THE NEW YEAR & REBIRTH IN ARCHAIC MYTH & RITUAL

Part 3

 

Introduction & Review

 

This present musical essay continues the Gypsy Scholar’s investigation into the archaic background of our New Year’s festival, with the help of the late historian of religion, mythologist, and phenomenologist of the sacred, Mircea Eliade. This investigation into early New Year myth and ritual is essentially an investigation into the mythic structure of archaic man’s ontology and cosmogony.

As pointed out in the very first musical essay of this series, the New Year ritual is probably one of the oldest of rituals, and it seems to be universal. For our ancient ancestors living in agricultural societies, the rebirth of the sun after the Winter Solstice brought in the New Year, which was annually celebrated through elaborate ceremonies. Thus the main argument of this series of musical essays on the New Year Even is that even today, at this time in the cycle of nature, our contemporary New Year’s celebrations still contain, however secularized and profaned, vestiges of the perennial need of humankind to suspend the flow of time and transcend it, in order to start anew in rebirth. As Prof Mircea Eliade has told us: “. . . just as, even in the modern world, the New Year still preserves the prestige of the end of a past and the fresh beginning of a new life.”

In last two musical essays, we discovered the radical discontinuity between archaic and traditional societies and modern ones; to wit, the former rejects profane, continuous time—events without transhistorical models—through “archetypes and repetition”—and has a regenerated cyclical view of time, while the later has an irreversible linear view of time. In other words, archaic man, as Prof. Eliade puts the contrast, “feels him­self indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History.” Thus, so far we have come to understand that the suspension of profane time answers to a profound need on the part of archaic and ancient man, relating to the regeneration of time and the symbolism of the New Year.

What was emphasized in these musical essays is the need of archaic and traditional societies to regenerate themselves periodically through the annulment of profane time. Collective or individual, periodic or spontaneous, regeneration rites always comprise, in their structure and meaning, an element of regeneration through repetition of an archetypal act, usually of the original cosmogonic act of creation. In other words, we have learned that archaic and traditional peoples periodically sought, through “archetypes and repetition,” to abolish profane time (i.e., continuous events without trans-historical models or history not regulated by archetypes) and thus regenerate the sacred time of the beginning in their New Year rituals. This marks a seemingly unbridgeable gulf separating us from our archaic ancestors when it comes to the purpose and meaning of our own New Year festival.

However, to reiterate from the previous musical essays, despite the discontinuity between and archaic and modern worldviews, I believe, if we go deep enough in our quest for origins—way, way back—, we of today’s world may recognize the very same motive and need for regeneration, both individually and collectively. And, once more, we may even be able to glimpse in our own secular New Year’s rituals—as corrupted from the original as they may be—a lingering vestige of the hierophanies (i.e., manifestations of the sacred) that were commemorated and participated in through archaic ritual. Thus, in discussing the New Year rituals of archaic construction, which repeat the original construction of the cosmos from a sacred center, Prof Eliade also holds out the possibility that even though our contemporary experiences in this domain are profane (i.e., no longer share in the archetype of the sacred and its center) we can nevertheless today regain the archaic sensibility.

The profound desire of archaic man to go back in time manifested itself, according to Prof. Eliade, in an ontological “thirst for being” and a “nostalgia for beginnings”—and archaic and sought to return to that mythic moment, as often as possible, in order to regenerate himself. The argument of this musical essay is that this archaic ‘thirst for being” and “nostalgia for beginnings” is still alive within us today, and lies at the bottom of our need to participate in our contemporary secular New Year’s “profane rejoicings.” I suggested in last week’s musical essay that this is the irrepressible and deep longing for our origins or beginnings is why the late visionary philosopher, Terence McKenna maintained that “the way out is back and that the future is a forward escape into the past.” I further suggested that that McKenna called the “archaic revival” is actually rooted in the same archaic “nostalgia for beginnings”—a postmodern nostalgia for a our cultural origins; a nostalgia for the lost archaic, or what the twentieth-century avant-garde artists called the “return to the primitive,” which is at bottom nothing less than the resurfacing of the irrepressible and deep longing for our origins or beginnings.

The information presented here on the archaic world-view serves to relocate and revision our secular New Year’s festival back—way, way back—in archaic and ancient myth and ritual. Therefore, in regard to our own festival period of the New Year, beginning at Winter Solstice/Christmas and ending on January 6, Prof. Eliade’s following observation on the archaic and traditional ceremonies is pertinent: “It would be impossible to find a more appropriate frame for the initiation rituals than the twelve nights when the past year vanishes to give place to another year, another era; that is, to the period when, through the reactualization of the Creation, the world in effect begins.”  And it seems that Prof. Eliade concurs with the argument of thus musical essay: “To cure the work of Time it is necessary to ‘go back’ and find the ‘beginning of the World’.”

I shall begin here by summarizing a few characteristic features of the archaic and ancient New Years rituals, with their “archetypes of repetition”: (1) the twelve intermediate days prefigure the twelve months of the year; (2) during the twelve corresponding nights, the dead come in procession to visit their families; (3) it is at this period that fires are extin­guished and rekindled, which included the moment of initiations, one of whose essential elements is precisely this extinction and rekindling of fire; (4) ritual combats between two op­posing groups; and finally (5) presence of the erotic element, usually some form of the divine hierogamy (“sacred marriage”) or orgiastic rite. Each of these mythico‑ritual motifs testifies to the wholly exceptional character of the days that precede and follow the first day of the year, in which the eschato­-cosmological function of the New Year is the abolition of past time and repetition of the cosmogonic act of Creation. Thus the last days of the past year can be identified with the pre‑Creation chaos, both through this invasion of the dead, which annuls the law of time, and through the sexual excesses which commonly mark the occasion, which represent a violent fusion of all forms; in other words, the reactualization of the pre‑creation chaos.

This is the way in which the mythico-ritual of the New Year assimilates the microcosmic days to the macrocosmic stages of destruction and recreation, of death and rebirth. Within this New Year mythico-ritual and its regeneration of time, regular profane activities become re-assimilated to their divine models or archetypes. As we learned in last week’s musical essay, Prof. Eliade singles out three of these (under the category of “archetypes and repetition”) , which he calls “Archetypes of Profane Activities”: (1) The Divine Model of Medicine & Healing; (2) The Divine Model of Sex & the Sacred Marriage; (3) The Divine Model of the Dance.