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Millenarianism: Latin America and Native North America

Millenarianism: Latin America and Native North America

The history of humankind is replete with the desire for better times, a more just order, and leaders who can bring their people into a better world, often having to defeat or destroy a world that is viewed as unjust and inequitable. These desires have frequently been fueled by faith or have taken specifically religious forms; and in addition have often been organized around or contained elements of ethnicity, identity, and race.

Old World Origins

In the area stretching from Asia Minor through Europe and into regions colonized by political and religious powers emanating from these areassuch as the New Worldthese desires have often been linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition. These beliefs and desires and the movements they have generated have become popularly known as millenarianism or chiliasm (a word of Greek origin). However, as one of the most noted scholars of the subject, Norman Cohn, has pointed out, "These movements have varied in tone from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and in aim from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism; there is no counting the possible ways of imagining the Millennium and the route to it" (p. xiv).

The term millenarianism comes from the belief by some Christians that Christ will return to earth and establish a kingdom in which he will reign over a society that is blessed spiritually and materially and in which the enemies of this Christian fold will be defeated. This rule, it is believed, will last for a thousand yearsa millenniumbefore the faithful or Saints will ascend to heaven while those who are seen as evildoers will suffer eternal damnation. Hence the belief in the coming millennial earthly paradise of Christ became known as millenarianism. The actual concept of millenarianism, however, predates Christ. Long before Christians separated from Jews, the idea of a prophet or Messiaha powerful, wise, and just ruler of the faithwas a part of Jewish belief in the coming of a world where the longed-for order was restored.

While a belief in the coming of the Messiah alone is not necessarily millenarian, when it is attached to persecution or the desire to attain a proper and just order, it can become millenarian. Hence during the centuries and decades before and after the birth of Christ, when Jews were suffering persecutions, were not self-governing, or were divided by class and other interests, numerous millenarian movements and leaders emerged. For instance, in the second century b.c.e., a time of crisis for Jews, the Book of Daniel was written in which Daniel dreams that the enemies of the Jews are destroyed and an everlasting kingdom is established with dominion over all.

While millenarian movements enjoyed some popularity within the early Christian Church in the first three or four centuries c.e., these movements, in both the Greek and Western churches, were eventually considered heretical. This was especially true after the official church became more tied to the state. In the early Christian world, many people led difficult lives and were strongly influenced by accounts such as those in the New Testament Book of Revelation, in which an angel descends to earth, seizes the Devil, and binds him for a thousand years: "Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image. They came to life again, and reigned with Christ a thousand years" (Rev. 20:4).

From the late eleventh century to the sixteenth century, millenarianism became a more common phenomenon in certain regions of Europe that were experiencing change in the traditional order. Norman Cohn argues, "The areas in which the age-old prophecies about the Last Days took on a new, revolutionary meaning and a new, explosive force were the areas of rapid social changeand not simply change but expansion: areas where trade and industry were developing and where the population was rapidly increasing" (p. 22). In this world of growing disorder, complexity, and insecurity, millenarian ideas were often blended with antagonisms of class, religion, and identity that imbued these movements with a revolutionary character that could appear threatening or hopeful, depending on one's position in society and relationship to the movement.

Movements such as the People's Crusade and the Shepherd's Crusade witnessed the rising of poor and marginalized people against elites and Jews. The Calabrian abbot Joachim de Fiore used biblical study, especially of the Book of Revelation, to develop a model for understanding history and for creating a vision of the final period of life on earth. These Judgment Days, or Last Days, involved a world where social classes had been leveled, governing structures and church did not exist, and people led a "spiritual" existence that freed them from work because in this spiritual form they did not require food. Surprisingly, the church did not repress this movement even though Christ was not at the center of this new interpretation. Hence from at least the thirteenth century on, even in the Christian tradition, millennial views existed without Christ.

It is in this tradition that scholars in the modern period have increasingly used millenarianism as a tool to study and explain movements that seek to redeem societies and rescue them from rapid social change, colonial incursions, and loss of traditional meaning; this tool also helps in understanding millenarian movements such as the Anabaptists, the Ranters, and others in Europe. While in the modern period Norman Cohn saw certain medieval and early modern millennial movements in Europe as the deep roots of modern communism and Nazism through movements such as that of Thomas Müntzer and the Shepherd's Crusade, studies of the New World have focused on millenarian movements of the poor and oppressed seeking a measure of control, hope, and dignity in their lives and cultures.

Importance in Latin America and Native
North America

These movements and interpretations of them are especially prominent among the native peoples of the Americas and those who study them. In the late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century United States, Tecumseh, a leader of the Shawnee nation, and his brother Tenskwautawa, known as "The Prophet," organized Shawnee and other tribes of the Midwest in a movement to reject European ways, return to their old traditions, and end warfare between native peoples. This was part of their effort to drive out nonindigenous peoples and restore a new indigenous order based on the old ways. Tecumseh, who had studied the Bible, even injected European religion into the fray when he asked how white people could be trusted when they had nailed Jesus Christ to a cross.

The Ghost Dances of the U.S. West in the late nineteenth century represented another form of millenarianism. Indigenous peoples of the western plains, who had been severely battered by waves of settlers, the Indian wars fought by the U.S. government, and the destruction of the buffalo herds, called upon their gods to restore power to them. Often overcome with a spirit, these peoples felt imbued with the power to defeat their enemies and redeem their world.

Latin America has also been the source of important millennial movements, including those in which native peoples challenged the European-dominated order. In Peru, in the wake of massive deaths due to European diseases and the encounter with European colonialism, the Taki Onqoy (Dancing Sickness) movement of the 1560s saw the reemergence of old regional gods such as those that lived in mountains, rocks, and in water, but not the gods or leaders of Inca imperialism. These older regional leaders and gods promised salvation to those who were taken by the spirit, but the name Taki Onqoy, or Dancing Sickness, was given to the movement by those who observed its impact on the behavior of those imbued with the spirit who wished to renounce everything that was European and drive out the Europeans as well as other people and things not native to the Andes.

In Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1700s a millenarian movement arose among the Tzeltal people in response to a vision of the Virgin, who appeared and told them to drive out all nonnative peoples. Some of these highland Maya even proclaimed themselves to be the true Christians while referring to the Europeans as Jews, thus putting the Europeans outside the realm of those protected by the Christian God.

Perhaps the greatest of New World millenarian movements, and one which may still be ongoing, is that of Inkarrí. According to this belief, which was important in validating the revolutionary upheaval of Túpac Amaru in the 1780s, the Inca was to be reborn from the buried but regenerating head (symbolic or real) of an earlier Inca. When the time is right, the Inca will reemerge to lead the indigenous people of the Andes (who are sometimes also referred to as Incas) in the restoration of a more just and equitable social order. The Inkarrí movement is still culturally alive and people are still waiting.

See also Millenarianism: Islamic ; Mysticism ; Religion ; Sacred Texts .


Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

Flores Galindo, Alberto. Buscando un Inca. Lima, Peru: Instituto de Apoyo Agrario, 1987.

Gosner, Kevin. Soldiers of the Virgin: The Moral Economy of a Colonial Maya Rebellion. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.

Stavig, Ward. "Túpac Amaru, the Body Politic, and the Embodiment of Hope: Inca Heritage and Social Justice in the Andes." In Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America, edited by Lyman Johnson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.

. The World of Túpac Amaru: Conflict, Community, and Identity in Colonial Peru. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Szeminski, Jan. La utopía tupamarista. Lima: Fondo Editorial de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru, 1984.

Thornton, Russell. We Shall Live Again: The 1870 and 1890 Ghost Dance Movements as Demographic Revitalization. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Wright, Ronald. Stolen Continents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Ward Stavig

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