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Hit and Myth: Nietzsche, Mythology and Eternal Reccurence

By Gwendolyn Taunton

The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed, and the first of that which is coming. Thus it is with time present.
– Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

aristokratia, mythology, nietzscheOne of the most fascinating aspects of Nietzsche’s work is also one of his least understood concepts. Whilst he is popularly known for creations such as the ‘Death of God’, the ‘Will to Power’, the ‘Ubermensche’, and the Apollonian/Dionysian dyad, his concept of Eternal Recurrence still remains elusive, despite it also being entwined with all of his other, more commonly known ideas. It is Thus Spoke Zarathustra that defines the fundamental idea of the Eternal Recurrence, delivered in Sphinx like riddles and parables. It appears consistently in Nietzsche’s other works also, and if Nietzsche had remained healthy, he would have a written a book devoted to the topic. Unfortunately due to his mental collapse this book never eventuated, and since Nietzsche himself was never able to fully elaborate on his definition of Eternal Recurrence its exact nature remains open to speculation.

Due to Nietzsche’s cryptic writing style, Eternal Recurrence can only be loosely defined without delving deeply into the philosophy behind it. Obviously it relates to time, but there are a number of points concerning its exact nature that require answers. Firstly, to define the philosophy of Eternal Recurrence we must look to its ideological predecessors. This demonstrates that the theory has occurred many times in the past, before Nietzsche was even born. After all, if the idea is ‘Eternal’, and it ‘Reoccurs’, it has to be able to exist independently of Nietzsche’s ontology. As such it is perfectly logical to explore the concept of Eternal Recurrence as an idea which occurred before Nietzsche, and also will occur again after Nietzsche.

Eternal Recurrence did not develop in a vacuum. It is well known that Nietzsche, despite his contentions with the predominant religious doctrine of his era, was very much inspired by Hellenic myths. This period of Hellenic revival was quite popular before Nietzsche composed his main works and its intellectual heritage can be seen in the Romantic Movement as well as in other authors such as Creuzer and Bachofen. It was via these authors that the notion of ‘cyclic time’ first began to enter into Germanic philosophy which would later influence Nietzsche and also Oswald Spengler.

Creuzer served not only as an inspiration for his ideas on Dionysus, but also for mythological depictions of time. Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker includes numerous depictions of nature or time as a cycle, describing Chronos as “the god who is withdrawn [zurückgezogen] into himself,” and represented by a serpent in the form of a circle. [1] Furthermore, the notion of cyclic time in Creuzer’s work also references the Greek idea of metempsychosis which is analogous to reincarnation, as found in the Hindu Tradition. In Creuzer’s work it is also linked to the God Dionysus.

Bachofen, though today almost universally discredited for his lack of research, was still the first of the German authors active in this revivalist period to put forward the Telluric/Uranic dichotomy which influenced both Nietzsche and later Julius Evola. Nietzsche was very interested in this, and it is known that the Apollo/Dionysus dyad is actually Nietzsche’s correction of Bachofen’s original model. Rather than seeing it as a male/female polarity, Nietzsche recast it as a male/male dyad which Hellenic myth itself confirms. Apollo and Dionysus were closely linked in Greek mythology. Nietzsche’s substitution of Dionysus for Demeter is more faithful to the original renditions found in Greek myth, as found at sites like Delphi where the two gods were worshiped together. He sees Demeter’s role as secondary to that of Dionysus, who through his death and rebirth, is a symbol of eternal life. This is part of the Eleusinian mysteries as Nietzsche explains;

The initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries hoped for a rebirth of Dionysus, which we now can understand as the mysterious end of individuation. The initiate’s song of jubilation cried out to this approaching third Dionysus. And only with this hope was there a ray of joy on the face of the fragmented world, torn apart into individuals, just as myth reveals in the picture of the eternal sorrow of sunken Demeter, who rejoices again for the first time when someone says to her that she might be able once again to give birth to Dionysus.[2]

Dionysus then, according to Nietzsche, has the power to die and be born again. Like time the nature of Dionysus is inherently cyclic which ties Nietzsche’s representation of Dionysus to the concept of Eternal Recurrence. The idea of an eternal return may also originate with Bachofen. Bachofen mentions a number of symbols later associated with the Eternal Recurrence, “including the caduceus, the phoenix, and the serpent, which has a long life, turns back [zurückkehrt] from an old one into a youth and gains new and greater powers, until she is resolved [aufgelöst] into herself again after the completion of a set span [S]he is immortal and turns back on herself.”[3]

These symbols are immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with esoteric symbolism – the caduceus as the representation of the Hermetic ascent via the solar and lunar powers from the telluric to the uranic and finally the immortal unification –the phoenix or eagle; again the uranic and the telluric (serpent) power. To both Creuzer and Bachofen, the events of cosmic time shifted and revolved around these two polarities, shaping the course of both history and civilization. The snake and the eagle are mystical symbols par excellence; they are seen in Vedic India, in Norse myth and in the Roman Empire. They are of course, also the animal companions of Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet for his philosophical doctrine. Zarathustra describes them here;

And behold! An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck.

The snake and the eagle are not represented in conflict, but in a conjoint function, which is healthy and normal. The atmosphere surrounds the earth, the earth breathes via the sky. Without each other, the two are both rendered impotent. When paired together the great celestial hierogamy is complete, the ascension obtained by complete mastery of both the material and the spiritual worlds. To suggest that either a fully uranic or telluric society is preferable is to condone an act of imbalance. Nietzsche deployed the images and symbols of myth and Tradition to alter the mainstream religion of his era; Zarathustra and Dionysus being a substitute for Jesus. They are not the only mythological characters Nietzsche resurrects from the passage of history however. Prometheus also plays an integral part in Nietzsche’s philosophy, for it is Prometheus whom embodies the ‘Tragic’ sentiment of his philosophy and aesthetics.

That immense distrust of the titanic forces of nature, that Moira [Fate] enthroned mercilessly above all knowledge, that vulture that devoured Prometheus, friend of man, that fatal lot drawn by wise Oedipus, that family curse on the House of Atreus, that Orestes compelled to kill his mother, in short, that entire philosophy of the woodland god, together with its mythical illustrations, from which the melancholy Etruscans died off, all that was overcome time after time by the Greeks (or at least hidden and removed from view) through the artistic middle world of the Olympians.[4]

It is Fate, Nietzsche’s, eternal muse, around who his Amor Fati revolves, which punishes Prometheus for his sin of hubris – the downfall of many a hero in Greek myth and it is the cardinal sin which raises the ire of the Greek Gods. For eternity Prometheus is bound to a rock, his liver devoured by an eagle. Prometheus represents Nietzsche’s ideal of the tragic hero The importance of the myth of Prometheus to Nietzsche’s philosophy is easily demonstrated by looking at the first German edition of The Birth of Tragedy, were Prometheus and the eagle are shown on the books title page. Prometheus not only plays a significant role in this book, but in much of Nietzsche’s writing, for he believed the myth of Prometheus to be the counterpart to the tale of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden – Prometheus is to Nietzsche the Aryan myth of the Fall from God.[5]

“The legend of Prometheus,” Nietzsche writes, “is indigenous to the entire community of Aryan races and attests to their prevailing talent for profound and tragic vision. In fact, it is not improbable that this myth has the same characteristic importance for the Aryan mind as the myth of the Fall has for the Semitic, and that the two myths are related as brother and sister.” [6]

Like Prometheus, Dionysus too suffers a gruesome fate, and is dismembered before he under goes a miraculous resurrection, which is why Nietzsche uses the god as his symbol of the will to power and eternal life. Thus Dionysus becomes the emblem of the ‘tragic philosopher’ – the role Nietzsche claims for himself in Ecce Homo. He also traces his intellectual heritage back to Heraclitus stating that, “The doctrine of the ‘eternal recurrence,’ that is, of the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of things — this doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been taught already by Heraclitus”.[7]

The method Nietzsche uses to tie mythology together with Eternal Recurrence is also connected with On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. Even at this stage many of his ideas exist in rudimentary form: “Thus the beast lives unhistorically, for it gets up in the present like a number without any odd fraction left over; it does not know how to play a part, hides nothing, and appears in each moment exactly and entirely what it is.” [8] The unhistorical is then contrasted with the super-historical:

With the phrase “the unhistorical” I designate the art and the power of being able to forget and to enclose oneself in a horizon with borders; “super-historical” I call the powers which divert the gaze from what is developing back to what gives existence an eternal and unchanging character, to art and religion.[9]

It is with the unhistorical and the super-historical that one can influence or remain unaffected by the effects of time/history.

Now, people should not be surprised: they are the names of poisons: the antidotes against the historical are called the unhistorical and the super-historical. With these names we turn back to the start of our examination and to its close.[10]

The super-historical provides reference to an eternal mode of art and religion (a primordial tradition) – add myth to this equation and a very clear picture begins to emerge; the harkening back to older surviving elements of culture such as myth, provides anchors in Nietzsche’s ‘mind-war’ against the ‘cultural philistines’. Because things such as myth, art, and religion are super-historical, their recurrence is certain, and they have the power to challenge modernity in their pure, eternal, and unconditional state.

One of Nietzsche’s most profound statements on time also deals with Eternal Recurrence and the horror of an endlessly repeated act or moment:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”[The Gay Science, §341]

Not only does this embody the Will to Power as the supreme affirmation of Life, it hides a truth which is even more profound – this demon that torments the mind with either an eternity of Heaven or Hell in an endless ahistorical present, is no less than an old devil in a new guise: it is Nietzsche’s personal devil, the Spirit of Gravity. Ironically it is also the Spirit of Gravity in the guise of a dwarf that reveals to the Zarathustra the nature of Eternal Recurrence. The Spirit of Gravity also represents Time, for he drips lead into Zarathustra’s ear – lead being on the lowest alchemical plane and tied to the world of matter and the mundane. Lead is the element of Saturn/Chronos the God of Time. This reference is explicitly alchemical in meaning and even the Spirit of Gravity refers to Zarathustra as the ‘philosophers stone’, hinting that the transformation which must take place is to transform the Spirit of Gravity (the lower self) into gold to complete the ascension which renders one ahistorical.

Upward—defying the spirit that drew it downward toward the abyss, the spirit of gravity, my devil and archenemy. Upward — although he sat on me, half dwarf, half mole, lame, making lame, dripping lead into my ear, leaden thoughts into my brain.

“O Zarathustra,” he whispered mockingly, syllable by syllable; “you philosopher’s stone [Stein derWeisheit]! You threw yourself up high, but every stone that is thrown up must fall. You threw yourself up so high. Sentenced to yourself and to your own stoning—O Zarathustra, far indeed have you thrown the stone, but it will fall back on yourself.”

Then the dwarf fell silent.

“Behold this gateway, dwarf!” I continued. “It has two faces. Two paths meet here; no one has yet followed either to its end. This long lane stretches back for an eternity. And the long lane out there, that is another eternity. They contradict each other, these paths; they offend each other face to face; and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: ‘Moment.’ But whoever would follow one of them, on and on, farther and farther —do you believe, dwarf, that these paths contradict each other eternally?” “All that is straight lies,” the dwarf murmured contemptuously. “All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.”[11]

It is therefore not the tragic hero/prophet Zarathustra who reveals the secret of Eternal Recurrence, but his adversary/lower self, the Spirit of Gravity who tells Zarathustra ‘time is a circle’. It is not linear but destined to repeat, with history curving inwards, like a spiral or Mobius strip, or the snake which is also one of Zarathustra’s animals. In Vedic myth the serpent is also a solar symbol as well as a telluric one – the coils of the serpent represent the earth’s passage around the sun. The snake is therefore, also the measurement of time in the cosmos. The Eternal Recurrence is again explicitly compared with time and a serpent when Nietzsche writes:

Do not be afraid of the stream of things: this stream turns back on itself: it runs away from itself not only twice. Every “it was” becomes again an “it is.” The past bites everything future in the tail. (November 1882-February) [12]

The serpent Ouroboros devours its own tail in Western esoteric Tradition – again the symbol of time. It is also the symbol of earth and wisdom, wisdom born with the passage of time, and is an equally high symbol of power as the eagle which bears the snake aloft. Power and Wisdom sit in perfect flux as the ideal symbol of nobility.

Nietzsche’s most quoted (and usually erroneously quoted) topic the ‘Death of God’ is not something Nietzsche perceived as beneficial. The Parable of the Madman clearly states that Nietzsche did not believe humanity was at a sufficient level of maturity for it to survive the ‘Death of God’ without lapsing into nihilism. God would have to be replaced if absent – but with what? Nietzsche knew that the ‘Death of God’, if enacted too early, would breed the most loathsome of things – the ‘cultural philistines’. Today the phenomenon of the ‘cultural philistine’ seems to have been replaced by the term ‘cultural Marxist’ but the intent and purpose remains the same; the cultural philistine weakens society and civilization by promoting useless and often harmful things whilst taking no interest or attacking things that once made their own civilization great. To this end, Nietzsche needed to leave something in place to counteract the damage caused by cultural philistines which would result from the premature ‘Death of God’. He left them with Eternal Recurrence.

Eternal Recurrence is not only the notion of cyclic time. It is something more than that. It is also something more than the Spirit of Gravity which prevents the human ascent to a higher type. It is the super-historical reborn, the revolution of time and eternity which repeats endless in every single moment. Time becomes an inevitable and eternal construct that pervades every aspect of consciousness until the mind is liberated and ‘over-takes’ Time. The Eternal Recurrence is the cultural philistines/cultural Marxists worst nightmare; it is no less than the return of the mythic and the pathos in arts and culture. Symbols are constant, the one thing that cannot perish and they are born again from age to age, never in their exact form and always with new effects – they survive the death of countries, nations, and their inhabitants. Like Dionysus, they have life immortal. Each and every symbol resides in the mind and in the blood, awaiting to be reawakened by prophets such as Zarathustra who are able to resurrect them via art, myth, or religion. Words have power and can eviscerate empires just as surely as Nietzsche’s hammer can destroy the idolatry of the State. For Nietzsche, this unity of myth and philosophy was not static, it remained dynamic and cyclical. The death of myth could be traced back to Socrates and Euripides; the rebirth of myth would occur through the agency of Wagner, and would represent, at the same time, the self-over-coming of philosophy.[13] Time repeats, and when it repeats for the posthumous Nietzsche, he wants it to bring High Culture, a return to a rich and glorious past. The connection between the destruction of myth and the collapse of culture is explicitly stated;

Over against this, let us consider abstract man stripped of myth, abstract education, abstract mores, abstract law, abstract government; the random vagaries of the artistic imagination unchannelled by any native myth; a culture without any fixed and consecrated place of origin, condemned to exhaust all possibilities and feed miserably and parasitically on every culture under the sun. Here we have our present age, the result of a Socratism bent on the extermination of myth. Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb. [14]

He also explicitly states that the import of a foreign myth is likely to damage the culture it is introduced to, and is therefore detrimental to culture. Nietzsche says that ;

These same symptoms lead us to suspect the same lack at the heart of this culture—the destruction of myth. It seems hardly possible that transplanting a foreign myth would enjoy any lasting success, without irreparably damaging the tree in the transplant. [15]

To that end, Nietzsche recreates the Ayran Zarathustra as the prophet for the return of the mythic, and arms him with the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, which in its fullest manifestation comes close to the Greek doctrine of metempsychosis, Vedic notions of Yugas, and even a form of soteriology. In the Stillest Hour Nietzsche says that “Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world” indicating that if a philosopher comes to power, he does so in a higher sense than the political ruler. [16] The philosopher comes to power not via politics, but because they are the higher type – amor fati. When Nietzsche declares himself as the ‘Last Anti-Political German’ he really means it, because Nietzsche’s goal is nothing less than the outright rejection of the foundations of modern politics in favour of a new system where modern politics and the State no longer even exist. Had Nietzsche lived long enough to explain Eternal Recurrence in full we may know more, but a hint of its content can be found in the Will to Power.

My philosophy brings the triumphant idea of which all other modes of thought will ultimately perish. It is the great cultivating idea: the races that cannot bear it stand condemned; those who find it the greatest benefit are chosen to rule […] Everything becomes and recurs eternally – escape is impossible! – Supposing we could judge value, what follows? The idea of recurrence as a selective principle, in the service of strength (and barbarism!!) […] To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain (pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure…); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the “will”; abolition of “knowledge-in-itself.” [17]

It is stated plainly. Everything repeats. No moment is unique in its passing, time passes without pity or remorse and the moment is but a reflection of an infinite regression and chain of dependence that takes one back to the first principle of causation. This can be the ultimate horror for some or the height of bliss. In its form as the return of myth in can revitalise or perish, but in its function as time, fixed stasis is impossible. Change and death are inevitable, and the only hope one has of survival is to be preserved in an ahistorical form. Though Nietzsche changed his stance on many of his thoughts, these core ideals remained constant. Letters written after his mental collapse from progressive brain cancer which represent his last lucid moments before death bear testimony on his philosophy of religion and Eternal Recurrence: eight of his letters bear the signature “Dionysus,” while eight others are signed as “the Crucified.”

 

[1]Yelle, R. A., The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and it’s Romantic Antecedents in Numen Vol. 47 (Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 184
[2]Nietzsche, F., The Birth of Tragedy
[3]Yelle, R. A., The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and it’s Romantic Antecedents in Numen Vol. 47 (Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 186 189-190
[4]Nietzsche, F., The Birth of Tragedy
[5]Grottanelli, C., Nietzsche and Myth, (University of Chicago Press, 1997)
[6]Grottanelli, C., Nietzsche and Myth, (University of Chicago Press, 1997)
[7]Yelle, R. A., The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence ad it’s Romantic Antecedents in Numen Vol. 47 (Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 178
[8]Nietzsche, F., On the Use and Abuse of History for Life
[9]Nietzsche, F., On the Use and Abuse of History for Life
[10]Nietzsche, F., On the Use and Abuse of History for Life
[11]Yelle, R. A., The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and it’s Romantic Antecedents in Numen Vol. 47 (Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 180
[12]Yelle, R. A., The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and it’s Romantic Antecedents in Numen Vol. 47 (Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 182
[13]Yelle, R. A., The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and it’s Romantic Antecedents in Numen Vol. 47(Netherlands: Brill, 2000),195
[14]Nietzsche, F., Kritische Studienausgabe
[15]Nietzsche, F., The Birth of Tragedy
[16]Cominos, M., The Anti-Political Nietzsche, Australasian Political Studies Association Conference University of Newcastle, 2006.
[17]Nietzsche, F., The Will to Power

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