He Who Holds the Keys
Having carved variations of this leontocephaline figure, I thought it was time to explore this ancient deity further. Appearing as he does with a lion's head on a human body, girdled by a serpent, this imposing figure is found in ancient Mithraic temples throughout the Graeco-Roman world. His imagery is loaded with symbolism, but before we delve in we need figure out just who he is.
This deity was known by many names: Aion, Sæculum, Kronos, but these were really just conventions, for he was truly nameless. For the purpose of this post, let's stick with Aion.
Like the Zoroastrian, Zurvan, Aion isn't just a god of time, he is time; unyielding and absolute. He is the heavenly gatekeeper around whom fiery diadems glow. He stands at the outermost region of the cosmos, that of the aether, seen by ancients as a realm of fire. In fact, some of his statues were constructed so that flames could blast from the mouth. His fearsome jaws tear apart his progeny at the termination of each cosmic cycle. In ways his aspect is formidable, frightening, yet the lion’s head suggests courage and determination.
As we can see, Aion is often depicted holding a set of keys. Those initiated in his ways would have known him as a keeper of two gates - two ways to escape the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. His silver key would open the Gate of Cancer, beyond which was the path to the ancestors and reincarnation. While the golden key would unlock the Capricorn Gate, revealing the way to escape the cyclic grip of necessity, through gnosis-like transcendence.
|From Ostia Antica|
Aion’s wings represent four-fold time, while the serpent that coils about him, like an ouroboros, is cyclical motion; that of the sun, the planets and of time. While his body is adorned with zodiacal symbols, reinforcing his dominion over time and the process of the ages. He is sometimes attended by chthonic beasts, such as Cerberus, or flailing knots of snakes, all connected with the underworld. Sometimes he is portrayed with an eye on his chest, this 'eye of the soul' was also a symbol of divine intellect. The eye of Aion was used in magic too, inscribed on talismans and objects to bring power.
In the city of Alexandria, Aion was worshipped under a number of guises, usually in conjunction with other deities: Pschai-Aion, Sarapis-Aion, Aion-Kronos amongst them. This coupling of deities reflects the idea that gods were not seen only as supernatural personages, but as metaphysical concepts.
Early Christianity, seeking to escape the rigours of endless time via the teachings of Jesus - Aion, the figurehead of boundless time, became ‘Satan’. Indeed many of the trappings of Satan are evident in his imagery: his association with a realm of fire, the serpent and underworld affiliations.
I haven’t yet managed to lay my hands on a copy of Carl Jung’s work, Aion, which delves into Christianity’s beginnings and associated symbolism, as well as exploring various archetypes. The title perks my interest. But in the meantime, I’ll keep carving him from time-to-time, drawn by the powerful imagery from over two-thousand years ago.
The Mithras liturgy - Hans Dieter Betz
Magical Practice in the Latin West - Richard L. Gordon & Francisco Marco Simón
Mystery Religions in the Ancient World - Joscelyn Godwin
The Mysteries of Mithra - Franz Cumont