You might have heard that the world is due to end, for the umpteenth time, on Friday. This time it's the Mayans getting in on the act. Their Long Count calendar, which started in 3114 BC – yes, that's a pretty long count – ends on 21 December.
In the countdown to the date there have been reports of panic buying in Russia and America and NASA has even brought out a video to refute the claims of the conspiracy theorists.
But it shouldn't take rocket scientists to explain that just because a calendar ends, the end of the world doesn't necessarily follow. It just means that the calendar starts again at the beginning of its cycle, just like ours does at the end of December.
Just because our calendar is coming to its end, we don't all go into a frenzy of panic buying and manic partying like it's the end of the world every December, do we?... Oh... we do... But you see what I'm getting at.
Anyway the point is that logic has nothing to do with belief in an imminent apocalypse or with its enduring popularity. A brief look at the tragi-comic history of apocalypticism will show us that the world has been about to end pretty much since it began.
Some of the earliest myths that humanity has preserved are about apocalyptic events like floods sweeping humankind off the face of the Earth. It's right there in the first book of the Bible which, funnily enough, also ends with the apocalyptic Book of Revelations. In Jesus' time too there was a widespread Jewish belief in the immanence of the end with the arrival of the Messiah. John the Baptist believed in the impending apocalypse and many scholars believe that Jesus himself preached the coming of the apocalypse in his own lifetime.
Messianism has always been closely connected with the end of the world and history is littered with self-proclaimed Messiahs, the strangest perhaps of which was Moses of Crete. In the 5 century AD Moses promised, like his namesake, to part the waters and lead his followers from Crete back to Palestine. On the pre-ordained day he led his disciples to the sea where they leapt like religious lemmings into the decidedly unparted waters, there only to drown or make it back to shore looking dishevelled and rather silly and, one imagines, with a few choice questions for 'the Messiah'. Moses himself "disappeared" presumably on the first boat out of there.
The millennium is another phenomenon that attracts apocalyptic theories like a black hole. The first millennium was no different to our own with hundreds of thousands of people across Christendom readying themselves for the final curtain. According to 10 century religious chronicler Ralph Glaber, all across Italy and France communities went out of there way to renovate and update there churches at huge expenses of money and labour, all so that they might have the "seemliest" edifice when Judgement Day arrived – a judgement day which they presumably thought of as a Godly version of 'Grand Designs'.
Apocalyptic beliefs are present at the very founding of modern England. And if you think the greatest scientific minds are free of such rubbish you would be very mistaken.
This brings us back to the present day and the Mayan calendar. I have a superstitious fear of tempting fate, but even I will make two very strong predictions. The first is that the world will not end on Friday, and the second is that pretty soon afterwards, someone will come up with the next date for Armageddon.