Have you ever wondered whether our existence is cyclical or linear? It’s an interesting question that our ancestors have also pondered, with answers coming from all over the world and from all cultures. This article is about a couple of well-known cultures that have perceived existence as cyclical.
According to Greek mythology, humankind passed through a number of eras that were characterised by specific events, and were known in ancient Greece as the Ages of Man. According to Hesiod ( Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet generally thought to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer), there were five ages that mankind has lived through since the beginning of time. Each of these eras were characterized by certain events and the style and type of living the people witnessed.
In the Works and Days, a poem by Hesiod he describes the five ages as follows:
The Golden Age
The race of the Golden Age lived on the earth in the days of Cronus, when he was reigning over the deathless gods. They lived like gods without sorrow and without toil, and were free from evils. For Cronus would not let any painful toil come upon them, but they lived in peace and plenty all their days. When they died, they were not laid in the house of Death, but were wafted away by the winds to the Elysian plain, which is at the end of the world. There they live in happiness and are free from all evils, and the life which they lead is the life of gods.
The Silver Age
After the Golden came the Silver Race, which was created of the same stock, and was not much inferior to the Golden. They lived in the time of Cronus, and were like the gods. They had a life of nine hundred years, and then they would die, and would be honored like the gods, and would live on in the Isles of the Blessed. But Zeus was angry with them, because they were wanting in respect to the gods, and he destroyed them utterly, and left not a remnant.
The Bronze Age
The third race of men was the Bronze, and was of great strength and stature. They were terrible and warlike, and loved the works of violence. They lived in the time of Cronus, and their armor was of bronze, and their houses were of bronze, and they worked with bronze, and they lived on the food of the gods. But they were destroyed by their own fierceness and strength, and they were changed into stones and rocks.
The Heroic Age
The fourth race of men was the Heroic, and was of great renown. They were the sons of the gods and of mortal women, and they were the heroes who fought at Thebes and Troy. They were mighty warriors and skilled in all the arts of war. They were also skilled in the arts of peace, and they built great cities and founded mighty empires. But they were doomed to die young, and they were all slain in battle or in the pursuit of glory. And when they died, they went to the Elysian plain, where they live in happiness and peace.
The Iron Age
The fifth race of men is the Iron, and is the last. They are of evil repute, and are full of all manner of wickedness. They live in sorrow and toil, and they are constantly at war with each other. They are also subject to disease and poverty, and they have a short and unhappy life. And when they die, they go down to the house of Death, and there they suffer endless torments.
Hesiod’s description of the Five Ages of Man is a pessimistic view of human history. It suggests that humanity is doomed to decline and fall from grace. However, the myth also offers a glimmer of hope. The heroes of the Heroic Age show that it is possible to rise above the darkness and violence of the Iron Age.
The Five Ages of Man have been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries. Some scholars believe that they are a literal description of human history. Others believe that they are a metaphor for the human condition. Still others believe that they are a warning about the dangers of hubris and the importance of humility. Whatever their interpretation, the Five Ages of Man remain a powerful and enduring myth that continues to resonate with people today.
Apart from the Greek mythology’s Five Ages of Man, other cultures have similar concepts. Four yugas in Hinduism is one such example. The Yuga Cycle is a Hindu cosmological concept that describes the cyclical nature of time and the decline of human civilization. Each cycle lasts for 4,320,000 years. As a Yuga Cycle progresses through the four yugas, each yuga’s length and humanity’s general moral and physical state within each yuga decrease by one-fourth.
The Yuga Cycle is divided into four ages, or yugas:
Satya Yuga (or Krita Yuga): Also known as the “Golden Age,” Satya Yuga is considered the most virtuous and ideal era. It is characterized by righteousness, truthfulness, and spiritual enlightenment. People in Satya Yuga are believed to possess deep spiritual wisdom and live in harmony with nature. The average human lifespan is exceptionally long, and there is minimal suffering or conflict.
Treta Yuga is known as the “Silver Age.” It follows the Satya Yuga and is characterized by a slight decline in moral values and spirituality. People in Treta Yuga still maintain a high level of righteousness but are not as spiritually evolved as in the previous age. Religious rituals and sacrifices become more prevalent during this era. The average human lifespan gradually decreases.
Dvapara Yuga, the “Bronze Age,” represents a further decline in morality and spiritual values. Material desires and ego-driven actions become more prominent during this era. People in Dvapara Yuga are engaged in pursuit of power, wealth, and sensory pleasures. The average human lifespan continues to decrease.
Kali Yuga, the “Iron Age,” is the current age according to Hindu mythology. It is characterized by a significant decline in righteousness and spirituality. Materialism, selfishness, and ignorance dominate society. People in Kali Yuga are considered to be far removed from their spiritual nature. The average human lifespan is shorter compared to the previous ages.
The Yugas are believed to follow a descending order, with each subsequent Yuga representing a decline in moral and spiritual values. It is believed that the current age, Kali Yuga, is the least favorable, with the lowest level of righteousness and spirituality.
The Yuga Cycle is a pessimistic view of human history, but it also offers a glimmer of hope. Kali Yuga, which lasts for 432,000 years, is believed to have started in 3102 BCE. Near the end of Kali Yuga, when virtues are at their worst, a cataclysm and a re-establishment of dharma occur to usher in the next cycle’s Satya Yuga, prophesied to occur by Kalki.
Similar notions of cyclical existence are also found by Scandinavian nations. The Ragnarök cycle in Norse mythology does not have a structured series of ages or cycles in the same way as the “Ages of Man” in Greek mythology. Instead, it is depicted as a singular cataclysmic event that marks the end of the current world order. The term “Ragnarök” translates to “Fate of the Gods” or “Doom of the Gods” in Old Norse.
The Ragnarök cycle is characterized by a series of significant events and battles that lead to the destruction of the gods and the world. Some of the notable events include the breaking of bonds, the release of the monstrous wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jormungandr, the death of the god Baldr, and the gathering of armies for the final battle.
During Ragnarök, the forces of chaos and destruction, led by figures like the fire giant Surtr and Loki, clash with the gods and heroes of the Norse pantheon. The battle results in the deaths of numerous deities, including Odin, Thor, and Loki, as well as the destruction of the world itself through floods, earthquakes, and fires.
While the Ragnarök cycle does not have the same structured description of distinct ages or cycles as found in Greek mythology, it does signify a transition from one world to another. After the destruction of the old world, a new world emerges, often referred to as the “Golden Age” or “Age of Renewal.” This new world is populated by surviving gods and two human survivors who repopulate the Earth. The Ragnarök cycle, with its emphasis on destruction and rebirth, reflects the cyclical nature of Norse cosmology and the concept of perpetual renewal. It symbolizes the inevitable cycles of death and rebirth, reminding individuals of the impermanence of life and the need to face adversity with courage and heroism.
According to Aztec mythology, the world has gone through several cycles or ages, each associated with a specific sun or era. These eras are believed to have ended in cataclysmic events, leading to the destruction and rebirth of the world.
The Aztecs believed that we are currently living in the fifth era, called the “Fifth Sun.” The previous four eras, known as the “Four Suns,” were believed to have been destroyed by different cataclysms, such as floods, hurricanes, and fires. Each era had its own gods and distinct characteristics.
The first era, Nahui-Ocelotl (Four-Jaguar), was destroyed by jaguars, symbolizing a great flood. The second era, Nahui-Ehécatl (Four-Wind), was devastated by a great wind that swept away the inhabitants. The third era, Nahui-Quiahuitl (Four-Rain), ended with a rain of fire, causing widespread destruction. The fourth era, Nahui-Atl (Four-Water), was destroyed by a massive flood.
The current era, the Fifth Sun, is believed to be vulnerable to destruction as well. It is said that it will end with earthquakes, and the sun will no longer shine. However, the Aztecs believed that humanity has the ability to delay the destruction through sacrifices and rituals, maintaining the cosmic balance.
The concept of “Suns” or “Eras” in Aztec mythology reflects a cyclical understanding of time, where the world goes through repeated cycles of creation and destruction. It shares some similarities with the Ancient Greek concept of “The Ages of Man” in terms of the cyclical nature of existence, although the specifics and underlying beliefs differ between the two cultures.
The Aztec concept of “Suns” or “Eras” provides a framework for understanding the past, present, and future, and it underscores the Aztec worldview, emphasizing the impermanence and ever-changing nature of the world.
- Ragnarök (wikipedia.org)
- Ragnarok in Norse Mythology: Overview & Story (study.com)
- Yuga Cycle (wikipedia.org)
- All 4 Yugas (rudraksha-ratna.com)
- Aztec Mythology (University of Houston)
- Aztec Mythology (mythopedia.com)