature of Comets says, that the consternation steadily increased up to the fatal day, and that a country curate, unable to confess all who believed their last hour was at hand, at sermon time told his parishioners not to be in such haste, for the eclipse had been put off for a fortnight; and these good people were as ready to believe in the postponement of the eclipse as they had been in its malign influence.
At the time of the last total solar eclipses visible in France, namely, those of May 12, 1706; May 22, 1724, and July 8, 1842, as also of the partial ones of October 9, 1847; July 28, 1851; March 15, 1858; July 18, 1860, and December 22, 1870, there was more or less apprehension on the part of the timid; at least, we know, from trustworthy sources, that in each of these cases these natural phenomena were interpreted by a certain class in Europe as possible signs of divine wrath, and in several religious educational establishments the pupils were requested to offer up prayers as the time of the eclipse drew near. This mystical interpretation of the order of nature is slowly disappearing among enlightened nations, and the next total eclipse of the sun, visible in southern France on May 28, 1900, will probably inspire no fear on the French side of the Pyrenees; but it might be premature to make the same statement regarding those who will observe it from the Spanish side of the mountains.
Among uncivilized people these phenomena excite today the same terror which they once did among us. This fact is frequently attested by travellers, especially in Africa. During the eclipse of July 18, 1860, in Algeria, men and women resorted to prayer or fled affrighted to their homes. During the eclipse of July 29, 1878, which was total in the United States, a negro, suddenly crazed with terror, and persuaded that the end of the world was coming, cut the throats of his wife and children.
It must be admitted that such phenomena are well calculated to overwhelm the imagination. The sun, the god of day, the star upon whose light we are dependent, grows dim; and, just before it becomes extinguished, takes on a sickly and mournful hue. The light of the sky pales, the animal creation is stricken with terror, the beast of burden falters at his task, the dog flees to its master, the hen retreats with her brood to the coop, the birds cease their songs, and have been seen even to drop dead with fright. Arago relates that during the total eclipse of the sun at Perpignan, on July 8, 1842, twenty thousand spectators were assembled, forming an impressive spectacle. “When the solar disc was nearly obscured, an irresistible anxiety took possession of everybody; each felt the need of sharing his impressions with his neighbor. A deep murmur arose, like that of the far away sea after a storm. This murmur deepened as the crescent of light grew less, and when it had disappeared and sudden darkness had supervened, the silence which ensued marked this phase of the eclipse as accurately as the pendulum of our astronomical clock. The magnificence of the spectacle triumphed over the petulance of youth, over the frivolity which some people mistake for a sign of superiority, over the indifference which the soldier frequently assumes. A profound silence reigned also in the sky: the birds had ceased their songs. After a solemn interval of about two minutes, joyous transports and frantic applause greeted with the same spontaneity the first reappearance of the solar rays, and the melancholy and indefinable sense of depression gave way to a deep and unfeigned exultation which no one sought to moderate or repress.”
Every one who witnessed this phenomenon, one of the most sublime which nature offers, was profoundly moved, and took away with him an impression never to be forgotten. The peasants especially were terrified by the darkness, as they believed that they were losing their sight. A poor child, tending his flock, completely ignorant of what was coming, saw the sun slowly growing dim in a cloudless sky. When its light had entirely disappeared the poor child, completely carried away by terror, began to cry and call for help. His tears flowed again when the first ray of light reappeared. Reassured, he clasped his hands, crying, “O, beautiful sun!”
Is not the cry of this child the cry of humanity?
So long as eclipses were not known to be the natural consequences of the motion of the moon about the earth, and before it was understood that their occurrence could be predicted with the utmost precision, it was natural that they should have produced a deep impression and been associated with the idea of the end of the world. The same is true of other celestial phenomena and notably of the sudden appearance of unknown suns, an event much rarer than an eclipse.
The most celebrated of these appearances was that of 1572. On the 11th of November of that year, about a month after the massacre of St. Bartholomew, a brilliant star of the first magnitude suddenly appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia. The stupefaction was general, not only on the part of the public, to which it was visible every night in the sky, but also on the part of scientists, who could not explain its appearance. Astrologers found a solution of the enigma in the assertion that it was the star of the Magi, whose reappearance announced the return of the Son of God, the last judgment and the resurrection. This statement made a deep impression upon all classes of society. The star gradually diminished in splendor, and at the end of about eighteen months went out, without having caused any other disaster than that which human folly itself adds to the misery of a none too prosperous planet. Science records several apparitions of this nature, but the above was the most remarkable. A like agitation has accompanied all the grand phenomena of nature, especially those which have been unforeseen. In the chronicles of the middle ages, and even in more recent memoirs, we read of the terror which the aurora borealis, showers of shooting stars and the fall of meteorites have produced among the alarmed spectators. Recently, during the meteor shower of November 27, 1872, when the sky was filled with more than forty thousand meteorites belonging to the dispersed comet of Biela, women of the lower classes, at Nice especially, as also at Rome, in their excitement sought information of those whom they thought able to explain the cause of these celestial fire-works, which they had at once associated with the end of the world and with the fall of the stars, which it was foretold would usher in that last great event.
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have sometimes attained such proportions as to lead to the fear that the end of the world was at hand. Imagine the state of mind of the inhabitants of Herculaneum and of Pompeii when the eruption of Vesuvius buried them in showers of ashes! Was not this for them the end of the world? And more recently, were not those who witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa of the same opinion? Impenetrable darkness lasting eighteen hours, an atmosphere like a furnace, filling the eyes, nose and ears with ashes, the deep and incessant cannonade of the volcano, the falling of pumice stones from the black sky, the terrible scene illuminated only at intervals by the lurid lightning or the fire-balls on the spars and rigging of vessels, the thunder echoing from cloud and sea with an infernal musketry, the shower of ashes turning into a deluge of mud—this was the experience of the passengers of a Java vessel during the night of eighteen hours, from the 26th to the 28th of August, 1883, when a portion of the island of Krakatoa was hurled into the air, and the sea, after having first retreated, swept upon the shore to a height of thirty-five meters and to a distance of from one to ten kilometers over a coast-line of five hundred kilometers, and in the reflux carried away with it the four cities, Tjiringin, Mérak, Telok-Bétong and Anjer, and the entire population of the region, more than forty thousand souls. For a long time the progress of vessels was hindered by floating bodies inextricably interlaced; and human fingers, with their nails, and fragments of heads, with their hair were found in the stomachs of fishes. Those who escaped, or who saw the catastrophe from some vessel, and lived to welcome again the light of day, which had seemed forever extinguished, relate in terror with what resignation they expected the end of the world, persuaded that its very foundations were giving way and that the knell of a universal doom had sounded. One eye-witness assures us that he would not again pass through such an experience for all the wealth that could be imagined. The sun was extinguished and death seemed to reign sovereign over nature. This eruption, moreover, was of such terrific violence that it was heard through the earth at the antipodes; it reached an altitude of twenty thousand meters, producing an atmospheric disturbance which made the circuit of the entire globe in thirty-five hours (the barometer fell four millimeters in Paris even), and left for more than a year in the upper layers of the atmosphere a fine dust, which, illumined by the sun, gave rise to those magnificent twilight displays admired so much throughout the world.
These are formidable disturbances, partial ends of the world. Certain earthquakes deserve citation with these terrible volcanic eruptions, so disastrous have been their consequences. In the earthquake of Lisbon, November 1, 1755, thirty thousand persons perished; the shock was felt over an area four times as large as that of Europe. When Lima was destroyed, October 28, 1724, the sea rose twenty-seven meters above its ordinary level, rushed upon the city and erased it so completely that not a single house was left. Vessels were found in the fields several kilometers from the shore. On December 10, 1869, the inhabitants of the city of Onlah, in Asia Minor, alarmed by subterranean noises and a first violent trembling of the earth, took refuge on a neighboring hilltop, whence, to their stupefaction, they saw several crevasses open in the city which within a few moments entirely disappeared in the bowels of the earth. We have direct evidence that under circumstances far less dramatic, as for example on the occasion of the earthquake at Nice, February 23, 1887, the idea of the end of the world was the very first which presented itself to the mind.
The history of the earth furnishes a remarkable number of like dramas, catastrophes of a partial character, threatening the world’s final destruction. It is fitting that we should devote a moment to the consideration of these great phenomena, as also to the history of that belief in the end of the world which has appeared in every age, though modified by the progress of human knowledge. Faith has in part disappeared; mystery and superstition, which struck the imagination of our ancestors, and which has been so curiously represented in the portals of our great cathedrals, and in the sculpture and painting inspired by Christian traditions, this theological aspect of the last great day, has given place to the scientific study of the probable life of the solar system to which we belong. The geocentric and anthropocentric conception of the universe, which makes man the center and end of creation, has become gradually transformed and has at last disappeared; for we know that our humble planet is but an island in the infinite, that human history has thus far been founded on pure illusions, and that the dignity of man consists in his intellectual and moral worth. Is not the destiny and sovereign end of the human mind the exact knowledge of things, the search after truth?
During the nineteenth century, evil prophets, more or less sincere, have twenty-five times announced the end of the world, basing their prophecies upon cabalistic calculations destitute of serious foundation. Like predictions will recur so long as the race exists.
But this historic interlude, although opportune, has for a moment interrupted our narrative. Let us hasten to return to the twenty-fifth century, for we have reached its most critical moment.