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Rocking New Year's Eve

Father Time with hourglass and scythe. Frances Brundage, 1910. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Welcome to another New Year, still in its childhood—a toddler beginning its adventure.

Popular culture routinely portrays the New Year this way, as a Child watched over by a kindly and fatherly Old Year, usually in the form of an Old Man with a flowing white robe and wielding a razor-sharp sickle or scythe.

It looks so innocent. Sweet, even. 

“Look there, it’s Old Man Time handing off the year to the cherubic little New Kid on the Block, barely on its feet but ready to take over.”

Sure—but to my eye, Old Man Time looks suspiciously like the Greek Titan Cronus (or, in the Roman version, Saturn). He’s always shown carrying a scythe with which, we assume, he’ll sweep away the old to bring in the new. 

Again, I can’t help but remember the rest of that story. Remember this?: 

Cronus ate his children

Suddenly not so innocent, eh?

Of course, he didn’t eat all of them. Zeus was saved when his mother swapped him out for a stone wrapped in swaddling. Eventually the boy-god grew up, snuck his father an emetic (causing his dad to upchuck the swallowed siblings), and then imprisoned him in the bottomless pit of Tartarus. In one story he eventually pardoned his father and put him in charge of the Elysian fields. 

Well, you can probably already see the mythological punchlines from here: 

  1. It’s important for the New Year not to be consumed by the Old Year.

  2.  Following the story line, we might also imagine that the New Year must then rescue any siblings, any other lives, the Old Year has already swallowed.

We’ll come back to this in a sec.

The mythology has a few wrinkles worth mentioning because it demonstrates the overlapping and interweaving of origin stories, how they evolved and co-evolved over time. There are two Greek deities with names close enough to give one pause: Chronos (Xronos) and Cronus (Kronos). The first is associated with the harvest and, explicitly, with time. (You can see the root of chronometer in his name.) He is usually shown carrying a sickle. The second one is Cronus the Titan, who also carries a sickle—the one he used to castrate his father, Ouranos/Uranus. Tracking down whether Chronos and Cronus are different, or the same deity in different eras and areas, is as tricky as following the ongoing revision of origin stories in the modern superhero universes. Even in the ancient world, scholars like Petrarch weighed in to suggest that these were one and the same. At any rate, as you can see above, their names are spelled closely enough in Greek for the purposes of today’s musings.

Back to the New Year.

The theme of the old eating the young shows up in myths from around the Mediterranean basin and it does a lot of work for us here in terms of hinting at how any New Year is related to the Old, or how any new phase of our lives is related to what has passed.

It suggests that the Old Year always threatens to consume the New Year: that old habits, loitering inclinations, and lingering desires are more inclined to kill off or absorb new projects, or any new life, than move on. I think we’re all having this issue with the pandemic right now: will the past year eat us alive in the New Year? Or can we get past it? We also just passed the anniversary of the January 6th riots at the US Capitol. Will the politics of the past continue to eat us up in the coming year? 

These are the kind of provocative, but fruitful, questions each of us must consider. Right now, for instance, I’m just getting over a terrible cold, one that started a few days before New Year’s and one that looked exactly like the omicron variant of COVID. Turns out it was just a lousy cold, but my concerns about spreading COVID prior to testing negative ate me alive, day and night, for a week. 

Then I remembered this handy bit of mythological New Year’s narrative and started thinking about how to avoid being chewed on by the past year.

I confess I’m at a loss regarding how this myth helps us avoid being consumed by the Old Year. Typically you can follow out the story line to see where it goes, but in this case it runs smack dab into a couple of opaque metaphors. The story of Cronus and Zeus seems to say that in order to avoid being eaten by the Old Year, we’d have to feed it a stone as a substitute for ourselves (whatever that would be) and force it to release the mythological siblings in our lives (whatever in the world those would be).

You could argue that this is why our culture encourages getting stoned at New Year's Eve parties. Or why we tune in to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve. I’d even like to say that these ideas are obviously anachronistic, but with Chronos hiding there in plain sight, both of ‘em seem a bit too obvious. 

Maybe the solution is simply not to let the Old Year catch you in the first place and, instead of handing yourself over to a past that wants to consume you, smack it upside the head with a rock—direct, but doesn’t strike me as a terribly sophisticated interpretation. One solution, however, is clear from this story: you cannot confront the Old Year as a child, even though that is how we meet it. Like Zeus, the Child needs to be nurtured and set on the path of its adventure, its trek toward authenticity, in order to acquire the strength, insight, and experience necessary to confront a past that wants to devour it.  Maybe the idea is that, in our own lives, we have to find that Inner Child and put it on the road to finding itself. 

But maybe you’ve seen something here that pulls all these pieces together more clearly. Let’s tag team The Old Year!



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