Is the idea of eternal recurrence true?
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.’
Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence came to him in August 1881, and after that he made it one of the fundamental concepts of his next book Thus spoke Zarathustra.
But what is the evidence of this idea being true?
Let’s take a look into ancient mythology first, namely the Babylonian creation myth, Enûma Eliš (1900 BCE). It consists of 7 tablets and it contains numerous parallels with the Old Testament (watery chaos before creation; 7 days of creation; separation of the chaos into heaven and earth).
The story begins before the advent of anything, when only the primordial entities Apsu and Tiamat existed co-mingled together. Tiamat is the primordial goddess of the salt sea, the symbol of chaos of primordial creation. Apsu is the primordial being made of sweet fresh water, the opposite of Tiamat. He is the male aspect of the two.
If we draw from comparative mythology and look into Chinese dualistic cosmology, where the origin myth is also based on two fundamental concepts of chaos and order, we find yin and yang. Those are mainly discussed in Taoism and Confucianism. If we quickly diverge into neurology, we can also see that the right brain hemisphere is responsible for handling the unknown, chaos; the left hemisphere is responsible for keeping order. The brain itself developed to be able to interpret the dualistic reality of the eternal battle between chaos and order.
Now, the formless and invisible chaos is represented by snakes. They also represent desires, suffering and death. As those who are bitten by snakes are vulnerable to suffering and death and those who are controlled by their desires must suffer the cycle of births and deaths — if you don’t control your desires, you will be bound to reincarnation by your karma.
If you cut of the head of the snake with lightning — that is the action where something is created out of the formless — the unknown becomes known (in modern interpretations we can see this in the last Harry Potter — the last horcrux of the agent of chaos, Voldemort, is a snake and its head is cut off. Harry Potter himself represents Saint George. J.K. Rowling really did her reading.)
Vritra was an absolute ruler of the whole of primordial Chaos, same as Tiamat or any snake-like deity. Vritra is in Vedic religion represented as a serpent or dragon; Indra is the guardian deity in Buddhism, and the king of the highest heaven. His powers are the same as in other Indo-European deities such as Jupiter, Zeus, Perun, Thor and Odin. Vritra is the god of the heavens, lightning, thunder, storms, rains and river flows (as is Zeus, Thor and the other named). Vritra is a dragon blocking the course of the rivers and is slain by Indra.
See the resemblance? Marduk is the same as all of these. The god of storm, the highest of the gods. Creator of order out of chaos. Killer of the chaos entity, snake goddess Tiamat.
In Nordic mythology, there is a snake at the base of Yggdrasil, and it’s eating its own tail. Once it stops biting its tail and eating itself, Ragnarok will start. And then Thor has to kill the snake. The manifestation of chaos. Same as Marduk did with Tiamat.
To prepare for battle, he makes a bow, fletches arrows, grabs a mace, throws lightning before him, fills his body with flame, makes a net to encircle Tiamat within it, gathers the four winds so that no part of her could escape, creates seven nasty new winds such as the whirlwind and tornado, and raises up his mightiest weapon, the rain-flood. Then he sets out for battle, mounting his storm-chariot drawn by four horses with poison in their mouths. In his lips he holds a spell and in one hand he grasps a herb to counter poison.
First, he challenges the dragon of the primordial sea Tiamat to single combat and defeats her by trapping her with his net, blowing her up with his winds, and piercing her belly with an arrow.
In Hinduism, Shiva holds poison of a snake in his throat, but does not let it out or in. Same as Marduk, who has “four horses with poison in their mouths. In his lips he holds a spell and in one hand he grasps a herb to counter the poison”. The poison being harmful speech or lies and the herb being truthful speech. You create order out of chaos with speaking only the truth, and also by not lying to yourself. Shiva’s opposite is Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy which represents the great divine mother and unused potential (again, the female part of Yin and Yang).
In the ancient cosmology, nothing can be created unless you sacrifice something first. Nothing can last or gain its soul without sacrifice. It is the prototype of the creation myth — the world itself was created either by slaying the archetypal monster symbolizing Chaos (Tiamat) or cosmic frost giant (Ymir).
The hero archetype confronts and kills the dragon at the end (beginning) of his journey, where he transforms. Marduk, Hercules, Indra, Ra… In the Egyptian mythology, the serpent is Apophis (4000 BC), the opponent of light and Ma’at (order/truth). Ra is the same as Marduk. Apophis, or Apep, is also sometimes depicted as a crocodile.
Marduk has 50 names. Vritra has 15 names. Allah has 99 names. Jesus also has abundance of names.
Among Thor’s chief enemies was the world serpent Jörmungandr, symbol of evil. According to tradition, Thor failed to smash the skull of Jörmungandr, and the two are destined to kill each other in the Ragnarök (the end of the world of gods and men). — Britannica
As you can see, every major hero has an opponent in the form of a serpent. A hero’s aim is to create order out of chaos through focused attention (lightning), discipline and truthful speech (keeping harmful poison/speech in the throat)
Ogdoad were the Ancient Egyptian primordial deities. The eight deities were arranged in four male/female counterparts. The first pair is Nu and Nut, and were written with symbols representing sky and water, clearly indicating the primordial waters (as does Tiamat and Apsu). Another pair is Qerh and Qerhet. Qerh represents night, so think the black, female, chaos part of Yin and Yang; at the same time it represents the principle of inactivity or repose; one could draw a conclusion of the pair being a parallel to the Taoist principle of wu wei — action without action. Another pair is Hehu and Hehut, where Heh is the personification of infinity and eternity, flood or watery chaos. Egyptions also believed in the watery chaos before the creation of the world.
Like the other concepts in the Ogdoad, his male form was often depicted as a frog, or a frog-headed human, and his female form as a snake or snake-headed human. The frog head symbolized fertility, creation, and regeneration, and was also possessed by the other Ogdoad males Kek, Amun, and Nun
The serpent Ouroboros, Jörmungandr and Eternal return
Samsara in Buddhism is the beginning-less cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and dying again. It is considered to be unsatisfactory and painful, perpetuated by desire and ignorance, and the resulting karma. If you follow the Noble Eight-fold Path you can escape from the painful cycle of rebirth. Bhavachakra, the wheel of life (below), is a symbolic representation of the cyclic existence.
In Hindu philosophy, Brahman is the material and final cause of all that exists and it is the Ultimate Reality in the universe. It is considered to be gender-less, infinite and eternal truth. Atman, on the other hand, signifies the self or soul. It is the true self of an individual, the essence of an individual. In order to attain liberation one must first acquire self-knowledge which is to realize that one’s true self is identical with the Brahman.
We can draw a parallel here in what the Jung described as the self-individuation process, becoming who you are:
Man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious. — Carl Jung
Karma is the basic fuel for reincarnation. Jung once said this about unresolved emotions and the synchronicity of karma:
“ When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate”. To get rid of this cognitive dissonance you can practice meditation, meta-cognition or psychoanalysis — aim of which is to gain emotional self-awareness and thus avoid negative karma. This process aspires to a goal of individuation and self-actualization, which lies on the top of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs (although the needs may shift for every individual, someone may need meaning in their life more than sex). What a man can do, he must do. It refers to the desire to become what he is potentially. Marduk creating known out of the unknown.
The concept of Brahman is referred to in hundreds of hymns and in the Vedas. One of them is Aitareya Brahmana, Vedic text of the 1st millennium BCE where the nature of the Vedic rituals is compared to a snake biting its own tail. Then there are kalpas, or aeons. Kalpa is a long period of time between the creation and recreation of the world or universe. It equals 4.32 billion years. According to the mentioned texts, time is cyclic and repeats itself forever (as the snake signifies).
In the Yoga-kundalini Upanishad we find this:
The divine power, Kundalini, shines like the stem of a young lotus; like a snake, coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep as the base of the body
Metempsychosis, paligenesis and reincarnation are very similar, if not the same, concepts of continual eternal return or rebirth. One could also call it transmigration, and it is the part of the Samsara mentioned above.
Start at the end
I started this article with a philosophical question Friedrich Nietzsche asked. He found the idea of the universe being cyclic very heavy. So did the ancient civilizations and so they portrayed the concept in the form of the serpent Ouroboros and Jörmungandr.
Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a dragon eating its own tail. The very first appearance of this symbol is in the book of Netherworld from 1400 BC. Here the Ouroboros is encircling the head and upper chest of Ra and biting its own tail. In Norse mythology it appears as the serpent Jörmungandr. The serpent grew so large that it encircled the whole world and was able to grasp its tail. When he releases his tail, Ragnarök will begin. Jörmungandr’s main enemy is Thor, the thunder god (Marduk).
The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which … unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious. — Carl Jung
The Ouroboros is feeding off of itself, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. Slaying yourself means sacrificing parts of yourself that no longer serve you, to become your true individual self. There is no nobler and harder aim than that.
Eternal recurrence is the main concept used in Nietzsche’s works, mainly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is obviously portrayed by a snake eating its own tail.
Fellow man! Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, — a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things:- and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon” — Nietzsche.
The final conclusion should not be supported only by mythological knowledge, but more scientific view should be introduced. Thus, behold:
[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again… — Heinrich Heine
Christopher Michael Langan is an American independent scholar known for his claim of having a very high IQ. In an interview, Errol Morris on First Person in 2001, related that his IQ is “somewhere between 190 and 210”. As a result of his supposed score, he has been described as “the smartest man in America” as well as “the smartest man in the world” by some journalists.
Langan has developed a “theory of the relationship between mind and reality” which he calls the “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe” (CTMU) Influenced by the works of John Archibald Wheeler and Stephen Hawking among others, the work’s central thesis is that reality is a self-processing, self-referential language, embodying a dual aspect monism and consisting of “infocognition”, or information that resides in “syntactic operators” within reality.
The Heine’s case does not need much explanation, but the Langan’s CTMU probably does. Langan described the universe as a self defining entity, which exists only because of itself. It is self-processing and self-referential language (map this to the Ouroboros — creates itself, feeds off itself), and as Langan writes, it is the embodiment of dual aspect monism… which is EXACTLY what Yin and Yang (and all the other parallels in this article) are. Thus we can see that Ouroboros is the basic principle describing the workings of the universe itself, and it does so entirely.
I am really reaching here, but if we look into M-theory (which I know nothing about), a superstring based theory, we can see that in the cyclic universe, the branes to extra dimensions smash together at regular intervals of trillions of years.