AGE OF AQUARIUS (Religious Movement)

The Age of Aquarius is an astrological concept that relates to the myths concerning the ‘ages of humanity’. Whether these various epochs represent historical periods or developmental stages (such as infancy, adolescence and adulthood), they manifest as recurring motifs that are found from Northern Borneo and the Hindu four yugas to the Aztec five eons and the five stages of the Mayan Great Cycle. In the West, the prevailing understanding of the ‘ages of humanity’ is taken from Hesiod (Work and Days) and depicts five historical epochs running successively from the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and the Iron Age. This last is the dark times that humanity knows today—a time of work, loss, weariness, greed, crime, war, and death. It corresponds to the Hindu Kali Yuga, our own age of dissension, war, and immorality. But implicit in the ‘ages of humanity’ mythology is the cyclical notion and hope that a new ‘golden age’ will follow the war-torn and decadent times of the present era—an optimism that forms the Theosophical and New Age understandings of the coming Aquarian Age.

A further development to this scenario occurred through the thirteenth century commentator on the Apocalypse, Joachim de Fiore (1145-1202). Instead of four ages of humanity, he described three and corresponded them to the Christian Trinity. Fiore’s first age, that of God the Father, was the time of the ancient patriarchal ideal. It is followed by our present age, namely, that of God the Son—conforming to the birth of Jesus the Nazarene and the epoch in which the masses are to be freed from oppression. Fiore’s third period is that of God the Holy Spirit. It is to be celebrated as the time of the Truth-or Mother-Principle. New Thought leader Emma Curtis Hopkins (1853-1925) maintained that the Age of the Spirit is the time for the rise of women. With New Thought constituting the mainstay of New Age affirmative spirituality, Fiore’s third age has come frequently to be recognized as the New Age of Aquarius.

The notion of astrological ages develops from the astronomical feature known as the precession of the equinoxes, namely, the earlier occurrences of the equinoxes in each successive sidereal year. Since the earth functions as a tilting gyroscope, the direction in which the axis points changes along the ecliptic in a westerly direction, and the zodiacal constellations appear to rotate around the earth relative to any specific point (e.g., the spring equinoctial point). The timing of this zodiacal shift amounts to fifty seconds annually, approximately one degree every seventy-two years, one complete sign every 2,160 years, and a complete zodiacal revolution (one Platonic or great year) roughly every 26,000 years. Claudius Ptolemy defined the first thirty degrees of the sky as the sign Aries, and his tropical system of astronomy/astrology codified in the second century CE begins at the spring equinoctial point or zero degrees Aries. However, due to the retrograde motion caused by equinoctial precession, the sun is now in the sign of Pisces at the time of the vernal equinox around March 21. As long as it continues to be so, we are said to be in the Age of Pisces. However, when the zodiac precesses enough to cause the vernal equinoctial point to slip back into the sign that precedes Pisces, it is asserted by astrologers that we will then have entered into the Age of Aquarius which, in turn, is identified by many as the New Age.

In iconographic terms, the constellation of Aquarius is understood as Ganymede, the youth seized by Zeus/ Jupiter to be cupbearer to the gods. In spiritual hermeneutics, this configuration has been reinterpreted to represent the servant of humanity pouring forth the water of knowledge to quench the world’s thirst. The sign of Aquarius is ruled by the planet Uranus that, in the astrological register, signifies unexpected, dynamic and progressive change. Consequently, by aligning the New Age vision with the astrological Age of Aquarius, not only is the New Age grounded in a supposedly discernible astronomical event, but it is also linked to Uranian newness and transformation. However, the major difficulty involved is the location of the actual astronomical date for the equinoctial precession to the Aquarian constellation. British astrologer Nicholas Campion mentions at least seventy possibilities for the beginning of the Age of Aquarius covering a range of 1,500 years. One New Age interpretation holds that the entrance into the new age is an inner rather than outer conversion. As the New Age groups and/or movements constitute a diversified range of exegesis, there are those who expect the change to come through some kind of supernatural or millennial intervention (e.g., Ruth Montgomery (see Montgomery, Ruth), Jose Arguelles)—to a degree following Fiore. Others (such as Ram Dass) expect that the Aquarian entry is purely a spiritual event that depends on a sufficient number of individuals becoming aware of their ‘higher selves’ and undergoing the requisite personal transformation for a quantum shift in planetary consciousness. A third position is represented by Marilyn Ferguson (see Ferguson, Marilyn) who argues that a New Age will come about only through tough ecological reform and consciousness, social work, education, and the practical application of new ideas and innovations. From this last vantage point, the New Age of Aquarius is a social rather than supernatural or spiritual phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the fundamental understanding of the Age of Aquarius is astrological, and Campion suggests that the development of this constellational framing of time is a product of the theosophist and professional astrologer Alan Leo (William Frederick Allen, 1860-1917) who laid the foundations for the present-day understanding of ‘astrological science’. In the course of the twentieth century, through its links with Theosophy, astrology became the lingua franca of the 1960s counterculture as well as the New Age movements that have descended from it. Its use of the astronomical phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes has become the seminal framework within which the New Age of Aquarius has been heralded. However, one inconsistency in identifying the Aquarian Age with the Golden Age is that the latter, traditionally presided over by Saturnus, ought properly to coincide with the Age of Capricorn— another 2,000 years or so after that of Aquarius.

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