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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Here We Go Again—The Eternal Return

Shiva, the dancing god of death and rebirth, who dances the continual destruction and renewal of the universe is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the eternal return. This is another reason why he would appeal so much to Nietzsche. One of Shiva’s Western guises was the god Dionysus (Daneliou, 1982), of whom Nietzsche was quite fond.

The eternal return is referred to by Eliade (1991b) as the “cyclical recurrence of what has been before, the periodic reversion to a timeless beginning . . . . It is repetition, and anakuklosis, eternal return” (p 89). Campbell (1976) writes that the myth of the eternal return

displays an order of fixed forms that appear and reappear through all time, the daily round of the sun, the waning and waxing moon, the cycle of the year, and the rhythm of organic birth, death and new birth, represents a miracle of continuous arising that is fundamental to the nature of the Universe. We all know the archaic myth of the four ages of gold, silver, bronze and iron, where the world is shown declining, growing ever worse. It will disintegrate presently into chaos, only to burst forth again, fresh as a flower, to recommence spontaneously the inevitable course. There never was a time when time was not. Nor will there be a time when this kaleidoscopic play of eternity in time will have ceased. (p. 3)

It is in the Indian tradition, Eliade (1991a) points out that “the myth of eternal return has received its boldest formulations” (p. 112). Eternal repetition is the fundamental rhythm of the cosmos: periodic destruction and recreation. This is the cosmic manifestation of maya—the cosmic illusion, the play of the gods. Indeed, the cosmic cycles of the Hindu myths, the four yugas are named after the dice throws. The yugas are ages of time and there are four of them, beginning with the golden age, krityuga, and declining to the final stage, kaliyuga—the entire cycle is known as a mahayuga, which itself ends in a dissolution or pralaya before beginning again, infinitely (Eliade, 1991a). We are currently in kaliyuga.

The moon, with its appearance, waxing

and waning disappearance, and reappearance again each month, is an expression par excellence of the never-ending process of the renewal of time, its eternal return. Not surprisingly, the eternal return occurs as a central symbol of numberless myths, especially those that portray the dying and reborn god (e.g. Christ, Tammuz, and Demeter-Persephone, where Persephone does not die but the crops do). This lunar structure is also present in rites of renewal and initiation, including death and rebirth mysteries, fertility, regeneration, and other initiations into unchanging recurring patterns (Chapelle, 1993). In modern times the eternal return/ death-rebirth theme has found its way into anthropology, philosophy, alchemy, psychology, film, and literature. Joseph Campbell’s (1968) famous The Hero With a Thousand Faces explores the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey cross culturally, and it, too, participates in this theme of death-rebirth, or as V. Turner or van Gennep would term it separation, liminality, and return. We will have much more to say about liminality later, in the "Kaleidoscope of Culture" section.

In the initiation rites and the mysteries of death and rebirth, as well as other rituals, profane time is suspended as the participants commemorate mythical moments or imitate archetypal gestures that first occurred in the mythical period or illud tempus "that time" or “those days.” In this paradoxical realization of the co-existence of the past and the present, the world is regenerated through repetition and reactualization.

This death-rebirth theme is especially evident in rites of passage, “which seek to recapitulate the events that occurred at the beginning of time, when the chaotic deathlike state that existed before creation yielded to the emerging complexity of creation” (Van Eenwyk, 1997, p. 159). van Gennep (1908/1960), in his book Rites of Passage writes:

One of the most striking elements in seasonal ceremonies is the dramatic representation of the death and rebirth of the moon, the season, the year, vegetation, the deities that preside over and regulate vegetation . . . the idea of [death and rebirth] is suggested or dramatized in seasonal ceremonies, rites of pregnancy and delivery, rites at birth among peoples who believe in reincarnation, rites of adoption, puberty, initiation, marriage, enthronement, ordination, sacrifice and funeral rites among peoples who believe in the survival of the individual or . . . in reincarnation. (p. 182)

An example of these seasonal ceremonies is the Saturnalia festival, which occurred at the end of the year, when, the old norms and values were abolished and overturned. In an orgiastic modality and general license, a reversion to all forms of indeterminate unity took place, before the fires were ritually extinguished, a ritual battle ensued and then a new fire was lit to signal the beginning of the new year. In this way, each year the entire community ritually participated in the renewal of time, the world, and themselves by connecting with illud tempus (Eliade, 1991b).

Synchronistically, when I wrote this part of the chapter, the movie Are We There Yet (Levant, 2005), was released. It mixes the Saturnalia with the hero’s journey—a death-rebirth journey at the end of the year, in a more G-rated form, since it is a family movie. On New Year’s Eve, materialistic Nick, who hates children, agrees to fly with his friend’s two children from Portland to Vancouver to meet her. The children do not want any man to date their mom, because they think their dad will be back, and they do not like Nick at all.

Well, needless to say, the trip is fraught with trials and tribulations: they cannot fly, owing to an incident at the airport security checkpoint; then they miss the train, and end up driving Nick’s brand new and extremely expensive SUV. It is a journey of transformation for all, with separation, chaos, disillusionment, destruction, and revelation in store for the three travelers, culminating ultimately with a reunion with their mom. It ends, fireworks and all, with Nick getting the girl and the love of the children as the New Year begins at the stroke of midnight. The SUV is not as fortunate, and is completely destroyed.

The shadow side of this cyclical view is that the return keeps on going around interminably, like a merry go round, and you cannot disembark. If la plus ça change, la plus the meme chose, it’s a vicious circle as well. (Chapelle, 1993) This can be depressing and discouraging. The only way to free oneself from this cycle is by an act of spiritual freedom, and Eliade (1991a) suggests that we can use “this vision of infinite time, of the endless cycles of creations and destructions, this myth of the eternal return, as an 'instrument of knowledge' and as a means to liberation” (p. 68).

Because of the phenomenal world's limited duration, the world is seen as illusory, less than the blink of an eye in relation to cosmic time, and so the phenomenal world lacks reality, literally here today and gone tomorrow. From the perspective of in illo tempore, “every existence is precarious, evanescent, and illusory. Seen in the light of the major cosmic rhythms . . . . human existence and history itself… is manifestly ephemeral and in a sense unreal . . . . Existence in time is ontologically a non-existence, an unreality” (Eliade, 1991a, pp. 67-68). Knowledge of this cosmic perspective can free us from the veil of maya, and instead of renouncing the world, like the Eastern sages would do, we can continue to live in historical time, without becoming too attached: “the essential thing is not to believe exclusively in the forms that are born and bloom in Time” (p. 70).

There is nothing wrong with time in and of itself, for time is maya, and thus a manifestation of the Divine. Archaic man did not oppose the passage of time or seek to abolish it; and Chapelle (1993) notes that the passage of time itself is not rejected by the cosmology of the eternal return but is affirmed, because time represents the permanence of impermanence. According to Chapelle, what is rejected, is "the overvaluation of the ego at the expense of an undervaluation of the ego-alien that governs life in its everydayness as well as in its highest rituals” (p. 180). The belief that nothing outside of Time exists is rejected and the knowledge of cosmic time helps us to free ourselves from the illusion of time in another way as well, by giving us a reality check. By asking yourself, “What does it matter in the grand scheme of life?” it puts your life into rather harsh perspective. Eliade (1991a) remarks: “One is devoured by Time not because one lives in Time, but because one believes in its reality, and therefore forgets or despises eternity” (p. 91).

Speaking of despising eternity, this is what Nietzsche felt the Judeo-Christian notion of the one-way linearity of history did. Nietzsche saw the linearity of history as a “revenge against time and its ‘it was’ " (Chapelle 1993, p. 51), and Nietzsche found himself in what Eliade (1963) calls the “terror of history” where profane time ruled. Nietzsche believed in the eternal recurrence of things, that historical time needed to be overcome, in order to redeem time and becoming. According to Jung (1988), Nietzsche’s idea about the return of things was “a peculiar way of talking of rebirth” (p. 191).


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