Today is New Year's Day and a lot of people around the world, from the most primal cultures to the postmodern technological cultures, see this day as a fresh start on a new year.
While we still enact many of the ritual behaviors of the new year, we have lost our sense of what this day means in the mythic history of our consciousness. For example, millions of people still engage in a wild night of drinking and celebrating on New Year's Eve, an activity that was once associated with a last symbolic night of debauchery before the fresh start of a New Year.
In many belief systems, the New Year is equivalent to the rebirth of the world. It is no coincidence that the early Christians chose a day close to the New Year to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the day in which the word of God was made flesh - a new beginning for a symbolic new world, a life of Heaven on Earth.
In his classic book, The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade examines the world of traditional myths and symbolic practice. In chapter two, Sacred Time and Myths, Elaide looks at the nature of sacred time, including mythology of the New Year.
The templum and tempus of this section are seen as an intersection between space and time: "templum designates the spatial, tempus the temporal aspect of the motion of the horizon in space and time." The templum is embodied by the temple, the sacred space, the image of the world. In many early cultures, the temple was round, symbolizing the circular nature of time.
With each New Year, the cycle of time is begun anew - each New Year's Day is the first day. And with this rebirth, we, too, are reborn anew, cleansed of the previous year.
In the annual peyote ceremony of the Huichol people in Mexico, the group who make the pilgrimage to the part of the desert where the peyote is found spend a night in a circle becoming purified of the previous year's "sins," everyone confesses transgressions, including affairs or crimes, free from retribution. It is believed that they musty be pure to enter the land of the peyote and bring back the sacred plant. The yearly pilgrimage marks their new year, a renewal for the community.
Eliade offers other tales here that repeat this motif. [This text is copied from a PDF, so apologies for any errors I did not catch and correct.]
TEMPLUM-TEMPUSMircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, p. 73-80.
We shall begin our investigation by presenting certain facts that have the advantage of immediately revealing religious man's behavior in respect to time. First of all, an observation that is not without importance: in a number of North American Indian languages the term world (= Cosmos) is also used in the sense of year. The Yokuts say "the world has passed," meaning "a year has gone by." For the Yuki, the year is expressed by the words for earth or world. Like the Yokuts, they say "the world has passed" when a year has passed. This vocabulary reveals the intimate religious connection between the world and cosmic time. The cosmos is conceived as a living unity that is born, develops, and dies on the last day of the year, to be reborn on New Year's Day. We shall see that this rebirth is a birth, that the cosmos is reborn each year because, at every New Year, time begins ab initio.
The intimate connection between the cosmos and time is religious in nature: the cosmos is homologizable to cosmic time (= the Year) because they are both sacred realities, divine creations. Among some North American peoples this cosmic-temporal connection is revealed even in the structure of sacred buildings. Since the temple presents the image of the world, it can also comprise a symbolism. We find this, for example, among Algonquins and the Sioux. As we saw, their sacred lodge represents the universe; but at the same time it symbolizes the year. For the year is conceived as a journey through the four cardinal directions, signified by the four doors and four windows of the lodge. The Dakotas say: "The Year is a circle around the world" - that is, around their sacred lodge, which is an imago mundi.
A still clearer example is found in India. We saw that the erection of an altar is equivalent to a repetition of the cosmogony. The texts add that "the fire altar is the year" and explain its temporal system as follows: the 360 bricks of the enclosure correspond to the 360 nights of the year, and the 360 yajusmati bricks to the 360 days (Shatapatha Brahmama, X, 5, 4, 10; etc.). This is as much as to say that, with the building of each fire alter, not only is the world remade but the year is built too; in other words, time is regenerated by being created anew. But then, too, the year is assimilated to Prajiipati, the cosmic god; consequently, with each new altar Prajzpati is reanimated-that is, the sanctity of the world is strengthened. It is not a matter of profane time, of mere temporal duration, but of the sanctification of cosmic time. What is sought by the erection of the fire altar is to sanctify the world, hence to place it in a sacred time.
We find a similar temporal symbolism as part of cosmological symbolism of the Temple at Jerusalem. According to Flavius Josephus (Ant. Jud., 111, 7, 7), the twelve loaves of bread on the table signified the 12 months of the year and the candelabrum with seventy branches represented the decans (the zodiacal division of the seven planets into tens). The Temple was an imago mundi; being at the Center of the World, at Jerusalem, it sanctified not only the entire cosmos but also cosmic life-that is, time.
Hermann Usener has the distinction of having been the first to explain the etymological kinship between templum and tempus by interpreting the two terms through the concept of "intersection," (Schneidmg, Kreuzung). Later studies have refined the discovery; "templum designates the spatial, tempus the temporal aspect of the motion of the horizon in space and time."
The underlying meaning of all these facts seems to be the following: for religious man of the archaic cultures, the world is renewed annually; in other words, with each year it recovers its original sanctity, the sanctity that it possessed when it came from the Creator's hands. This symbolism is clearly indicated in the architectonic structure of sanctuaries. Since the temple is at once the place par excellence and the image of the world, it sanctifies the entire cosmos and also sanctifies cosmic life. This cosmic life was imagined in the form of a circular course; it was identified with the year. The year was a closed circle; it had a beginning and an end, but it also had the peculiarity that it could be reborn in the form of a new year. With each New Year, a time that was "new," "pure," "holy" -- because not yet worn -- came into existence.
But time was reborn, began again, because with each New Year the world was created anew. In the preceding chapter we noted the considerable importance of the cosmogonic myth as paradigmatic model for every kind of creation and construction. We will now add that the cosmogony equally implies the creation of time. Nor is this all. For just as the cosmogony is the archetype of all creation, cosmic time, which the cosmogony brings forth, is the paradigmatic model for all other times that is, for the times specifically belonging to the various categories of existing things. To explain this further: for religious man of the archaic cultures, every creation, every existence begins in time; before a thing exists, its particular time could not exist. Before the cosmos came into existence, there was no cosmic time. Before a particular vegetable species was created, the time that now causes it to grow, bear fruit, and die did not exist. It is for this reason that every creation is imagined as having taken place at the beginning of time, in principio. Time gushes forth with the first appearance of a new category of existents. This is why myth lays such an important role; as we shall show later, the way in which a reality came into existence is revealed by its myth.
ANNUAL REPETITION OF THE CREATION
It is the cosmogonic myth that tells how the cosmos came into existence. At Babylon during the course of the akitu ceremony, which was performed during the last days of the year that was ending and the first days of the New Year, the Poem of Creation, the Enuma elish, was solemnly recited. This ritual recitation reactualized the combat between Marduk and the marine monster Tiamat, a combat that took place ab origine and put an end to chaos by the final victroy of the god. Marduk created the cosmos from Tiamat's dismembered body and created man from the blood of the demon Kingu, Tiamat's chief ally. That this commemoration of the Creation was in fact a reactualization of the cosmogonic act is shown both by the rituals and in the formulas recited during the ceremony.
The combat between Tiamat and Marduk, that is, was mimed by a battle between two groups of actors, a ceremonial that we find again among the Hittites (again in the frame of the dramatic scenario of the New Year), among the Egyptians, and at Ras Shamra. The battle between two groups of actors repeated the passage from chaos to cosmos, actualized the cosmogony. The mythical event became present once again. "May he continue to conquer Tiamat and shorten his days!" the priest cried. The combat, the victory, and the Creation took place at that instant, hic et nunc.
Since the New Year is a reactualization of the cosmogony, it implies starting time over again at its beginning, that is, restoration of the primordial time, the "pure" time, that existed at the moment of Creation. This is why the New Year is the occasion for "purifications," for the expulsion of sins, of demons, or merely of a scapegoat. For it is not a matter merely of a certain temporal interval coming to its end and the beginning of another (as a modem man, for example, thinks) ; it is also a matter of abolishing the past year and past time. Indeed, this is the meaning of ritual purifications; there is more than a mere "purification"; the sins and faults of the individual and of the community as a whole are annulled, consumed as by fire.
The Nawroz -- the Persian New Year -- commemorates the day that witnessed the creation of the world and man. It was on the day of Nawroz that the "renewal of the Creation" was accomplished, as the Arabic historian a1-Biriini expressed it. The king proclaimed: "Here is a new day of a new month of a new year; what time has worn must be renewed." Time had worn the human being, society, the cosmos-and this destructive time was profane time, duration strictly speaking; it had to be abolished in order to reintegrate the mythical moment in which the world had come into existence, bathed in a it pure," "strong," and sacred time. The abolition of profane past time was accomplished by rituals that signified a sort of "end of the world." The extinction of fires, the return of the souls of the dead, social confusion of the type exemplified by the Saturnalia, erotic license, orgies, and so on, symbolized the retrogression of the cosmos into chaos. On the last day of the year the universe was dissolved in the primordial waters. The marine monster Tiamet -- symbol of darkness, of the formless, the nonmanifested -- revived and once again threatened. The world that had existed for a whole year really disappeared. Since Tiamat was again present, the cosmos was and Marduk was obliged to create it once again, after having once again conquered Tiamet.
The meaning of this periodical retrogression of the world into a chaotic modality was this: all the "sins" of the year, everything that time had soiled and worn, was annihilated in the physical sense of the word. By symbolically participating in the annihilation and re-creation of the world, man too was created anew; he was reborn, for he began a new life. With each New Year, man felt freer and purer, for he was delivered from the burden of his sins and failings. He had reintegrated the fabulous time of Creation, hence a sacred and strong time -- sacred because transfigured by the presence of the gods, strong because it was the time that belonged, and belonged only, to the most gigantic creation ever accomplished, that of the universe. Symbolically, man became contemporary with the cosmogony, he was present at the creation of the world. In the ancient Near East, he even participated actively in its creation (cf. the two opposed groups, representing the god and the marine monster).
It is easy to understand why the memory of that marvelous time haunted religious man, why he periodically sought to return to it. In illo tempore the gods had displayed their greatest powers. The cosmogony is the supreme divine manifestation, the paradigmatic act of strength, superabundance, and creativity. Religious man thirsts for the real. By every means at his disposal, he seeks to reside at the very source of primordial reality, when the world was in statu nascendi.