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5 Gods and Goddesses of Time From World Mythology

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Mysterious gods and goddesses of time from world mythology.

Mysterious gods and goddesses of time from world mythology.

Time is one of the first words a kindergartener would learn in school. Following which, the child would 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 much simpler 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

  1. Chronos
  2. The Norns
  3. Kali
  4. Zurvan
  5. Tai Sui
Chronos as depicted by the Baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Romanelli.

Chronos as depicted by the Baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Romanelli.

1. Chronos

Chronos, the Greek Personification of Time, is often confused with Cronus, the disposed leader of the Titans. If that’s a challenge for you too, just remember the spelling for “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 then produced the Earth and the Sea.

The Orphic tradition further states that from the split cosmic egg rose Phanes, the God of Procreation. Phanes would go on to produce other aspects of the universe as well as father other primordial gods such as Ouranos.

Coming back to Cronus (the Titan), the confusion and nearness in names might not be unintended. Plutarch believed Cronus was an allegorical alternate for Chronos. The great orator Cicero also highlighted that “Cronus” is synonymous with the Greek word for time.

As a deity associated with the harvest, the divine persona of Cronus is inseparable from time too.

In later eras, this deliberate or accidental conflation resulted in “Father Time” frequently shown with a huge scythe. In Greek mythology, the scythe was an instrument of Cronus. The titan used one to castrate and depose his father, Ouranos.

Illustration of the Norns by 19th Century German painter Ludwig Burger.

Illustration of the Norns by 19th Century German painter Ludwig Burger.

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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 means “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.

Kali is the visually terrifying but religiously profound Hindu Goddess of Destruction and Time.

Kali is the visually terrifying but religiously profound Hindu Goddess of Destruction and Time.

3. Kali

The great goddess Kali is one of the most complex deities in Hinduism. For the unfamiliar, her iconography easily invokes much fear too.

In recent years, the goddess likely enjoyed a boost in pop culture popularity as well, thanks to the splendid depiction by Sakina Jaffrey in American Gods.

The ferocious Hindu Goddess of Destruction, Time, Change, and Death, “Mother Kali” is considered by the Shaktism tradition as the ferocious form of the great goddess Mahadevi, from whom all goddesses are manifested. Historically, however, she has long been worshipped by South Asian tribal and mountain cultures, with a long-tongued ogress in the Brahmanas possibly a precursor of her.

Within Hindu mythology, there are also various origin stories of the goddess. For example, the Sixth Century AD 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 ate all of Raktabija’s clones. She also collected the Asura’s blood in a bowl and drank all of it.

As Durga is an incarnation of Parvati, the consort of Destroyer God Shiva, Kali naturally came to be associated with Shiva. (Several of her origin stories involved Shiva as well. See next section) Shiva, as the supreme god who destroys to facilitate creation, is known as Mahakala. “Kala” could mean “appointed time” or “black,” with the feminine form of the word being “kali.”

As the feminine embodiment of time, Kali devours all too. However, she is not to be mindlessly feared as the goddess devours evil (demons) and obstruction as well. Some traditions also associate her with sexuality and liberation, while others consider her the feminine cosmic energy of Shiva.

The Lolling Tongue

Kali is frequently depicted as blue or dark skin, with a necklace of heads, wielding bloodied weapons and another decapitated head, and with a long lolling tongue. Often, she is also shown stepping onto her husband Shiva.

The symbolic lolling tongue seems to reference how the goddess could have alternatively drank the dripping blood of Raktabija; she lapped them up before the drops hit the ground. However, in other legends, the tongue is an expression of surprise.

In one story, 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 stepped onto.

Zurvan is the primordial creator deity in a branch of Zoroastrianism. He is regarded as neutral and before good and evil.

Zurvan is the primordial creator deity in a branch of Zoroastrianism. He is regarded as neutral and before good and evil.

4. Zurvan

Zurvan is an ancient Iranian god of time, in later centuries, embraced by a branch of Zoroastrianism too as a primordial creator deity.

Much detail about Zurvan remains unknown. However, the mysterious god was mentioned in tablets dating to the 13th and 12th centuries BC. He was likely a chief deity too, with his name literally meaning time.

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.

Such a view greatly opposes orthodox Zoroastrianism Orthodox believers regard good and evil as separate. In no way from the same origin.

Zurvanism furthermore has different schools of thought, each centered on a slightly different interpretation of Zurvan as the personification of time. For example, Ascetic Zurvanism regarded the mysterious deity as undifferentiated time. A cosmic “raw material” of sorts that under the influence of desire, could be developed into separate energies.

Fatalistic Zurvanism evolved from a doctrine of limited time. Under this doctrine, the predetermined course of the universe cannot be changed. Human destiny cannot be altered too, thus the descriptive title of this branch.

* Zurvanism is not a religion but a branch of Zoroastrianism.

Tai Sui are Chinese Gods of the Year.

Tai Sui are Chinese Gods of the Year.

5. Tai Sui

Some online articles name the Tai Sui as 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 Cycle. 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 movement of the imaginary “sui” star used as an instrument of determination. (Sui celestial movements are the opposite of Jupiter)

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, as testified by the writings of Xunzi. With the inclusion of metaphysical elements, the system became a core component of Chinese Astrology too. By the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – 1276), all 60 years were personified as deities.

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 “clash” with the reigning Tai Sui, special prayers must be done during the Chinese New Year period 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’ve offered 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 on 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, and communications all have the unspoken purpose of making more of time.

But can time truly be manipulated? In the end, does it not still consume all? Whatever daily successes we enjoy at control, 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.

References

  • Khronos. CHRONOS AEON (Khronos Aion) - Greek Primordial God of Time. (n.d.). Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Khronos.html
  • Founded by JAMES LOEB 1911 Edited by JEFFREY HENDERSON. (n.d.). Isis and Osiris: Chapter 32. Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.loebclassics.com/view/plutarch-moralia_isis_osiris/1936/pb_LCL306.77.xml
  • Dan. (2018, July 31). The Norns. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Retrieved August 4, 2022, from https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/others/the-norns/
  • Sententiaeantiquae, ~. (2019, March 4). The fates: What was, what is, what will be. SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE. Retrieved August 4, 2022, from https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2019/03/04/the-fates-what-was-what-is-what-will-be/
  • Cartwright, M. (2013, June 21). Kali. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Kali/
  • Khan, A. J., & Khan, W. by J. (2021, December 17). Why Maa Kali stepped on lord shiva? Kanyakumari, Travel Guide, History, Temple, Church, Hotels, Photo Gallery, Video Gallery. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from https://kanyakumari-info.com/blog/why-maa-kali-stepped-on-lord-shiva.html
  • Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Zurvān. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zurvan
  • Foundation, E. I. (n.d.). Zurvanism. RSS. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/zurvanism
  • Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Zurvān. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zurvan
  • CAIS | Shapour Suren-Pahlav (n.d.). Zurvanism; the religion of Zurvan, the god of infinite time and space. CAIS @ SOAS: Welcome to the homepage of the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS). Retrieved August 5, 2022, from https://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/zurvanism.htm
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, July 20). Zurvanism. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zurvanism
  • 太岁_百度百科. 百度百科. (n.d.). Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%A4%AA%E5%B2%81/118257

Further Reading

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

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