Originally published December 30, 2011
By Brian Albert and Tracy R. Twyman
In both The Sacred and the Profane, as well as his book Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade argues that the holy places of cultures throughout the world were built to embody or mimic the archetype of the “primordial mountain” (the axis mundi), which he finds to be almost universal throughout mankind’s various religious and mythological systems. For example, in the Judaic tradition, a certain stone within the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was viewed as the “even ha-shetiyah” (“foundation stone”), the first piece of matter God crafted out of the chaos of the primordial abyss.
The way the rabbis saw it, the rest of the universe was created outward from this point, using the stone as both the blueprint pattern and the material base. Even though, topographically (and profanely), the summit of this mountain (Mt. Moriah) is clearly not the highest peak even in the immediate region (something which would have been readily observable to anyone), from a sacred perspective, this was the highest mountain in the world. As Eliade writes in Cosmos and History, in regards to the archetype of the cosmic mountain:
Ascending it, the pilgrim approaches the center of the world, and, on the highest terrace, breaks from one plane into another, transcending profane, heterogeneous space and entering a ‘pure’ region.’ … sacred places are assimilated to the summits of cosmic mountains. This is why Jerusalem and Zion were not submerged by the Deluge.
Perhaps because it was the first point to emerge from the Abyss (what ancient cultures viewed as the “primeval ocean” of pre-formal chaos), religious man viewed the sacred mountain as still containing or resting upon a subterranean entrance to this Abyss that could be accessed through its caverns and tunnels. In the case of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, it was said to be built over the “mouth of the tehom,” the latter term being the Hebrew word for the Abyss. The Deluge, then, might be viewed as this primeval ocean overtaking creation, except for the summit of the cosmic mountain, where God guided his chosen pilot for the Ark of refuge. This sacred space remained even as the rest of the world was washed away into nothingness.
Eliade’s concept of sacred time is intrinsically connected to his idea of sacred space as an intersection between the mundane world, the divine world, and the waters of chaos. For while “profane time” might be measured by any yardstick and defined simply as “duration,” to him “sacred time” was really a measurement of divine cosmic events; in particular, the birth and then eventual death of the universe. According to Eliade, religious man saw time as a recurring cycle of the world’s creation and destruction by the gods. The cyclical change of the seasons throughout the year was seen as an embodiment of the same pattern, and thus had to be ritually observed as such through festivals.
At the end of the year, the way our ancestors saw it, creation was seen as plunging into chaos, being reabsorbed back into the Abyss. Eliade writes in The Sacred and the Profane that:
In a number of North American Indian languages the term world ( = Cosmos) is also used in the sense of the year. The Yokuts say ‘the world has passed,’ meaning ‘a year has gone’ by.’ … The cosmos is seen as a living entity that is born, develops, and dies on the last day of the year, to be reborn on New Year’s Day. …Because at every New Year, time begins ab initio.
This was seen as desirable, a way of casting off the accumulated baggage of the past year and reinvigorating life with the primal power of a newly born world. Eliade writes:
By every means at his disposal, [religious man] seeks to reside at the very source of primordial reality, when the world was in statu nascendi.
Eliade says that this is why end-of-year festivals in the ancient world tended to include ritual elements that embodied this concept of chaos, when the normal social order was overturned, cultural taboos transgressed, and observance of profane time temporarily abolished. This is why the Romans observed the Saturnalia festival at the end of the year by temporarily freeing slaves, halting all non-essential work, and encouraging things like public orgies, prostitution, and gambling. The profane government would be temporarily — ritually — abolished, and a “Lord of Unrule” elected to ceremonially reign in its stead. This is also why ancient cultures such as the Egyptians had sacred calendars of 360 days wherein the additional 5 days of the solar year were seen as outside of the “perfect circle” of the sacred time cycle. Thus the last five days of the profane year were observed as “non-days” outside of time, with ceremonial practices similar to those of Saturnalia, including time off from work and drunken orgies.
Even in the modern West, we see vestiges of this with the traditional cerebration of New Year’s Eve, wherein drinking and carousing are not only acceptable but encouraged (unlike the rest of the year, when this is frowned upon). Also the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day are often observed as “non-days” free from work by students and, for all intents and purposes, many public and corporate office workers (who are frequently excused for their lack of productivity during “the holidays”).
Furthermore, just as religious man saw the New Year as a fresh rebirth from the primeval ocean, we represent the first of the year as a newborn baby, and sing “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,” laying the previous year’s creation to rest. As we plunge into the oblivion of drunkenness, we descend once again into chaos, and many people awake the next morning with “missing time” in their hazy memory. The outgoing year is frequently depicted as an old man with a scythe, an obvious hearkening back to the figure of Saturn, from the Roman Saturnalia celebrations. To the Romans, Saturn had once been the king of the “Golden Age” at the beginning of creation, wherein there was no such thing as written law. Thus he was represented at Saturnalia with the Lord of Unrule, donning a red “liberty cap” similar to Santa’s hat.
Eliade says that religious man saw these cosmic acts of creation and destruction as taking place beyond measurable time, and thus they are always happening in any moment that one tunes to the sacred. (Indeed, how can one say that anything took place in a linear fashion “before” the creation of time itself.) Sacred places are tapped into this sacred time, and all sacred myths really depict events taking place in sacred time. This is what Eliade refers to with the Latin term in illo tempore, a translation of the phrase “once upon a time” from our familiar fairy tales as told in children’s storybooks. Perhaps the reason why these stories all begin in this manner is that it really is impossible to say when the story took place in profane time, since they are really all based on sacred myths that took place in sacred time. In one way or another, they all symbolically retell the story of the world’s birth and death, no matter how light-hearted and fanciful they may seem.
In fairy tales, medieval romances, and many ancient myths, the hero is frequently sent to slay a “dragon” or “serpent” that is endangering the kingdom. Dragons and serpents, according to Eliade, always represent the primordial chaos, To the Hebrews the ocean itself was identified with the dragon Leviathan with the “tehom” or Abyss. Thus the image of St. George or Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon represents the conquering and then utilization of this primeval power. This is why so many creation myths, such as the Babylonian story of Marduk and dragon Tiamat, involve the hero slaying the monster and then forming the universe out of its flesh and blood.
The subduing of the serpent power of chaos is seen as part of the act of divine creation. But it is this same chaos that always threatens to retake its supremacy and swallow creation (thus, like the Ouroboros swallowing its own tail, its own flesh). Perhaps this is what was alluded to in the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, when God foretold that their descendants would crush the head of the serpent with their feet, but that it would nonetheless bruise their heels.
This image of creation being swallowed by the Dragon is a symbol of apocalyptic death, but it is also a vehicle of passage, from the current age to that which is in statu nascendi, and perhaps, from the present mode of existence to a higher one. Both Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell have made note of the huge number of myths from throughout the world that involve a hero, like Jonah, being swallowed by a large animal and emerging several days later, having undergone a transformation while inside. Moreover, the way both Eliade and Campbell saw it, the world outside transforms as well, and the hero is literally reborn into a new cosmos. Campbell sees this as the mode of transportation in the Hero’s Journey from our world to the metaphysical Otherworld. Eliade saw it, similarly, as a symbol of initiation into a higher sphere of existence. He made note of numerous primitive puberty rituals and secret society initiations that involve the symbolic death and rebirth of the candidate, particularly those in which he is metaphorically eaten by a monster.
As Eliade points out, temples in ancient times usually included an opening at the top or other symbolic “gateway to Heaven” that connected it to the realm of the gods, permitting the soul’s escapes to the transcendent reality beyond. As he writes:
… All forms of cosmos – universe, temple, house, human body – have an ‘opening’ above. … the opening makes possible passage from one mode of being to another, from one existential situation to another. … it may be said that human existence attains completion through a series of ‘passage rites,’ in short, by successive initiations.
This brings to mind the term “End of the World” and the realization that this could be a description of both a time and a place, the location being the portal that leads to the Otherworld. In John’s Revelation, Heaven is seen as coming to Earth, specifically in the form of a cube – sacred space. It also beings to mind the fact that the Christian concept of the “Rapture” involves the very ancient concept of sacred “rape.” Both words are etymologically related and imply being “taken away” by insurmountable force, like when Zeus raped Europa.
To me this just means that you are along for the ride back through chaos and beyond to the Otherworld whether you like it or not. In legends, the hero is often given an object, what alchemists often called the “Magnet of the Wise” or “Compass of the Wise,” that would lead him on his journey to the Otherworld. Like a magic lodestone, it was magnetically attracted to the cosmic center, and could guide the hero’s ship effortlessly through the mystic doorway.
So perhaps we are all strapped into a cosmic ship, journeying through the ages on our way to oblivion. What, then, are we to make of the symbolism of the widely-popular belief that December 23, 2012 will be “the end of the world,” or the start of a new paradigm of some sort? Many ancient societies saw the world as cycling through much longer cycles of decay, death, and rebirth in addition to the yearly cycle. The Greeks, Romans and Indians all had traditions pertaining to a mega-cycle of the ages of man, in which mankind passed through every-increasing stages of degeneracy.
The cycle begins with a Golden Age in which man is essentially at one with the gods. At the end of each age, there is an apocalyptic even that destroys the present race of mankind and initiates the birth of a new, less evolved race. Each of these ages is likened to a metal, in ever-lessening nobility. The present age is the “Iron Age,” or what the Indians called the “Kali Yuga.” Ours is a violent race, and this short-lived era is marked by chaos. It ends in mass destruction, followed by the rebirth of a new Golden Age.
According to many New Agers, the end of the Mayan calendar will mark the beginning of a dimensional shift that will affect the entire planet, allowing us access to formerly hidden dimensions. I have even heard it said that a “portal” or dimensional doorway will open up and take us all in. Some think that our perception and reckoning of time will shift as well.
Surrender to The Void
Perhaps indeed we will be swallowed up into sacred time. But while the soothsayers are busy trying to prognosticate, as they always do before the beginning of a new cycle, a better move might be to try to map out the kind of world we wish to be reborn into. It could be that the best thing about plunging everything into chaos is that, like the alchemists with their prima materia, will enable us to turn that which is not valued into the purest gold. According to Eliade, ancient man’s conception of sacred time was one that involved the possibility of retro-causality. In other worlds, the past can literally be unmade and remade. They really, truly believed that time was starting over again with each new cycle, and that the past did not exist. As he wrote in The Sacred and the Profane:
By its very nature sacred time is reversible…
Also, in Cosmos and History:
… Every construction is an absolute beginning; that it, it tends to restore the initial instant, the plenitude of a present that contains no trace of history.
This is interesting, because while men throughout history have always performed divination rituals at the start of a new year or era, they have also performed rites to try to influence the outcome themselves. For instance, the Babylonians performed a ritual called the “fixing of the fates” for this very purpose. These days we attempt to influence the coming year with “resolutions,” but these are just personal goals regarding our personal behavior. What if our resolution was to live in a new world?
Is it possible to make this happen? Perhaps. But it would involve a total surrender to the forces of renewal. We would have to stop accepting the past as the determinant of the future. We are not doomed to recreate it, if we can learn to let go of the chains of our own brutal history. This is what keeps us from moving on, but it is also what’s killing us, and thus forcing the issue. When the world is reduced to its essence, only then can we reform it according to the object of our desires. As Eliade writes:
Any form, whatever, by the mere fact that it exists as such and endures, be necessarily loses vigor; it must be reabsorbed into the formless, if only for an instant; it must be restored to the primordial unity from which it issued; in other words, it must return to chaos.