Wasteland - Fraser Eternal Return, Eliade

Wasteland - Fraser


Wasteland: One of the first major comparative works in the field of mythology was Sir James Fraser’s, Golden Bough. What he was interested in was an extensive set of stories in which the sickness and health of a single figure is seen as synchronized with the sickness or health of the land. It’s from this point of view, he argues, that kings were sacrificed.

All that the people know, or rather imagine, is that somehow they themselves, their cattle, and their crops are mysteriously bound up with their divine king, so that according as he is well or ill the community is healthy or sickly, the flocks and herds thrive or languish with disease, and the fields yield an abundant or a scanty harvest. The worst evil which they can conceive of is the natural death of their ruler, whether he succumb to sickness or old age, for in the opinion of his followers such a death would entail the most disastrous consequences on themselves and their possessions; fatal epidemics would sweep away man and beast, the earth would refuse her increase, nay, the very frame of nature itself might be dissolved. To guard against these catastrophes it is necessary to put the king to death while he is still in the full bloom of his divine manhood, in order that his sacred life, transmitted in unabated force to his successor, may renew its youth, and thus by successive transmissions through a perpetual line of vigorous incarnations may remain eternally fresh and young, a pledge and security that men and animals shall in like manner renew their youth by a perpetual succession of generations, and that seedtime and harvest, and summer and winter, and rain and sunshine shall never fail. (Fraser, Golden Bough, 521a)

The renewal of the king(ship) is related to the renewal of the land. Beneath the synchronization of individual and collective narratives was his comparative analysis of death and resurrection as well as the redemption of wastelands. On one level, the death and resurrection of nature relates to the seasons, and the resurrection of mythic figures represents Spring’s resurrection of nature. On another level, the motif extends into any form of wasteland—not just winter. This includes famine for any reason, plague, war, infertility, godlessness.

            It was Jesse Weston who famously applied this motif to a connection between the wasteland and Grail King’s wound—a concept that was translated into new art in The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot. The wasteland motif developed by Eliot, Weston and Fraser became a major influence on the Eranos / Bollingen crowd. As relevant as it was to understanding old myths, what Eliot did to recast modern life as a neo-wasteland inspired new ways to bridge myth and contemporary conversations. This had a major influence on Campbell, who came to describe the wasteland as a world in which myths are used to serve oppressive power structures instead of the vitality of spirit.

Returning to the myth of Osiris, we see an alignment of the journey after death with the chaos, war and occupation brought by Set. A story that engages this motif makes sure to display the world’s restoration or transformation at a climactic moment near the end, and it often coincides with the resurrection or redemption of the protagonist. For example, Sleeping Beauty wakes up and so does the kingdom, Beast is resurrected as the prince and his castle’s curse is lifted, and, most famously among mythologists, the healing of the Grail King triggers the healing of wasteland. Christ’s resurrection brings the Messianic age in which the just are freed from Hell and the living are connected with God. Persephone’s return from the underworld bring Spring. Osiris’ resurrection is conflated with the resurrection of crops and general return of life to the land.

In some stories, the flowing fluids of the redeemed wasteland is the blood of enemies. This is seen in the return journeys of Odysseus and Osiris, whose sons—Horus and Telemachus—lead the slaughter of occupying enemies. In the myth of Osiris, the victory of a pharaoh and army over its enemies is conflated with the victory of flood over drought, which is the victory of life over death, which they associated with the daily victory of light over darkness. Seth represents drought, death and darkness as the invading bringer of war and occupation.

In Egypt, this myth and its corresponding rituals were celebrated during the intercalary days between the end of the old year and beginning of the new. This relates to the mythic moment in which a completely dismembered Osiris (14 pieces for the two sides of a 28 day lunar cycle) are recombined for the conception of Horus, a moment that corresponds with the bottommost hours of his underworld journey in which his own resurrection begins.[1] The story, as a whole, spans the death and resurrection of sun, field and pharaoh. In the process, all scourges are cast out for fresh beginnings. For the Egyptians, the victory of day over night relates to the victory of light and creation over darkness and the chaos of nonbeing. The rise of the sun is from Nu—dark waters of unformed creative potential. The synchronization of the Osiris myth with night and day demonstrates its representation of the battle between light and darkness.

[1] Even though “the adoption of the solar year as the unit of time is of Egyptian origin. [And even though] the majority of other historical cultures … had a year, at once lunar and solar, of 360 days (that is, 12 months of 30 days each), to which five intercalary days were added,” (51) when we look at the wasteland and redemption in relation to an annual cycle, we have to realize that other cycles than the sun and moon can dominate the seasons of life and death. This was the case along the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates and Indus river, around which rose the three first major civilizations. For these cities and the ongoing ripples of their myths, the crop cycle was governed, first and foremost, by annual drought and flood. The same can be said of Byblos and the Adonis river. Adonis is another figure whose death and resurrection is associated with the death and resurrection of crops. Like Osiris, he’s born from a tree, and by no coincidence, the tree from which Osiris is born is the land flooded by Adonis’ river—to which Seth is banished.

Eternal Return, Eliade

New Year – New Creation: This alignment of daily and annual creation with creation itself is the direction Eliade, another Bollingen author, expanded on wasteland. He writes, “every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony” (Eternal Return 54). Horus’ defeat of Seth during the intercalary days relates to what Eliade describes as a New Years “repetition of the mythical … passage from chaos to cosmos” (ibid). “The essential thing” he writes, “is that…

there is everywhere a conception of the end and the beginning of a temporal period, based on the observation of bio-cosmic rhythms and forming part of a larger system—the system of periodic purifications (cf. purges, fasting, confession of sins, etc.) and of the periodic regeneration of life…In certain societies the ceremonies of extinguishing and rekindling the fire predominate; in others, it is the material expulsion (by noise an violent gestures) of demons and diseases; in yet others, the expulsion of the scapegoat in human or animal form. (52-54)

The meaning of this ceremony and “its constituent elements is sufficiently clear: on the occasion of the division of time into independent units, ‘years,’ we witness not only the effectual cessation of a certain temporal interval and the beginning of another, but also the abolition of the past year and of past time” (54).[1]

The association of creation with annual renewal, on another axis, relates to the mimesis of heaven and earth. A favorite example is the way royal courts and temple complexes around the world come to mime the heavens.

  Eliade points out that, “Marriage rites too have a divine model, and human marriage reproduces the hierogamy, more especially the union of heaven and earth. ‘I am Heaven,’ says the husband, ‘thou art Earth’” (duayr aham, pritivi tvam; Brahadaranyaka Upanisad, VI, 4, 20 ; Eliade 23). Connecting the procreation of humans with creation itself, he writes, “let us point out that the cosmic myth serves as the exemplary model not only in the case of marriages but also in the case of any other ceremony whose end is the restoration of integral wholeness; this is why the myth of The Creation of the World is recited in connection with cures, fecundity, childbirth, agricultural activities, and so on. The cosmogony first of all represents Creation” (25). He gives the example of the Babylonian Ishtar and Tammuz.

It is on New Year’s day that Ishtar lies with Tammuz, and the king reproduces this mythical hierogamy by consummating ritual union with the goddess (i.e., with the hierodule who represents her on earth) in a secret chamber of the temple, where the nuptial bed of the goddess stands. The divine union assures terrestrial fecundity; when Ninlil lies with Enlil, rain begins to fall. The same fecundity is assured by the ceremonial union of the king, that of couples on earth, and so on. The world is regenerated each time the hierogamy is imitated, i.e., each time matrimonial union is accomplished…Marriage regenerates the ‘year’ and consequently confers fecundity, wealth, and happiness” (26).

[1] The Southern Californian Chumash, for example, stay inside during the winter solstice. During this time, the greatest Shamans perform ritual dances in sacred caves through which light pours perfectly on this day alone. Meanwhile, Coyote and Eagle play dice with the cosmos.