Nature's cycles -- day succeeding night, the four seasons -- long fed fears of being plunged into eternal darkness, or an endless winter.
"Before the great monotheistic religions, most ancient civilisations lived in fear that these cycles would one day stop," explained the historian Bernard Sergent, author of a recent book exploring 13 apocalyptic myths.
The Aztecs believed there was a chance that -- once every 52 years -- the sun would no longer rise, so they ordered copious human sacrifices to ensure it did.
But rather than The End of all things, throughout history a good old apocalypse has often been viewed as a way to reset the clock, divide good from evil and start anew.
Derived from ancient Greek, the word means "revelation". Chosen to figure in the Bible, the Apocalypse of John is just one of the many world's end scenarios that were in circulation in early Christian times.
The unfinished boat built by Lu Zhenhai, a man from Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, afraid that his home would be submerged in a doomsday flood. AFP
The Book of Revelation, the last in the New Testament, describes a string of cataclysmic events that annihilate part of life on Earth, culminating with the announcement of the Second Coming of Christ.
Jay Blevins and his wife Holly Blevins, who have been preparing with a group of others for a possible doomsday scenario, pose with survival gear including a bug out bag and an AR-15 rifle in Berryville, Virginia. AFP
Islam also offers a repertoire of tales of mass destruction -- by sandstorm, invasion or fire.
Plague, famine and brutal wars made Europe in the Middle Ages, to many, seem ripe for extermination -- leading to a flourishing of prophecies the world would end in 1,000 AD, just as doomsayers would foretell The End a millennium later.
At the start of the Renaissance, the Anabaptists were convinced the end of the world was nigh, and that it was vital to "rebaptise" adults before it came.
"It's part of the human make-up"
"What is most often at stake is being called to account by the gods, or by nature, it's about being punished for defying some higher order," said Jean-Noel Lafargue, author of a study of world's end myths through history.
"Today we no longer need Gods to make us tremble. Man-made disasters suffice. That's what changed in the 20th century."
For thousands of years water was the apocalyptic weapon of choice.
For Judeo-Christians, the flood evokes the biblical story of Noah's Ark, but the motif of a deluge sent upon man by an angry divinity stretches back deep in time.
In Mesopotamia all-engulfing flood myths date from Sumerian times, between the fourth and second millennium BC, as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature.
Ancient Greece and Rome had their share of floods, too: from the Greek deluge of Ogyges -- named after a mythical ruler -- to Atlantis, the legendary island swallowed up by the sea, as recounted by the philosopher Plato.
At the dawn of our era, a deluge myth told by a small people from the Near East, the Hebrews, went on to become the most famous of all.
According to the Book of Genesis, God decided to rid Earth of men and animals, instructing a single, "righteous" man, Noah, to build an ark to save himself and a remnant of life.
Fire usually comes just before, or after a flood.
Greece, Scandinavia, India and native American cultures all spoke of the annihilation of early mankind by flames.
Africa and ancient Egypt had no flood myths, but West African folk tales do speak of a "devouring gourd", or calabash, that swallows up entire settlements, homes, livestock, even the whole of mankind.
"I think it's part of the human make-up, part of the human psyche somewhere, to have a fascination with the end of the world," Jocelyn Bell Burnell, visiting professor of astrophysics at Oxford, told AFP.
In the globalised 21st century, the apocalypse -- on the silver screen -- most often comes as a pandemic or climate cataclysm, but the most enthusiastic doomsayers will doubtless be stockpiling supplies as December 21 supposedly marked by the Mayan calendar as a world's end moment, draws near.
Popular movies made about "the end of the world"
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The groundbreaking 1968 Sci-Fi adventure based on Pierre Boulle's novel wasn't sold as an end of the world scenario, but that's its biggest surprise. An astronaut crew crash lands on a planet in the distant future where intelligent talking apes are the dominant species, and humans are the oppressed and enslaved.
The Terminator (1984)
This one may not count, as "Judgement Day" takes place in the film's own future, but as far as visions of the end of human civilization go, James Cameron's breakthrough film is hard to top.
12 Monkeys (1995)
In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet. Only 1% of the population has survived by the year 2035, and is forced to live underground. A convict (James Cole) reluctantly volunteers to be sent back in time to 1996 to gather information about the origin of the epidemic (who he's told was spread by a mysterious "Army of the Twelve Monkeys") and locate the virus before it mutates so that scientists can study it.
War of the Worlds (2005)
As Earth is invaded by alien tripod fighting machines, one family fights for survival. What follows is the extraordinary battle for the future of humankind through the eyes of one American family fighting to survive it in this contemporary retelling of HG Wells seminal classic sci-fi thriller. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced dockworker and less-than-perfect father. When his ex-wife and her new husband drop off his teenage son Robbie and young daughter Rachel for a rare weekend visit, a strange and powerful lightning storm suddenly touches down.
There's not a single living person left on Earth in "WALL-E." Pixar's Oscar winning wonder follows a lonely robot performing trash clean-up duties on a planet long abandoned as unlivable by the humans who turned it into a giant dump.
An epic adventure about a global cataclysm that brings an end to the world and tells of the heroic struggle of the survivors. 2012 is a 2009 American science fiction disaster film directed by Roland Emmerich. It stars John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, and Woody Harrelson, among others.
Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with the Earth. On the night of her wedding, Justine is struggling to be happy even though it should be the happiest day of her life. It was an extravagant wedding paid for by her sister and brother-in-law who are trying to keep the bride and all the guests in-line. Meanwhile, Melancholia, a blue planet, is hurtling towards the Earth.