THE TRACES IN OUR OLDEST CALENDARS
Let us turn, now, from the recent evidence of an understanding of the seasonal influence on human life -- which, after all, must be sought beneath compounded layers of scientific and philosophical mystification -- to what we can find in the earliest sources available to us.
It should come as no surprise that time and the seasons constitute some of the oldest cultural preoccupations of which we have record and evidence, whether speaking of physical remains as at Stonehenge in Britain, or the mythic account of Kronos in Hesiod's cosmogony, or the most ancient of our continuing calendar systems, one or two of which possibly pre-date both Hesiod and Stonehenge.
For the sake of comparison, at this point, Hesiod's Theogony was written toward the end of the 8th century B.C., although its concepts certainly descend from a lineage of oral myth that must have been far more ancient; Stonehenge -- which has been shown to have a seasonal orientation in its construction -- was probably built in the latter part of the third millennium, B.C., and the Chinese calendar, reliably believed to represent the oldest continuing calendar sequence, has a count going back to 2953 B.C., and we have textual evidence of it almost that far back. With respect to each, they constitute regional cultural representations prior to which our retrieved historical material is sparse (in the case of Greece) to non-existent (in the case of Celtic Britain).
We still, of course, have to contend with mystification in examining these early artifacts, for our understanding of them has been filtered through a 20th century Western perception. They are available in original form and format, however, to "speak for themselves," to the extent that we can allow them other interpretive possibilities than our own perspective unthinkingly commands.
In this respect, we might at once consider the unusually early cultural focus on "tracking time" that is evident in the antiquity of these artifacts. They display an acutely conscious concern for time, an abstract idea, at an extraordinarily early point in cultural development.
Notwithstanding the obvious agricultural utility of knowing the dynamics of seasonal time, there is something more going on here. We are looking at the period of emergence from the neolithic, by societies of very limited population and scope; societies faced with innumerable ordinary survival concerns; societies hardly organized to do much more than maintain community shelter and food supply. But nonetheless, societies bending their finest creative efforts to the exploration of the heavens and the development of crude but remarkably precisional systems for the measurement of time.
Not just in one locale but spread around the globe: a worldwide impulse to "rationalize time," for which there was no cultural precedent. Something clearly more compelling is happening, here, than the pre-scientific enhancement of an agricultural system -- a system which must certainly have been sufficient, at the time, to the local needs of small community usage.
These early ventures into a science of the seasons have left to us the devised artifact of calendar systems, a conceptual construction every bit as remarkable as alphabets and organized mathematics, although one which seldom receives equivalent notice for what it may tell us of early modes of perception.
As self-dating artifacts, calendars become accessories to other historical pursuits and tend to be taken as mere "temporal annotation structures." But once more, we must question the purpose of early calendars, just as we must look deeper to find a rationale for the development of a science of astronomy. To regard either of these as accessories of agriculture, or to suppose that calendars represent a conscious pre-literary concern with historical record, is to see them through the eyes of 20th century utilitarianism, when we have no reason to suppose that ancient cultures were similarly disposed. What we do know is that those cultures were immersed in ritual and religious observance; and we shall find a more likely accounting, in this sphere, for the development of a science of temporality.
Concurrent with the early ventures into science, and more readily seen to have a connection with religion, was the development of a corpus of oral myth that informs us (to the extent it has come down to us) of the relationship between nature and religion as it was perceived at that time.
The early cosmogonic myths suggest an absorbing need to understand the interplay of natural elements; they constitute almost a "dialogue" with nature -- whether as a means of mediating its impact, or merely to convey the mediation, itself, from one generation to the next.
We have no accurate awareness of the specific purpose of oral myth (speaking in an entirely modern vein: purpose). The fact that it deals with larger-than-life themes, however, and invests natural forces with human motifs, articulates their concerns and beliefs in greater detail than any other kind of exposition available to us. But because it is verbal, it compounds for us the problems of mystification.
The circumstance that myth and those precocious early efforts at science overlap each other chronologically has not prompted us to consider these in a joint context: they are separate domains for us. Our 20th century mentality, embedded in the "greater realism" of technique and mechanism, can readily contemplate how the early calendars were devised (and to a lesser extent, why), but we are not at all disposed to regard contemporaneous myth as having anything of relevance to say about it. Yet, the Kronos tale in Hesiod's Theogony offers us some very thought-provoking material in this respect.
Hesiod's Theogony is a genealogical history of the Greek gods, who were of such a multitude as to constitute an entire culture of their own; indeed, without some such "program" as Hesiod provides, we should hardly be able to keep track of them. Possibly on this account, the tale has generally been regarded as an accessory of folklore, more than any reliable index of philosophical constructs. But as Joseph Campbell observed (Myths to live by, pp. 8-9), commenting on this very circumstance,
"...in this there is serious danger. For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their own symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been -- and still are, in fact -- the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers."
This is easily demonstrated in the extent to which the Bible, our pre-eminent cosmogonic myth, conveys and undergirds the verities of western morality. But a good deal more is claimed for myth, in Campbell's reference to "vitality and creative powers." His inference, here, is that myth becomes a baseline for the modal reality of cultural experience.
Thus, the Bible establishes and legitimizes our dominance of nature, our work ethic, our strivings for power, our relentless pursuit of progress, our sense of gender distinctions -- in other words, it is present for us in a multitude of ways that seem to us merely the situations of ordinary life. To examine cosmogonic myth, then, is to look at the foundational structure of a cultural reality.
The Theogony, in elaborating the complex relationship between a multiplicity of ancient deities, becomes for us a prime resource in understanding how the pre-classical Greek people related to their gods, and hence to various aspects of nature personified by the gods.
We are most familiar with Hesiod's themes by way of Greek drama, which made much use of his material. But the themes played out in drama did not include the primal cosmology of Hesiod's tale, or any portrayal of the Kronos myth and what it may say of our earliest relationship to the nature and passage of time.
KRONOS: TIME'S POSSIBLE DEITY, AND THE CONTROVERSY
Although the name Kronos easily registers with us as emblematic of time, it is generally agreed in scholarly circles that there was no such original connection. Etymological analysis does not support any relationship between the two Greek terms: Kronos (the god) and chronos (time).
There are at least two good arguments, however, for considering the etymological deficiency as something to be accounted for rather than flatly accepted. One, of course, is the sheer degree of similarity between the two terms. Samuel Macey (Patriarchs of time, p. 16), who has presented a detailed summary of this issue, argues that even had they in fact derived from separate origins, their likeness virtually assured an early conflation of the two terms. But this is not a sufficient answer to the problem.
The second argument might be called the "argument from default" in that, of literally hundreds of named (and quality-ascripted) deities in the larger Greek assemblage of gods, not a single other one has been identified with time. S.G.F. Brandon (History, time and deity, p. 47) seems to be the only investigator who has taken note of this oddity, but he makes no further analysis of the deficiency.
Yet, let's take a closer look at this. Considering the almost exhaustive list of qualities -- natural and abstract -- that were supplied with a god-identification, it is plainly impossible to accept that something so prominent and pervasive as time had been overlooked.
Curiously, and significantly, H. J. Rose (A Handbook of Greek mythology, p. 69, footnote 1) takes the very opposite view. While freely acknowledging the later linkage between Kronos and chronos, he observes, as to any possible original identity (and with reference to the pre-classical Greek mainland tribes whose principal god was probably Kronos), that "...in any case, Time is too abstract and philosophical a deity to be the object of an early and rather barbarous cult."
Rose represents the standing view on this matter. He is not challenged by Macey, for instance, who has done one of the most comprehensive studies on the Kronos myth and its modern correlates, and has found sufficient reason in early texts, both Greek and Roman, to suggest only a late conflation of unrelated terms. This is probably "correct" from an etymological standpoint, but it fails to account for the near identity in verbal construction between Kronos and chronos (as true in the Greek spelling as it is in the English), and thus fails to resolve the issue. This has unarguably been a roadblock in our understanding of the part played by seasonality in early cultural experience.
Kronos has come down to us as a harvest god, whose day as an object of popular worship had long since passed by the time of classical Greece. There was still a temple for him in Athens, however, and the harvest festival of the Kronia was still observed in his honor in the mid-month of Hekatombaion, the first month of the Athenian calendar -- which would place the celebration date sometime toward the end of July or early August, by our reckoning. There is some indication that the month was once called Kronion or Kronius, though no clear record of it remains; and that at least four other Greek city-states similarly had a month called Kronion as the final month of their year -- their harvest month -- which fell a month earlier on the calendar than the Kronion/Hekatombaion of Athens.
There are few other existent traces of specifically seasonal reference to the early Greek Kronos, except for remnants in the language. An ancient Greek word for spring, for instance -- krounos -- is clearly derivative from Kronos -- which is rather strange, since the festival time is mid-summer. But this is characteristic of the contradictions that surround this god, and it does not necessarily invalidate his function as a harvest deity since such occasions would vary by crop and/or locale. Another term with seasonal implications -- noted by Rose, himself -- is kraínow, meaning "to be accomplished" or "brought to pass," which suggests a likely perception of Kronos as the one who ripens! (Rose, still dubious however, dismisses this as "philologically very doubtful, if not impossible," in the same passage as earlier cited.)
A seasonal connection, then, is allowed to Kronos only within the context of his standing as a harvest deity. Incredibly, the natural link between seasons and time, so readily suggested in the similarity between Kronos and chronos (as well as to our own commen-sense perception) is denied on the basis of the kappa vs. chi issue!
It is clear, from textual evidence, that the two terms were quite separately regarded in the classical Greek period, but this does not necessarily mean that they had always been. Kronos had all but lost his influence in Greece by the time of Pericles, and Greek culture had passed through its own "Dark Ages," during which time oral myth alone carried the burden of continuity from the earlier culture. If a Kronos connection with seasonal time had been lost in the cultural break -- which spanned some 400 years and involved the loss of literacy itself -- it may only parallel the loss of a seasonal consciousness; and both of these likely circumstances might simply emphasize the severity of the transition.
KRONOS: WHY THE MYTH IS SO SIGNIFICANT
If the myth, itself, is understood in a certain light, such conclusions can easily be drawn. The mythic Kronos, as recorded by Hesiod, was the youngest of twelve children born of the gods Ouranos (the heavens) and Gaia (the earth). In Hesiod's genealogy of the gods, only Chaos, Tartaros and Eros came before those two -- Chaos, whose name has come to mean fearsome disorder, but whose original allegorical identity was more in the nature of the void within which anything was possible; Tartaros, the underworld; and Eros, variously defined as either love or desire and the motivating principle for all interaction.
Gaia brought forth Ouranos, who then took Mother Gaia as mate and sired the dozen who would be known as the Titans. To begin with, however, they were kept imprisoned in Gaia's womb by the ceaseless conjugal attentions of Ouranos, which understandably vexed Mother Gaia. The general perception of this interaction is that it represents the layered continuity between heaven and earth, inseparably in contact with one another. For anything to come into being between them, a space of existence must be provided, and this is effectuated by young Kronos at the behest of Gaia. She creates for him a serrated and curved metal blade called a sickle, with which he is instructed to castrate Ouranos and thus free all of the imprisoned, ready-to-be-born Titans. And this he accomplishes.
In the second part of the tale, Kronos, who now reigns among the Titans, takes his sister, Rhea, for a wife and they have as offspring the six children who will constitute the central core of Olympian gods. But these, too, must first somehow escape from a plan of containment by which Kronos hopes to prevent his own overthrow as he had overthrown his father, Ouranos.
Aware of the hazard in the earlier strategem, Kronos instead swallows his own children immediately after each one is born. But there is always some inspiration in the wiles of a frustrated goddess, and Rhea manages to secrete her sixth child, Zeus, from Kronos' grasp, giving him, instead, a stone to swallow. Zeus grows into young godhood and eventually overpowers and wrests control from Father Kronos in the terrible War of the Titans. Kronos is banished, along with the other Titans, to the underworld region where he is said to remain to this day.
That is the tale in its barest outline. Let us see, now, what is there for us, in our quest for the cultural remnants of a consciousness of seasonal time.
We begin with the overarching symbolism of the natural elements in the myth, giving Kronos the benefit of etymological doubt and assigning him the nature of seasonal time. Seasonal, because it is the natural "appearance" of time, before the invention of linear counting devices; and because the harvest significance of Kronos, a verifiable characterization, supports it.
The symbolic configuration, then, is that seasonal Time intermediates between Heaven and Earth, to provide the realm wherin all things on earth become manifest (i.e., grow/mature to a condition of perfection). This is achieved by cutting off the generative power of Heaven (i.e., the power to create spontaneously).
Time, then, is not merely a field of temporal extension, but it is the field of ripening development! This is the natural view of a people oriented to agriculture; and its investiture in cosmogenitive myth becomes a major philosophical statement. It is with this sense of the significantly different creative power of Time, than that of Heaven, that the new god comes into his own and displaces Ouranos.
In a sense, it is a step on the road toward self-realization, a recognition of the generative creativity that exists within the field of time: not Nietzschean, but perhaps Spenglerian.
Do we find support for this view in the further reading of Hesiod's tale? Yes, to some extent. Immediately after the castration, Kronos flings the genitals, with a sweep of his arm backward, and... "All the numerous drops of blood that were scattered/fell upon Gaia, who when the seasons had circled produced/the mighty Erinyes, and the great-bodied giants..." etc. (my own emphasis)
Coming directly after the castration, this specification of a seasonal round, to effectuate a birth of gods, seems highly significant. It follows upon some 50 lines of text chronicling the birth of numerous minor gods, of this same Mother Gaia, with no similar notice of any period of gestation. Yet, the "encircling of the year," -- a clearly seasonal manifestation -- is presented just at this point where Kronos asserts his authority.
This would likely be a remnant of the oral myth, transitioning into Hesiod's Greece shorn of any other qualifying comment. Hesiod's failure to add significance to it, at any rate, may be a kind of "negative proof" of the fact that seasonal time had lost its specific connection to Kronos.
Perhaps, just as we, he took seasonality so much for granted, in connection with a harvest deity, as to diminish the philosophical significance of the naked statement in that line of oral poetry.
If we turn to Hesiod's other notable work, however -- Works and Days -- we find another sort of inferential index of what took place when Kronos entered the picture. In describing the idyllic time of Greece's "golden age," Hesiod observes that "...the time when Kronos ruled over heaven ...brought into being the golden race of mortal men," and he thus connects mortality with seasonal time. As a notation of the beginning of mortal life, this dovetails with the earlier suggestion of gestational origins and clearly establishes the human element (as opposed to the agricultural) in the relationship between Kronos and seasonal time.
This is rather thin evidence, admittedly, and it does not resolve the question of Hesiod's complete failure to annotate some deific representation of Time, let alone the still nagging issue of Kronos vs. chronos, but it gives us the edge of a platform on which to stand. Let's turn, now, to some material that may bolster the slight structure.
Brandon, in order to respond, himself, to Hesiod's lapse, brings into his discussion the somewhat obscure mythologist/philosopher, Pherecydes of Syros, whose writings are not directly available but have been commented upon by Diogenes Laertius and others. The quotation attributed to Pherecydes, and dated to about 550 B.C., is the opening passage of a book:
"Zas and Chronos always existed, and so did Chthonie; and Chthonie acquired the name Ge [Earth] when Zas gave her the earth as a bridal gift."
This is, in effect, a contrasting cosmogony to Hesiod's whose extent or full length we do not know, nor can we know in what degree it is reflective of another oral tradition than that which Hesiod drew upon. But these concerns have nothing to do with the value of this passage to our present thesis, which is that it reflects in two ways an awareness, from very early classical Greece, that Time -- Chronos -- has the deific propensity which Hesiod will not accord to it. The first way is that Chronos is capitalized, which in ancient Greek always signifies a proper noun, a personage. The second is that it is given virtually the same status (actually higher!) than Hesiod grants to Kronos, as one of the primal entities in the cosmos.
It is likely that the tale is at least partly of Pherecydes' own invention, not as a fable but as the grounding to his own philosophy of nature. The reason to suppose this is that Zas is not found in any other writings. John Ferguson (Greek and Roman religion, p. 91) speculates that it may have been a short form for Zeus, or at any rate that Zeus was the inspiration for it.
More likely, however, is Werner Jaeger's assessment (The Theology of the early Greek philosophers, pp. 68-9) that it is simply meant to denote a primal life-force, possibly related to the Greek term tzehn, "to live." Jaeger comments at some length on this passage from Pherecydes, giving specific attention to the possibility that he may have adventurously linked Chronos with Kronos -- the conflation that Macey finds taking place 500 years later! -- and Jaeger makes an interesting observation on such a possibility, calling it "a transparent bit of etymologizing." He says further, of it,
"Etymologizing is an old method that we have already found used rather extensively in the Theogony of Hesiod, and indeed it is one that has always played an important role in Greek theology. It rests on the assumption that the names of mysterious divine powers, when rightly interpreted, give the key to their nature."
It would seem, then, that there is sufficient reason to be a little more loose about the etymological barrier, here, and to even attribute to Hesiod some casual or willful unconcern in the matter of identifying Kronos with time. (Or maybe Hesiod, himself, was censored by some near-contemporary transcriber who vouched himself a grammarian!)
What does appear likely is that a thread of connection had been lost. And one possible explanation is that the very meaning of time had gone through a divergence -- which is to say, chronos had acquired specific distinction from the sense of seasonal time that harvest (and Kronos) had once represented when Greek society's usage of time became linear. If, on these grounds, Hesiod would not confirm an earlier identity with Kronos, it would signal not an omission on his part, but a very acute awareness that the Greeks no longer lived in seasonal time.
Hesiod provides the grounds for such an analysis in his own Works and Days. In detailing the five "ages" of humankind since mortal life began, he clearly delimits the rule of Kronos to the first, the "golden age." In his characterization of that age, then, and its distinction from the subsequent ones, he is reporting the qualities that might have distinguished a consciousness of seasonal time.
"...They lived like gods without any care in their hearts, free and apart from labor and misery. Nor was the terror of old age upon them, but always with youthful hands and feet they took their delight in festive pleasures apart from all evil; and they died as if going to sleep. Every good thing was theirs to enjoy: the grain-giving earth produced her fruits spontaneously, abundantly, freely; and they in complete satisfaction lived off their fields without any cares in blessed abundance..."
While Frazer's translation is in most ways adequate, his reference to producing fruits "spontaneously" is too easily misleading, when assessing aspects of seasonal time. The original Greek usage translates literally as "in self-indulgence" (or more likely, in this context, self-glorification). The entire indication is very much like our own biblical tale of paradise, a time or place where no labor was required for the blessings of abundant sustenance.
This draws a clear distinction between a time of harvest and a time of agricultural harvest. The latter involves labors, including all the preliminaries of working the land; the former suggests that things have arrived at a point of fruition entirely on their own. And this, of course, is the consciousness of seasonal time -- not just with reference to a harvest of food but of all that life requires: "...without any care in their hearts...every good thing was theirs to enjoy." Whether the tale is mythic or historic (and there are probably elements of both) it is necessary that we understand the full symbolic implications to see its relationship to the present thesis.
The shift to an age of silver constitutes a loss of these golden attributes, and it parallels the overthrow of Kronos by Zeus. The representation is of the turn toward a more assertive use of time, a "taking control" of one's environment and destiny: symbolized visibly by progress in the development of agriculture and metallurgy, and less visibly by a growing concern over time's passage and the approach of death -- subtle themes in the earliest of literatures that are too often taken for granted.
KRONOS VS. CHRONOS: TRAILS IN THE CALENDAR
There is one other piece of inferential evidence we can bring to bear, at this point, on the distinction between the two "ways of time," and in furtherance of our own claim that the Greeks of whom we have record had already departed the earlier, seasonal, mode of time and embraced the more developmentally exciting linear mode.
A characteristic of some of the most archaic calendars of record is that they accounted only for the part of the year that was considered "active time," and not the fallow months of winter. This circumstance, alone, establishes the calendar as an artifact of the seasonal perspective, rather than an instrument of linear history.
Our own calendar carries the vestigial index of just such an arrangement, in the obvious etymology of its final four months, September through December: the "seventh" through the "tenth." -- no provision at all for the remaining two months of an annual round! This approach to calendar time is so inconceivable to our own mindset about time that we have difficulty in even grasping it, let alone feeling it. We seek some rational accounting, like longer months, or maybe a month nomenclature somehow lost to historical record. For us, a gap of "non-calendar" time simply does not compute, it is irrational!
The ever-rational Greeks did not countenance it, either, for we have no record of it in their latter-stage calendar. But they had come through the change in temporal concept at a time within the reach of oral tradition and cultural memory, and there can be little doubt that the earlier style had probably required transitional accommodation. This is certainly one likely source for the end-of-year celebration -- nominally a harvest festival, but clearly a remnant of the purely cyclic perception of annual time.
As a harvest god, Kronos was the natural deity to reign over the end-of-year celebration. The Kronia, at the midsummer harvest point, had been observed (if only marginally) right into historic Athenian times, assuring us that Kronos had fulfilled this capacity. Even in vestigial form it contained certain fairly typical end-of-year revelries, such as role-reversal (between slaves and masters, in this instance).
Also attesting to this function was Kronos' later incorporation into the figure and dynamics of the Roman god Saturn. In fact, it is probably this carryover which has preserved the image of Kronos into present times -- as Father Time, the bearded, scythe-bearing figure who marks our own end-of-year celebration. The scythe is a remnant of his old identity as harvest god, and maybe even a decorous transmutation of the sickle with which young Kronos castrated his father.
The direct ancester of our linked New Year and Christmas celebrations is the Roman Saturnalia, over which the Kronos/Saturn figure officiated in the capacity of patron deity. But their celebration -- just as our own -- was only a symbolic vestige of the year's-end trauma: the momentary gap in time at which a cycle ended and started afresh -- a brush with eternity that was, itself, a vestige of that earlier break in the "count" of time that our own calendar nomenclature tells us was once a reality.
Once again, for emphasis, we don't know what that means; an "empty space" in time simply has no intelligible meaning in a linear-time culture. We can't possibly relate to the feelings engendered by it. Time, for us, is breachless, uninterruptable . . . but it is only because our mythology says so.
Reflecting on the time when the end-of-year observance matched the harvest time, H. S. Versnel (in J.Bremer, Interpretations of Greek mythology, pp. 137-8) has tried to tell us what such moments really signified. He refers to them as "ceremonially created periods of crisis" (my own emphasis), recognizing the nature of the moment to which homage is being paid, but unable to conceive, from our latter-day view of time, that crisis may be an inherent potential of the gap in time -- it has to be "ceremonially created."
But then he goes on to describe such times as marking moments of contact with
"...'the other reality' lying outside history and space, an eternal truth that existed before time but still exists behind it and behind our reality and occasionally mingles with ours in 'periods of exception'."
The "period of exception" is the moment of non-time that comes at the end of a ripening passage, for we are suddenly and forcibly "dis-entrained," jolted from our preoccupation by a sharp reminder that it was only a captivation of seasonal time -- provided we are of a mindset to see it. At least, this is the supposition one might make, once it's understood that time is a mindset.
But these occasions, as you can readily see, may be meaningless, or at best symbolic in a linear-time society in which the end-of-year observance has become a mere festivity, nothing more. There is no deep reason for its observance any longer...no need to fall back on a deity's protective presence.
Already, by the time of classical Greece, according to a study by H.W. Parke (Festivals of the Athenians, p. 29), the Athenians "had no state festival for New Year's day." Although Walter Burkert, another formidable Greek scholar, says otherwise (Greek religion, p. 228): "Following ancient Near Eastern tradition, the most important festival of [classical Athens] is the New Year one." However, Burkert is speaking not of the Kronia, but the Panathenaia (an observance that did not even take place until twenty-eight days beyond the start of the year).
The Kronia had, by that time, faded into near oblivion, by all accounts that we have. It was simply no longer a necessary observance. Seasonal time had been consigned to agriculture, and lost, as an element of everyday cultural reality. Kronos and chronos would thenceforth only be "conflated," never again known as a unity.
If you are ready, let us move on to Part IV
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FOOTNOTES (linked from text)
"...the oldest continuing calendar sequence..." The Mayan calendar had a count going back to 3372 B.C., some 400 years earlier than the Chinese, but it is no longer in active use. Back to text.
"...Spenglerian." Although Nietzsche and Spengler both believed in cyclic time, only Spengler conceived of it in seasonal form. Back to text.