Time is one of the first words a kindergartener learns in school. Soon after, the child would also be taught the various ways to indicate time. Half past six, twenty to eight, and so on.
In science, however, time is a far more complex subject. A core concern of relativity theories, science states that time slows down with speed; it can even stand still at the speed of light. This makes time far more than just a manmade calculation. A more accurate interpretation would be that time is a presence or a force.
Mythology, on the other hand, has different interpretations. Time gods and goddesses typically personify the effects of time as experienced by humans, particularly events such as life and death, the seasons, and so on.
In many cases, time deities are also gods of fate. Such deities are believed to be the ones who determine what a human experiences within his or her lifetime. In other words, they are the embodiments of destiny and predetermination.
5 Time Deities From World Mythology
- The Norns
- Tai Sui
Chronos, the Greek Personification of Time, is often confused with Cronus, the dethroned leader of the Titans. If that’s a challenge for you too, just remember the spelling of “chronology,” the extra “h” makes all the difference.
Described by the Orphic tradition as self-born during the creation of the universe, Chronos was serpentine and with three heads, these being those of a man, bull, and lion. Together with the Ananke, the Goddess of Inevitability, Chronos then revolved around the cosmic egg till it split apart. This all-important change subsequently produced the Earth and the Sea.
Orphism furthermore conflates Chronos with Phanes. The latter is their primordial God of Creation and the first king of the universe.
In “mainstream” Greek mythology, however, Chronos as a personification of time rarely appears. Modern glossaries of mythology such as Brockhampton Reference’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology (1995) summarize the conflicts of Cronus (the titan) and Zeus but completely omits any reference to time. Jennifer R. March’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology (2022) flatly states that confusion between Cronus’ name and chronos, the ancient greek word for time, resulted in art interpreting Chronos as “Father Time.”
Essayist and philosopher Plutarch wrote in Moralia that “Cronus is but a figurative name for chronos (time),” while the great orator Cicero stated in De Natura Deorum that Cronos is the same as Chronos, and that the same being maintains the seasons and time. Cicero further highlighted that Saturn, the Roman name for the same god, originated from him being saturated with years. And that the myth of the titan Cronus devouring his children is a metaphor for time devouring the ages.
Regardless of whether the two names are the same, Chronos as the personification of time is now recognized throughout the Western world, in great part because of artistic depictions such as the famous painting by Romanelli.
The deliberate or unintended conflation is very likely also the reason for Father Time frequently shown with a huge scythe. In Greek mythology, the scythe was an instrument of Cronus, a harvest tool associated with the seasons. Notorious, the titan used one to castrate and depose his father, Ouranos.
2. The Norns
The Norns, as is widely known, are Norse Goddesses of Fate and Destiny. Named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, they reside beside Yggdrasil, nourishing the mighty world tree with water from their sacred well. The Norns also control the fates of men and gods alike, as well as oversee the laws of the cosmos.
In the Fáfnismál poem, the Norns were stated as numerous, not just a trio. They were furthermore described as “of many births the Norns must be,” in other words, consisting of beings from different races.
In contrast, the Völuspá suggest that the Norns were possibly Jotun, i.e., giantesses. Names were then given for the three primary Norns. These names, mentioned above, established the most widely embraced impression of these fate goddesses today.
Moving on to the subject of “time,” the names of the three main Norns roughly mean “that which happened,” “that which is happening,” and “that which shall be.” As is obvious, these translate as the past, present, and future respectively. There is, however, no consensus over whether the goddesses represent specific chronological periods, and if so, how these periods are delineated.
More likely, the Norns represent immutable fate that is executed through time, or across time. The trio of goddesses could also be the personification of destiny intertwined with time.
Trios of Fate Goddesses
If you’re familiar with Classical mythology, you’d have surely noticed the similarities of the Norse Norns to the Greek Fates (Moirai).
Like the Norns, the Moirai is a trio of fate goddesses. Their respective roles represent the birth, the length, and the end of a person’s life.
In Plato’s Republic, the Fates also sang about what was, what are, and what will be.
Given the similarities in concept, there has, of course, been speculation that the three main Norns were inspired by Greek beliefs. The Norns and Moirai are also hardly the only three-in-one goddesses in world mythology.
Other famous triple deities include the Furies, the Horae, Hinduism’s Tridevi, and so on.
The great goddess Kali, referred to by devotees as “Maa Kali,” is one of the most complex deities in Hinduism. For the unfamiliar, her iconography could easily invoke much fear too.
The Skati (female principle) of Shiva the Destroyer God, Kali represents the realization of truth and eternal time, and hence she possesses the ability to both give life or destroy it. Usually shown as a naked emancipated woman with fangs, dark skin, a necklace of skulls, and a severed human head, Kali’s gruesome armaments demonstrate her powers of destruction, while the severed head is a metaphor for the transience of human life.
The goddess’s dark skin is, in turn, a representation of timeless night, into which all will dissolve but which is also capable of giving life. Her lack of clothing symbolizes the discarding of the illusions that cloud life.
Most importantly, fearsome as Kali’s image is, she is not monstrous. Her hands frequently show the fear-removing and boon-granting mudras. This indicates the goddess’ ability to allay fears and grant true liberation.
Coming to origin myths, there are at least four different stories in Hindu mythology. For example, the Devi Mahatmyam detailed how Kali sprang from the forehead of the goddess Durga to combat the demons Chanda and Munda. After that battle, the goddess fought an Asura (demon) named Raktabija, who cannot be defeated because of his ability to clone himself with every drop of his blood that reaches the ground.
To achieve victory, Kali simply ate all of Raktabija’s clones. She also collected the Asura’s blood in a bowl and drank all of it.
Of note, all of Kali’s origin stories involve Shiva, Parvati (Shiva’s consort), or Durga. Durga is an incarnation of Parvati and so Kali is always considered Shiva’s consort.
Shiva, as the supreme god who destroys to facilitate creation, also has a form known as Mahakala. Maha means “great while Kala is “time.” Mahakali is the feminine version of this incarnation.
The Lolling Tongue and the Symbolism of Shiva Under the foot of Kali
Kali is frequently depicted as having a long lolling tongue too, as well as stepping onto her husband Shiva.
The symbolic lolling tongue seems to reference how the goddess drank the dripping blood of Raktabija in some versions of the myth; she lapped them up before the drops hit the ground. However, in other legends, the tongue is an expression of surprise.
In those legends, Kali similarly burst forth from the forehead of Durga to battle the demon Mahishasura. However, her subsequent rampage couldn’t be stopped till Shiva lay in her path. The tongue, in this case, was the goddess’ expression of surprise when she realized whom she had stepped onto.
Zurvan is an ancient Persian god of time, in later centuries, embraced by a branch of Zoroastrianism as a primordial creator deity. Modern scholars believe the god’s name is synonymous with “time.”
Much detail about Zurvan remains unknown too. However, the mysterious god was mentioned in tablets dating to the 13th and 12th centuries BC. He was also a minor deity before elevated to the position of a creator god. However, the reason for this change is currently unknown.
After syncretization with Zoroastrianism and the formation of Zurvanism*, the neutral, passionless, “God of Infinite Time” was described as the progenitor of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the good-versus-evil, opposing figures of Zoroastrian beliefs. By this description, Zurvanism implicitly declares that time, in its eternal, self-created form, is the source of all life. As the parent of good and evil, Zurvan is also predestination itself. In other words, cosmic fate that Man is unable to resist.
Such views are at great odds with orthodox Zoroastrianism, which emphasizes the possibility of choice between good and evil. Orthodox Zoroastrianism moreover regards Ahura Mazda as a self-created supreme deity. Zurvanism is thus considered a heretic school.
Zurvanism furthermore has different schools of thought, each centered on a slightly different interpretation of time. For example, Materialistic Zurvanism does not believe in the existence of a spiritual world. Adherents of this school also believe that free will is irrelevant as nothing can withstand time.
Fatalistic Zurvanism, on the other hand, regards time as having supreme control of everything. A person’s entire life, from birth to death, is dictated by time. Under this school, there is no possibility at all for human free will to accomplish anything.
* Zurvanism is not a religion but a branch of Zoroastrianism.
5. Tai Sui
Some online articles name the Tai Sui as the Chinese Gods of Time. This description is not entirely wrong. Each of the 60 Chinese Tai Sui gods represents a different type of year in the Chinese 60-Year Lunisolar Calendar. The character sui (岁) means “age” or “year” too.
In Chinese folklore, however, the Tai Sui are more accurately, celestial star deities presiding over years. In Ancient China, the calculation of years was based on the 12-year solar orbit of Jupiter, with the planet’s Solar orbit divided into 12 phrases, or years. Jupiter itself is referred to as the Sui star.
However, the orbital direction of Jupiter does not correspond with previous time calculation systems based on the Big Dipper. Chinese astrologers then created the imaginary “Tai Sui” star which moves in the opposite direction of Jupiter. In other words, the Tai Sui system is still based on the Jovian orbit but with calculations derived in an opposite manner.
From this then evolved the Chinese zodiac system. Following the integration of Chinese Five Element beliefs, the system was lengthened to a total of 60 years. Specifically, one full 60-year cycle consists of five sub-cycles of 12 years each. Each year was also a different “combination” of one Chinese Heavenly Stem and one Earthly Branch *.
Historically, this 60-year system existed as early as the Warring States Era. Astrological divination using the Sui star also gave birth to the concept of Tai Sui. From the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – 1276) onwards, all 60 years were personified as deities too.
Jump forth to today, Tai Sui as a concept of astrology and folkloric beliefs continue to exert influence on Chinese life. Simply put, a significant number of Chinese still believe that should one’s birth year “clashes” with the reigning Tai Sui, special Chinese New Year prayers must be done to avoid an entire year of misfortune. This belief is predominant even in modern Chinese cities like Hong Kong and Taipei.
There is also the saying Tai Sui Toushang Dongtu (太岁头上动土). The phrase literally means “to break ground where the Tai Sui is.”
In Chinese geomancy, every reigning Tai Sui is associated with a directional area of a household, and to do noisy work in that area is to invite disaster. The metaphor thus refers to an endeavor that foolishly provokes the powerful.
*In total, there are 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches.
Appendix: What Is Time to You?
In my introduction, I provided several quick definitions of time. These definitions include linguistic, scientific, and spiritual points of view.
Returning to these, I now invite you to consider the question, what is time to you? Is time merely a system of markers you plan your days with? A natural force that could someday be controllable by science? Or the vehicle from which destiny exerts its hand?
What is your relationship with time too? Do you seek to live with it, control it, or resist it?
Throughout the world, humans strive to defy or reverse the effects of time. Beauty products seek the return of youth, i.e., lost years. Medicine slows the debilitation of diseases. Illness, an ever-loyal affiliate of age.
Modern inventions, work processes, and communication methods all have the unspoken purpose of making better use of time.
But can time truly be manipulated? In the end, does it not still consume all? Whatever daily successes we enjoy at controlling time, do we all not need to pay for our transgressions down the road?
Ancient religions might have already provided us with the answers to these questions.
5 Death Deities
Personifications of death from world mythology.
9 Solar Deities
The mighty personifications of the Sun from world mythology.
9 Gods and Goddesses of Wisdom
The wisest gods are often tasked with the all-important job of denoting human destinies.
9 Gods and Goddesses of Healing
Deities who can restore you, should you succumb to the ravages of diseases.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ced Yong