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Rituals & symbols of Time reborn


Celebartion of Nooruz (New Year) in Kyrgyzstan, 21 March.
© ICHHTO, 2015

By Mircea Eliade

Primitive peoples divided time into periods such as heat and cold, drought and rain, sowing and harvest, but at a very early stage of history these divisions led to the idea of a temporal cycle and hence to the concept of the "year". The beginning of the year varied from country to country and from epoch to epoch, calendar reforms being constantly introduced to make the ritual meaning of festivals fit the seasons with which they were supposed to correspond.

In most primitive societies the "New Year" is equivalent to the raising of the taboo on the new harvest which is thus proclaimed edible for the whole community. This means that the "divisions of time" are determined by the rituals governing the renewal of food reserves, that is, the rituals that guarantee the continued existence of the whole community. The adoption of the solar year as the unit of time is of Egyptian origin. The majority of other historical cultures (and Egypt itself down to a certain period) had a year, both lunar and solar, of 360 days (that is, 12 months of 30 days each), to which five extra days (called the intercalary days) were added.

However, neither the instability and latitude in the beginning of the New Year, nor the varying lengths attributed by different peoples, were able to lessen the importance attached by all nations to the end of one period of time and the beginning of another. This conception of the end and the beginning of a temporal period based on the observation of biocosmic rhythms, formed part of a larger system - the system of periodic regeneration of life, presupposing a new Creation, or symbolic repetition of the cosmos.

A scapegoat for sin

The end of the year was marked by a number of rituals: fasting, collective ablutions and purification; extinguishing the fire and ritually rekindling it. in the second part of the ceremonial; the expulsion of "demons" - by means of noises, cries, blows, or by the expelling of an animal (the "scapegoat" of the Israelites) or of a man (Mamurius Veturius, in Rome), regarded as the material vehicle through which the sins of the community were removed beyond its boundaries. There were often ceremonial combats between two groups of actors, or collective orgies, or processions of masked men (representing the souls of the ancestors, or the gods).

In many places the belief still survives that at the year's end the souls of the dead return to earth and visit the living. The spirits lavish honours upon them for several days, after which they are led in procession to the outskirts of the village, or are driven from it. It is at the same period that the initiation ceremonies for young men are performed.

From chaos to cosmos

Naturally, we seldom find all of these elements grouped together on a equal footing In certain societies the ceremonies of extinguishing and re-kindling the fire predominate; in others it is the expulsion of demons and diseases or the expulsion of the "scapegoat" in animal or human form. But the meaning of the whole ceremony, like that of its constituent elements is sufficiently clear - with the division of time into units or "years" we witness not only the definite conclusion of an interval of time and the beginning of another, but also the complete wiping away of the previous year and of past time.

This is also the meaning of purification rituals - to burn away and annul the sins and errors of the individual and of the whole community - not a mere "purifying". Regeneration, as its name indicates, is a new birth. The annual expulsion of sins, diseases and demons is basically an attempt to restore "pure", primordial Time - in other words, the "instant" of Creation. Every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the origin of the universe. The ritual combats between two groups of actors, the return of the dead, the Saturnalia and the orgies, are so many elements which denote that at the end of one year and in expectation of the New Year there is a repetition of the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos.

The ceremonial for the Babylonian New Year, the akitu, is sufficiently conclusive in this respect and can be traced back to the farthest antiquity. Its ideology and ritual structure existed as early as the Sumerian period, and the system of the akitu has been identified from Akkadian times in the Bronze Age. We are thus dealing with documents of the most ancient civilization known to history, in which the sovereign played a considerable role. He was regarded as the son and representative of the divinity on earth and as such was responsible for the regularity of the rhythms of nature and for the welfare of the entire society. Hence it is not surprising to find that the King was a prominent figure in the ceremonial of the New Year. Upon him fell the duty of ensuring the "rebirth" of time.

In the course of the akitu ceremony, which lasted twelve days, the so-called Epic of the Creation, Enume elish, was solemnly recited. This ritual was really a re-enactment of the combat between the god Marduk and the sea monster Tiamat a fabulous battle which had taken place "before the beginning of years" and which had put an end to chaos by the final victory of the god. Marduk had created the universe from fragments of the torn body of Tiamat, and created man from the blood of the demon Kingu (Tiamat's most powerful ally). That this commemoration was in effect a re-enactment or re-actualization of the Creation is proved both by the rituals and by the formulas recited during the ceremony.

The combat between Tiamat and Marduk was mimed by a struggle between two groups of actors. The ceremonial was also a feature of the New Year dramatic celebrations among the Hittites, in Egypt, and at Ras Shamra But this struggle was more than a commemoration of the original duel between Marduk and Tiamat; it was, a contemporary version of the Creation.

Within the frame of the same akitu ceremonial was sakmuk, "the festival of the Fates", in which omens for each of the twelve months in the year were determined. These were equivalent to creating the twelve months to come. Marduk's descent into Hell was marked by a period of mourning and fasting for the whole community and of "humiliation" for the king, a ritual which formed part of a vast carnival system. It was at this time, too, that the expulsion of sins took place by means of a scapegoat. The cycle was closed with the sacred marriage between the god and the goddess Sparpanîtû.

Celebration of Nawrôz (New Year) in Iran, 31 March
© ICHHTO, 2015

Slaves become the masters

We thus see that the Babylonian New Year festival consisted of a series of rites, purporting to abolish past time, restore primordial chaos and re-enact the creation of the universe: (1) The first act represented the domination of Tiamat and thus signified a return to the mythical period before the Creation. This included the enthronement of a "Carnival King", the "humiliation" of the real sovereign and the complete reversal of the social order - (the slaves became the masters and vice versa). Every feature suggests universal confusion, the abolition of order and hierarchy, "orgy" and chaos. (2) The creation of the world, which had taken place in mythical times, was thus re-enacted every year. (3) Man participated directly, though in a limited way, in this cosmic process (struggle between the two groups of actors representing Marduk and Tiamat). (4) The "festival of the Fates" was a further symbol of the creation, since it decided the "Fate" of each month. (5) The ritual marriage represented the "rebirth" of the world and of mankind.

The symbolic repetition of the Creation  part of the New Year festival has been preserved to this day among the Mandaeans of Irak and Iran. The Persian Tatars still begin the New Year by planting seeds in a jar full of earth; this, they say, is done in memory of the Creation. This custom is in keeping with the general Persian system, as Nawrôz (the Persian New Year) commemorates the day on which the world and man were created. The "renewal of the creation" takes place on the day of Nawrôz, says the Arab historian, Albîrunî. "This is a new day of a new month of a new year", the King would proclaim, "what time has consumed must be renewed."

It was also the day on which men's "destiny" was fixed for the whole year. Innumerable fires and lights were kindled on the night of Nawrôz, and libations were made to ensure plentiful rainfall during the coming year. It was also the custom for everyone to sow seven kinds of seed in a jar and "from their growth, they drew conclusions regarding the nature of the year's harvest". This custom was similar to the "fixing of Fates" which marked the Babylonian New Year, and has survived to the present day in the New Year ceremonies of the Mandaeans and Yezids in Asia Minor.

The twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany are likewise still regarded as a forecast of the next twelve months. Peasants in Europe foretell the weather and rainfall for each month on the basis of the conditions prevailing during those twelve days. The Indians of the Vedic period considered that the twelve middle days of winter constituted an image and replica of the whole year.

Twelve days of the Fates

Almost all Indo-European peoples possessed, from the very ' earliest times, ritual dramatizations of New Year myths which bear a certain resemblance to the ancient systems found in the Near East. But similar dramatizations can be traced in China, in Japan, among certain North American tribes, and others. The dead return among the living; fire is put out and rekindled; boys are initiated; there is a procession of carnival masks; ritual battles take place between rival groups; there is a burst of eroticism (the pursuit of virgins, marriage by rape, orgies) ; the twelve months to come are forecast from the "fate" of the twelve days.

Thus, each of these rituals has its particular significance, and all contribute to building up a system whose aspects include the abolition of the past and a return to "chaos" (darkness, debauchery, abolition of rank, etc.), followed by a new creation, that is by a repetition of the cosmogeny. The New Year expresses man's deep-rooted longing for regeneration by regenerating Time and the Universe as a whole to begin a new life in a new Creation in other words, to be purged of one's sins and forget one's failures.

Back to the issue Happy New Year around the world, 1955-12

Learn more about Nawrôz, Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO


Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade is Rumanian by birth, and now resides in France. He is the author of a history of religions, and other works on Shamanism, Yoga, and Primitive symbolism. His latest essay, an interpretation of mankind's experience of history has appeared in English translation as The Myth of the Eternal Return. The book has also been translated into German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.