Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of January 3rd - January 9th,  2003

The Mythic Origins of Time

Columns Archive



Irish monks

Early Irish monks

   By the time history writes down and records myths for future generations, they are already old. When Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-627 BC) sent out men across the land to gather tales for his library in Nineveh, the Epic of Gilgamesh was one of the earliest they found, it's memory all but forgotten. One thousand years later, when monks in Ireland recorded the Celtic tales in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, they were preserving stories from a deeply rooted oral tradition. Many of these myths represent slices of history, when the skies spoke to these cultures and painted for them a story of their moment in time.

   During the Age of Gemini (6456-4304 BC), we uncover evidence of a symbolic shorthand for sky motifs in figurines and on vases. This artwork weaves a web which is both recognizable and repetitious. The most common motifs are birds (Gemini is an air sign), together with stylized figures of twins in various combinations. From this epoch springs the origins of the Tao, and of the philosophies of Yin and Yang. It was a time when duality reigned. Creation myths which speak of eggs are typical. In Hindu tradition, Brahma created the Universe from a golden egg. First, he made the waters and in them put a seed. It grew into an egg, which he split. From the golden half came the heavens, from the silver half, Earth. From this one egg came all creation, a model of the universe. Other cultures have similar stories, including our own search for eggs at Easter.

The Egg

Braham and the Egg

   This theme of duality becomes part of our symbolic shorthand of this period. While it's source stems from the constellation on the vernal equinox at the time, it can also be applied to the pivot of heaven around which the Equinoxes turn, the North Celestial Pole. Since Iota Draconis, a star in the belly of the dragon, was closest to the pole in 5200 BC, themes of two plus dragon begin to appear, as with the caduceus, or the dragon being split in two.

   In one creation myth, Marduk splits Ti'amat, the dragon of heaven, in half with a great wind, representative of our air sign Gemini. We join the action as, seized with a terrible rage, Ti'amat lets out a roar, and trembles with anger as she attacks:

   Ti'amat and the champion of the gods,
Marduk, engaged, were tangled in single combat,
joined in battle. The lord spread his net,
encompassing her; the tempest, following after,
he loosed in her face.
Ti'amat opened her mouth as far as she could;
he drove in the tempest lest she close her lips.
The fierce winds filled her belly,
her insides congested and (retching),
she opened wide her mouth: he let fly an arrow,
it split her belly, cut through her inward parts,
and gashed the heart.
He held her fast, extinguished her life.

   Marduk's Net is the coordinate system used to 'capture' the constellations, which Marduk does as they flee from the battle. Ti'amat's body, having been split, becomes two, our Heaven and Earth. Some early calendars split their year in two, dividing time by both the start of summer and winter. The Celts celebrated a New Year both on May Day and Halloween, while the Hebrews did the same with Passover and Rosh Hashana.

   This myth is telling us the tale of time's beginnings, and the origins of the calendar.