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Aeonic Succession in Thelema: Reevaluating a Preposterous Concept

Aeonic Succession in Thelema: Reevaluating a Preposterous Concept

by Antonio Lau


Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

“Ra-Hoor-Khuit hath taken his seat in the East at the Equinox of the Gods…”
—Liber AL, chapter 1, verse 49


“Thou art tossed about in the grip of the storm for an aeon and an aeon and an aeon.”
—Liber A’ash, verse 5


“For two things are done and a third thing is begun. Isis and Osiris are given over to incest and adultery. Horus leaps up thrice armed from the womb of his mother. Harpocrates his twin is hidden within him. Set is his holy covenant, that he shall display in the great day of M.A.A.T., that is being interpreted the Master of the Temple of A∴ A∴, whose name is Truth.”
—Liber A’ash, verse 7


There are “three great steps” in recorded history. According to Aleister Crowley, certain vast “stars” (or aggregates of experience) may be described as Gods. One of these is in charge of the destinies of this planet for each of these three Aeons:

The Aeon of Isis, which began around 2900 BCE.

The Aeon of Osiris, which began 500 BCE.

The Aeon of Horus, which began 1904 CE, with the reception of the Book of the Law.

Egyptian theology foresaw this progress of humanity and symbolized it in the triad of Isis, Osiris, Horus. The neophyte ceremony of the Golden Dawn prepared me for the New Aeon; for, at the Equinox, the officer who represented Horus in the West took the throne of Osiris in the East. [The Confessions of Aleister Crowley]Crowley attempts to elaborate on his theory:

In the history of the world, as far as we know accurately, are three such Gods: Isis, the mother, when the Universe was conceived as simple nourishment drawn directly from her; this period is marked by matriarchal government.

Next, beginning 500 B.C., Osiris, the father, when the Universe was imagined as catastrophic, love, death, resurrection, as the method by which experience was built up; this corresponds to patriarchal systems.

Now, Horus, the child, in which we come to perceive events as a continual growth partaking in its elements of both these methods, and not to be overcome by circumstance. This present period involves the recognition of the individual as the unit of society.

In the Introduction to the Book of the Law, from which the above quote is taken, the Aeon of Osiris is placed at 500 BCE. Basic math shows that the Aeon of Horus began 2,400 and some 4 years later (1904 CE); basic math would also show that if the Aeon of Isis was as long as the Aeon of Osiris, it would have begun around 2900 BCE. Therefore, I have placed the Aeon of Isis as beginning around the 29th Century, give or take a hundred years.

Elsewhere, he writes that the Aeon of Isis is the Pagan period (the worship of Nature) and Osiris is the Christian period (the worship of Man):

The first period is simple, quiet, easy, and pleasant; the material ignores the spiritual; the second is of suffering and death: the spiritual strives to ignore the material. Christianity and all cognate religions worship death, glorify suffering, deify corpses. The new Aeon is the worship of the spiritual made one with the material, of Horus, of the Child, of the Future.

Isis was Liberty; Osiris, bondage; but the new Liberty is that of Horus. Osiris conquered her because she did not understand him. Horus avenges both his Father and his Mother. This child Horus is a twin, two in one. Horus and Harpocrates are one, and they are also one with Set or Apophis, the destroyer of Osiris. It is by the destruction of the principle of death that they are born. The establishment of this new Aeon, this new fundamental principle, is the great work now to be accomplished in the world. [The Equinox of the Gods]

The first problem with his description of the Aeon of Isis is that “The Matriarchy” is a myth. However, this is not entirely his fault. There was a wide spread belief among 19th century intellectuals that matriarchal government preceded patriarchal systems. The hypothesis survived into the 20th century, but it is mostly discredited today, most experts saying that it was never true. Based on his writings, he may have been going by the secondary definition of matriarchy: “a system of social organization in which descent and inheritance are traced through the female line” (more commonly known today as matrilineality). Regardless, his choice of words — “the history of the world, as far as we know accurately” — seems to admit possible margin of error, and allows us the chance for an updated, corrected interpretation.

The second problem is his suggestion that “the material ignores the spiritual”. It is generally assumed that animism is the oldest known type of belief system in the world. Animism is the worldview that there is no separation between the spiritual and material; that gods, souls or spirits inhabit animals, plants, inanimate objects, and organize all natural phenomena in the material universe. Perhaps a better dichotomy would be “spiritual experience is sought through actively engaging the material senses” for Isis, and “spiritual experience is only attained by suppressing the material senses” for Osiris. In the Aeon of Horus, we think more in terms of “matter and motion” instead of “material and spiritual,” fully aware of the limitations of human perception and the subjective character of experiences.

The third problem is that more recent writers have taken these inaccuracies and exaggerated them beyond all credibility. Some have even multiplied the general time period (Crowley gives 2,000 years as average, but his estimation of the Aeon of Osiris is 2404 years); one even suggests that the Aeon of Isis began with the rise of homo sapiens sapiens and lasted all the way until the dawn of civilization. It almost seems that this particular school of thought is trying to mimic Timothy Leary’s Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness, correlating Isis with the “oral biosurvival circuit”, Osiris with the “emotional-territorial circuit”, and Horus with the “neurosemantic-dexterity circuit”.

Three Historical Aeons

I propose a simple solution to reconcile Crowley’s original idea and consolidate it with current evidence of archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and science.

There are three historical Aeons. That is, three Aeons within the periods of recorded history. Recorded history is a historical narrative based on a written record, not to be confused with other narratives of the past (such as mythological, oral or archeological traditions). Scholars make a reasonable distinction between prehistory and history of early writing, but there is disagreement concerning when prehistory becomes history and when proto-writing became “true writing”. Even though hieroglyphs are said to have been created around 3300 BCE, the first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was dated to around 2740 BCE. Likewise with cuneiform writing and the Harrapan script of the Indus Valley Civilization. Before this time, all writing was merely limited to pictographs and glyphs expressing basic ideas, rather than accurately representing written language.

In Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley writes:

Thoth, God of Magick, was merely a man who invented writing, as his monuments declare clearly enough. “Grammarye”, Magick, is only the Greek “Gramma”. So also the old name of a Magical Ritual, “Grimoire”, is merely a Grammar. It appeared marvellous to the vulgar that men should be able to communicate at a distance, and they began to attribute other powers, merely invented, to the people who were able to write.

It would seem highly significant to place the beginning of the Aeon of Isis to the time of the beginning of “true writing” and of the recorded history of Magick.

The name Isis means throne. Her headdress is a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh’s power. The pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided. [author unknown]

One of the 12 titles that Crowley gives Isis in Liber 777 is “The Builder of Cities (as indicated by her head-dress).”

The development of cities was synonymous with the rise of civilization. These societies developed a number of unifying characteristics, including a central government, a complex economy and social structure, sophisticated language and writing systems, and distinct cultures and religions. Writing was another pivotal development in human history, as it made the administration of cities and expression of ideas far easier.

As complex civilizations arose, so did complex religions, and the first of their kind apparently originated during this period. Entities such as the Sun, Moon, Earth, sky, and sea were often deified. Shrines developed, which evolved into temple establishments, complete with a complex hierarchy of priests and priestesses and other functionaries. Tendency to worship anthropomorphic deities was typical. [author unknown]

Such are the qualities that define Isis.

Although much is said about the Aeon of Isis being that of the Mother, it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on the predominance of Woman in the affairs of religion and/or state. According to Amanda Foreman, after the advances of the Agricultural Revolution, “Women’s roles became tied to motherhood and the home. Their status became secondary to men, who took control over property and public space.” The idea of Motherhood is not as elevated as second wave feminists would like to think. Isis did not exist until historical times (the first secure reference of her was in the 5th Dynasty), and the Egyptian goddess specifically associated with motherhood was Maut (consort of Amoun), whose name actually means “mother.” However, we can still use some of Crowley’s writings as accurate descriptions of that period, with minimal reinterpretation. Most important to her Aeon was her aspect as goddess of Nature and Magick. Crowley writes: “Nature is conceived as a generous and fertile mother producing all good things spontaneously”.

The Aeon of Isis, the Mother, was a “Pagan” period based on the worship of Nature, when the Universe was conceived (more or less) as simple nourishment drawn directly from Her; and outside of major civilizations with their invasions and slavery, most of the world lived simple, quiet, easy, and pleasant lives. By “Pagan”, I mean: that period in which many gods and goddesses are represented as the visible Forces of Nature on Earth; this, in contrast to the Aeon of Osiris, when there is only “One True God”, who is invisible, and rules from Heaven.

In the myth of Isis, before she was a Mother, she was a devoted wife. Perhaps she stood on equal grounds with Osiris, but this would still have made it a relationship of equality at best. She was never considered to be the dominant partner. Nor was she ever independent; according to the myth, she had fallen in love with Osiris in the womb of Nuit. At first, she spends all of her time with him; then she spends all of her time looking for him; afterward, all of her time is spent raising Horus. Even then, there are many tomb paintings showing that Isis spends a great deal of time in the Underworld standing behind Osiris.

All references to the periods of prehistory should be left to those who have taken a special interest in archaeology and anthropology — whether it be profession, hobby or simple trivial curiosity — and by their proper academic terms. In regard to Magick and the Law of Thelema, they are not particularly necessary.

Some writers, of course, disagree. In Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God, Kenneth Grant lists three separate prehistorical Aeons (0 of the Void, 1 of Chaos, and 2 of the Earth). Nema combines these three into a single Aeon, and although she calls it “the Nameless Aeon,” she still places it under the patronage of the Egyptian god Bes. But I don’t. In my proposal, all prehistorical “Aeons” can remain both nameless and godless. T Polyphilus later proposed two pre-Isis Aeons based on the Golden Dawn officers of the Neophyte initiation ritual (which I also reject).

Henrik Bogdan pushes the over-simplistic theory that Crowley based Aeonic Succession on the Dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby, but similarities between the two concepts are tenuous and facile, a false association merely based on the fact that Crowley’s father was a member of the Plymouth Brethren. Bogdan completely ignores Crowley’s familiarity with the Ovid’s Ages of Man and the Four Yugas of Hinduism.

Precession of the Equinoxes

According to The Book of the Thoth, “the magical doctrine of the succession of the Aeons is connected with the precession of the Zodiac.” The Aeon of Isis is connected to the signs of Aries and Libra, the Aeon of Osiris referred to Pisces and Virgo, and the Aeon of Horus is linked to Aquarius and Leo.

The Equinox of the Gods is associated with the Precession of Equinoxes, known today as “axial precession” among scientists, and as the “astrological ages” among pseudo-scientists. Whatever one chooses to call it, the concept is based on the term “The Great Year,” which is defined by NASA as: “The period of one complete cycle of the equinoxes around the ecliptic, about 25,800 years.” This gives each astrological age about 2150 years. Concerning the Zodiac:

“The Babylonian calendar as it stood in the 7th century BC assigned each month to a sign, beginning with the position of the Sun at vernal equinox, which, at the time, was depicted as the Aries constellation (‘Age of Aries’), for which reason the first sign is still called ‘Aries’ even after the vernal equinox has moved away from the Aries constellation due to the slow precession of the Earth’s axis of rotation.” [Hugh Thurston]

Of course, the Aeons of Isis, Osiris and Horus do not easily conform to the recent calculations of astronomers or the disputed issues of astrologers, let alone to the pet theories of any faction of Thelemites.

It’s also important to note that the stars, including our Sun, travel in their own separate orbits through the Milky Way galaxy. Aside from axial precession, the positions of the stars in the constellations have changed even further since the ancient astrologers made maps of them. Who knows how accurate the star maps were then, or what discoveries NASA will have for us in a hundred years. Nonetheless, we can hardly use even today’s star maps as ideal indications of when each astrological age ends and another begins. A good look at the constellations shows that they are not evenly spaced around the ecliptic. Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn are nearly half the size of those Zodiac constellations next to them. Aquarius overlaps nearly all of Capricorn. And yet, during an entire year from March Equinox to the next March Equinox (note that the sidereal year is only 20 minutes longer than the tropical year), the days assigned to each of the 12 Zodiac signs is more or less equal.

All the same, at least 1500 years of the Age of Aries transpired in the Aeon of Isis, and 1900 years of the Age of Pisces occurred in the Aeon of Osiris. By anyone’s estimation, the majority of the Age of Aquarius will take place in the Aeon of Horus. When the next Aeon begins, human beings might be done with this Planet, so maybe none of this will matter by then any way.

The Aeons of T Polyphilus follow modern notions of the astrological ages closely:

Aeon of Thoth (Gemini/Sagittarius) 6840 — 4320 BCE

Aeon of Nephthys (Taurus/Scorpio) 4476 — 2306 BCE

Aeon of Isis (Aries/Libra) 2306 — 156 BCE

Aeon of Osiris (Pisces/Virgo) 156 BCE — 1904 CE and so forth

But as I stated before, I reject this. It attempts to follow a formula based on the hierarchy of a Golden Dawn ritual, but that hierarchy also does not fit neatly (the order actually goes: Nephthys, Isis, Thoth, Osiris, etc.) and the modifying rearrangement seems forced.

Summary

There are three Aeons within recorded history. All considerations of prehistorical ages shall remain strictly academic, without any Egyptian God-Names assigned to them.

The first is the Aeon of Isis, which began around 2900 BCE (or anywhere between the 31st and 28th centuries BCE). In this period, many gods and goddesses are represented as the visible Forces of Nature on Earth. The World or the Universe is considered feminine, and “Nature is conceived as a generous and fertile mother producing all good things spontaneously.” In many world myths, the primary Goddess is also a Warrior and a Magician. In a very few but highly important myths, female solidarity is highlighted as a significant factor. The motivations of the Gods are complex, and most antagonisms between them are temporary, or clashes of personality.

The second is the Aeon of Osiris, which began around 500 BCE. Religions become increasingly monotheistic and patriarchal. Myths throughout Egypt, Greece and India are modified from general polytheism to emphasize the superiority of the All Mighty Father: Zeus as the King of the Olympians; Amoun the Invisible One as the Supreme Chief of all Neteru; Vishnu becomes the Grand Creator from which all existence is said to have derived; the unified yet unknowable Tao claims superiority over the original 8 trigrams; the role of the Elohim is taken over by Jehovah. God and the Great Spirit are invisible, abstract, and only knowable after death. The World becomes a battleground of Good versus Evil.

The third is the Aeon of Horus, which began on the Spring Equinox of 1904 CE. Magical formulae are remodeled to fit heliocentrism, explorations of the Milky Way galaxy and subatomic physics; mysticism is approached by way of empirical scientific methods and neuropsychology; binary notions of sexuality and gender are re-evaluated. The individual is the unit of society, and establishment of this fundamental principle is the Great Work now to be accomplished in the world.

Of course, there is a lot of overlap between the Aeons

The worship of Isis continued in Egypt and Rome until the 5th Century CE, more than 900 years after the beginning of the Aeon of Osiris, according to Crowley. In places like India, polytheism was never supplanted; however, although women during the early Vedic period enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life, the status of women began to decline approximately 500 BCE.

Some even argue that history shows that most civilized societies were “patriarchal” as far back as Ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, India, China and everywhere in between. However, one should take into account that in the case of Greece and India, most of their history was passed on orally, and not written until the 5th Century CE (coincidentally), or later. And much of the history AND mythology had been edited, revised and rewritten several times from age to age.

It seems completely unnecessary to go into detail about the widespread impact of the Aeon of Osiris, as there exists enough historical documentation about the religious wars, invasions and colonization that has taken place all over the world. Nor does it seem necessary to summarize the spread of Buddhism in the East, Islam in the Middle East, or Christianity in the Western world and the Americas, not to mention Dark Ages, Renaissances, and Reformations. It would take volumes to do this accurately, maybe even a whole library. A few pages would not be nearly enough to cover even the most simplest of complexities.

It is also much too soon to toss around any theories or expositions on the Aeon of Horus. Even as more than a hundred years have passed, the most we can really say about it is the same that Crowley wrote in 1938:

Observe for yourselves the decay of the sense of sin, the growth of innocence and irresponsibility, the strange modifications of the reproductive instinct with a tendency to become bisexual or epicene, the childlike confidence in progress combined with nightmare fear of catastrophe, against which we are yet half unwilling to take precautions.

Consider the outcrop of dictatorships, only possible when moral growth is in its earliest stages, and the prevalence of infantile cults like Communism, Fascism, Pacifism, Health Crazes, Occultism in nearly all its forms, religions sentimentalised to the point of practical extinction.

Consider the popularity of the cinema, the wireless, the football pools and guessing competitions, all devices for soothing fractious infants, no seed of purpose in them.

Consider sport, the babyish enthusiasms and rages which it excites, whole nations disturbed by disputes between boys.

Consider war, the atrocities which occur daily and leave us unmoved and hardly worried.

We are children.

How this new Aeon of Horus will develop, how the Child will grow up, these are for us to determine, growing up ourselves in the way of the Law of Thelema under the enlightened guidance of the Master Therion.

It would also be premature to cite the sexual revolution, civil rights movements, the growing use of recreational drugs for altering consciousness, or the new age explosion and other such edgy trends. Although these could be taken as signs of the times and specific indications that the Aeon of Horus WAS taking root, the attitudes towards these issues radically fluctuate from decade to decade, and most gains made in the 60s are slowly being lost, or stolen.

Love is the law, love under will.


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