Myth and Misunderstandings Part II:
The Types of Mythical Content—
Rhythmical Renewel rather than Eternal Return

Now let me make good what I have said, that in the myth you have a lot of things that are not stories. For instance, I have listed nine different types. Let me just enumerate them; I shall deal with two of them as examples.

1. These are symbolizations of the established order of empire. The empire is an analogy of the cosmos; you might call it a small cosmos—a cosmion. Such formulations of the analogy between empire structure and cosmic structure are, for instance, found in the famous preamble to the Code of Hammurabi—no story at all; rather, parallel structures between the heavens and the earth. The empire, the small cosmion, is parallel to the heavens.

2. Then a case in which you have history, but a history of a very peculiar kind, a foundation myth of empire. In the case of establishment, the myth is symbolized by the parallel, the analogy, while the foundation myth must be symbolized by an action among the gods. The form is not strictly a history but a drama, such as the Theology of Memphis, of probably 3000 B.C., a drama that tells the story of the foundation of Egypt as a drama enacted among the gods.

3. Then in the crisis periods, for instance, in the First Intermediate Period—about 2200 to 2000 B.C. was the height of the crisis in Egypt—you find highly intricate discussions of the contemporary skeptical arguments, with the existential analysis of the two existences leading out of this mess. We'll come back to that.

4. Or you have literary lyrics expressing skepticism of the gods, not a story of the gods at all, but expressing skepticism of man with regard to the stories told about the gods; for instance the "song of the Harper"—songs of skepticism.

5. Then a vast body is roughly equivalent to what you would find on the ordinary level of common sense, in the eighteenth century meaning of that word, the Wisdom literature; nothing about the gods, only about man, but in this context of a cosmological civilization.

6. Then the great expressions of defeat, victory, and restoration of empire; no story at all, but the relation between the ruler and gods. That is the problem.

7. Then the ritual renewals of order in the New Year Festivals, what Eliade usually brings under the "éternel retour," the "eternal return." There is no "eternal return" in any ancient civilization; there is only a rhythmical renewal, and the rhythm is not an eternal renewal. Let me briefly explain that, because there is still a lot of misunderstanding about it. When you have a rhythmical renewal you have something like a sine wave, like the annual spring, summer, fall, and winter, time going on and on.

But then there is something like a return, an eternal return of the same, and that would be really a circle of events. [Aristotle touches upon this] problem, when he asks the question, "If I am living at this point here, that being my present, and then I have a historical event, like the war against Troy, I can ask myself the question, Which way am I nearer to the war against Troy, going backward, or going forward?" That would be eternal return. But such an eternal return in a historical conception is nowhere to be found before the seventh century B.C., in Hinduism and in Hellas. No ancient civilization had any conception of an eternal return, but only of rhythmic renewal. That was not a story either, but the question of ritual renewal.

8. Then something else, which does not properly come under the term myth in the sense of a story of the gods, is the construction of unilinear history, from the beginning of the creation of the world, down to the imperial present, to the empire. We have—that is also very easy to ascertain—unilinear history in ancient civilizations, but we have no cyclical history. There is no concept of cyclical history in the ancient civilizations of the cosmological empires, but there is unilinear history. I shall come back to that in the second lecture.

9. And here we have all sorts of symptoms of a breakthrough beyond cosmic experience in the direction of either a beginning in time, extrapolation into the past to the point of origin, or to the origin in the transcendent. We have speculations or extrapolations of a long past history, extrapolating one part of it back to the beginning—that is one way of putting it—or prayers directed, without benefit of other parts of reality, to an unknown God, beyond all the known gods. Thus, the problem of the unknown God is already a problem in Egyptian civilization. The main god of the later period is Amon, and the Egyptian word Amon means "the hidden one." So the hidden god, which becomes very relevant in gnosticism, is already present in the Amon Hymns, at the latest in the eighth century B.C.

Here we have all sorts of literature and symbolic expressions, which are always lumped together as myth and of which only a small part has the character of a story. As we have seen already from the enumeration, all human problems and situations with which we are familiar are also myths. The question of the loss of existence, questions of alienation, of crisis, of empire, of personal crisis, and so on, all are subject matter for expression in a peculiar medium, so there is not only one blocklike, peculiar conception of this or that.

CW VOL 33,
The Drama of Humanity
and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939-1985
The Drama of Humanity,
pp 189-192.