Cyclical Regenerative Time

Historical time concerns itself with the major dimensions of time contained in the past, the present and the future. This is time made of unrecoverable moments which never happen again. Cyclical time concerns itself with natural occurences which happen again and again. These repeating cycles function in stories through the places represented by the seasons of the year and the daily cycles of day and night.

The most familiar and recognizable cycle is that of yearly time which is marked by the revolution of the earth around the sun. This yearly cyclic time is divided into four seasons corresponding to the four phases of the sun’s orbit and the four phases of the moon. There is a close corrrespondence between the seasons and the stages of life from birth to death. In this sense, Spring represents birth while summer represents youth, autumn adulthood and winter old age and death.


Related to birth and death symbolism is light and darkness symbolism and the two yearly solstices associated with light and dark symbolism. The Winter Solstice of December is the heart of winter when darkness rules over the day longer than any other time of the year. It is similar to the midnight part of the daily cycle when night is the strongest. The Summer Solstice in June is the heart of summer when light rules over the day longer than any other time in the year. It is similar to the noon (mid-day) part of the daily cycle when day is stongest.

The Winter Solstice symbolizes the growing power of the sun and the declining power of darkness in the world while the Summer Solstice symbolizes the declining power of the sun and the growing power of darkness. As J.C. Cooper points out in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols:

“At the Winter Solstice the Great Mother, Queen of Heaven, gives birth to the Son of Light…The full moon is seen at its nadir and Virgo rises in the East. The Janua coeli, the Winter Solstice in Capricorn, is the ‘door of the gods’ and symbolizes ascent and the growing power of the sun. The Summer Solstice in Cancer, the Janua inferni, is the ‘door of men’ and is descent and the waning power of the sun.”

Interestingly, the birth of Christ on Christmas Day falls only a few days after the Winter Solstice symbolizing the growing power of the sun and light.

In addition to the correspondences of seasons with birth and death and life stages, there is also a correspondence of the seasons with various story forms and modes. This point is well made by the critic Northrop Frye who brought forth the relationship between seasons and dramatic modes in his Anatomy of Criticism. In this groundbreaking book he argued that Spring relates to life and the mode of comedy, summer to infinite potential and the mode of romance, autumn to mortality and melancholy and the mode of tragedy and winter to death and old age and the mode of satire.

In the following we will briefly survey the major cyclical aspects of time embodied in the various yearly cycles of seasons and the daily cycles of day and night.

(a) Spring

Throughout history there have been a number of symbols of Spring. It has been depicted as a child bearing garlands of flowers or carrying leaves and as a woman wearing a floral crown and standing beside a shrub in blossom. The animal of Spring is symbolized by the lamb and the zodiac signs of Spring are Aries, Taurus and Gemini.

Spring is the time when the world awakens from the death of winter. It is therefore a transition period, between the past of winter and the hope of summer, between memory and desire. In the famous poem The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot catches this period of transition:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

In the Spring, life moves from inside to outside space and temperatures move from cold to mild. The color green fills the world after the grey and white colors of winter. It is a season of the celebration of life and of marriage and this is evident in the many spring weddings.

The season of Spring serves as the setting for many stories where birth and life are important themes. One of the most famous uses of the Spring setting is in The Great Gatsby. At the beginning of the book Nick says:

“I came East…in the spring of twenty-two. The practical thing was to find rooms in the city, but it was a warm season…And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees…I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

The Great Gatsby would have been a very different book indeed if Fitzgerald had placed it against a winter setting. He chose the spring and summer because these two seasons have the greatest association with the time of romance.

This magical time of Spring is also described by Thomas Wolfe in the short story “The Train And The City”:

“Spring came that year like magic and like music and like song. One day its breath was in the air, a haunting premonition of its spirit filled the hearts of men with its transforming loveliness, wreaking its sudden and incredible sorcery upon gray streets, gray pavements, and on gray faceless tides of manswarm ciphers. It came like music faint and far, it came with triumph and a sound of singing in the air, with lutings of sweet bird-cries at the break of day and the high swift passing of a wing, and one day it was there upon the city streets with a strange and sudden cry of green, its sharp knife of wordless joy and pain.”

Here it is given a number of qualities and is compared to “magic”, “music” and “song” which moves in against the gray landscape of winter.

(b) Summer

Summer has been symbolized as a child or a woman wearing a crown of corn ears and bearing a sheaf in one hand and a sickle in the other. The symbolic animal of summer is a lion or a dragon and the zodical signs are Cancer, Leo and Virgo.

The summer is the time of romance and infinte potential. The color of summer is yellow and temperatures move from mild to warm. If Spring is the time of birth, then summer is the time of youth where one moves through the world with godlike ease and comfort. Summer is the background for Mark Twaine’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stories, for it is in the summer that young boys escape from the civilizing influences of school and are free to explore. It is also the season of vacations and holidays when man travels away from the cities and back into nature.

(c) Autumn

Autumn is symbolized as a woman carrying bunches of grapes and a basket full of fruit. The symbolic animal of autumn is the hare and the zodical signs are Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius.

With the coming of autumn, the days grow shorter and the nights longer and the temperatures move from warm to cool. The colors of orange and red represent the changing, brilliant colors of autumn foilage. If summer is the period of youth in one’s life, then autumn is the adult period. As Northrop Frye notes, autumn is associated with mortality and melancholy. A retreat is started from the wild wanderings in open natural space to inside, enclosed man-made spaces.

(d) Winter

Common symbols for Winter are a child wrapped in a cloak, an old man with white frosty hair, holding a sickle, or with leafless trees. The animal symbolizing winter is the salamander and the zodiacal signs are Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.

Winter completes the yearly cycle of the seasons and ushers in the coldest and darkest time of the year. The color blue represents winter and old age is the stage of life it represents. Winter is discussed as “old man” winter. Death and not life is the image contained with winter and the dramatic mode associated with it, as Frye notes, is satire.

In addition to the above imagery, the seasons have a close relationship to the major forms of drama and other central aspects of place. The relationship to psychology is very close and in fact the seasons represent various stages in the life of an individual.

(e) Day And Night

Perhaps the most dramatic division of cyclical time is the daily contrast between day and night. Symbolically, this cycle offers the most dramatic contrast between light and darkness, between consciousness and unconsciousness. As Winifred Gallagher notes in The Power of Place, the “origins of the influences of light on our activity are rooted far back in the evolutionary past.” In fact, the very “survival of our species has depended on matching the workings of our bodies and minds to the demands of day and night.”

Research psychiatrist Thomas Wehr finds two different worlds in night and day. Wehr, chief of psychobiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and a leading authority on environmental influences on behavior, notes that “It’s almost as if our planet has two worlds. Depending on whether we’re inside at night or outside during the day, we have to change our natures and become different kinds of animals. The daytime creatures who must venture out into the field are colder and brighter, aggressive and seeking. At night, when we conserve our energy, we stay in our burrowlike homes, warm and insulated from outside stimuli.”

The changes in day and night have a biological effect on mankind and this effect is known as circadian rhythms. These daily shifts, moreover, are directly connected to seasonal changes in man. Gallagher notes that “Our daily physiological and behavioral shifts are intimately connected to our seasonal ones because the brain, equipped with a light meter that gauges the day’s illumination and a biological ‘clock’ that measures the day’s length, uses information about light conditions to determine the time of the year.”

In addition to the strong biological importance of day and night there is also a strong symbolic significance in the two periods of time. The experience of the birth and the death of the sun is associated with the development of many mythologies and symbols and was the first evidence to man that time has a cyclical aspect. As the seasons symbolize the life stages of mankind, so also do the various parts of a day. Carl Jung in Modern Man In Search Of A Soul compares the life of an individual with the stages of a day. The sun symbolozes the consciousness of man. In the morning the sun:

“rises from the nocturnal sea of consciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament. In this extension of its field of action caused by its own rising, the sun will discover its significance; it will see the attainment of the greatest possible height – the widest possible dissemination of its blessings – as its goal. In this conviction the sun pursues its unforeseen course to the zenith; unforeseen, because its career is unique and individual, and its culminating point could not be calculated in advance. At the stroke of noon, the descent begins. And the descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning, The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays instead of emitting them. Light and warmth decline and are at last extinguished.”

The comparison involves the concept of space which we will discuss later. At noon, the sun (consciousness) is at its highest point above the earth, its zenith. During the afternoon, the sun declines until night and darkness which represents death to Jung.

Jung feels the comparison of life to days is not merely “jargon” commenting that “there is something sunlike within us; and to speak of the morning and spring, of the evening and the autumn of life is not mere sentimental jargon.” He shows how consciousness and days are related:

“The one hundred and eighty degrees of the arc of life are divisible into four parts. The first quarter, lying in the east, is childhood – that state in which we are a problem for others, but are not yet conscious of any problems of our own. Conscious problems fill out the second and third quarters; while in the last – in extreme old age – we descend again into that condition where, unworried by our state of consciousness, we again become something of a problem for others. Childhood and extreme old age, to be sure, are utterly different, and yet they have one thing in common: submersion in unconscious psychic happenings.”

Here, Jung elaborates on his comparison of the beginnings of the day with childhood and the end of the day with old age.

In addition to showing the stages of life, there are some significant differences in symbolism between night and day. Daytime is related to the masculine, active principle and to the conscious state within mankind. In contrast, nightime is related to the feminine, passive and unconscious principle. Hesiod called night “the mother of the gods” because the Greeks believed that night and darkness preceded the creation of all things. Hence night, like water, is expressive of fertility, potentiality and germination. It is an anticipatory state which promises the coming of day. As J.E. Cirlot notes in A Dictionary of Symbols, within “the tradition of symbology it has the same significance as death and the color black.”

There are different rhythms contained in day and night. The rhythm of the day is measured by the hands of the clock but the rhythm of the night is measured by the movement of the moon and the sound of crickets. The day is full of fast-paced rhythms while the night is made of meditative rhythms. The night’s rhythm made it a time for reflection for mankind and from the earliest times, the night became the time for stories. In the Introduction to The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales Padraic Colum writes:

“In the place where the storyteller was the coming of night was marked as it was not in towns nor in modern houses. It was so marked that it created in the mind a different rhythm. There had been a rhythm of the day and now there was a rhythm of the night…The storyteller seated on a roughly made chair on a clay floor did not look unusually intelligent or sensitive…What was in his face showed that he was ready to respond to and make articulate the rhythm of the night. He was a storyteller because he was attuned to this rhythm and had in his memory the often repeated incidents that would fit it.”

As Colum notes, the day rhythm was compulsive and fitted to daily tasks. It was this rhythm which waned in the night replaced by “a rhythm that was acquiescent” and “fitted to wishes.”

The rhythm of the night, though, was destroyed by the invention of the kerosene lamp and the electric lightbulb which destroyed this rhythm by artificially prolonging the day. Colum continues:

“But when the distinction between day and night could be passed over as it could be in towns and in modern houses the change of rhythm that came with the passing of day into night ceased to be marked. This happened when light was prolonged until it was time to turn to sleep…The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in European cottages. And when the cottages took in American kerosene or paraffin there was prolongation. Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave real illumination. Told under this illumination the traditional stories ceased to be appropriate because the rhythm that gave them meaning was weakened.”

And of course stories can be told during the day in our modern world by creating darkness and then putting light inside this darkness in our movie theaters.

For purposes place symbolism, the major components of day and night can be broken into smaller divisions which have their own symbolic significance. These elements which form a daily chronological symbolism are sunrise or dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, sunset, evening and midnight. Within these divisions there are two twilight states: a morning twilight state before sunrise and an evening twilight state after sunset.

The day begins with the gray twilight state between darkness and light, between black and white. It is a boundary time which contains elements of both night and day within it and is not dominated by either one. Sunrise comes from the east and symbolizes a new beginning, the birth of a new day. It can also symbolize a quick revelation such as the “dawning” of a particular revelation. The morning is full of daily rituals in preparation for the growing day. Noon, as Jung notes, represents the zenith of the day. Interestingly enough, it is also the time when no shadows are possible because the sun is directly overhead. The afternoon is the waning of the day and a slowing of daily rhythms.

Sunset ushers in the world and place of night. The sun sets in the west and the setting sun represents the death of the day. Certainly a setting sun serves as a setting in numerous forms of romantic stories. The image of lovers parked by the ocean and watching the sun set into the ocean is a common image. It is romantic because they are watching more than the death of the day. They are really watching the birth of the night and its dark potentialities and secrets.

Another twilight time follows sunset which again marks a hazy, water-colorish time between day and night. Twilight means “half-light” and the half light of morning or evening is a symbol of dichotomy, representing the dividing-line which at once joins and separates a pair of opposites. Twilight, notes Cirlot, is characterized by lack of definition and ambivalence, and is therefore closely related to the space-symbolism of the Hanged Man or of any object suspended between heaven and earth. Evening-light is associated with the West, symbolizing the location of death.

This strange in between “twilight” time is discussed in Joseph Conrad’s story “The Shadow Line.” At the opening of the story Conrad says:

“It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection…One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness – and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn’t because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind has steamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation – a bit of one’s own…One goes on recognising the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together – the picturesque common lot that holds so many possibilities for the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes. One goes on. And the time, too, goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.”

Notice the vivid use of place and elements of place by Conrad in describing something very symbolic – the passage from youth to adulthood. The place images that Conrad uses are garden, path, gate, steamed, landmarks, region and shadow-line. We have discussed most of these images in our previous section on places. The word “steamed” symbolizes civilization as a great steamship. Conrad is really describing a “twilight” in-between time, between the early day and the morning that youth must pass through to get to the “noon” of human life.

With the evening and darkness covering the earth, the moon and the stars take prominence over the sun and the light of the day. Just as noon represents the ascendence of the masculine principle, midnight represents the zenith of the feminine principle. Significantly, it also represents the height of the unconscious powers over the conscious powers of the world because it is the hour when most people are asleep and deep within their dreams. It has symbolic importance in fairy tales such as Cinderella and in the horror genre which lets vampires loose after midnight. The world is sleeping and is innocent and at the same time vulnerable.






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