When did Höd kill Baldr? When is Ragnarök? Even more importantly, when was the world created? As a kid, I recognized intuitively that a lot of the myths that I was reading took place in an ill-defined present, but at the same time, there were origin stories – and endings – as well. My brain wanted to sort out the stories I was reading and put them in chronological order, but I knew that that wasn’t the way that they were originally conceived. Mythic time is an idea that makes perfect sense, once you understand it, and it applies not just to the stories we tell, but to our lives, as well.
What is Mythic Time?
Most myths don’t exist in linear time – and I’d argue that our lives don’t, either (more on that, later); rather, they exist in mythic time, a notion that I first stumbled on while reading Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs by John Lindow. Mythic time refers to the idea that myths exist in a special, generalized time. This is different from the uniquely modern and predominantly Judeo-Christian way we in the west usually conceptualize time and story – as something that has a clear beginning, middle and end, with “today” being set at a specific point along that line. Fairy tales take place in a perpetual “present” of their own, though from our perspective they exist in a magical, medieval past. I’m going to touch on mythic time primarily in the context of the Norse Myths, as that’s how I first encountered the term, though the applications are universal. Full disclosure: I’m leaning pretty heavily on Lindow – as I’ve said before, his book is awesome, and I strongly recommend it if you’re interested in a trustworthy source for Norse mythology.
The Mythic Past
Mythic time is a lot like grammar, in that it has as its jumping off point a generalized past, present, and future. At some point (as the mythic distant past drifts into the mythic near past) events transpired that resulted in the creation of the universe and the world; the mythic past refers to the things that had to happen to “set up” the world of the mythic present, which serves as the backdrop for the majority of the stories in a given mythology. Odin has to lose an eye. Zeus has to take his place in Olympus. Gods need to be born, grow up, and assume their roles in the pantheon. Humans need to be created – have kingdoms and backstories of their own – and monsters must be born, so that they can populate hidden caves and swamps, and be woven into the stories of heroes.
The Mythic Present
The labors of Hercules, and most of the stories of Thor, take place in the mythic present. This is the time when Odin’s bond with Loki is still strong – Loki is among the gods (if constantly causing trouble), but he hasn’t yet caused the death of Baldr – an event that can be said to have taken place in the latter part of the mythic present – before Ragnarok, but paving the way for it. The mythic present assumes the events (for the most part) of the mythic past, and contains its own (rough) internal chronology. Additional events that take place early in the Norse mythic present include the binding of Fenrir the wolf, and Hel taking her place in the underworld. If there’s a certain vagueness to it – a question as to exactly when the mythic past might blur into the mythic present or the mythic future, Lindow makes clear that such things are “not causes for worry. They are in the nature of mythology.”
The Mythic Future
Ragnarok takes place in the mythic (near) future – and adds a feeling of inevitability to the Norse myths (it’s hard not to read a certain fatalism into a people whose mythology features so prominently the death of the majority of their gods), but it’s worth noting that an intrinsic part of the destruction of the Norse gods is the new, better world that exists afterwards – one populated by the previous gods’ children, as well as Baldr and Höd. This conception of time as a cycle of creation, conflict and ultimate destruction – but also of rebirth and progress – highlights a key difference between pagan and Judeo-Christian conceptions of time, and leads me to some final thoughts about how we think about time in the west, and how mythic time as a concept relates to how we storify our lives.
We All Exist in Mythic Time
When I decided to write about mythic time, I did a little poking around, and stumbled on a paper written by Demien-Noah Niehaus – “From mythical time to scientific time. The transformation of time in the Middle Ages.” Neihaus talks about the invention of the clock and the tracking of time, in general. He talks about how in Egypt, time started again (the counting of years) with each Pharaoh, and about the cyclical aspect intrinsic to many New Year’s traditions; in short, he speaks to the conception of time as a cyclical thing, involving destruction and renewal, as opposed to something linear and measured, driven by the rise of the clock, and a Judeo-Christian world that sees modern times as existing in a religious framework with a final, end-point.
Setting aside the dominant beliefs of the times we live in (in the west), I personally find the imposition of the clock, and of a religious end-point, to be counterintuitive. I don’t have a clear, objective picture of my past: I have stories that I tell myself – sequences of events whose endings are marked by transformations. I see these memories as myths that I tell myself in an attempt to apply a limited perspective to something large and complex – a task that I attempt by simplifying, categorizing, and imbuing individual memories with symbolic content that I then build a life-myth around. The present and future I storify daily – their place in my personal myth is something that can only be fully determined when they become part of my past – a mythic past that we all create as we move forward through a personal, mythic present. Regardless of how we might intellectually see the future, we sense that it exists less as an ending, and more as the coming season in an endless cycle of change.