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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 18, 2005

when prophecy fails

Nowadays when I want research books I usually must order them online. Mostly they're not available in my local library or even through Amazon.com. Often I buy them through the Victoria-based website Abebooks.com. It's a treat when a book arrives: one of the few pieces of mail I look forward to. Today was such an arrival day: lying on my front porch at noon was a little package from Crestview ("unique and eclectic") Books in Columbus, Ohio. The package contained a paperback copy of When Prophecy Fails by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter.

This book was mentioned by Egyptologist Mark Lehner in The Message of the Sphinx, in correspondence to the authors in which he was explaining his connection with the Edgar Cayce group in Virginia Beach. He described how he parted ways with the Cayce people and their prophecies about the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid as he became more trained in the scientific approach to studying those structures. He mentioned reading

Leon Festinger's work on "cognitive dissonance", in particular his book, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger deals with people reacting to conflict between a revealed belief system and empirically derived information, that is, physical evidence.

As soon as I'd read that I highlighted it, and searched for a copy of the book. I found a low-priced copy in Columbus, and bought it.

Why? Because the Essenes at the time of my story were ardent believers in prophecy, had detailed prophecies derived from their sacred history of Earth, and, according to bible scholar Barbara Thiering, endured many disappointments as prophesied events failed to materialize. As soon as I saw what this book was about, I knew must read it.

Now here it was. It's a 1964 reprint of the 1956 original. Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a flying-saucer cult that predicted the imminent catastrophic flooding of much of North America. They participated as members, making observations and taking data as they went. Their special interest was in how the cult members reacted to the failure of the prophecy.

Come teatime I sat down with my new prize, highlighter in hand, and dug in. I read the foreword and chapter 1, "Unfulfilled Prophecies and Disappointed Messiahs", a general introduction to the phenomenon, illustrated with historical examples. I really enjoyed it; the old Harper Torchbook is in excellent shape.

One of the authors' key points is that an (initial) failure of prophecy spurs cult members to step up their proselytizing efforts. By winning converts they ease the pain of cognitive dissonance. Fascinating.

I was interested to note that one of the groups described in the foreword, Millerism, a millenarian cult of the northeast U.S. in the 19th century, achieved its climax in October 1844, when a final prophecy of the end of the world failed to materialize. I recognized that this was close to the date of the discovery of the planet Neptune. I happen to have clipped an article from the December 2004 issue of Scientific American, "The Case of the Pilfered Planet", about controversy surrounding the discovery of Neptune. The planet was discovered (observed) by German astronomers on 23 September 1846. But its existence and position were predicted beforehand, and separately, by a French and an English mathematician. Astrologically, Neptune rules spirituality, delusion, deception, and confusion. Its discovery was accompanied by the latter three. And the Millerites represented a potent illustration of all four, just as the invisible planet was being searched for by mathematicians, and just before it would appear in the consciousness of the world.

Neptune, as the ruler of Pisces, is of course part of my symbolic palette. I present things to consciousness; the unconscious will deliver up its response; and the work will unfold.

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