Last time we grappled with the technical side of the precession of the equinoxes and the astrological ages. In this post, we’ll investigate the origins of the belief in these ages and explore some misconceptions about the Age of Aquarius. Is it just a load of New Age flimflam or is there something else behind it?
The Age of Aquarius is usually described as a time when humanity will enter a glorious age of equality and freedom. It’s seen as an evolutionary shift that involves a mass awakening to higher consciousness when all people will live in harmony and everything will be wonderful – and shiny!
A new Golden Age 😇🌈🦄 ✨
However, the Age of Aquarius and the belief in a coming New Age have become enmeshed with each other and aren’t really the same thing. The Age of Aquarius relates to the precession of the equinoxes and will happen at some point (see previous post). But the New Age will never happen, as such, because it’s a religious myth. In Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West, Nicholas Campion explains:
“The New Age…is a phase of history whose existence in time is defined by humanity’s near-universal psychological inclination to anticipate an imminent transformation in society, the world, or the entire universe. Like the parousia, the New Age is always imminent, but never comes.”
The parousia is the Second Coming of Christ, so here we are again in apocalypse territory. See: Notes on Apocalypse – the End of Illusion
According to Nicholas Campion, the earliest use of the term New Age was in the late 18th century during the upheavals of the French and American revolutions. It was used mostly by French radicals, as well as others like William Blake, who wanted to overthrow the old system. Francois Delaunaye believed the Age of Aquarius had started in 1726, and in 1791 published a theory linking historical changes to the precession of the equinoxes.
Others built on these ideas and in the 19th century attempts were made to link the development of religion to precessional changes, such as bulls being worshiped during the Age of Taurus, for example (see next post). It was also around this time that Madame Blavatsky started the Theosophical Society and introduced the idea of evolution into spiritual development in The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888.
Her ideas had a huge influence on the development of the New Age movement, which also distorted the meaning of the sign of Aquarius, making it much more positive. You can see the results in the infamous song from the 60s musical Hair. It’s also outlined in The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson, published in 1980, which talks about the transformation of consciousness and how it’ll change society in the future.
Nicholas Campion makes the situation clear:
“…all the documentary evidence indicates that the use of the shift of the constellations as a technical basis for such prophecies appears to be a product of late eighteenth-century atheism, filtered through theosophy and then adopted by astrologers. We are therefore dealing with a clear example of an ‘invented tradition’, but one which has deep roots in the Western mentality.”
So the Age of Aquarius as a Golden Age of loveliness is mostly BS – but not totally. Its roots go back to apocalyptic literature, such as the Old Testament and Revelation, as well as to Plato and further back to Mesopotamia – back to mythologies about cycles of history that are broken by cataclysms.
The main myth centres around the Great Year, a stretch of time that varies by culture and contains many cycles of change. The complete precessional cycle of 25,772 years is one such Great Year.
Another is the Platonic Great Year of 36,000 years that started and ended when all the planets lined up in either Cancer or Capricorn. These signs were seen as the gates through which the soul entered or left incarnation. At the end of the Great Year, a cataclysm of either flood or fire would renew history and mankind would start over.
Plato didn’t worry too much about the reality of the movement of the planets and wasn’t concerned that they rarely congregated in those signs all at once. His theories were never meant to be taken literally and the numbers used were mythic and not measurements of actual historical time.
To be fair to Plato, he never used the number 36,000. It was introduced into Greek thought by Berossus in the 3rd century BCE. It comes from Mesopotamian astronomy which used various numbers to measure history, including the sar of 3,600. Our use of 360 degrees for a circle, as well as 60 minutes and seconds can be traced back to this system too.
Some argue that the number 36 relates to precession (36 x 2 = 72) and reveals that the ancients knew about the shifting of the equinoxes due to their use of these numbers (see next post). Others think it’s just a coincidence, but whatever the truth, numbers and the mapping of cycles of time were of central importance to ancient cultures.
Myths about the cyclical nature of time helped to structure society through rituals connected to the changing seasons. Observing the regular patterns of the cosmos brought order and meaning to society. But nature was also destructive and that created insecurity which had to be managed using myths.
Many of the Great Year myths included the belief that society had declined from an earlier time of perfection. For example, the Greeks divided the Year into successive Ages starting with the Golden Age, followed by the Silver, then Bronze, then Heroes, and finally the Iron Age.
Blavatsky incorporated this idea into the New Age movement using the Hindu version: the Yugas. She said we had reached the lowest point in the cycle, the equivalent of the Iron Age in the Kali Yuga, and were due a cataclysm to be followed by the renewal and rebirth of a new Golden Age.
Hesiod described these Ages as the Five Races. The Golden Race were the gods, ruled by Kronos who was overthrown by Zeus as ruler of the Silver Race. Zeus got fed up with the disobedience of that race and replaced it with the Bronze Race, who went on to destroy themselves with warfare. The Race of Heroes and demi-gods was a slight improvement, but the inevitable decline returned with the Iron Race.
Hesiod saw the gradual degeneration of society as inevitable because most people weren’t willing to make the effort to uphold a virtuous lifestyle. In other words, they weren’t living in alignment with the cosmic order as seen in the heavens. The cataclysms were a punishment from the gods to purify humanity and return them to the perfection of the Golden Age.
Plato also had a pretty miserable view of mankind and believed he was cursed to live during the Iron Age, surrounded by idiots. As moral standards declined, hubris and pride increased, all because people were estranged from the gods. He saw religion, ritual and education as necessary to help people to maintain the correct harmony.
The idea behind this is that something has gone wrong, mankind has become separated from its spiritual home, heaven and earth have fallen out of alignment, and we have to do something to get that alignment back. It’s a form of nostalgia and longing for a simpler time when there was no insecurity or fear. A desire to return to Eden or paradise and start again.
It’s also about how we deal with death, uncertainty and entropy – how to renew life in the face of constant decay and have hope for the future. Having a positive vision can inspire people to participate in society and strive for meaning to build something good. But it also relies on a negative view of the present, as Nicholas Campion says in The Great Year: Astrology, Millenarianism and History in the Western Tradition:
“Golden-age mythology generally assumes that the present time is one of unprecedented moral decline and political and social disintegration. It is in the ritual condemnation of current conditions, the inability to live in, and accept, the present, that this myth sets its greatest trap.”
Almost everyone seems to believe that the times in which they live are the worst in history. It’s a mentality that should be familiar to anyone over 40: It wasn’t like this in my day! Young people today don’t know they’re born! That’s not even music, it’s just noise! The world is going to hell and nobody even cares! And so on…
But if people have always believed this (more or less), what does that tell us? That life is complex and messy and unpredictable. That you can’t escape death or suffering. As the song at the end of The Life of Brian says so eloquently:
“Life’s a piece of shit – when you look at it.”
Obviously, this doesn’t mean you have to give up and be miserable and spend your life complaining. Although you can if you want to – just don’t expect it to make you happy! The point of these myths is to find ways to confront the nature of reality and answer religious questions, like how to live a good life and find happiness and meaning, and so on. But that point often gets lost.
The myths describe paradoxical cycles of time and change that are predictable but also uncertain. Time is measured in waves that rise and fall, mapping the rise and fall of empires, of success and failure, birth and death. Beyond this is a timeless world of eternity – the Golden Age – which is also always present, paradoxically within time, as well as outside it.
The longing to return to the Golden Age represents the desire to escape from these waves of change. In Buddhist terms this is the desire to be free from suffering and get off the wheel of rebirth in samsara. In Christian terms, it’s the desire to return to eternal life – to God.
The danger lies in misinterpreting the nature of the Golden Age. If you forget that the Golden Age is always present, you may believe you have to die to get there. You escape the cycles of change by escaping from life itself. This is nihilism.
On the other hand, if you take the Golden Age literally and insert it into time, you will try to embody it somehow in political and social structures. The myth of a coming cataclysm can then be used to inspire the people, or control them. In fact, these ideas have often been used as propaganda and a tool for imperial power and authoritarianism.
The original mythologies were characterised by a battle played out in the heavens between the gods. The duality between light and dark was connected to natural forces and the oppositions of day and night, and between the elements. It was never meant to be enacted in the world but that’s how we tend to see these myths today with our literal-minded materialism.
The ancients used ritual and the observation of cycles to ensure that the terrible cataclysm never arrived. But with the shift into the Age of Pisces, that changed. Believers began stirring up division and collective hysteria to ensure that it happened within their lifetimes.
And these myths still exert a huge amount of power, whether you believe in them or not. They appear to be an archetype in our psyche and mostly operate without our awareness.
The fantasy of an idealised past has been shifted into the future as something to work towards and create. This can easily become authoritarian – and destructive – in practice. Anyone who disagrees or resists can be persecuted as a scapegoat, driven by ideas of purity, perfection and order.
Doing away with God is no protection because it’s a feature of secular societies too. The ideas behind Marxism and National Socialism, for example, involve the belief that the enemies of the Great Idea (whatever that might be) must be destroyed in order to create the perfect society. Nicholas Campion in The Great Year again:
“Whether in ancient Mesopotamia or modern Europe, the function of the final battle against the demonic enemy was designed to wipe out the impurities of human civilisation and return the creation to its original unsullied form. The myth remains as potent as ever.”
Indeed. Great Reset, anyone?
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There’s nothing inherently ‘golden’ about the Age of Aquarius – it’s just another zodiac sign. The times will change, and so will we. The question is whether we’re willing to grow up and stop believing in fantasies. The last word goes to Nicholas Campion:
“All these prophecies have one thing in common: they hold out the promise of a final state of collective bliss in which strife and struggle will cease, and peace, prosperity and freedom will reign. Death will be defeated and heaven will be restored to Earth as humanity returns to the safety of the collective womb, protected forever from all further ills. The lesson of the present, however, is that change is perpetual, that progress is a myth, that no moral order, however closely modelled on the cosmos, can endure, and that humanity is defined as much by its diversity as by its unity.”
Next time we’ll explore how the astrological ages work in practice and indulge in some historical speculation…