The Myth of the Eternal Return

by Mircea Eliade




;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;The Problem::::::::

Being, non-being, real and unreal are words we use because we have fallen out of the cyclical time.  Archaic man has no intrinsic value in the external world or human acts.  Stones are only important if they are sacred.  Humans only valuable if they copy the archetypal original.  Archaic man has no knowledge that has not been previously postulated and lived by someone else.  We will suss out the nature of this ontology.

We will put our facts under several headings.

1.                          Facts that show that for archaic man reality is a function of imitating a celestial archetype.

2.                          Facts that show us how reality is conferred through participation in the “symbolism of the Center” Cities, temples, houses, thus become real.

3.                          Finally rituals and significant profane gestures which get meaning only because they deliberately repeat the acts as done by the gods, heoroes or ancestors.

This presentation will lay the foundation to get the ontological conception underlying them. 


:::::::::::::::::::::: Celestial Archetypes of Territories, Temples, and Cities:::

Plato’s ideal city likewise has a celestial archetype (republic, 592b; cf.500e).  The Platonic ‘forms’are not astrat; yet their mythical region is situated on supraterrestrial planes (Phaedrus, 247, 250). 

The world around us has, then a double existing on a higher plane or cosmic level. 

Desert regions and areas outlying are inhabited by monsters, they do not share the privilege of a differentiated prototype.  They are assimilated to chaos and undifferentiated.  So when possession is taken of a a new territory, rites are performed that takes them in.  No validity exists to things in this world beyond the extraterrestrial prototype.  The Spanish took South America in the name of Jesus and set up new Crosses.  They thus had their ‘New Birth’ / baptism / christening.  English navigators took places in the name of the king, the new cosmocrater. 

;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;The Symbolism of the Center:::

Temples or mountains can serve as symbolic centers.  Christ was crucified where adam was killed. So there is a full circle.   Israel was spared the flood, as the high point of the world.  So all started there.   The Kabaa is where it all started. 

The same symbolism survived up until very modern times. 

::::::::::::::::::::::::: Repetition of the Cosmogony:::

    The Center is the pre-eminent zone of the absolute reality.  Similar symbols of absolute reality exits too (trees of life and immortality) at the center.  People do pilgrimages back to that original home. 

Pilgrimages and journeys are fraught with danger but lead back to an original. 



::::::::::::::::::::::::::Divine Models of Rituals:::

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::Archetypes of Profane Activities:::

Not only do rituals have their mythical model, but any human act whatever acquires effectiveness to the e extent to which it exactly repeats an act performed at the beginning of time by a god, hero or ancestor.

            Sabbath repeats the seventh day when god rested.  Humility is practiced to be like the Savior.  This makes it divine.  Marriage rites often recreate original creation. 

     All acts from hunting to eating to marriage to making art were copies. 

The state of beatitude itself, eudaimonia, is an imitation of the divine condition, no tt o mention the various kinds of enthousiasmos created by the in the soul of a man doing Dionysiac recreations of God like states.

            Gods revealed all early parts of life. 

            The potlatch if Indians of Northwest CA is a copy. 


:::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Myths and History:::

Every act which doesn’t copy becomes “meaningless”  This would seem paradoxical to us.  Early man is only great or real in the sense that he ceases to be himself.  To be truly himself is not to be himself. 

Plato could be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of the “primitive” ontology.  He gives validity to this the repetitive mode of life.  This doesn’t take away from his genius.


What is interesting is how this abolishes time.  All sacrifices repeat the original.  They are the same.  Of course outside of sacred time we are sitting around.  This is the time of “becoming”.  But such time is insignificant and rare. 


            Great kinds see themselves as Gods or archetypal heroes come back.  Hebrews had archetypal stories whereby a defeat or political humiliation became a part of a tale of defeat and redemption. 


Often in history the real was changed to match the archetypical without evidence.  What is real isn’t what happened, but what can be transformed into archetypal categories.  What wasn’t valuable etc, isn’t recovered. 

When we say eulogies for folks we make them great.

The impersonal irreversible nature of time is new.




;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;Year, New Year, Cosmogony:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

The New Year marks a new creation.  And it is a repetition of a cosmic act.


::::::::::::::::::::::Periodicity of the Creation:::::::::::::::::::::::::

The ceremonies usually involve the expulsion of demons or sins and the recreation of the world again.  During this temporal time is suspended and the past is wiped out.  It is purified. 

Pretty much all believe that the dead return during New Year ceremonies.

Dragons nearly always represent the primordial chaos. 

The Ghost dances were an attempt to end this cycle and let it start over.

:::::::::::::::::Continuous Regeneration of Time:::::::::::::::::::::

It is of interest to note that the New Year scenarios in which the Creation is repeated are particularly explicit among the historical peoples, those with whom history, properly speaking begins – Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Iranians – it is almost like they were conscious that they were the first to build “history” to record their acts for the use of successors.  (Though not without first transforming them into archetypes).  They also shared a deeper need for periodic totally wipe out.

 Confession of sins is a symbolic regeneration that is not allowed in really pre-history folk because the personal is not allowed to escape the archetypal. 

            We must point out that Hindus didn’t have the tremendous emphasis on New Years as others and that Romans were obsessed with the end of Rome.  He don’t want to talk about that here.  Just that New Years are universal.  And even if the feeling is’t there in modern man’s versions, the form belies the significance. 

            The alters and temples often recreate the cosmos in a model. Bringing in a king has often been identified with a new era and a recreation. 

The idea that time cannot be changed but only restarted is seen in many primitive healing arts which retell the story of creation over again.  Sometimes the moment the cure was found is mythologized and told in the history of creation story. 

The disappearance and reappearance of the moon is often tied into this. 

In the 3rd century bc an apocalyptic story came out of the Chaldeans and got huge.  This was probably believed by Heraclitus and was big in Zeno’s forming of the stoics. 

First bc to third ad it was big all over oriental / causation world. 

Optimism comes from the cyclical view of decline and rebirth.  It will all be alright.  As the cycle wanes we must take an action to reinject vigor.  A human sacrifice might be necessary for this. 

This will happen in every death.  It is a cyclical eternal return uncontaminated by time.  The Greeks had a myth of eternal return. 

IN FOOTNOTE:  The greeks considered what changed to be inferior degrees of reality.  Repeating things ensures their survival.  Time was measured, said Plato, by the revolution of the celestial spheres.  Thus the circles in circles of their astronomy. 


Nothing new happens.  Hegel affirmed that in nature things repeat themselves forever and so there is “nothing new under the sun.” 

But this repetition has a meaning.  It partakes in the original. 

Hegel’s history is “free” and “New” it doesn’t repeat.  But it does conform to the plans of providence. 

            Hegel opposes this to nature where all is reproduced ad infinitum.  But most of man’s history has him opposing history by any means necessary.  May we conclude from all this that during this period, humanity was still within nature; had not yet detached itself from nature? 

            Hegel says only the animal is innocent.  Early man wasn’t innocent, but tried to purify himself to get back to the archetype.  Is this the lost paradise of animality or the desire to have no “memory,” 

            We have every reason to believe the answer is yes.  Many talk of time before being fallen when man new nothing of toil or suffering and could just take and the gods came down here and we could go to heaven.  A fault interrupted it and we are no longer immortal. 

            Probably, this tendency reflects a fear of losing oneself into the vast meaninglessness of profane time and history.  It shows their desire not to lose touch with being, or a certain ontology.




:::::::::::: Normality of Suffering:::::::::::::::::::::::::

             Archaic man had made great strides to protect himself from history.  To fold all existence into a pattern.  Here he will look at how this “history” that did befall him was tolerated. 

            What does living mean for a man who belongs to a traditional culture?  It means, above all, living in accordance with extrahuman models.  Living in accordance with the real and the law it propounded (Real being what went before in mythic times). 

            It meant living with rhythms. 

            In such a situation, what could suffering and pain mean?  They meant conforming to a prototype.  One of the values of Christianity was its ability to give meaning to suffering. 

            Pre – Christians saw suffering as an event, as a historical fact, brought upon by cosmic catastrophe, social injustice and so on.  It was possible to see it as an aberration that would be rectified.  If a priest couldn’t do it, the supreme being (Who is usually nearly forgotten at other times) might.  Sacrifices would be necessary.  You must pay for your debt or transgression. 

            A taboo being transgressed, a personal fault, an enemies curse, something caused this suffering, there is no unprovoked suffering.  It is tolerated as we wait for an explanation at which point it no longer is disturbing.  The meaning becomes clear in the divine economy. 

            Indian Karma was a good explanation (though not from this life). 

            We too try to give historical events and suffering a meaning to redeem them.   


:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::History Regarded as Theophany:::::::::::::::::::::::


            Jews saw all suffering as a part of their own collective or personal evil.   The prophets thus constantly chastised their people.  Thus for the first time , the prophets placed a value on history, succeeded in transcending the traditional vision of the cycle (the view that all will be repeated forever, and discovered a one-way time.  Not accepted by all Jews at once, God no longer does archetypal gestures, but intervenes in history and shows his will through events.  Historical facts then have religious value. 

            Previous monotheist civilizations had repeated rituals to redeem time too, but they went back to mythical time.  Moses reveals the Law at a certain place and date.  The goal is another static time.  But we are going once.  And the time of Moses will not happen a gain.  It is not reversible, it is historical. 

            The going to another static time shows closeness to the old cyclical scenario. 

The repeated sufferings of a king is the messiah.  But this will be permanent.  It will be the messiah’s time. 

            History, as noting God’s actions, was worth remembering. 

These times could be endured because they were necessary for the final salvation.  Their new meaning is that they will abolish time immemorial as a repetition.

But this realization was done by an elite.  The Hebrews return to Baals and Astartes are explained by their refusal to allow a value to history.  This version of time kept them closer to “life” and allowed them to tolerate history better, if not ignore it.   

            The sacrifice of the first son was common right up into the period of the prophets.    It was giving god what was his.  The blood of youth restored the vitality to the divinity. 

            But Abraham’s sacrifice was fundamentally different.  They were restoring of the cosmic order.  His represented a new facet to the human imagination: Faith.   He does it even though it makes no sense. 

Kierkegaard said that they sacrificed in the general.  They returned the cosmic energy.  They were acts who were their own justification.  They entered into a coherent system. 

But Abraham’s didn’t fit any order.  It was just obedience in faith.  It is a personal deal between God and his people.  For Christians it is for each individual believer.  But most Christians to this day, ignore history or just tolerate it.  The same continues for the Jews.  And they do so with the hope that history will end at some time.  Not via knowledge of the eternal presence or that it will end at the end of the year – it is abolished in the future.  Regeneration will only happen once.  It still has much of an anti-historical attitude. 


::::::::::::::::::::: Cosmic Cycles and History::::::::::::::::::

            So we have looked at two types of time, one with a golden age in the past.  In the doctrines – that of cyclical time, and that of limited cyclical time – the golden age is recoverable.  An infinite amount of times in the former and once in the latter. 


            The common variant of end time conflagration makes Indian and Aryan ones seem to have a similar background.  The Indian one is super huge but they get shorter as we get more corrupt.   Ours is the fourth Yuga, the “age of darkness”.  We can try to wrest ourselves from the age by doing the oldest forms.  Buddhists too try to get us out of here.  Time is endless and this huge cycle will always repeat.  But suffering is understood.  Thus we accept. 


            What of the pre-Socratics.  Empedocles showed us in two forces that always balance.  He and Heraclitus also believed in universal conflagration.  Pythagorians and Heraclitus believed that we will redo this life.  And Bidez says that certain elements of Plato’s system are Irano-Babylonian in origin. 

            Plato’s interpretation of the myth of cyclical return occurs in Politicus.  He said that there are two cycles of motion in the universe.  He uses Plato’s story about folks starting old and getting younger in the perfect world as proof.  I think Plato spoofs him. 


            Stoics have an idea of universal conflagration and regeneration too.  The Persians had the eras of tin, copper, bronze, silver and gold way back before the Greeks.  The cyclical version of disaster due to corruption leading to regeneration is multiple in number until the Hebrews.  Christians turn it into the rejuvenation of the individuals, but history will end for them.  All will be done.  


::::::::::::::::::::: Destiny and History:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::


            So we must accept that we are in a bad time with the consolation that regeneration will happen (except for a lot of people that seek resignation from the whole thing in terms of mysticism).  But the degeneration is inevitable.  History was tolerated because it was necessary.  Nothing was arbitrary. 

            Romans were very worried about the mystical number of years allotted to them having run out.  Roman leaders tried consciously and strenuously to combat this numerology.  Virgil stresses that no limits of times will be put upon Rome.  Only after Virgil do Romans start to see their empire as infinite.  That is until Rome was occupied again. 

            Augustine told us that we could have no idea when God would do his redemption trip.  So Christian thought seemed to transcend the old theme of eternal repetition. 




:::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Survival of the Myth of Eternal Return:::::::::::::::::::::::::::

            The entire world is not converted to historicism and the two views are conflicting currently.    How is modern man to stand, then, history?

            Traditional folk either abolished it via making it just a repetition, or gave it a meta-historical significance. 

            But it wasn’t abolished in Europe.  Ghengis Khan was the new David and barbarians were the Gog and Magog of the bible. 

            Early Christian writers spent a lot of energy violently fighting the cyclical view.  But it came back in.  Paul says in two epistles that Christ will die for us only once and that this cannot be repeated.  But up into the 17th century some argue that there will be a repeat.  This is especially true as we get back into Ptolemy and the stars.  After 17th, linear starts to assert itself more. 

            Our present views of the universe do not exclude regeneration after the big bang collapses. 


::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: The Difficulties of Historicism :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::


            Hegel has a sense of historical necessity.  Things must be as they are.  It was what the universal spirit required and thus reading the morning paper becomes a sort of benediction.  In this he retains the Judeo-Christian time sequence.  He is a Hebrew prophet. 

            For Marx history had no transcendental significance, it was just class struggle.  Did this make the sufferings of history bearable?  Dostoevsky gives us our answer. 

            But at least it preserves a meaning.  Marxist history isn’t arbitrary.  And salvation is coming at the end.  Still more Hebrew prophet stuff.  The end of the terror of history is at hand.  Heidegger said the historicity of all human existence forbids the hope of transcending time and history. 

            How can we deal with the terror of history knowing that folks die just because of the geographical situation they are set in.   How can he do so when there is no trans-historical meaning?  Its just a blind play of political, economic and social forces.

            We cannot see it as a punishment by god or a symptom of an age of decline in the cycle.  This helped people survive mentally.  Since most still live by this, dealing with history is really the problem of the elites.  Heidegger is pessimistic in a sense that isn’t a resistance to historical time, but a revolt against it.  History is then escaped.  Joyce and Elliot, he thinks, are saturated with nostalgia for the myth of eternal repetition and the abolition of time.  And the bomb would make us want to end the progress of history and revert. 




::::::::::::::::::::::::Freedom and History ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::


            We are resisting periodicity as “historical man” in order to affirm our autonomy.   Hegel said nothing new happens in nature.  And we are seeing increasing value in historical events.  Traditionalists want to reidentify with the modes of nature. 

            But we see them as weak in their retrenching in archetypes with creative impotence. 

            Traditional man may, however, say that we cannot make history.  For either history makes itself via the seeds sown millennium ago, or it is made by an increasingly small number of men.  We must endure their history and our boast to be able to make history is illusory for the vast majority. 

            At best we are free to either 1) oppose history 2) or take flight.  It is a natural part of the modern situation that Marxism and Fascism lead to the divide of the leader and led.  The leader is an archetype:  Again. 

In occasionally destroying history, archaic man could at least begin each year with a “pure” existence.  Beginning each year anew like Spring.  Hence he abolishes profane time.  Nature, in Spring, only recovers itself, but archaic man transcends time and can live in eternity.  In so far that he fails and falls into time, he has been sunk.  But he can try again next year. 

We are creative in regards to history.  Archaic man is creative in regards to cosmogony.  And as all life has a situation, they are more ontologically existential than us.  India annuls the human condition by not buying into it.  They are like a man-god such as the imagination of historical man has never dreamt it possible to create.


:::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Despair or Faith::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::


The dialogue does not affect our problem.  We are stuck being historicists.  None of the historicist philosophies can defend us from the terror of history.  Perhaps the situations give us a knowledge that would be otherwise unattainable.  But this only helps us in as much as it postulates a “Universal Spirit” that is learning.  

It requires a god, as seen in the idea that we need a “faith” in some good outcome.  It means a faith that we will be removed from natural law eventually.  Thus without this sort of “God” or idea of it getting much better, we are at a loss when trying to escape the terror of history. 

Thus he takes Christianity to be the faith of modern man because it gives us such a faith.  And this need for an existence of God is forced more urgently upon modern man than upon traditional man.  We need the support that is lacking in our larger lives.  Thus God, or faith (the or is mine) gives us our ability to be autonomous and saves us from the terror of history. 

We are repeatedly subject to terror even if not aware of it by our historicisity and existentiality. 

So he says, lastly, that Christianity incontestably proves to be the religion of the fallen man.  And to the extent that both history and progress are a fall, both imply the final abandonment of the paradise of archetypes and repetition.