I have been looking recently at eschatology - the beliefs put forward by religious and secular belief systems regarding what will happen at the end of the world.
Also interesting, however, are the beliefs put forward regarding the lost Golden Age from which the present-day world is thought to have degenerated. It is sometimes thought that the apocalypse at the end of time will bring about a restoration of these primaeval conditions.
The stories of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man are too well known to need discussion, so we will look outside the Abrahamic religions for further examples of the lost Golden Age.
Ancient Greece and Rome
The golden metaphor for the lost age of perfection derives from Greek literature.
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods. (Hesiod, Works and Days)
There every animal was tame and familiar with men, both beasts and birds, and mutual love prevailed. Trees flourished with perpetual leaves and fruits, and ample crops adorned their boughs through all the year. Nor had these happy people any Ares or mad Uproar for their god; nor was their monarch Zeus, or Kronos, or Poseidon, but [Aphrodite].... The altars did not reek with bullocks' gore. (Empedocles)
The belief in a lost Golden Age was taken over from the Greeks by the Romans:
Before the reign of Jove no tillers subjucated the land: even to mark possession of the plain or apportion it by boundaries was sacrilege; man made gain for the common good, and Earth of her own accord gave her gifts all the more freely when none demanded them. (Virgil, Georgics 1)
The age was formed of gold; in those first days
No law or force was needed; men did right
Freely; without duress they kept their word.
No punishment or fear of it; no threats
Inscribed on brazen tablets; no crowds crawled
Beseeching mercy from a lofty judge;
For without law or judge all men were safe....
Towns had no moats; no horns of winding brass
Nor trumpets straight, nor swords nor shields existed.
The nations dozed through ages of soft time,
Safe without armies; while the earth herself,
Untouched by spade or plowshare, freely gave,
As of her own volition, all men needed.....
Spring lasted all year long; the warm west wind
Played gently over flowers sprung from no seed:
Soon too the unfilled earth brought forth profuse
Her crops of grain; and fields, uncultivated,
Whitened beneath their stalks of bearded wheat.
Streams flowed profuse, now milk, now nectar, and
The living oak poured streams of golden honey.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 1)
The Hindu Golden Age was the satya yuga or krita yuga. This is how the Mahabharata describes it:
Men neither bought nor sold; there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness.
The equivalent concept in Zoroastrianism is the reign of Yima:
In the reign of brave Yima was there neither cold nor heat, there was neither age nor death, nor envy demon-made. (Yasna 9.5)
[Yima] begged of [Vayu] a boon, saying: 'Grant me this, O Vayu! who dost work highly, that I may become the most glorious of the men born to behold the sun: that I may make in my reign both animals and men undying, waters and plants undrying, and the food for eating creatures never-failing.' In the reign of the valiant Yima there was neither cold wind nor hot wind, neither old age nor death, nor envy made by the Daevas. (Yasht 15)
From Ancient Egyptian Legends by Margaret Murray:
Now the Majesty of Ra reigned over the Two Lands. He was the second king of Egypt, and in his reign peace was on earth, and harvests were so plentiful that to this day men speak of the good things which "happened in the time of Ra." By his own power he created himself, and he created heaven and earth, gods and men, and he ruled over them all.
Beliefs about a Golden Age are found in Taoism and Confucianism. According to the Confucian doctrine, the Golden Age had existed in the earlier historical Zhou, Shang and Xia dynasties.
This is what the Li Ji has to say on the subject:
The sage kings showed their sense of this state of harmony in the following way:-- They did not make the occupants of the hills (remove and) live by the streams, nor the occupants of the islands (remove and live) in the plains; and thus the (people) complained of no hardship. They used water, fire, metal, wood, and the different articles of food and drink, each in its proper season. They promoted the marriages of men and women, and distributed rank and office, according to the years and virtues of the parties. They employed the people with due regard to their duties and wishes. Thus it was that there were no plagues of flood, drought, or insects, and the people did not suffer from bad grass or famine, from untimely deaths or irregular births. On account of all this heaven did not grudge its methods; earth did not grudge its treasures; men did not grudge (the regulation of) their feelings. Heaven sent down its fattening dews; earth sent forth its springs of sweet wine; hills produced implements and chariots....
The notion of a Fall of Man from an idyllic early society to the present-day discontents is found in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality)
The Marxist tradition also speaks of a primaeval age of innocence before the advent of class society. Here is Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, talking about early human society as preserved among present-day tribal peoples:
And a wonderful constitution it is... in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits - and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected... only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened.... Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today... yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy - the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free - the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes.
Finally, the existence of a past Golden Age is inherent in the fascist notions of delivery from decadence and restoration of past greatness.
Additional note - added 21 June 2011
Interesting quote from Macaulay's History of England:
Those who compare the age on which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.