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How to Party at the End of the World

For twelve hundred years it had stood as the greatest structure in the whole of Britain.

Known today as the Ness of Brodgar, the temple complex was the beating heart of Neolithic Orkney; a place where locals gathered, feasts were held, and long-forgotten ceremonies undertaken.

At a time when most Britons lived in scattered villages, the Ness served as the focal point for an entire island community, one consisting of tens of thousands of people. 

Until, suddenly, it no longer did.

On some forgotten day around the year 2,300 BC – not long after the Pyramids had first been built – the apocalypse came to this Scottish island.

The temple structure at the Ness of Brodgar was systematically destroyed, seemingly by those it served.

The community then slaughtered all their cows and buried the complex under piles of rubble.

It was, for this lost civilization, the end of the world. A self-made calamity from which there was no coming back.

But while you or I might face Armageddon with fear, or prayer, or simply calm resignation, the ancient people of Orkney did something very strange.

They threw a party. Possibly one of the greatest parties ever seen.

A party at the end of the world. 

For most humans, the idea that everything they know is about to be obliterated instills one of two reactions: shrieking panic, or a resigned “well, this is it.”

When Halley’s Comet passed close to the Earth in 1910, reports that poisonous gasses in its tail might suffuse our atmosphere and end all life on Earth led to tens of thousands of Americans skipping work to pray in packed-out churches.

Closer to our time, a false nuclear-missile alert accidentally sent to everyone in Hawaii in 2018 saw many choose to spend their anticipated final minutes simply gazing serenely at the sea.

But what if you don’t want your last moments to be contemplative? What if you’re less a “pray or reflect on life” guy, and more a “have one final party” girl?

History tells us there are a few things you might need for your last-ever celebration. 

The first is food.

Back in 2,300 BC, the residents of Orkney didn’t just smash up their temple on the Last Day. They smashed it up after eating all their livestock in the banquet to end all banquets.

From what we can tell, the party started with these long-dead Orcadians driving anywhere between 400 and 600 cattle into the Ness of Brodgar.

Being a small farming community in the Neolithic era, this must’ve represented a substantial portion of their herd, if not the whole lot.

Regardless, these cows were all slaughtered and cooked, and their remains eaten in a gigantic feast. 

Such a meal would’ve been unlike anything the British Isles had ever seen. 

Thousands would’ve been able to take part, eating and eating until their bellies couldn’t possibly take any more.

Then, once they were fuller than they’d ever been in their lives, the feast-goers took their tools and smashed up the temple.

Maybe they were drunk. Maybe they were just intoxicated on the endorphins released by eating so much red meat.

Either way, they destroyed their twelve-hundred-year-old temple – a building far older to them than Angkor Wat is to you – then piled the bones from their banquet high in the ruins.

Finally, the piles were topped with deer carcasses, a single cattle skull was placed in the center, and all evidence of their culture and the feast that ended it was buried.

Today, we have no way of knowing why they did this.

All we have are theories. Theories that climate change in northern Europe could’ve caused their civilization to collapse, or that the arrival of new technology – such as bronze – disrupted their culture to the point of destruction. 

But whatever the cause, it’s not the only time humans have faced the end of everything with food.

Over four millennia later, a much smaller group in modern California looked up at the sky and saw the end was nigh.

It was March 1997, the month the Hale-Bopp comet passed closest to Earth on its 4,000-year voyage around the sun. 

For Marshall Applewhite, it was also a signal to pack his bags. 

The leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, Applewhite believed a spaceship hiding behind the comet would save the souls of all those who relinquished their Earthly bodies. 

While Applewhite didn’t specifically preach about the End Times, his beliefs did warn of a coming era of misery; one his followers needed to escape.

Famously, they did this by eating applesauce mixed with phenobarbital and washed down with vodka.

But the ritual that ended 39 lives wasn’t the official last meal of Heaven’s Gate. That had come days earlier, at a Marie Callender’s in Carlsbad, California.

That day, every single member of the cult sat together and ordered salad starters with turkey potpie and cheesecake for dessert; all washed down with iced tea with extra lemon.

The dinner took around 45 minutes. No-one got drunk. No-one cried. No-one did anything but sit there politely, before paying cash and leaving en-masse to end their own lives.

Despite being a world away from the Orcadian end times banquet, the Heaven’s Gate goodbye dinner shows just how ingrained the idea of a Last Meal is in human culture.

I mean, what’s the tale of Christ’s Last Supper if not a version of the Orkney feast with way less organic beef and way more betrayal?

But food isn’t the only ingredient to a good apocalypse party.

Another is sex.

In late April 1945, Berlin was facing its own Armageddon.

The might of the Red Army was bearing down. The Third Reich lay in ruins, and everyone understood the Soviets’ vengeance was not going to be pretty.

Unlike the Orcadians destroying their own culture, this was destruction from without. 

And the imminent threat seems to have turned the city into one giant orgy.

At the radio broadcaster, Grossdeutscher Rundfunk, the 500-strong staff spent their last days drinking and having indiscriminate sex in the storeroom. 

Elsewhere, the darkened cellars and bunkers of wartime Berlin became hunting grounds for a last, desperate orgasm before the hammer fell.

And that included the most-famous bunker of all.

April 29, 1945 is notorious for being the day Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun finally married.

But while their wedding breakfast was a grim, despondent affair, upstairs was another story.

Around 4am, a secretary named Gertraud Junge went up for food, and was shocked to find the Reich’s last loyalists not preparing for combat but screwing one another’s brains out.

They used every available surface. A last, urgent hump as the Red Army pounded the city into rubble.

Crazy as it sounds, this makes sense psychologically. 

In desperate times, we often cling to things that give us either a sense of control, or of hope. New conquests might quell our anxiety, while romantic sex gives us a feeling that there’s something more than just our impending demise.

In short, sex can be as mood-altering as a bellyfull of food or getting drop dead drunk. 

Something similar can be said for our third, and final, party ingredient: music.

Back when Halley’s Comet came so close to Earth that people worried the gases in its tail would poison us all, music played an important role in marking its approach.

On the evening the comet passed closest to Earth – 19 May, 1910 – those who’d packed out America’s churches frequently sang hymns to assuage their fears.

In New York City, one eyewitness reported two men with mandolins wading into a vast crowd on Elizabeth Street, and playing mournful tunes while the hundreds around them wailed.

Over in Europe, the musical aspect was slightly different.

The French being French, they organized plenty of street bands and romantic dances as the comet approached. 

Once it became clear that no-one was going to drop dead of a planet-wide poisoning, the dancing only got wilder.

Still, perhaps the best example of music guiding people to the end comes not from an apocalypse, but from a very localized disaster that went down in history.

When the Titanic hit its famous iceberg on May 31, 1911, there were at least two hours between the first, resounding crash, and the boat going down.

During that time, the band – led by 33-year old Wallace Hartley – calmly continued to play for passengers.

Survivors said they started with fast ragtime music and joyful waltzes; the sort of thing more-suited to a high-class party than a sinking vessel.

Famously, they later switched to something more somber, probably (although there are other contenders) ending the night with Nearer My God To Thee. 

When the cold waves at last closed over the ship, all band members were still onboard. None of them were ever seen again.

Yet, the fact their story has survived more than a century seems to show that music is something millions of us really would find important in our last moments.

Perhaps its no surprise, then, that our three ingredients for an apocalypse party – food, sex, and music – are all elemental things. Necessary for survival, or just to feel like you are alive.

In a way, maybe that’s what these celebrations are really all about. Feeling yourself to be alive one last time before it all ends. Whether you’re a scared teenage boy working at a German radio station in 1945; or a long-dead Orcadian woman, confidently biting into a handful of red meat knowing it’ll be her final meal.

It’s likely just good to take one more moment to remember how you felt before everything died.

With 2012 in the rearview mirror, there are currently no major apocalypses supposedly coming up. 

But if, in a decade or two, you find yourself living in a world where everyone is counting down towards Armageddon, don’t forget to make plans for your last party.
If nothing else, at least you’ll be able to step into the next world already armed with some incredible stories.

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