Published in The Scotsman
A date with the DEVIL
IN CASE you haven't noticed, today is 6 June, 2006. Or, put another way, 06.06.06. Or, put another way again, 666, or the mark of the Beast, the Devil's home address and a sure sign of eternal torment for all of us.
In short, it's a pretty unusual, once-in-a-century event. Although, of course, if you haven't noticed it's 06.06.06, that already suggests that the date is far less important than some evangelical Christians have been hoping.
Indeed, if you're still reading this article, you've already proved quite a few people wrong. Because, according to the conspiracy theorists, we should already have been visited by some quite nasty plagues by now. What's more, all copies of The Scotsman should have been consumed by fire, thanks to the giant comet that's due to strike the Earth. And, just supposing that the paper did survive all that, your attention would have been grabbed by the blinding sight of the Lamb of God transporting 144,000 Christian virgins up to heaven - leaving the rest of us to tidy up the mess.
The number 666 has taken on such cosmic significance because of a bizarre verse in the Bible's psychedelic Book of Revelation: "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred three score and six."
No-one has been able to give a straight answer about the precise meaning of these words since they were first transcribed in the fourth century AD. Their significance is anyone's guess.
The current batch of fevered speculators are just the latest in a long history of people convinced that the Beast is about to show up any minute and bring on the Rapture (the technical term for all that nasty stuff with the wailing and gnashing of teeth).
Admittedly, those that think today will mark the beginning of the end are the extremists. But they aren't the only ones that have been worrying. Over in Norway, for instance, a religious organisation has warned its members to remove all combustibles from their churches, test fire alarms and lock their doors. They're worried the local Satan-worshipping heavy metal fraternity will view the devil's day as an especially good one to burn down places of worship.
Reports are coming in from around the world of expectant mothers going to great lengths not to have their babies on 6 June. "I refuse to give birth on that date," Texan Bethany Morian told the Seattle Times. "I'll cross my legs and watch the clock."
Others are even asking doctors to induce the birth of their child early, or delay their Caesarean sections. As mother-to-be Yvonne Colon-Stewart told her local paper in Florida: "I think it's only natural that parents wouldn't want their baby born on the day that's marked for the Devil."
In fact, Colon-Stewart could consider she's got off lightly if her baby were merely "marked". According to advocates of the worst-case scenario, mothers going into labour today could find themselves giving birth to the Antichrist himself: a particularly unappealing prospect, as anyone who's seen Rosemary's Baby will tell you. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the wacky action is taking place in the US, but even UK mothers have been getting worried about today's date. The website of Mother & Baby has seen some animated discussion from nervous pregnant women, several of whom say they've already asked a doctor to bring on their baby early. Closer to home, however, women aren't quite so superstitious. When asked if there had been any reports of requests for induced births or delayed Caesareans, a spokesman for the Greater Glasgow NHS board said: "Certainly not in Glasgow."
In this secular age, it's a good bet that those fearless Glaswegians are in a majority. Certainly, for every Christian worrying about doom and devilry on 06.06.06, there are plenty of marketing executives rubbing their hands in glee. Chief among these are the brains behind the multi-million-dollar advertising campaign for The Omen 666, a remake of the 1976 film due to be released today (instead of the more usual Friday). Judging by the early reviews, however, going to see this film could be the biggest genuine disaster that happens to you today.
Elsewhere, death metal group Deicide, whose lead singer claims to be a satanist, are releasing two songs on iTunes from their upcoming album, The Stench of Redemption. Not to be outdone, the Church of Satan itself has organised a satanic high mass at a theatre in Los Angeles, tickets for which quickly sold out.
Publicists on the other side of the religious divide are getting in on the act, too. The publishers of the phenomenally popular Left Behind books have chosen today to release the latest instalment. This series about the Second Coming, written by right-wing evangelical Christians in the US, has already notched up more than 60 million sales there (and is predicted to hit the UK market in a big way soon). The latest book, called The Rapture, promises to do the business yet again, helped along by all the 6 June publicity. It will cost $6.66.
America's infamous right-wing commentator Ann Coulter is also publishing a book today. She's the woman who once appeared on the cover of Time magazine, under the headline "Ms Right", and who called for the forcible conversion of all Muslims to Christianity. Her most famous comment about the environment is: "God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'" She's also a canny selfpublicist: 06.06.06 is the ideal date to release a volume she's entitled Godless. Of course, her publishers insist that it's just a coincidence. By contrast, fans of the heavy metal band Slayer are going all-out to make the date memorable, having organised The National Day of Slayer. "Why should the Republican Party have all the fun with their National Day of Prayer?" they ask on their website, www.nationaldayofslayer.org. The homepage also encourages followers of the band to stage a 'Slay out', which involves bunking off work during the day to listen to their favourite band at full volume and then holding a huge party in the evening.
The group themselves are releasing a five-track EP called Eternal Pyre today. Interesting to note, however, is the fact that Slayer had originally intended to put out a full album and launch their world tour, the Unholy Alliance, Preaching to the Perverted tour. Sadly, those plans had to be put on hold because a group member has had to go into hospital for gallbladder surgery. Such karmic bad luck could lead you to suspect that there might be something to this 666 business after all.
The fear of 666 is certainly serious enough for someone to have coined a very impressive sounding name for it: Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.
What's more, some of the biggest corporations in the world have succumbed. The most famous legend is that when the microchip giant Intel introduced the 666Mhz processor in 1999, they called it the Pentium III 667 rather than risk association with the Devil's number. The US highways agency also removed all signs for Route 666 in 2003 and changed them to the far less interesting 491. In 1999 the Moscow bus 666 was changed to 616 and, when South Korea first sent troops to Iraq, they added seven to the original contingent so 673 men went to help George Bush's crusade instead of 666.
In a lovely ironic twist, even Ronald Reagan, former president of the US, asked local officials to change his house number from 666 to 668 when he moved to an address in Los Angeles in 1999. Ironic because, until he passed away the former president was thought to be one of the leading candidates for bearing the mark of the beast.
To see why, count how many letters there are in each of his names: Ronald Wilson Reagan. And look at what he did to Nicaragua. The White House's current incumbent has also become a prime suspect for the suspicious: he's George Walker Bush-Jr. See what they did there?
Crazy as those theories sound, however, they have nothing on the idea that it's the internet we should all be afraid of. Counting alphabetically, the Hebrew number equivalent for 'w' is 6, and "www" is, of course, the preface for almost every web address. Geddit?
In turn, those afraid of the worldwide web are nothing like as mad as the people convinced that the number 666 is hidden in every barcode because the binary equivalents of three long double lines you can see at the beginning, middle and end of every code are equal to 6-6-6. And they aren't a patch on their even more extreme cousins who believe that, pretty soon, we're all going to have said barcodes implanted into our skin so that the mark of the beast will be upon us - exactly according to the prophecy.
Funnily enough, even if you do want to take the Book of Revelation literally it's odds-on that 06.06.06 is a pretty meaningless date.
Professor Greg Snyder of Davidson College in the US, one of the leading experts in the study of the ancient practice of number mysticism (known as 'gematria'), says that the number 666 is most likely to refer to Nero Caesar (a Roman emperor who was particularly unpopular with early Christians, thanks to his habit of turning them into candles) because when that name is transliterated into Hebrew and the numerical equivalent of each letter is added up, the total comes to 666.
As Snyder points out, the prophecy therefore refers to events in AD 64/65, so we've now got nothing to worry about - especially since Nero died in AD 68. An even more compelling argument against the significance of 06.06.06 comes in the years 1906 all the way back to 106. Mankind has managed to successfully live through the 20 other 06.06.06s with pretty much nothing of any significance happening on any of them.
The Great Fire of London did put the fear up a few doom-mongers back in 1666, but even that great conflagration failed to spark the end of the world.
What's more even Todd Strandberg, the creator of the Rapture Index (a website which tracks hundreds of world events and biblical prophecies to try and gauge the likelihood of the Antichrist actually arriving) and one of the most Armageddon-hungry pundits out there, has stated 06.06.06 is nothing to worry about.
"On 7 June, we'll be laughing at this whole thing," he says. Let's hope so.
• Sam Jordison is the author of The Joy of Sects (Robson Books, £9.99).