The Millennium Myth

March 22, 2021

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For many, the year 2000 marked something momentous. Prophecies and reveries abounded. Similar significance has been attributed to many auspicious dates, like the popular theory of the five-hundred year cycle. What if these cycles are actually special? Not for any special reason, but simply because we’re human?

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As we mark the year 1400 in the Persian calender, it strikes me that the arresting quality of such pleasantly round numbers are worth reflection. The year 2000, for example, was an interesting year. More now for the things it was not, perhaps, than the things that it was.

For many, the year 2000 marked something momentous. Indeed, for many, the year 2000 was the coming of the end times. This was true for at least the five-hundred years leading up to the event. Nostradamous foretold the coming of “un gran Roy effrayeur”, a great ‘fright’ king, in the latter half of 1999 (X.72, The Prophecies), and the possibly apocryphal doomsday prophecy with a similar interpretation of the Irish Saint Malachy is at least as old, if not dating back to St Malachy himself. Similar sentiments were professed by many cultic religious groups in the years leading up to the millenium, most dramatically that of the Heaven’s Gate congregation who notoriously engaged in mass-suicide in 1997 at the coming of the Hale-Bopp comet.

More recently, such prophecies weren’t limited to the religious, but focused also on environmental catastrophe. “Dr. Rocket”, the Japanese rocketry pioneer Hideo Itokawa predicted an environmental disaster in the year 2000. So, too, did author Richard Noone and celebrity clairvoyant Edgar Cayce who, though both in apparent bad faith, still caused quite a furore for those swept up in the fever. And how could we forget the threat of the Y2K event, even if it did turn out to be rather lacklustre?

Of course, we reflect on these apocalyptic visions with humour now. Indeed, from an information theoretic point of view there is really nothing particularly special about the year. This year, Persians celebrate the year 1400 while we celebrate the far less memorable 2021 (bar the events, of course). In contrast, as we celebrated the end of a most recognisable epoch at the millennium, the Persians were underwhelmed by the year 1378.

More strikingly, the very fact upon which the year is based is under contention. Our calendar is centred upon the birth of Jesus, a feature so arbitrary for some that the Dionysian “Before Christ” (BC) and “After Death” (AD) are competing more furiously than ever with Common Era notation for those who’d prefer more neutral terms. And even those who have no intention of making the switch are celebrating apocrypha—most theologians date the birth of Jesus to somewhere before 6 and 4 BC. The year 2000 actually fell somewhere between 1995 and 1997.

The turn of the millennium was special only for those who imagined it to be special. And yet, the year 2000 didn’t quite pass without event. The year 2000 marked the peak of a historic stock-market high and a similarly historic crash. Perhaps this would be auspicious enough, but the real point of interest lies at the cause of the bubble—the coming of age of the internet.

That very same phenomenon hosts a fun sub-culture very interested in cycles. It’s such a prevalent meme that Springer is publishing this subculture's academic articles. The most prevalent of these is the supposed 500-year cycle of Christian history. From the birth of Jesus, every five centuries is linked to some profound transition in the civilisations of the West. The fall of the Roman empire ostensibly following the deposition of “Little Augustus” in 476 and the onset of the Dark Ages. The schism of the church between east and west in 1054, and the onset of the feudal revolution. The Protestant Revolution of 1517 and the onset of the Rennaissance. If we’d like to move outside the Christian narrative, we might even include the reforms of Cleisthenes around 500 BC(E) and the earliest iteration of democracy in the West.

All of which leads us back to the next iteration of the cycle—the year 2000, and perhaps a new age ushered in by the very phenomenon I used to research this article—the internet.

One could make the claim that none of these events took place, literally, at the five-century mark. But it’s a compelling narrative. These big round numbers and the events that surround them are absorbing patterns. It’s unlikely to be a surprise, then, to learn that there is a term for those who are into million-year cycles (with quite an amusing revision history on the Wikipedia page).

I’d like to make my own submission about these cycles. There’s about as much evidence for my proposal as any other, but I like it rather a lot. What if it’s not that we perceive the specialness of the cycles because they’re actually special? What if the cycles are special precisely because we think that they are? What if, in the same way that we create our own psychic predators, we’re in some way collectively motivated to create our own profound and cyclical transformations?

All of this, just because of these big, beautiful, arresting round numbers.

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