The week leading up to Friday, Dec. 21 marks the final home stretch before the end of the world – according to some, at least.
But it is not the first time people have waited both in fascination and dread for the arrival of a prophetic date. In fact, predictions about the end of the world have captivated human imagination for millennia, although these dates have mostly come and gone with barely a whimper, to the joy of many and the disappointment of some.
Dec. 21 is the last date on the Mayans' Long Count calendar, signifying the end of the 13th Baktun, or the 13th age, consisting of 144,000 days. For the Mayan civilization, 13 was a divine number, believed to be the basic structural unit of nature. As sophisticated mathematicians and remarkably accurate astronomers well ahead of their time, Dec. 21 undoubtedly marks an important date for the ancient calendar – yet almost all recent excavations and research into Mayan artifacts have shown there is almost nothing to support theories that the Mayans were predicting the literal end of the world.
But many have waited long to see what, if anything will happen on Friday - and some are panicking.
A man in China used his life savings to build an ark in preparation for the feared apocalypse, while French government officials blocked access to a mountain that some doomsday believers think will offer them an escape from any possible cataclysmic scenarios. In the U.S., NASA has released multiple statements squashing fears that a hidden planet from behind the Sun will pop out and head for the Earth's destruction, but that has not stopped many from call the organization to describe how they fear for their lives, can't sleep, and are even considering suicide in order to escape the horrors of the coming doomsday.
How many times has civilization faced up to a coming "apocalypse?" Records show plenty. Below are 10 examples of relatively modern "doomsday" predictions that never came to pass, listed in chronological order:
Ten Modern Doomsday Prophecies:
1) The Prophet Hen of Leeds – "Christ Is Coming" Eggs
In 1806, a mysterious hen in the English town of Leeds began laying eggs with the phrase "Christ is coming" written on them. News of the strange occurrence began spreading through Britain, and many became convinced that the phenomenon heralded the return of Jesus Christ to Earth to judge the living and the dead.
"Great numbers visited the spot, and examined these wondrous eggs, convinced that the day of judgment was near at hand. Like sailors in a storm, expecting every instant to go to the bottom, the believers suddenly became religious, prayed violently, and flattered themselves that they repented them of their evil courses," historian Charles Mackay writes in his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
The mystery was solved and fears were relieved, however, when it was discovered that a prankster had actually been inscribing the phrases with corrosive link, and then forced the eggs back up the bird's body.
2) William Miller – Return of Christ
William Miller, an American farmer turned Baptist preacher, gave way to the movement called Adventism and led a cult of believers that predicted that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in March 1843. He claimed that he was led to his prediction by a complex system of mathematical calculations, and convinced over 100,000 people to become his followers after spreading his message mostly through pamphlets during the 1830s and 1840s.
His followers sold their possessions, put on white robes and awaited their rapture into heaven as March 1843 approached – only to be let down when the month passed and nothing happened. Miller then moved the apocalyptic date to Oct. 1844, but his calculations were wrong again – leading many to dub his predictions "The Great Disappointment" and to leave the Adventist community.
3) Halley's Comet – Toxic Gas
Halley's Comet, a short-period comet visible from Earth every 75-76 years, has been recorded by ancient cultures stretching back to the Babylonians for thousands of years.
It wasn't until 1910 though that Europeans and Americans fell into mass hysteria concerning the comet's next appearance over Earth, as many had become convinced that the comet's tale contained a gas "that would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet" – speculation that was reprinted even on the front pages of The New York Times and other major newspapers.
In the panic that ensued, sales of masks and oxygen supplies went through the roof, with many hoping that bottled air would be enough to keep them alive until the comet passed away and atmospheric conditions on Earth were restored.
4) Heaven's Gate – Alien Arrival
"Heaven's Gate" was an American UFO group founded in the 1970s who were convinced that an alien space craft was coming to Earth hidden behind the Hale-Bopp Comet, which would trigger a destructive invasion on Earth. Not too many took them seriously but on March 26, 1997, police found the bodies of 39 members of the controversial group who committed suicide in preparation for the event.
"The mass suicide likely took place over three days and involved three groups, proceeding in a calm, ritualistic fashion. Some members apparently assisted others and then cleaned up, then went on to take their own dose of the fatal mixture, mixed with apple sauce or pudding," a CNN report at the time explained.
5) The Jupiter Effect – Catastrophic Earthquake
In 1974, a best-selling book called The Jupiter Effect was published which predicated that a near perfect alignment of the planets in the solar system would cause a number of doomsday scenarios on Earth, including a giant earthquake along the San Andreas Fault on March 10,1982.