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AION . The trajectory of Aion extends for more than a thousand years over the whole of antiquity, from Homer to Nonnus of Panopolis. Its story has been recounted several times, and many controversial issues have been almost conclusively solved. In effect, taking part in the debate on the question of Aion has turned out to be something of an ordeal for scholars of ancient religions, for it requires them to conduct a painstaking investigation of Greek and Latin literature, ancient art, and religious topics of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Moreover, tackling the topic of Aion entails coping with the basic tenets of the leading exponents of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (Reitzenstein, Bousset, and Norden) and testing the methodology of four of the most prominent modern historians of religions: Franz Cumont (18681947), Martin Persson Nilsson (18741967), Raffaele Pettazzoni (18831959), and Arthur Darby Nock (19021963). Before settling this matter, it is important to survey the various meanings of the Greek word aion, first in common usage, then in a theological context, before the emergence in the first century ce of the throngs of aiones (in the latinized spelling, aeones ) that came to inhabit the hierarchical Gnostic universe.

Semantic Developments of the Temporal Notion of A ion from Homer until the Early Christian Literature

Semantic analysis and linguistic comparison (cf. the Vedic Agni, a life-giving god, and Latin iuvenis ) have proven that at its birth in the Indo-European crucible and in its early usage by Homer, aion meant "life," in the sense of "vitality" or "life-fluid" (also "spinal marrow" in medical texts). After Homer the physical, nontemporal value fades out and persists only in epic diction up to Nonnus of Panopolis, the poet who in the fifth century ce competes with the Homeric archetype to build up a living theology out of dead deities.

In the Greek literature of the classical age, aion predominantly assumes the meaning of "life" in all its nuances, from the "lifetime" to the "lifestyle" of an individual human being. A collective reference ("generation" or "age") is also found, altogether with the more impersonal significance of "time," in competition with chronos, but in the narrower sense of "period of time." However, at the same time and especially in Heraclitus and Pindar, it assumes mystical nuances (in connection with the Orphic tradition) converging in the spheres of daimon and moira (fate). Only Plato, either influenced by the Persian opposition between Zurvan akarana (time boundless) and Zurvan daregho-chvadhata (time of the long dominion) or simply prompted by his linguistic and mythopoeic genius, in Timaeus (37d38c) confers a fundamental shift on Aion's semantic history. The demiurge creates sensible time (chronos ) as a moving image of eternity (aion ) immovable in the eternal present. Consequently, Aion becomes the idea of time, which is Platonically the heavenly model of earthly time, whereas for Aristotle, aion is transformed into the "immortal and divine" life of Heaven, lasting in eternal duration more than in an eternal present and almost identified with heaven. Philo of Alexandria weaves Plato's intuition and Aristotle's vision into a distinctly theological pattern. Aion is the bios of God and of the kosmos noetos living in an eternal present. Another devoted follower of Plato transfers his master's intuition onto an even more metaphysical level: for Plutarch, God, who does not exist in time (chronos ), has his only real existence in eternity (aion ), an unmoving and nontemporal state.

In Jewish and early Christian texts (especially the New Testament and the pseudo-Clementine Homiliae ), the usage of aion with the sense of eternity alternates with the seemingly antithetical usage of aion meaning "segment of time," that is, "age." This segment of time may coincide with "the past," with "the present age" (ho aion outos ), or with "the age to come" (ho aion mellon ). The doctrine of the two aeones, the present one being dominated by the devil-kosmokrator and nearing its end, and the one to come, which is imminent and will fulfill the messianic promises of perfection, is rooted in Jewish apocalypticism. After being hinted at in the Synoptics and in Paul, this doctrine is fully developed in the pseudo-Clementine Homiliae with such overtly dualistic features that they seem to echo the Persian dualistic conception of the two successive kingdoms, the first in the hands of the evil Ahriman and the second under the power of the good Ōhrmazd.

Aion as Cosmic God

Finally, in the Hellenistic age Aion becomes a cosmic god popular in various mysterio-sophical circles and sometimes an object of a sort of henotheistic cult. As regards the character of this cult prior to the explosion of the single Aion into the aiones of Gnosticism, we have very little information. With respect to visual documents, the Mithraic leontocephaline, which had already been identified with Aion by G. Zoega and was later associated with Zurvan by Franz Cumont and, finally, with Ahriman by F. Legge, only vaguely reflects the personality of Aion as a cosmic god of eternity. As regards the other monuments commonly referred to the cosmic god Aion because of the presence of the wheel of the zodiac and/or of the entwined serpent, only the elderly bearded figures appearing in mosaics and reliefs dating from the end of the first century bce up to the sixth century ce are identified by epigraphs as representations of the god Aion. Other well-known images of a youthful, cosmic god in the zodiac refer to other deities. Only a few of the coins circulated by the Roman emperors to advertise the happiness of their empire as a sign of the renewal of time and the universe can be reliably referred to the cult of Aion (see the pieces where Aion appears surrounded by the ouroboros or holding the Phoenix). A telling, even if nonanthropomorphic image, of aionic time eternally revolving is that of the ouroboros, the serpent biting its own tail. From literary evidence and inscriptions on the magical papyri and the so-called Gnostic gems, we learn that this icon, undoubtedly Egyptian in origin, was widely conceived as a fitting and living symbol of Aion. Very little can be deduced about the cult of the god Aion in Alexandria during the Hellenistic age from the celebrated passage of Epiphanius (Panarion 51. 22. 911) concerning the Aion generated by the Virgin on the night of January 56. It is likely that the cult of the Alexandrine Aion witnessed by the heresiologist is only a late syncretistic fruit of an indigenous cult of Osiris in special relation to the Egyptian notion of eternity (Nhh ) as the everlasting renewal of life out of death. In Eleusis during the reign of Augustus three Roman brothers dedicated a statue of Aion "for the might of Rome and the persistence of the mysteries." This dedication shows that in the first century bce Aion was conceived of as a personal divine entity with its own iconography, which conferred a concrete and tangible nuance to a symbol that had, until then, only been expressed through philosophical images.

In the second century ce the Nubian town of Talmis was the center for a henotheistic cult of the local deity Mandulis, which does not necessarily mean that it was a primary place of worship to the god Aion. The worshiper who had a beatific vision of his god and expressed thanksgiving in an inscription praised Mandulis as "The Sun, the all-seeing King of the universe and omnipotent Eternity (Aion pantokrator )." The Nubian god is identified with the Greek Helios and is endowed with the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and eternity. Aion appears not as another well-defined Greek deity but simply as a feature of the Sun God.

Aion plays a prominent role in the liturgies of the magical papyri, documents containing extremely heterogeneous material from the first centuries ce. Appearing roughly twenty times in the magical papyri, Aion is compared to Helios four times and, more rarely, to other deities belonging to the solar sphere: Apollo, Agathos Daimon, or the Egyptian god Ra. It is predominantly a personal god, in particular the supreme cosmic deity, the lord of the world (kosmokrator or pantokrator ), but also the First Father, invisible and self-generated, above whom there is no one. As such, in order to distinguish the god from other aiones or lesser deities, a superlative circumlocution of clear Semitic origin is used to define him as "God of the gods," "God of the aiones," "unique and blessed among the aiones," "Aion of the aiones," and "king and lord of the aiones."

The same conception is clearly expressed in the Oracula Chaldaica. Aion is defined as the "light issuing from the Father," who draws on the Father's force to dispense intelligence (nous ) to the lower beings, endowing them with a sort of perpetual motion. The Father or the Supreme Principle is thus conceived of as an agglomeration of light (a Sun) from which a luminous particle detaches as a deuteros theos to illuminate and oversee the activities of the lower world. Likewise, in an oracle of the Theosophy of Tübingen the various gods of the cult are merely particles of the all-embracing god and his angels. In this text the supreme Aion and the various aiones seem to hint at the Gnostic doctrine of the aiones in terms that can be traced back to an Orphico-Platonic matrix.

In the Corpus Hermeticum the theology of Aion appears as one of the mainstays of the whole system. Right from the beginning Aion appears as the front-line physical and metaphysical principle immediately after the Supreme God: "God makes Aion, Aion makes the heaven-world, the heaven-world makes time (chronos ), time makes the genesis " (C.H. XI. 2). Finally, as Aion is spatially and temporally infinite, it becomes the archetype, the objective of mystic-ascetic practices. Clearly, in this context Aion is not simply an abstract concept (eternity or infinite space) but an active principle, the strength (dynamis ) or wisdom (sophia ) of God, the Soul of the World. In other words, in the Hermetic system Aion plays the role of the "Second God" (deuteros theos ), the intermediary between the highest, unfathomable god and the world. That is to say, it plays the same role that in other Stoic and Middle Platonic contexts is played by Logos, Sophia, by a god called deuteros or demiourgos, by a personalised pneuma. These entities act in a hierarchical system with three (or five) levels in which the second god modeled on or by the first god is, in turn, the model for the third god identified in the cosmos.

A ion and A iones in Gnosticism

In the Gnostic mental universe, the aiones are the bricks of which the higher reality is built, the only reality that per se exists eternally and of which the lower world is merely a dim shadow. From the beginning this higher reality has been a compact whole, a solitary thought reflecting onto itself. At a certain point, it is broken down into a graded series of cosmic entities, the aiones, which bear the sign of the primary principle from which they sprung while remaining fatally inferior to it.

The term aiones first appears many times in the Gnostic treatises of Nag Hammadi, indicating an undefined number of spatial segments making up the noetic and pneumatic invisible and eternal world. In his heresiological transcription, Irenaeus uses the singular incorruptibilis Aeon to designate the higher world formed of all the aiones together as it is conceived of by the Gnostics mentioned in the Adversus Haereses. The term aiones is also frequently used in several Gnostic treatises to indicate a certain number of spatial entities conceived of as segments of the intellectual cosmos, which are diversified and stratified and also endowed with a specific personality (symbols of the mental functions). In the Sethian writings Aion appears in the singular almost exclusively to indicate the entity closest to the unfathomable Father, Barbelo, the self-generated and thrice male aion. More rarely, aiones may be used to indicate lower realities existing outside the pleroma. It would appear then that aiones can also be applied to the archons, basically "demons," from the court of the evil god Ialdabaoth, just as it normally identifies the category of spiritual beings created from the Supreme God, basically "angels."

The current contraposition between aiones as the hypostasis of the higher reality and angels as creatures of the inferior god in some texts becomes so tenuous as to disappear altogether. In view of this semantic fluidity, it is no wonder that when Epiphanius had to give names to the seven sons of Ialdabaoth who combine to mold the first man Adam, he defined them as "aiones or gods or angels." The Gnostic aiones, being the intermediaries between the transcendent world and the earthly world, perform a function that essentially coincides with that of the angels, the mediators between god and the cosmos in the Jewish conception that underlies Christian and Islamic angelology.

The semantic shift of aion/aiones from the context of time to that of space, which was already latent in both pagan and Christian Hellenistic literature, becomes a fait accompli in Gnostic scriptures, even if the temporal nuance of aion is not completely lost. Likewise, for the Gnostics eternity is the essential characteristic of the great Aion and his descendants, the lesser aiones, are merely entitled to the crumbs of this inheritance of eternity, in a spatial dimension, as they are nothing more than shadows or images of the greater aion.

In conclusion, the tendency of Gnostic mythopoeia to give form to abstract entities by attributing them with a concrete personality perhaps underlies the extensive speculation on the aiones, which are at one and the same time fragments of duration and the characters of a mythical drama halfway between the real and the symbolic. The shift from the One to the multiple, from time to space, therefore seems to stem from a process within Gnostic thought itself instead of being the result of a sort of artificial insemination in Persian or Egyptian test tubes.

See Also

Eternity; Gnosticism; Hellenistic Religions; Lions; Sacred Time; Snakes; Zurvanism.


Alföldi, Andreas. "From the Aion Plutonios of the Ptolomies to the Saeculum Frugiferum of the Roman Emperors." In Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean in Ancient History and Prehistory, edited by K. H. Hinzl, pp. 130. Berlin and New York, 1977. Important analysis of monuments, especially the coins.

Belayche, Nicole. "Aiôn: Vers une Sublimation du Temps." In Le Temps chrétien de la fin de l'Antiquité au Moyen Age: IIIeXIIIe siècles, edited by Jean-Marie Leroux, pp. 1129. Paris, 1984.

Bousset, Wilhelm. "Der Gott Aion (Aus der Unveröffentlichen Nachlass, ca. 19121919)," in his Religionsgeschichtliche Studien. Leiden, 1979, pp. 192230. A groundbreaking work for the historico-religious interpretation, with emphasis on the magical and Hermetic texts, although virtually unknown in scholarship.

Brandon, S. G. F. History, Time and Deity. A Historical and Comparative Study of the Conception of Time in Religious Thought and Practice. Manchester, 1965. See pp. 56 and 61 for a (debatable) solution of the problem of the relationship between the Hellenistic Aion and the Gnostic aiones.

Casadio, Giovanni. "From Hellenistic Aion to Gnostic Aiones." In Religion im Wandel der Kosmologien, edited by Dieter Zeller, pp. 175190. Frankfurt am Main, 1999. A synthesis, with detailed presentation of the evidence, on which this article is based.

Colpe, Carsten. "Altiranische und Zoroastrische Mythologie." In Götter und Mythen der Kaukasischen und Iranischen Völker = Wörtebuch der Mythologie, edited by W. Haussig, pp. 161487, vol. 4, Stuttgart, 1986. See the entry, "Aion," pp. 246250. Reprinted in Colpe, Carsten. Kleine Schriften, vol. V. Berlin, 1996, pp. 147151.

Cumont, Franz. "Mithra et l'Orphisme." Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 109 (1934): 6372. Classical interpretation of the Modena bas-relief.

Degani, Enzo. AION da Omero ad Aristotele. Padua and Florence, 1961. Fundamental for Aion in pre-Hellenistic literature.

Degani, Enzo. AION. Bologna, 2001. A synthesis of the 1961 study with amplifications to comprehend the Christian literature.

Festugière, André-Jean. La Révelation d'Hermès Trismégiste, Le Dieu Inconnu et la Gnose. Paris, 1954. See pp. 141199. Fundamental for the analysis of the magical papyri and the Hermetic treatises.

Foucher, Louis. "Aiôn, le Temps Absolu." Latomus 55 (1996): 530. Accurate and comprehensive analysis of monuments: mosaics, coins, reliefs, and paintings.

Jackson, H. M. "Love Makes the World Go Round. The Classical Greek Ancestry of the Youth with the Zodiacal Circle in the Late Roman Art." In Studies in Mithraism, edited by J. R. Hinnells, pp. 131164. Rome, 1994. Thorough and convincing analysis of monuments.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Aion. Untersuchungen zur Symbolgeschichte. Zürich, 1951, Olten, 1976. See pp. 5255 and 517. Based on a passage in the pseudo-Clementine Homiliae, he argues for the substantial nature of evil in the true Christian vision and its virtual inherence to God the Creatora view overtly Gnostic.

Le Glay, Maurice. "Aion." In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 1, pp. 399411. Munich and Zürich, 1981. Very valuable, all-inclusive survey of the iconography.

Levi, Doro. "Aion." Hesperia 13 (1944): 269314. Discussion of monuments, especially the mosaics.

Markschies, Christoph. Valentinus Gnosticus? Untersuchungen zur Valentinianischen Gnosis mit einem Kommentar zu den Fragmenten Valentins. Tübingen, Germany, 1992. See pp. 157166. Competent discussion of Aion in Valentinus, but important also for general issues.

Musso, Luisa. "Aion." In Enciclopedia dell'arte Antica Classica e Orientale. Secondo Supplemento, pp. 134142. Rome, 1994. The most comprehensive and updated survey of the iconography, with rich literature.

Nock, Arthur Darby. Essays on Religion and the Ancient World. Cambridge, Mass., 1972. Based on a definitive explanation of the inscription of Talmis, he argues convincingly for an interpretation of Aion as a function and not as a definite divine figure.

Norden, Eduard. Die Geburt des Kindes. Geschichte einer Religiösen Idee, 2d ed., pp. 2440. Leipzig, 1924.

Puech, Henri-Charles. "La Gnose et le Temps. " Eranos-Jahrbuch 19 (1951): 57113. Reprinted in Puech, Henri-Charles. En Quête de la Gnose. Paris, 1978.

Tardieu, Michel. Recherches sur la Formation de l'Apocalypse de Zostrien et les Sources de Marius Victorinus. Bures-sur-Yvette, 1996. See pp. 9398. A careful and thorough analysis of the tripartitions of the aiones in Zostranios.

Zepf, Max. "Der Gott Aion in der Hellenistischen Theologie." Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 25 (1927): 225244.

Zuntz, Günther. Aion Gott des Römerreichs. Heidelberg, 1989.

Zuntz, Günther. Aion in Römerreich. Die Archäologische Zeugnisse. Heidelberg, Germany, 1991. Drastic criticism of previous interpretations.

Zuntz, Günther. Aion in der Literatur der Kaiserzeit. Vienna, 1992.

Giovanni Casadio (2005)