Monday, August 8, 2011

Concerning 'Aeon' and the Necronomicon Couplet

The word 'aeon' was first introduced to me in a couplet from the Necronomicon, as quoted in at least one of Howard Phillips Lovecraft's tales:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die."  
In Gnosticism, the term 'Aeon'  (αἰών) refers to the different emanations of the one being.  In the Four Worlds formulation (consisting of a material world, an astral or imagery world, a mental or conceptual world, and a spiritual world), you could say that an Aeon is the basic unit of the spiritual world (those basic units being respectively object, image, concept, Aeon).  The terms archetype or arche (plural archai), in that these too are reflected in all aspects of existence with varying degrees of obviousness, makes an acceptable modern analogue for this use of the word 'Aeon',  so I'll use the term archai to refer to this type of Aeons to reduce semantic confusion.

If the famous Necronomicon couplet is referring to archai, we get an interesting meaning from it, such that we might replace the word 'And' at the beginning of the second line with 'For' and get a somewhat different meaning:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
[For] with strange [archai] even death may die."
What's implied then, is that while some of the principles of the universe (archai) preserve the illusion of death, when seen through the lens of less familiar ('strange') archai the ephemerality of life perishes as ephemerality must when applied to itself.  This perspective is certainly quite viable, particularly if certain Mu statements are true, such as "For every action with multiple possible outcomes, the universe diverges into a multiverse with manifolds where each outcome occurred," the basis of multiple universe theory, or "Space and/or time are infinite and fairly uniform," the basic assumption on which  most cosmological theories rest (for how can we generalize about the vast universe without assuming that a principle of uniformity allows us to do so?).  In either case there's an infinite set of organisms which resemble us precisely, and an even larger set which resemble us to nearly the smallest error of approximation, and there will always be more of them.  Unless you're the type of person who believes that the characters in Star Trek die and are replaced by copies none the wiser each time they use the transporter, that's quite comfortably close to immortality.  

Moreover, these archai, though they may lie dormant without being accessed by our perception for millennia, are never absent - "That is not dead which can eternal lie."  Certainly there is a process of transformation over the course of existence where one arche which was previously quite obvious becomes more difficult to notice while another comes into the foreground, to irrevocably perish is beyond the sphere of possibilities for the archai.  Certainly there are those archai so far removed from what we consider obvious that it takes a stroke of insight or a significantly altered state of consciousness to notice their existence at all, but we can assume and not risk being contradicted that they are in a state of dormancy rather than say that they are resurrected by mere humans.

The word 'Aeon' has another meaning - this one from the way it was used by Aleister Crowley.  In this form, the word more closely resembles its cousin of less esoteric orthography, 'eon.'  An eon is a vast stretch of time used both in the figurative sense and to refer to specific periods of geological time.  With the additional vowel, the term 'Aeon' in this sense still refers to specific periods of time, but rather than describing geological or evolutionary transitions, it indicates periods between transitions in spirituality.

The best way to illustrate this is to go through the three Aeons described in Crowley's model, which, though using the names of Egyptian divinities, transcends distinctions between cultural pantheons and between poly- and mono-theism.  The first Aeon is that of Isis.  This refers to the period before humans realized that the sperm was essential to reproduction.  The mystery of birth was profound to humans of this Aeon, and it coincided with pre-agricultural periods, where women were intensely involved in the gathering and, later, production of plants for the sustenance of their communities.  During these times, the Mother Goddess was the most important deity, and she encompassed the triune cycle of birth, life, and death.  The Earth was revered as the source of sustaining plants.

The second Aeon in Crowley's model is the Aeon of Osiris.  Several markers indicate the gradual transition from the Aeon of Isis to that of Osiris: the invention of the plow, which pregnant women could not safely use, made agriculture the domain of men; the discovery of the role of sperm in reproduction, which made polyandry and related behaviors less desirable for men; and a deepened understanding of the role of the Sun in the growth of plants.  It's worth noting that Osiris was the god of both death and agriculture.
And Jesus answered them, saying, "The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.  Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (John, 12:23-24, KJV)
The formula of the life-death-rebirth deity is central to the Aeon of Osiris.   Just as it seemed that the seeds of plants went into the ground, died, and were reborn with glory, so it seemed that the sperm of a man died and were reborn as a child, and the Winter Sun died to be reborn with vigor for a new year.  Male priests developed a great degree of control over their societies during this Aeon, both in early forms by giving sacrifices to the Sun so that it would rise the next morning, or so that it would return from the distant South and give forth a new Spring and Summer.  And each time the Sun did, the powers of these priests were proven.  

As this Aeon progressed, the cycle of the Solar Year came to be more widely understood.  For instance, the Gnostic god Abrasax (ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ), whose name adds to 365 by isopsephy, honored the promise of the eternal rebirth of the Sun.  However, especially with the rise of Christianity, the priesthood of this Aeon managed to maintain and even expand their power, even though people were less impressed with the miraculous rebirth of the Sun each year.  Instead, it came to be that the Church offered personal rebirth in the flesh, the ultimate defense against that third terrifying aspect of the Mother Goddess of the Aeon of Isis.

Throughout the Aeon, which certainly includes the Christian period, the doctrine of purification through suffering is central.  As Paul states, 
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” (I Corinthians 15:14-15, KJV)
With this in mind, the famous Necronomicon couplet can be seen in an all new light:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die."  
This suggests that the spiritual evolution of humanity, if continued, will inevitably take us beyond the point where the formula of the dying god is essential, or even relevant.  Abdul Alhazred (though fictional as far as we know) was certainly writing during the Aeon of Osiris at 738 C.E., and in the context of Osirian religion the quote seems especially blasphemous.  Not only does it imply in the first line that the life-death-rebirth formula is fundamentally flawed in that beings worthy of the name 'God', being eternal, are incapable of the kind of death that humans experience and thus unable to save humans through their own suffering, it seems to state in the second line that these beings' play of suffering will ultimately be passed over with disinterest by humans as more relevant spiritual formulas come into use.

This certainly describes the third Aeon in Crowley's model, that of Horus.  In this Aeon, the current one, the mythology of death surrounding the Sun has perished with the knowledge that what we once experienced as the Sun dying each evening and being reborn each morning is merely the rotation of the Earth.  Rather than the formula of death and rebirth, the formula of the third Aeon is that of continual growth.

Thelema (whose name comes from θέλημα, will), the first religion of the Aeon of Horus, reflects the formula of that Aeon in its take on the theodicy problem.  Rather than the exclusion which typically informs people's perspectives on what is holy, the word's meaning is returned to its etymological roots, and we are reminded of the connection between holiness and wholeness.  Thus the Self in the third Aeon is beyond life or death, good or evil, integration or fragmentation, truth or illusion, mind or matter, beauty or ugliness, amorality or knowledge of good and evil, and beyond any other distinction, even beyond dualism and non-dualism.  Thus the perception of evil occurs due to a confluence of two factors which are really one: limited understanding of how the world works at a fundamental level and limited understanding of the self.  What seems evil is not the antithesis of good, as night was perceived to be the antithesis of day and darkness the antithesis of light during the Aeon of Osiris.  Rather, the light of pure being is shrouded in semi-opaque veils of complexity which cast shadows, just as we are in the Earth's shadow during the night.

Similarly, the transcendence of death and, particularly, the fear of it, is a consequence of coming into the new Aeon.  As J. Daniel Gunther puts it in his book Initiation in the Æon of the Child,
"Although the progression of the Initiate in the New Aeon emulates that of a child, the beginning point is not that of birth, or even conception.  In a formula so composed the end of that progression would be death.  To the contrary, the motif of the mystical death is denied....On the other hand, it is not an error to proclaim Mors Janua Vitae [tr: Death is the gate of life], nor is it a paradox... Any apparent paradox is resolved in practice only with the reconstellation of the aspirant's psyche.The Initiate does not follow a path that leads from conception or birth to death; the path leads from the realm of the dead...
It should be remembered that Osiris is the Lord of the dead." (pp. 48-50)
With this in mind, we can interpret the famed Necronomicon couplet in an even more obvious fashion.
"That is not dead which can eternal lie.And through strange aeons even death may die."
 From the perspective of one like the fictional Abdul Alhazred, living while the Aeon of Osiris is still quite in full swing, the formula of Horus is still quite alien.  Similarly, the apocalyptic predictions of the Judeo-Christian scriptures can be seen in a new light in the Aeon of Horus, for example:
"And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week; and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease. And for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate." (Daniel  9:27, KJV21)
 The cessation of sacrifice is in truth due to the change of the Aeon, such that the formula of sacrifice no longer holds power.  The Book of Revelation, also, was a major inspiration to Crowley - in his mystical system, some of its characters (such as the Harlot and the Beast) who are traditionally viewed as villainous are seen in a new light in the Aeon of Horus.

However, in light of the Aeon of Horus, we can also view the Necronomicon couplet as a statement on the part of Lovecraft himself.  Borrowing from the introduction to Liber Koth, "Lovecraft's dreams were haunted by cosmic scenarios he found personally difficult to relate to; so much that unlike Blavatsky, Von Liebenfels, and many other cosmological literalists, he presented his ideas in fictional form..."  We know that Lovecraft did not directly or indirectly meet Aleister Crowley before writing the couplet, and since it's quite likely he did not understand  Crowley's work, the way the couplet fits with Crowley's conception of Aeonics is remarkable.  This lends credence to the idea that both Lovecraft and Crowley were perceiving a transition that is truly part of reality.

Going back to where we started, then, how can we find common ground between our Gnostic-based interpretation of "Aeon" and the Thelemic view?  Seemingly the two contradict one another in light of the Necronomicon couplet- if archai cannot die, then how can we have a transition from one Aeon to another?  To resolve this apparent contradiction, we only need remember that there are varying degrees of vigor which all exclude death.  J. Daniel Gunther states it nicely:
"Many of the doctrines of the former Aeon are clearly abrogate; others, though still valid, have been superseded...
It should be stated clearly that the concept of self-sacrifice is not a false idea.  In essence, there is no fault with the theory that the individual may choose to sacrifice for the greater good of which he is a willing component.  In our societies it is often necessary to guarantee survival.  The strength of families and entire nations is built upon self-sacrifice.  It is the additional element of proclaiming glory in suffering that vilifies it."  (pp. 24 - 26)


  1. Nice analysis. I especially like the history behind the Aeons and the optimistic ending. Community is underrated these days.