“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one who asketh, I know not.” – Augustine of Hippo, Confessions XI.XIV
“Time” is a phenomenon which is fragmented and multifaceted in scope, consisting of numerous subjective views that range from philosophical discourses to personal perceptions to scientific principles. The theory and philosophy of this phenomenon has always been one of contention, a controversial issue that has spawned debate and argumentation over the centuries of human intellectual history. It is ubiquitous and familiar – the ticking hands of a clock in the classroom, or the memories of things which had previously happened – and it is also esoteric and unknowable; it exists in a state of both total subjectivity and total objectivity. One can perceive its passage and influence in life in an entirely separate way from another observer, yet it is utilized, ordered, and employed as a form of universal, quantum measurement. This is a simple slice of the paradox which surrounds the phenomenon.
Time receives its meaning through individualistic and subjective perceptions which ultimately inform its conceptual reality from the view which is commonly ascribed to its existence. Its origin is rooted in fundamental psychological and philosophical premises, including whichever crucial moral, eschatological, or cosmological ideas that the viewer in question may hold . All the same, the concept of time mutualistically reinforces (or perhaps more appropriately enforces) a certain attitude in relation to one’s own position with regards to the phenomenon; one’s understanding of time supports their own purpose of life, their ideas on how to face death, the concepts of religious practice and theology, the ideas of divinity which they may hold, and other theological/philosophical/metaphysical concerns.
It is a portion of these theological and metaphysical concerns which this paper seeks to address, specifically as “time” exists in the perspective of a modern, Western, Heathen. As a religious culture which is affixed to a pre-Christian cultural identity, there is a marketed difference in the engagement with the ritualistic and subjective realities of time between Heathendom and the Christo-Classical influenced over-culture within which modern practitioners are ensconced. Concepts of “Time” run concurrently with the very basic understanding of Heathen cosmological worldview, intersecting directly with the cosmic forces which form them, as well as extend in importance into the ritualistic engagement with the religious performance of Heathendom.
A thorough treatment of the concept of time is outside the scope of this writing, but it nevertheless behooves us to discuss some of the more superficial and common understandings of this concept, as it impacts modern Heathens.
Time guides humans through their lives without a strict uniformity of occurrence. There is no formalized constancy to the rate of time’s passage, because subjectivities can be reorganized through varying internal and external effects of the viewer (age, states of emotion, life situations, etc.), and it is up to the individual human groups to establish orderings of time for their social coordination and temporal ritual experiences . The perception of time which one possesses is due to the repetition of rhythmic events that combine to order and construct one’s sense of progression, ultimately leading to ritualistic development . In modern culture it is ordered linearly, in what is known as a “progressive” time, from the subjective viewpoint of one who themselves experience progression from point A to B, a common feature in the numerical and structural elements of the tripartite system .
Philosophers and scientists have been entranced with the importance of time in human understanding, even if it is paradoxical. Levi-Bruhl’s work argued that linear time was an intrinsic feature of the modern world due largely to the subjective nature of humanity’s microcosmic existence, and it was phenomenologically created by the scale at which human society experienced reality .
Emile Durkheim said that:
At the roots of all our judgments there are a certain number of essential ideas which dominate all our intellectual life; they are what philosophers since Aristotle called categories of understanding: ideas of time, space, class, number, cause, substance, personality, etc. They correspond to the most universal properties of things. They are like the solid frame which encloses all thought…they appear to be nearly inseparable from the normal working of the intellect. They are like the framework of intelligence. , Emphasis by Author.
This preoccupation with the idea of time has existed from early antiquity and it, as Durkheim writes, is an intrinsic and essential motivator behind many philosophical thoughts. A quick treatment of the vagaries between philosophical schools is as follows: Aristotle’s philosophy positions time not as a kind of change but as something which was ultimately dependent on change. As one’s perceptions and self-awareness are influenced by time, the metaphysical reality of the concept itself was a matter of mutable succession, which lead to the doubt of its actual existence as a force. Contrast to this to Platonic time, in which it was viewed as an image of the totality of the universe, an independent existence which is not necessitated by that which is placed within it .
The Stoics were the first Western philosophers to offer an elaborate accounting of time, viewing it as “something” in between being and not-being, but the school failed to work itself out of what exactly this entails. A wider treatment of the Stoic conception of time is given by Robert Heller in “Innovators in Thought: The Stoics on Time Perception”.
Buttressed in the Stoic argument and inculcated throughout the Classical world was a tripartite division of time. Seneca said, “But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”. This division of time is familiar to all Westerners, creating a linear system of one’s life and its reckoning and divided into these three parts. Theologically, this was represented by the Greek Moriae and the Roman Parcae, the Fates and the personification of this phenomenon that they represented.
This tripartite division was inherited by Christianity, which ultimately inserted its own ontology into the concept through the workings of Origen. Taking the Stoic foundation, it was Christian thought that ultimately innovated something new , expanding the notion of the perception of time in order to anchor a counterpoint to the materialist explanation of Stoicism’s time. Where Stoicism viewed that which was real was that which suffered, time could not necessarily be “real” due to its incapability of suffering, time was ultimately positioned secondarily to the concept of Eternity, which was positioned outside subjective time and the nominal flow of it. This was elaborated upon from Origen by Irenaeus of Lyon, Basil, Gregory, and finally treated by Augustine of Hippo:
“Quisnam est, qui dicat mihi non esse tria tempor, sicut pueri didicimus puerosque docuimus, praeteritum, praesens et futurum, sed tantum praesens, quoniam illa duo non sunt?
Who is he that will tell me how there are not three times, as we learned when we were boys, and as we taught other boys, the past, present, and future: but the present only, because the other two are not at all?” 
Stoicism’s immaterial perception of the nature of time can perhaps be glimpsed within Augustine’s views, which could potentially give Christianity it’s forward-facing concern and the eagerness for what comes beyond the flow of time. This forward-facing concern is ultimately one of the reasons why Christianity is considered a world-rejecting religion (among others, coined by Max Weber). In the Discovery of Time, Steven Toulmin and Judith Goodfield assert the reinforcement of a fixed origin of creation (necessitating a finite end) reinforces the concept of linear time through the assertion of a 6,000 year period regarding the origin of matter.
Even ignoring these theological paradigms, the concept of a fixed linear timeline has found purchase within Western society: the universe was given form at a point in time and will invariably find its end, in whichever scientific model one chooses. The application of this perception creates a conundrum for modern Westerners who might be approaching the ritual and cosmological endeavors inimical to the Heathen religious and cultural identity. We will endeavor to explore these concepts and how contemporary Heathens can approach the nuanced and subjective phenomenon of time within a Germanic ritual context.
Heathen Time and Ritual
We should now speak of “Heathen time”, a tradition of ritualistic reckoning and cosmological perception towards the phenomenon of time which is anchored squarely within the pre-Christian Germanic understanding of the universe and reality. This includes the ebb and flow of cosmic, metaphysical facets which are inherent to the contemporary Heathen edifice and of paramount importance in understanding Heathen religious identity. The same rigorous issues which suffuse all other aspects of reconstructionist methodology within Heathenry are readily apparent here; a lack of a wide breadth of written information on what was predominately an oral culture makes such an inquest fraught with perils. While the Sagas and Eddas provide a literary foundation for the discovery of such views, it is difficult to ascertain the relative depth of their comparative purity from Christian influence, as the writers of these otherwise oral histories are inculcated in their own Christo-centric worldviews.
Unlike both Classical and Judaeo-Christian perceptions of time, traditional Germanic cosmological approaches to the phenomenon are decidedly not forward facing at the expense of the past, nor of the world around them. Germanic, thus Heathen, time is ultimately oriented behind, towards that which we have considered the past. Time was essential bifurcated, divided into two states identified as the past and not-past . This bifurcation is mirrored through the division of the cosmos, ultimately, into two realms: the Well and the Tree.
Above all, time was actionable, and the truest expression of reality was that which had already occurred. This view is fundamentally tied to the nature of cosmology within the Germanic system: the worlds of creation, all of the worlds, hang in the World Tree which grows invariably from the Well of Wyrd. The Tree draws nourishment from the Well, which perpetuates the reality of the worlds, but the worlds reciprocate this nourishment by depositing the actions which are put into motion through their enactment and eventual execution (or failure!) back down into the Well. These actions are laid down and form reality, and in doing so replenish and nourish the Tree which supports further actions that spring from those in the past. This dichotomy of action vs. inaction possesses a cyclical nature, and represents a spiritual force which is reflected not only in the mythic remnants of Germanic culture, but also in material and literary remains .
In consideration to the cyclical nature of cosmology, it would appear at first glance that Germanic time follows roughly what Evans-Pritchard termed “oecological time”, or a reckoning of measurement ultimately rooted in a mimicry of the continual return within the world’s life cycle, understandably inspired by seasonal and celestial changes experienced by the community , otherwise known as a circular return to the same point.
Contemporary Paganism typically is assumed to utilize a calendrical system based off of the seasonal cycle of the year, the so-called “Wheel of the Year”, which echos a celestial and oecological fixture of timekeeping as it utilizes these celestial movements in order to arrange both its ritual and temporal understanding. Heathenry, as a de facto “Paganism” largely gets lumped into this same system by those who may be unfamiliar with its particular timekeeping, which is an inaccurate assumption. Germanic time is distinctly cyclical, and not circular, an important consideration.
The actions of the worlds which filter back into the Well of Wyrd ultimately merge with the fabric of reality, integrating with that reality as layers of strata which are laid down after the daily speaking of orlæg (the first law). In this way, the actions of the world become an intrinsic, immutable, and inexorable facet of reality, a past made manifest, which at once is capable of guiding those who are favored (as in Beowulf) and hindering those who have acted poorly enough to become Doomed or otherwise ill of luck (as in The Wanderer). The past becomes significant action, dominated ultimately by what is factual and realized, e.g., that which is enclosed within the Well . In this system, the ‘past’ is the only thing with the strength of reality; indeed, it is the only solid reality, and one which grows as it pulls more events into itself.
Past actions notably do not fade into obscurity as they do in a linear system, relegated to the unreachable past; they cannot. Time does not return to the exact same moment, the return to the past-as-it-occurred as it would do in a circular system. Instead, actions compound on themselves in an ever-growing, ever-reaching, ever more powerful cacophony of existence and force, an up- and outward- reaching movement of past events as they involve and shape the present . The Worlds of the Tree and their not-past (in the case of the Heathen, the world of Man) exist outside the solid reality of the past and while they cannot necessarily perceive the whole of the force or structure of it, they are driven towards the becoming of it . Whoever speaks this original law, this orlæg, which forces the actions of the worlds to lay down as strata in the Well (be they Norns or some other force) is unimportant to this system; it is a universal constant that the past is built upon itself and is a perpetuating, ever-building force behind the propulsion of the universe.
Human activity, then, exists in a way which creates or enters the past which is oriented towards producing a reciprocal reaction within the strata of reality. They exist in a liminal point between the past and non-past, and by extension can experience the solidification of these actions . Whether through mundane or dedicated ritualistic means, this reciprocity of action drives the past onward, and this is the metaphysical seed from which Heathenry should cultivate its understanding of time and ritual.
The intersection with time and attitudes towards the past within Germanic cosmology raises an interesting point of consideration for the application of contemporary Heathen ritual. Much of Heathen ritual theory and wider ritual mechanics are drawn of elements from the works of Mircea Eliade. His work on the positions of ritual in the Sacred-Profane dichotomy, the importance of Mythic Time and its role within the structure of reality itself, and the inevitable cyclical nature of the enactment of ritual play an intrinsic part of an understanding of contemporary Heathen ritualism.
In Eliade’s conception of time the most prominent and most important point within the world of ritual was that of creation, an uncorrupted point when the universe was wrought into existence. In this system the act of ritual is an act of paradigmatic recreation and imitation of this First Time (illo tempore). This ritual creates and returns the space to the conditions of creation and through its ultimate imitation confers the ontic substance upon the activities of humanity, enabling human ritual participants to engage with and enter that which is the Sacred .
This is the central concern with what we shall refer to as “Eliadean ritual”: the centrally located point of prominence of Mythic Time within this system and its notable use as an agent for the sanctification of space in order to manifest and experience hierophany. The First Time is undiluted, uncorrupted, and within the context of hierophanic phenomenology, thoroughly pure. Ritual abolishes the polluted and profane time which Eliade identified as “historic time”. This is done through the recreation of the sacrifice of the cosmogony and in doing so the space of the ritual is brought into the same primordial moment as that of creation, bringing about the state of Sacredness required for divine interaction .
Sacred time was reversible and recoverable and the mythic present was ultimately regenerated through these ritualistic acts . Both kinds of time, Sacred and Profane, were thus lived in. This cyclical view would at first appear to be compatible with the core of what constitutes Heathen ritual, but ultimately provides an inexact fit (at best) for the purpose of contemporary Heathenry. Despite being oriented towards the past, both of the ritualistic concepts of Heathen and Eliadean ritual derive their force of power and cosmological energy from markedly different approaches to past actions.
Consider Eliade’s own words:
“The abolition of time through the imitation of archetypes and the repetition of paradigmatic gestures, a sacrifice, for example, not only exactly reproduces the initial sacrifice revealed by a god ab origine, at the beginning of time, also takes place that same primordial moment… “ . Emphasis added by Author
There is a significant emphasis to the importance of spatial centers as distinct and separate from sequences of time, and contemporary Heathen ritual has tacitly accepted the Elidean thesis that “religious experience of the non-homogeneity of space is a primordial experience homologizable to a founding of the world” . This is understandable, as a reading of Eliade would appear to be authoritative, although inaccurate, in light of the varying human cultures that intrinsically bind temporal and locational space within greater or lesser degrees within ritual.
“Heathen time” in contrast to “Eliadean time” does not place emphasis on any one point of origin of reality, no primordial Mythic Time that serves as an uncontested, sacred source of ritualistic “power”. The “sacred time” of Heathenry is instead the “profane time” of Elidean theory, the actionable historic time which has already occurred . Only one origin myth survives within the Germanic corpus, that of the Norse cosmogony, and even this can be seen as one indicative of action-inaction than purity-impurity.
Heathen past time is not distant or inaccessible, and it does not deteriorate through the progression of continued events or the accumulation of new, more recent actions. As such it is not intrinsically profane in and of itself. The reality of those actions continue to grow in power and the Heathen past, which acts immediately (if discontinuously), manifests at its most potent and strongest at the point between the past and not-past.
It is thus not reasonable to expect Heathen ritual to seek to abolish historic time (Eliade’s “profane” time) in the same way which Eliade’s ritual mechanics would otherwise attempt to do.
Eliade’s works show that his position of “primordial time” is above all notional and conceptual and not located in any one long-gone historical era of our (known) world, but instead not to be found in the historical past . Eliade’s own words position him as exploring an archaic conception of ontology, how time and conceptions of time were said to be, and not necessarily how these “archaic peoples” were said to have truly viewed time . This focus on primordial time extends from Eliade’s desire to restore the “paradise of animality”, of some innate and archaic desire to possess a simpler and ideal existence .
Further, “all sacrifices are performed at the same mythical instant of the beginning; through the paradox of the rite, Profane time and duration are suspended…insofar as an act or object acquires a certain reality through the repetition of certain paradigmatic gestures…there is an implicit abolition of ‘Profane time’, of duration of history.” .
This is an intrinsic contrast in the roles and importance of this historic time between the two systems: where Eliade’s work of Myth and Reality claims that the sacralization of history through the migration of historic events into mythology (the mythologization of historiography) merely camouflages or confuses sacred time with that of profane time, Germanic time would put this very same time into a position of preeminence and continual prominence. The actions one may have accomplished are more than renown, they are transmuted into a fundamental, existential, cosmic worthiness.
As theorized, Eliade’s mechanics would see the suspension of profane, historic, time in favor of some sacred ‘other time’, a facet of practice which clashes with the importance placed on the sacred (historic) time of Germanic cosmology. The Well of Wyrd and the past-as-reality form what Rappaport would identify as a “ritual eternity”. The reality of the cosmos, all that which has been laid down in the Well, is a ceaseless and irreversible expression of the eternal; it is not one of an endless repetition in a cyclical system, but possesses a singular fundamental truth that what was, is, and always shall be will be extant and having an impact on the not-past . The inherent power of the past will always be now, supporting the world of humanity (and all the worlds of the Tree) even though it exists out of sight. Thus any repetition of Heathen ritual would engage with the changelessness of Wyrd as it exists and grows in a paradox of continuation.
The speaking of orlæg has a transmutative effect on the incidence of mundane time, making it an irreversible and mythic occurrence which ritual acting can then engage with, the performance of which distinguishes the newly established (or previously established) extraordinary intervallic time from the ordinary and periodic time of the Tree . Thus exists a system where mundane time is unable to escape the duration of the historic movement, but through the transmutation into mythic occurrence and the repetition of ritual becomes a successionless duration which is able to be grasped by the performers.
Orlæg imparts a sacredness to historic time, providing a mechanic that Eliade lacked in his concerns for and fears regarding the mythologization of historicity. It is thus set apart from the lives and histories of the ordinary, and the “statistical history” of Rappaport becomes the structural and mechanical supports of the cosmos, a worlds-spanning absolute existence .
The unity of statistical history with that of cosmic history within the Well preserves that which would otherwise be lost, and in this way the preservation of these features, peoples, and entities is transferred from nonexistence to the recurring domain of vitality through orlæg’s speaking and humanity’s ritual engagement. In this way we can see that Cicero’s statement in the Ninth Philippic of “Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum” explained more appropriately in the context of metaphysical mechanics – the life of the dead is placed in the living through paradigmatic recreation of ritual, ritualistic commemoration, and engagement with the unrelenting and ever-flowing past as it exists in the moment. As their actions, inactions, glories, and sins have entered and commingled with reality, they affect the living and, through ritual, can be re-engaged, glimpsed, and honored in their own right.
Should this be taken as the central concern of the mechanics behind Heathen ritual, the engagement between the past and non-past, then we can begin to see how Eliade’s metaphysical mechanics are a somewhat inexact fit, and his concerns about the mythologization of historicity create an incongruity within the nature of such ritual enactments. The idiosyncratic and subjective applications of concepts of time, which we have alluded to within the beginning of this work, creates a tension when utilizing ritual theory – a tension which Eliade himself was keen to attempt to reconcile within the realities of his own life.
Sacred traditions of humanity are apprehended as the real by those who engage in their systems and Eliade’s own interpretations are products of his system of exploration. To him, the “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the most important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically regenerated by means of rites.” .
Germanic time is not, however, circular.
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*Note: Special thanks to Widukinding for helping with the Latin translation for the title.