Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return

Book Review: Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
translated from the French by Willaird R. Trask (Harper Torchbooks 1954. 1959)

This is Mircea Eliade’s study of time and history in the mythic sense. Eliade also considered the title – Archetypes and Repetition – for this work. One premise of the book is that for ancient societies, the Cosmos and the society are periodically regenerated through the ritual repetition of mythical events. He points out that his use of the term “archetype” is not after Carl Jung’s archetype of the psyche, or collective unconscious, but in the pre-Jungian sense as a synonym for “exemplary model” or “paradigm,”or what Eliade calls celestial archetypes. Eliade suggests that this be the first of his books read by those exploring his works. It could be called a – Philosophy of History – but it mainly concerns the ideas of archaic societies regarding time and history, or what he calls – Archaic Ontology.

Eliade notes that while archaic peoples may not have had the explicit metaphysical terminology that post-philosophical peoples developed, such ideas are simply expressed in different ways through symbol and myth. He suggests that for archaic man much of their activities and gestures were repetitions of actions done by archetypal gods, ancestors, or heroes, especially those actions associated with key life events: marriage, coming of age, childbirth, etc. He states that: “… for archaic man, reality is a function of imitation of a celestial archetype.”

The first celestial archetype examined involves territories, temples, and cities. The first point is the identification of a terrestrial space with a celestial source such as a star, planet, or constellation. In this sense, each form derives from a universal form. Such was definitely the case in Mesopotamia with rivers and temples. The Temple of Solomon may be seen as an offshoot idea. Here a temple is patterned after a celestial temple. The places which have a celestial prototype are those that involve the order of human society – temples, cities, buildings, etc. The wild places representing chaos: forests, deserts, etc. are not given such sacred prototypes. The act of organizing chaos often involves consecrating space. Ancient societies seem to do this through repetition of the creation myths of the tribe. This is done when assuming control of a territory through conquest or colonization. This might include erecting a fire altar dedicated to Agni in the Vedic tradition or the rituals associated with settling Iceland recounted in the Landnamabok. Another part of this sacred architecture is the “symbolism of the center” where the sacred mountain – where heaven and earth meet – is at the center of the world (ie. Mt. Meru). Every city, temple, or palace follows this prototype and is also the center of the world. The center is the axis mundi and like the World Tree connects all the worlds – heaven, earth, and hell. Eliade gives examples from many cultures of these principles of central symbolism. The city, temple, or palace is a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the original in the heavens. Thus the center is equated with the sacred. Creation, which recounts manifestation from the unmanifest, cosmos from chaos, proceeds outward from a center. Eliade sees the myth of Indra slaying the serpent Vritra as him conquering chaos by beheading the serpent. This is a symbolic sacrifice like the sacrifice of the monster or chaos being that makes the world – Ymir, Tiamat, Purusa, Pan-Ku, etc. This animates the world or the creation. It consecrates space.

Says Eliade, every ritual is based on a divine model. Rites were established by the gods. Every rite is a reenactment of the gestures and actions of gods and heroes and this includes the rites of so-called civilized peoples and organized religions as well. The god or savior presents the model that the humans imitate. He sees marriage rites as an imitation of the model of the union of heaven and earth as well as an imitation of the original creation. The orgiastic unions of couples in the fields of many cultures can be seen as the union of Sky Father and Earth Mother in order to promote fertility. In Sumeria the king united with the goddess in the form of her priestess at the New Year ceremonies. Eliade concedes that in some cases the myth may follow the rite but still the rite was originally based in an earlier cosmic model.  Eliade gives examples where learning a dance reenacts learning the dance from a god or goddess, where military initiation reenacts the first mythic battle, and where consecrating a king recalls the first consecration of a king. Even herbs are effective due to their first use among gods or of their origin in sacred places.

This imitation of an archetypal act is the first aspect of what Eliade calls “archaic ontology.” The second aspect is the notion that during the repetition of the act the participants are seen as being there at the beginning in mythic time actually performing this first act of creation. The ritual repetitions provided a regeneration of the power of the tribe. In larger societies like the Egyptians, Jews, and Persians, the king was expected to be archetypal and contemporary history merged with mythic history. Eliade suggests that an act only had meaning to the degree it matched the universal archetype. He notes that in later times it was often well after the death of a historical person, perhaps a few centuries, when that person was relegated to the hero category in the manner of past heroes. He gives Turkish, Slavic, and Russian epic tales as examples. Hero archetypes often include a miraculous birth, part divinity, a journey into the underworld or heaven, or a series of ordeals. History fades from memory and the mythic al model takes over.

“The structures by means of which it {it being the popular memory} functions are different: categories instead of events, archetypes instead of historical personages. The historical personage is assimilated to his mythical model (hero, etc.), while the event is identified with the category of mythical actions (fight with a monster, enemy brothers, etc.)”

His conclusion is that the “memory of the collectivity is anhistorical.” He suggests that after a few centuries history is modified to fit the archaic ontology of tribal archetypes. As I see it the historical events and persons of note eventually become mythic strands that are woven into the models of the culture. One version of this common to ancient and some modern cultures but less so to our “rationalistic” cultures is the transformation of a dead person into an ancestor to be venerated and worked with. He notes that in the Greek tradition only heroes retain their personality and their memory after death. Eliade suggests a sort of “impersonal consciousness” associated with exemplary acts, that carries on – at least in the consciousness of the tribe or people.

The subject of time, particularly circular time, or cycles of time is examined. He details regenerative rites and festivals at the chosen New Year which often involve a Cosmogony, or reenactment of the creation myths. Many New Year festivals also parallel agricultural cycles as well. Part of this regeneration involves the ritualized dissolving and abolition of previous history as all is renewed. Such rites may include the extinguishing and rekindling of fires, expulsion of demons through banter and noise, ritual combats, orgiastic rites like the Saturnalia, or expulsion of a “scapegoat” as in ancient Semitic forms. These are acts of ritual purification which occur just before the world is renewed. These purifying rites invoke the chaos before the creation of the cosmos and time becomes the mythic time, the creation time, so that the cosmogony can be repeated. In the Babylonian tradition the epic battle from the Enuma Elish of Marduk overcoming Tiamat was reenacted. Eliade examines this and many other similar rituals throughout the world to arrive at these quite comparable ideas. These rites may also include a divination for the coming year, a fate questing. They may also include ritual hierogamy as in the Mesopotamian models. The creation of the world was often seen as periodic, mirroring the solar and agricultural cycles – thus we see the resurrection of Christ in the spring, paralleling the resurrection of the seasonal earth. Seed planting is another motif as are ritual orgies in the fields to procure their fertility. The New Year model is very pronounced among Indo-European peoples but many cultures including Native Americans have some version of periodical regeneration rites. Other rituals as well involve regeneration such as the enthronement of a new king or the taking of new territory. With each renewal, linear historical time is annulled or at least de-emphasized. In a sense, says Eliade, it is as if each man lives like a mystic, in the present, without concrete or historical time to weigh him down. In that sense I think he sees adopting the archaic ontology as practical for one’s spiritual journey in the context of tribal mythos. In many ancient societies the archetypal, or absolute, or ultimate world is considered the real while the conventional, relative world of everyday appearances is considered an illusion. Despite science, such notions have not entirely left us.

Observation of the waxing and waning moon was perhaps the earliest direct and continuous display of cyclicity. The moon eternally departs and returns. It dies and is reborn in a very regular interval. It measures time. It is perhaps the key underlying idea of an archetype of eternal return.

The Chaldean notion of the Great Year was adopted by the Hellenes, Zeno and the Stoics, the Gnostics, and the Romans. Similar ideas are found in India, Mexico, and the Americas. The idea is that the world or universe is created and proceeds along time through specific ages with specific attributes and then ends and is reborn. This may take a great many years. The Indian model of the yugas is probably the most well-known. This is a cyclical universe model where the universe is created, moves through various ages, often descending from a golden age to the lesser ages of silver, copper, and iron. After this the universe is destroyed and regenerated. The Ragnarok of the Norse tradition is a very similar idea which is probably cognate with the Vedic notions. When the ‘precession of the equinoxes’ was discovered and timed it provided a scientific parallel that may well have been incorporated into the Greco-Roman mysteries, particularly through the cult of Mithras. 

Eliade next considers the origins of historical thought. Misfortune in archaic societies and to varying degrees in modern ones has been attributed to the judgments of gods, of God, of karma, and to demonic influences. Natural catastrophes, disease, famine, war, etc. all had a supernatural origin and could be abated through ritual means. The Indian notion of karma, or universal causality, considers that all events are deserved, are “just”, as they are the results of previous causes, whether known or unknown. This becomes a quantitative idea where each being carries a debt or credit in an account. Such an idea allowed humans in those cultural models to accept their fates. Sufferings thus became more understandable and justified. The Indian idea of karma , says Eliade, thus differs from the main archaic ontology in this respect. In other societies, those of many indigenous societies, those of the Mesopotamian-Mediterranean and the later monotheistic cults, the idea of the will of the divine is the typical explanation for the normality of suffering.  Eliade says that giving a cause to suffering makes it tolerable. Again there are models where the gods themselves and the divine heroes endure suffering and our suffering mimics theirs. He mentions Tammuz who must endure the underworld for part of each year. It is remembering his suffering that reduces that of the people. In a sense one might say he dies for our sins. Tammuz is resurrected, first healed by the Great Goddess, or by a “messenger” in later Mandaean and Manichaean Gnostic versions. In these scenarios, man too must endure this suffering and regeneration and each misfortune can be seen as a reenactment of the suffering of the god.

The Hebrews regarded each calamity as a punishment inflicted by Yahwah. A new development here, says Eliade, was that such calamities were seen as necessary, as preordained by Yahweh in order to bring them back to the true path ordained by the true god. Thus historical events began to acquire religious significance. This is what Eliade refers to as - History being regarded as Theophany. The God of the Jews, he says, became less of an archetypal god and more of a personality who intervenes in history. Eliade does not mention this but it seems to me that the advent of alphabetic writing – first developed among the Hebrews and Canaanites – may have influenced a greater emphasis on history since it could now be more quickly recorded in detail and remembered without the usual mythic embellishments. Eliade even suggests that the idea of monotheism may involve the “salvation of time” through revelatory teachings. Even though all cultures have such revelatory teachings – in the archaic ones the theophanies, the epiphanies of gods or God, take place in mythic time while in the new monotheisms the theophany takes place in historical time through historical events. Thus he suggests the new emphases in the Middle East on Messianism and prophecy were a result. He does not mention it but such emphases occur as well in many other cultures – Native American and Eastern – there are future heroes, saviors, avatars, etc. So it may not be exclusive to monotheism but to a changing view of history through other means – such as greater emphasis on writing and the greater and greater need to keep track of time in more detail in more advanced societies. He does mention the caveat that the ideas of the epiphanies of God in the Hebrew and monotheistic traditions were the creation of the religious elite and that many of the followers may not have held to them.

He mentions Abraham’s sacrifice as another new development where “faith” is born. Sacrifice of the first-born to the gods or God was a common practice among the Semites but Abraham and Sarah were apparently past the age of fertility and he does not understand why it is required of him but accepts it on faith. Here Eliade again emphasizes the novelty of Jewish religion in which the relationship of human to both divinity and time is altered. Even so, he also notes that the Messianic cults that teach a final regeneration when the Messiah returns also show the same anhistorical attitude as the archaic regeneration pattern. So history is tolerated only because one day it will cease when the Messiah and heaven returns. Thus the cyclic regeneration is replaced by a single and final regeneration.

Eliade devotes some detail to the study of cosmic cycles from the Indian version to that of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Plato and the Neo-Pythagoreans, and the Stoics. These doctrines are likely all related, having been passed on through diffusion of various sorts. They were popular for long periods of time and colored the religious views of several civilizations. Indeed, the notion of recovery of a “golden age” also informed the great artistic and intellectual revivals of the Renaissance. Apocalyptic texts of the Jews and Babylonians also follow this format where after the violent end of a cycle there is a new golden age. He notes that these versions – where sinners are destroyed, eternity conquers time, and the dead are resurrected – were popular from the first century BC in Persian, Jewish, and Christian communities. Vestiges remained in those communities of the previous pre-Messianic version where the annual repetition was celebrated. Even Christianity retains some of the archaic version in the cycle of the Nativity, passion, death, and resurrection of the Christ through the year.

The idea of withdrawing from history and fate through regeneration may have become more dire as the inevitability of history (probably through written records and larger civilizations) grew in the popular memory. Eliade suggests there was a great tension which resulted in the vast amount of cults and mysteries in the Mediterranean world in Roman times. Apparently, many obsessed about the fall of the Roman Empire as it was a matter of concern to the populace. Aligning historical events in the context of cosmic cycles was a pastime of many prominent Romans. Virgil’s Aeneid is a prime example where he does just that. Rome was an increasingly literate culture so the need to integrate history with the cosmic cycles, historical time with mythic time, became increasingly important.

In modern times our media are so vast that historical facts can be documented far back in time and in great detail. These days history can hardly be denied. Yet there is still a sense of the archetypal and of mythic time – as Eliade concedes for his time. Such seems to live on in folk memory and lore. Christianity, according to Eliade, favors history since the spiritual life of man proceeds in a timeline from fall to redemption – although ideas of cosmic regeneration did find their way into not only the folk memory but the doctrine as well. The enduring power of the influence of astrological cycles and the Hermetic revivals of the Renaissance tended to favor cyclicity over history. He examines a bit of Hegel’s idea of history as well as that of Marx. Hegel, like the ancient Hebrews, regarded historical events as irreversible, as a manifestation of the will of the Universal Spirit. Marx saw history as epiphany of the class struggle. Eliade suggests the desired end of such struggle was a return to a golden age where evil – as the terror of history – is vanquished.

I think maybe we scan historical facts looking for exemplary situations where we can model fit. As long as we are still inspired by heroes and consoled by redemptive ideas and hopes, we may continue in this fashion. He asks the question: How do we tolerate the terror of history from a non-archetypal viewpoint? He points out Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s respective notions of ‘temporality’ and ‘destiny’ as historicistic and suggests that they also carry aspects of pessimism and despair. He suggests that future man (that’s us) will try to reintegrate the archetypal generation motifs. Perhaps that has happened a bit with the more utopian movements – hippies, New Age, self-help, back-to-nature etc.

“In his rejection of the concepts of periodicity, and hence, in the last analysis, of the archaic concepts of archetypes and repetition, we are, we believe, justified in seeing modern man’s resistance to nature, the will of “historical man” to affirm his autonomy.”

Some have suggested that the Age of Romanticism that accompanied the Industrial Revolution was characterized by an emphasis on the importance of the individual. Strangely enough, there is a notion in the Indian cosmic cycles where the degenerative age (Kali Yuga) is characterized by selfishness and a greater emphasis on the individual karma rather than collective karma.

Eliade compares the historical ideas of archaic human and historical human and concludes that the view of archaic man is quite logical and psychologically functional. While modern man has less opportunity to escape history it can still be useful. He sees Christianity and especially the ideas of religious faith as an endorsement of the historical human. He suggests that modern humans who have left the worldview that involves archetypes and repetition have no other way to soothe the terrors of history than to turn to religious faith – as the vast amount of religionists – predominantly Christians and Muslims – amply attests. So, he says, Christianity is the religion of fallen man – man who has fallen into history.

I always seem to enjoy reading Eliade as his work seems to be very insightful and well thought out, though perhaps overly academic to some. I read an article recently that equated him to the development of so-called “plastic” shamanism – a kind of derogatory term towards the annoyingly ubiquitous New Age shaman types that tend to seek credentials through scant work. I would disagree with that characterization of Eliade since he was erudite and seemed to have great respect for the traditions of archaic man. I believe he was also practitioner of yoga and yoga philosophy.