At a conference in 2017 I heard Barbara Mundy, a well-known scholar of art history who specializes in Central Mexico, make a broad statement. She claimed that all indigenous ways of thinking about time are cyclical, and that the biblical presentation of time is cyclical. The statement intrigued me, since my dissertation delves into the topics of time, meaning, and the future, by both Mesoamerican and Christian lights. What I have found is that hard-and-fast distinctions like Western-linear, and Mesoamerican-cyclical do not adequately describe what people actually thought.
While it is true that the Judeo-Christian concept of history involves a chronological succession of events, which believers have tied with the goal of salvation, there are many cyclical elements built into the Bible as well. Secular scholars have observed the cyclical nature of biblical time, including the Mayanist Nancy Farriss, who has explained that the Eden of Genesis and the Paradise of Revelation are essentially the same imaginary. Thus, a larger reading of the Judeo-Christian representation of time reveals history as one large cycle.
Linear time, with the future as undetermined is associated more with modernity, as economic processes that began in the Renaissance caused merchants to use the Christian calendar to reference events exclusively in the here-and-now. Walter Benjamin in his Illuminations has noted that linear time with an open undetermined future comes from the Enlightenment. Benedict Anderson notes that linear homogeneous time has been key to nation building (Imagined Communities, chap. 2). The leaders of the French Revolution were aware of the power that imagined time has on people. That is why they broke with the past and instituted a new calendar devoid of references to Christianity.
Both the European peasant and indigenous peoples all over the world marked time in a cyclical manner. However, western imperial projects, including Iberian colonialism and Jacobin campaigns of violence against the residents of the Vandee, sought to replace traditional cyclical visions of time. The western propensity to think of time as uncharted territory full of opportunity for gain thus reflects the modern repositioning of individual agency rather than a prescribed theological vision.
Camilla Townsend has pointed out we would also be mistaken to think that Amerindians had no linear conception of time. The Mexica, for example, could clearly describe their nomadic past from their place of imperial dominance prior to the Spanish conquest. They had no desire to return to their simple roots, although their tales of how they rose from obscurity to their place of power in Central Mexico were the basis of their patriotism.
My readings and my chats with scholars have thus led me to be wary of the generalization that all native time is cyclical and all euro-centric time is linear. In fact, the farther we delve into Europe’s past, the more we begin to feel the tension between the oldest Semitic Christian representations of time, and the later addition of secular, linear time, which is the temporal scheme that we currently take for granted as true.
Here is a great online article from William L. Barnes on the topic of the Julian (Christian) calendar and the calendars of Mesoamerica: Mexicolore Calendars Barnes
What do you think about the idea that native views of time are cyclical and euro-centric views are linear?