“[Liminal time] is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.” – Richard Rohr
October is here! The days are getting short. Nights are cool. And pumpkins are on sale. We are standing on the threshold between autumn and winter, which signals our entry into a liminal time.
The Time Between Times
The ancient Greeks had three perceptions of time: aion, chronos and kairos. Personified as gods, Aion represented the everlasting eternity of the Greek Cosmos, whereas Chronos symbolized sequential clock time, and Kairos the “right” time or opportune moment for action.
But there is a fourth temporal construct called liminal time—a concept not developed by ancient Greeks—but by modern social anthropologists to study rituals surrounding a person’s passage from one stage of life to another (e.g. birth, adolescence, coming of age, marriage, and death).
The word liminal derives from the Latin word limens, which means “limit” or “threshold,” and liminal time has come to describe any transition in states of being. Think of a doorway or window we must pass through to get from the past to the future. Liminal time is the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and longer that we spend on the sill. It’s the phase of transformation.
The metamorphosis of the butterfly captures the essence of liminal time. During its chrysalis stage, the caterpillar’s cells liquefy into a biological goo before remodelling themselves a new body from the constituent cells. During the remodelling phase, the creature is no longer a caterpillar and not yet a butterfly. That is its liminal phase.
Liminal conditions like the transition between seasons have long been linked to magic and superstition. Other examples include the twilight zones of dawn and dusk (when night changes to day and vice versa), and midnight (when one day transitions into another).
Transition is central to the concept of liminal time. It can be any stage that places us at a threshold where we are no longer in the old, but not yet in the new. It’s a phase when business as usual is suspended, and we stand outside our comfort zone. When we are stuck between what was and is yet to be.
Each of us has most likely experienced a liminal stage in our lives—when life was divided between before and after an event. It might be grieving the loss of a loved one, adapting our routines to the birth of a child, coming to terms with the loss of a job, retirement, moving home, a health crisis, or the end of a relationship. What all these have in common is that something we took for granted has gone and we have not yet adapted to the new normal.
The crux of liminal time is ambiguity and anxiety about the unknown. Life is abnormal. It’s not like it was when the transition started, and we do not know what it will be like when the change ends.
Old Habits Die Hard
We are living through a liminal time right now. The coronavirus has affected many aspects of our lives. The normal order of things is in limbo, and it seems things may get worse before they get better. It’s a disorienting time for all of us. Social distancing, quarantine, and lockdowns have interrupted routines and disrupted economies. Work practices are changing, possibly forever. The life we knew before COVID-19 is gone, and we are waiting to see what the world will be like afterwards.
Liminal times are uncomfortable. We like to be certain of things. But there’s no point harking back to the good old days. No point in denial. Liminal phases encourage us to look forward. They facilitate our transit to a new, and yet unimagined future. By definition, liminal times are not permanent. At some point there will be a new normal. Changing circumstances force us to adapt so that we can get on with our lives. Think the security measures put in place after the 9/11 attacks, or the hygiene rules introduced to combat COVID-19 pending the release of a vaccine.
Liminal Time in Context
So where does liminal time fit in with the Greek concept of time? There is no direct equivalent in ancient Greek philosophy. But there are parallels between liminal time and kairos time. Both exist apart from chronological time, and each embodies standing on the threshold of transition. My own way of looking at liminal time is as a window of opportunity during times of change, whilst kairos is the perfect moment to jump through it and make the most of the new order. Think of that chrysalis. The insect entered as a crawling caterpillar and will only emerge from the pupa when factors like temperature, humidity, and light are optimal for the survival of the butterfly it has become.
If I were to personify liminal time, I would think of the Roman God Janus, who is portrayed with two faces—one facing the past, and the other facing the future. He also holds a key in his right hand, which symbolizes his protection of doors, gates, and thresholds.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.