Who is Father Time?


Looking at this old 19th century illustration you may say, hey that looks like old Santa Claus. That’s no coincidence, and reflects the deeper mythological meaning of this old Western folklore figure in Modern Western culture.
Years ago there used to be popular references to Father Time (or Old Man Time) around New Year’s Eve. As our culture has changed the last 50 years they have diminished. But I remember a few vague appearances of this Grandfatherly figure in the early 1970’s in American tv commercials and in books as a child. Those are all gone now as his mythology has died.
“Father Time” as an image is in fact a very ancient and little-known archetype of ancient European folklore and myth. He is in fact a representation of the dying year, and so is often portrayed as an elderly, Santa-like figure…..wise, venerable, kingly, aged, often with a sickle representing death and his earlier role as a Lord of the Dead. In the 1920’s he was commonly portrayed with the number of the passing year on his robes, handing his crown to the Baby New Year on December 31st. Thus, he appears to be an anthropomorphic representation of the passing year.
But there is a deeper more transcendental meaning in Father Time that’s lost. It turns out that for cultures in the Northern Hemisphere (England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Europe, Russia, etc.), they saw the dramatic changes of the year and the movement of the sun as critical to their survival. They worshipped the sun for that reason and closely followed its path, its movement marking the Time that passes in yearly cycles. They then celebrated its passing through Solstices and Equinoxes. Thousands of years ago they developed a strong dominant representation of Time itself in God-like form, in myth, in celebrations, in imagery, and even sacrifices, portraying the dying year as an aged bearded figure that had to die in the Winter Solstice so a new year could be born.
But in the Mythology of Indo-European lore, this figure was often contained in a universal sun deity…..the heroic, anthropomorphic version of the sun as Saturn, Siegfried, Baldur, Balor, Bran, etc. We see him as the son of the Earth Mother, a brother to his twin the Lord of the Dead his polar opposite. In that sense he is the Summer, while his brother is the Winter. You will often see a mother figure with this shining son, Mother Nature herself holding her blessed light-giving child. He is often seen with a sickle. But that is in fact his cosmological twin, the Grim Reaper, the son of the Same Earth Mother but who is the Witch or Hag of Winter.
Thus we have the Earth Mother wearing two masks, the Virgin or the Witch, holding either the Lord of Light or the Lord of Darkness, her twin sons. Father Time in fact represents them both, a merging of the two, though in truth I believe the Father Time that we see on December 31st is in fact the sun figure of Saturn slain by his twin, the Lord of Darkness on Christmas. This darker version was in fact Hades or Hel, the Lord of the Underworld of the Indo-Europeans, with the baby figure that replaced him on January 1st being the personification of the sun, his polar opposite. We then see the Grim Reaper in myth often appearing around the Fall or at Halloween, the time when he would appear when the gates of the Underworld opened up. That means then he disappears on May 1st, and the Earth Mother as Virgin appears beside her handsome son, the Lord of Light defeating his dark brother to bring form Summer again.
But on Christmas during the Winter Solstice, the Universal Sun God died. He was then reborn on January 1st as a baby, living his life beside the Earth Mother throughout the year until he faced his dark twin, where he was defeated. Perishing as an old man around Christmas time he thus became Father Time. The Celts would then mourn for his death for 5 days until his rebirth as a new sun-child on January 1st again. But it was the Earth Mother, his eternal mother, that gave birth to him, loved him, then took part in the taking of his life in the final drama of the dying sun around Christmas. Our own Christ celebration is thus a reflection of this ancient conflict-myth in more ways than one. Oddly enough Santa Claus has now replaced his personage in this way.
When we see this elderly figure, whether he is Santa Claus, Father Time, or Christ, he is in fact an archetype of the ancient Indo-European myth of the death of the sun. But in Father-Time he is in his truer form……as the dying year the Celts and European primitive cultures saw as the dying God of the year. When we see this old man we are reminded of Time itself….of the dying sun, the sadness of our loved ones who have passed, and the one way journey and rebirth of the Sun through the underworld of ancient European myth. You may deny you see this symbol, but unconsciously he is there in your brain in some form. People of European descent often are flooded with fairy tales and images of this figure unconsciously portrayed in products, Christmas wrapping paper, music, and ritual. Why? Because his symbols still fill our culture…..fill our holidays….fill the spiritual needs of our children through kind and generous holiday figures, and fill our view of Celtic Time as not a stream but as a path filled with crossroads. the Winter Solstice was one.
That’s why I feel sadness that I no longer see this figure in his Father Time form in Modern American culture. Yet in Santa he seems reborn each Christmas. Every time a man wears a Santa costume, they are portraying the living myth once more…..the same strange elderly figure that refuses to die in Western culture. We now need to bring back the idea that the Western mind needs reminders of passing Time, of change, of conflict, and sorrow for the Sun of Light and the seasonal holidays that are so often filled with his pictures, plants, and symbols. We need Father Time and the ancient mythology he represents which still lives inside us and our culture.
It’s up to us to revisit Father Time, recreating his magic archetype again, and accept and remind ourselves that we are still pieces of our ancestors, knowing that recent history as short and fast as it seems, is still largely controlled by these primitive symbols that they created for us thousands of years ago.
– The Author

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  1. […] Somewhat paradoxically, the solstices, the time of year when the length of days change most slowly, work well with The Preserver/The Temporal. […]

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