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  Millenarianism (from Latin millennium, ‘thousand years’) is a cultic belief stemming from a passage in the Bible Book of Revelation (chapter 22). The verses claim that after Satan has been imprisoned for a thousand years, those martyrs who have ‘lived and reigned with Christ’ for that time will return to life. This passage seemed to promise an actual date for the Day of Judgement, and the coming of the millennium was an event eagerly awaited by devout Christians in the Middle Ages, who thought that at one minute past midnight on the 1st January,  AD 1000—their trust in human calendar-making was as unshakeable as their faith in scripture—the Last Trump would sound, this world would come to an end and the Kingdom of Heaven would begin. The belief grew ever more intense towards the end of the first millennium, and was reinforced by all kinds of reported portents and prodigies of Nature. It produced on the one hand a feeling of intense and joyful expectation, on the other an upsurge of pessimism and penitential yearning. What happened in the days, weeks and years after the Kingdom of Heaven failed to materialize is not recorded.

If the hysteria surrounding the end of the first millennium after the supposed year of Christ\'s birth is understandable, its repetition one thousand years later, in the dying years of the second millennium, is much harder to credit, but exists. Almost every kind of evil, from AIDS to the perceived decline in respect of young people for their elders, is blamed on an upsurge of Satanism in the world, a kind of last fling of devilment before the final reckoning. In the late 1980s and 1990s, millennial cults began mushrooming throughout the world, and expectation of the Day of Judgement even, in some countries, caused a slump in such things as life insurance and fluctuations on the the stock Market (in our capitalist societies, a sign of true panic, not to mention true belief). The discoveries of archaeology, history, science and theology seem to have little effect on these delusions—and indeed, one can see how millennial belief would seem at best asymmetrical and at worst extremely silly if people chose as their date not an exact multiple of one thousand but some scientifically more accurate date such as 1996 (the possible bimillennium of Christ\'s birth) or 2070 (the bimillennium of the Roman sack of Jerusalem, in the months prior to which the Book of Revelation is thought to have been compiled).

Anthropologists concentrate on one particular manifestation of millenarian cults: those (like the ‘cargo cults’ of Papua New Guinea) which arose in parts of the world subject to extreme deprivation. In Papua New Guinea, exposure to the material culture of the West, combined with missionary teachings about the coming of a messiah, fired beliefs that dead ancestors would arrive with a cargo of European goods, to usher in the millennium, and that cult adherents would immediately find Utopia: their own immediate prosperity, coupled with the demise of the invaders who were threatening their culture.

In the highlands of South America, millenarianism emerged earlier, as a response to Spanish colonialism. After the abrupt destruction of the Inca empire, the myth of Inkarri arose, promising the violent demise of the colonialists and the return of the Inca king who would restore the Inca state. Even today, those movements in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru which actively defend indigenous rights identify themselves with the figure of Inkarri, and the millenarian myth, and the hopes that go with it, still have power. CL KMcL

Further reading Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium; , P. Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: a Study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia.



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