The Theosophical Society in America

The Dawn of Aquarius: The Turning of the Great Ages

By Ray Grasse

Originally printed in the Winter 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Grasse, Ray. "The Dawn of Aquarius: The Turning of the  Great Ages." Quest  98. 1 (Winter 2010): 10-13.

Ray GrasseImagine the world as it would appear from the perspective of an ant wandering onstage during a performance of Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night's Dream. All around you there unfolds a great drama, replete with exotic colors, sounds, and complex happenings; yet because of your limited perspective, the meaning of it all escapes you. You can't comprehend the multilayered significance of this drama or grasp how these diverse elements fit into a greater unfolding story being played out in several acts. And yet only by understanding that larger context could you perceive how these elements are really facets of a greater narrative.

In a way, our own predicament is rather like this. We, too, find ourselves meandering across a great "stage" that of history itself. To the casual eye, the events transpiring around us may seem like a chaotic jumble of random occurrences: a rocket carrying seven crew members explodes in midair; a world leader finds himself embroiled in a foreign war; a new computer technology suddenly takes the world by storm. At first glance there is little to suggest that such things possess any meaning or relation to one another. Yet our problem may simply be one of proximity: perhaps we're just too close to grasp what is going on. If our perspective were broad enough, perhaps we'd recognize how these isolated events are facets of a much greater story.

For the esotericist, an important key toward helping unlock that broader perspective is the concept of the Great Ages. We presently find ourselves straddling the threshold between the "acts," as it were, of the Piscean and the Aquarian Ages. Like vast tectonic plates shifting deep within the collective unconscious, this epochal transition has already begun manifesting as a series of seismic changes throughout our world, as the forms of an older age make way for those of a radically new one.

Will the coming era be a time of peace, love, and brotherhood, as some suggest? Or will it bring about an Orwellian police state where men and women become little more than cogs in a bureaucratic machine? If history is any guide, the truth will probably be more complex than we expect or can even imagine. It's useful to remember that the same Piscean Age that brought us Jesus Christ also brought us Torquemada and the Inquisition, not to mention televangelist Jimmy Swaggert. To help us make sense of these unfolding complexities, let's look briefly at a few of the key symbols and archetypal themes associated with both of these eras.

The Age of Pisces 

For two millennia now, we have been under the influence primarily of the watery sign of Pisces. The exact beginning of the Piscean Age is hotly debated, though most would agree that it can be loosely associated with the start of the Christian era. The manifestations of the Piscean Age include the rise of a global religion centering primarily on symbols of water: baptism, walking on water, changing water into wine, and so forth. Indeed, for the student of astrological symbolism Christianity offers a virtual mother lode of correspondences in connection with Pisces.

For example, Christian scripture speaks extensively of fishermen, sympathy for society's outcasts, martyrdom, and the washing of feet—all traditional symbols of Pisces. One of the defining miracles of Christ's ministry was the feeding of the multitude with two fishes and five loaves of bread. More subtly, the Catholic practice of eating fish on Friday is sometimes linked to the fact that Friday is governed by Venus, the planet that is "exalted" (attains its optimal expression) in Pisces.

Were these correspondences intentional on the part of the church fathers, or are they purely synchronistic? Even scholars disagree on this point, so we may never know for sure. Either way, we can study these symbols for what they reveal about the archetypal dynamics of the time. Viewed as a whole, they suggest that humanity was learning to relate to reality and the divine through a more emotional filter. In its constructive aspect, this brought about a newfound element of compassion and faith in key segments of society, especially in the Christian world. A spiritual sensibility emerged which spoke of "turning the other cheek" rather than smiting one's enemies— shift from Roma to Amor, in a sense.

More negatively, this same emphasis on emotionality ushered in a spirit of dogmatism and persecution within the emerging religions. Pisces is intensely concerned with matters of faith, but taken to extremes, this can lead to zealotry, self-righteousness, and the urge to establish absolute guidelines for all to follow. At its worst, the Piscean Age was an era of religious intolerance, when large populations were expected to show unquestioning allegiance to a monolithic belief system, as was the case for much of Christianity and Islam during this period.

One of the more striking Piscean symbols found in Christianity is its central image—the crucifixion. It is sobering to consider that for nearly two millennia Western culture has defined itself largely in terms of an image of someone being tortured in a particularly gruesome manner. Viewed archetypally, this singular seed image contains both the best and worst of the Piscean legacy. At its worst, the crucifixion expresses dark Piscean qualities like self-pity, masochism, guilt, and martyrdom. These traits reflect the self-dissolving principle of water, but directed in a more destructive way. In some respects the Piscean Age could be called the ultimate age of neurosis, an era when many believed suffering and guilt were somehow synonymous with spirituality. This is precisely the sort of delusion that arises when the ego is unhealthy or ungrounded and finds itself drawn back into the more corrosive and ego-dissolving emotions of the soul.

But the crucifixion has a more positive interpretation too. As astrologers know, Pisces symbolically relates to the transcendence of the ego and the surrender of personal interests in service of higher ideals. As the last sign in the zodiac, Pisces is that final stage in the soul's evolution where the boundaries of personality have begun dissolving and the soul now merges with the great cosmic ocean. In its highest sense, this is what the crucifixion means: the willing capacity for sacrifice, worship, and profound devotion. This is the water element at its most refined. Some examples of this would be St. Francis of Assisi, or the ideals of chivalry and courtly love, with their ethos of self-sacrifice and idealism, that arose during the medieval era. Note, too, that the word for that other major Piscean Age religion, Islam, means "surrender" when translated into English.

Whereas the Age of Aries (c. 2100 bc–ad 1) brought an awakening of the outwardly directed ego, the more feminine Piscean Age brought about a newfound sense of interiority or inwardness. In religious terms, this was evident in the emerging Christian emphasis on moral reflectivity, or conscience. The underside of this development was the emergence of a new mood of guilt throughout Western society. Prior to Christianity, one rarely finds a sense of conscience or "sin" as we now think of it. The earlier Greeks saw their relationship to the gods in more mechanical and external terms than we do now. When crimes were committed, one atoned for them not because of an inner sense of guilt but because of a belief that one had accrued a "stain" of sorts that could be removed through an appropriate sacrifice.

On another level, this new sense of interiority was mirrored in the rise of architectural features like the dome and the arch, so critical to Islamic mosques or Roman structures like the Pantheon. Artistic shifts like these symbolized a new world of emotions opening up during the early Christian era. Centuries later, this same development made possible the later birth of modern psychology.

The Age of Aquarius (ad c. 2100–c. 4200)

The most frequently asked question concerning the Aquarian Age is, when does it begin? That's a bit like determining when the dawn starts. Is it when the morning sky first starts glowing long before the actual sunrise? Or is it when the sun actually appears over the horizon?

The same problem applies to understanding the timing of any Great Age. An age doesn't begin on a single day or year but unfolds gradually over many years or even centuries, exerting its influence in pronounced waves like the incoming tide. Consequently, while the Aquarian Age may not manifest fully for several hundred years yet—most estimates suggest somewhere between ad 2100 and 2800—;there are any number of clues to suggest that its forces have already begun appearing in our world. The rise of the Internet is a current example, but we can see evidence of it even as far back as the American Revolution. 

Whereas Pisces is traditionally associated with the element of water, Aquarius is associated with the element of air. Outwardly, this is reflected in the startling rise of aviation technologies and space travel over the last century. In a quite literal sense, humans are learning to master the air realm, not only with aviation but through the construction of ever taller buildings that allow us to live higher up off the ground than ever before. The media also employ metaphors that reflect this elemental shift when they say that a show is going "on the air" or a broadcaster is "taking to the airwaves."

But these outer developments are really reflections of an inner shift taking place, one that relates to an awakening of mind throughout the culture. Symbolically understood, air is the medium through which we communicate ideas, and is the element most associated with rationality and thinking. This means that the Aquarian Age will likely usher in major advances in humanity's intellectual growth, though probably at widely varying levels of sophistication. Someone living a life in front of a TV set might be described as pursuing a "mental" existence, but in a vastly different way than the scientist struggling to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. Terms like "information superhighway" or the "information revolution" are further examples of how the impending Aquarian influence has already begun to propel our world toward more mental values and modes of experience. The modern separation of church and state is another important example of the disengaging of our rational minds from the dogmatic and emotional concerns of the Piscean Age.

A vital key toward understanding the meaning of Aquarius resides in the way each of the different elements repeats itself three times over the course of the zodiac. In other words, there are three earth signs, three water signs, three fire signs, and three air signs. Each version of that element expresses it in subtly different ways. To illustrate this, let us focus here on the trio of air signs: Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius.

The Three Faces of Air

Given the progressive nature of the zodiac, it's hardly surprising that each of these three signs would reflect the workings of the mind in broader and increasingly impersonal ways. For instance, in Gemini, rationality expresses itself in a highly personal manner, through the workings of the everyday mind and ordinary forms of communication. In Libra, the rationality of the air element manifests in more interpersonal ways, through a mentality directed toward interactions with others in wider social contexts. Some simple examples would be a teacher standing before a class or a salesman dealing with clients.

In Aquarius, we find the element of air-rationality expressing itself through the most impersonal contexts of all, in terms of large masses of people—or even the cosmos itself. Aquarius could be described as the principle of cosmic rationality or cosmic mind, the ability to perceive and make connections of the most abstract and universal sort. Aquarius isn't simply concerned with ideas and theoretical relations; it is concerned with ideas and relationships that are global or cosmic in scope.

For this reason, the Aquarian Age will likely be an era when science rather than religion will be the dominant paradigm, with scientists becoming the new high priests. Whereas religion purported to reveal the moral and theological principles underlying the world, science attempts to uncover, in a wholly secular way, the universal physical laws and principles underlying nature. It aspires to a completely impersonal—and very Aquarian—understanding of the universe, divested of subjective feelings and opinions.

This impersonality is also evident in the way many of us now are developing social connections and networks extending over vast distances, using technologies like the Internet or TV. These allow people across the world to communicate with one another, but in more cerebral ways than ever before. It's one of the paradoxes of our time that just as we're becoming more interconnected with people across the entire world, we find ourselves knowing less about the people living next door to us.

This shifting orientation toward Aquarian air is also responsible for our growing fascination with outer space and its exploration, as reflected in films such as Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or TV shows like Star Trek. Works like these capture the emerging spirit of a "longing for the stars" that is so intrinsic to Aquarius. The modern fascination with UFOs and extraterrestrial life will likely become even stronger in the years to come, as humanity finds its speculations in these areas progressively translating into concrete reality.

Symbols on the Brink of Aquarius

With one foot in the Piscean Age behind us and the other in the Aquarian Age ahead of us, we find ourselves caught between radically contrasting value systems. If the Great Ages represent a Shakespearean drama of cosmic proportions, we've stepped onto the stage precisely at the point "between acts," when the old props and backdrops are being replaced by new ones. One result of living in this liminal state is the rise of various transitional forms—symbolic hybrids of Piscean and Aquarian energies. Here are a few examples of these from recent times.

Televangelism
. What happens when old-style Piscean Christianity meets up with Aquarian-style telecommunications? One result is that distinctly modern phenomenon called televangelism, in which preachers engage the fruits of cutting-edge media technology for spreading the gospel of salvation to ever-larger audiences.

The abortion debate.
As one Great Age comes up against another, there can be a violent clashing of values and ideologies from both sides of the divide. A vivid example of this is the modern controversy over abortion. On the one hand there are the largely Christian "prolife" advocates representing the values of the Piscean Age, with their expression of sympathy for the helpless unborn. On the other hand there are the "prochoice" advocates representing the forces of Aquarius, championing the rights of individuals to decide their own fates. Over the years there has been little compromise between the views of these two camps, and there is little hope for change in sight, but with good reason. They arise out of two fundamentally different paradigms, two radically different ways of seeing and evaluating the world—one from the last Great Age and the other from the next.

The storming of the Bastille
. Sometimes even single events can serve as archetypal benchmarks in the transition between eras. One of the earliest and most dramatic examples of this was the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, a pivotal event in the French Revolution. On this date, French radicals took over and opened up the famed prison, which had been holding political prisoners, and released those few who remained. In astrological symbolism, prisons are associated with Pisces, while the principles of freedom and revolution are associated with Aquarius. The opening up of a prison and release of its prisoners was a symbolic landmark in the move from the old authoritarian order to a more freedom-oriented one.

Alcoholics Anonymous.
For astrologers, one of the negative symbols associated with Pisces is addiction to intoxicants like alcohol, drugs, or even fossil fuels! Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offer an example of people coming together to break free from their addiction to alcohol, nicely symbolizing the effort to undo our bondage to Piscean consciousness. AA is thus a hybrid. It has one foot firmly planted in the values of the receding age, not only because of its focus on alcohol but its emphasis on surrendering to a higher power ("Let go and let God!"), not to mention its own brand of "commandments" (the Twelve Steps). At the same time, AA is committed to breaking free from addictions and is essentially democratic and nondenominational—factors all associated with the emerging Aquarian era.

Transitional symbols in cinema.
Poet Ezra Pound once suggested that artists are the antennae of the race. Over the last two centuries we have seen many examples of how the arts can serve as a rich repository of symbolic clues for understanding the transformations taking place in our world. Take the case of Peter Weir's 1998 film The Truman Show, based on a script by Andrew Niccol. This ingenious movie tells the story of Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) and his efforts to break free of a media-permeated world in which he has spent his life as the unwitting subject. Lording over this world is a powerful artist named Christof (Ed Harris), who has choreographed the circumstances of Truman's life from birth onward as part of a vast performance piece known to all except Truman himself.

Throughout most of the movie, Truman is shown living in a world bounded by water (Pisces); each time he attempts to escape from this world, he is lured back with the promise of alcohol (a Piscean symbol). He eventually learns to overcome these temptations and succeeds in escaping from this water-bound world into an air-based one (Aquarius). The movie climaxes with the protagonist walking on water and literally stepping into the sky. (Compare this with the original Matrix film, in which Neo, the lead character, awakens from an amniotic, water-based existence into an air-breathing one.) And what is the name of the Godlike figure from whom Truman is desperately trying to break free in his water-bound world? Christof, or, "of Christ"—yet another symbol of the Piscean era.

Transitional symbols in literature.
The transition to the Aquarian Age has expressed itself within the forms of modern literature as well. For instance, the passage from one age to another sometimes expresses itself in mythic symbols which depict a hero doing battle with a creature symbolically associated with the prior age. An example from Western religion would be Moses ordering the Israelites to destroy the golden calf, symbolizing the transition from the Age of Taurus to that of Aries. In modern times, a similar pattern can be found in books like Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Here we see a figure in the open air (Ahab) attempting to slay a creature of the sea, symbolizing transcendence over the water realm (Pisces). Additionally, if the whaling industry is taken as a symbol for modern industrial civilization generally (it was the first true industry to emerge from the young America), then Melville's tale underscores the shift from a more emotional age to the more technological and business-minded one of Aquarius.

The Pilgrims' immigration to America.
Whether we know it or not, we are all pushed or pulled to some degree by the imperatives of our age; we all act out the necessities of a broader drama. As one example of this, the effort by the Pilgrims to flee religious persecution in the Old World in search of religious freedom in the new one reflects a shift from the more dogmatic, persecution-oriented Piscean era to the freedom-oriented Aquarian Age. Little could they have realized that they were also setting the stage for a collective drama whose implications would extend far into the future and influence the geopolitical direction of an entire planet for centuries to come.

Lifting Our Sights

So what exactly can we expect in the Aquarian Age? As I hinted at the beginning of this article, the next Great Age will likely be every bit as complex and multifaceted as every other one that has preceded it. While some foretell a utopian era of knowledge and brotherhood, and others speak of a time when corporations and governments rule the day, it's more realistic to expect that the truth will lie within the constantly shifting ground between these extremes. For that reason, perhaps a better question to ask would be, what can we do to facilitate the highest expression of the coming era? As I've discussed in my book Signs of the Times, there are a number of specific steps we might consider for achieving this goal on both the collective and personal levels.

On the global scale, it means working to create a society that fosters higher values and ideals, not only through improved laws and educational institutions but the cultivation of increasingly enlightened business models. "If we create the body of civilization," the late philosopher Manly Palmer Hall once remarked, "then the soul body of civilization—which is the ‘New Atlantis'—will move in and vitalize it. And instead of being a mechanistic culture defended only by mortal laws, it will be the manifestation of a loving being receiving light from the Eternal source of light" (Hall).

On a more personal level, enhancing the higher potentials of the Aquarian Age will involve, among other things, developing one's own higher mind and critical faculties, allowing one to remain free from the hypnotizing qualities of society's mental "grid"—the sociocultural matrix of our collective beliefs. Can you stand apart from the crowd and think for yourself? That's a question that's being asked by many of our emerging popular mythologies.

The Great Ages may come and go, but mystics repeatedly underscore the importance of not letting one's personal happiness be dependent upon outer circumstances. As the famed yogi Paramahansa Yogananda once remarked, "You do not have to wait for the end of the world in order to be free. There is another way: rise above the age in which you are born" (Yogananda, 67). Whether the Age of Aquarius turns out to be a utopia or an Orwellian nightmare, we ultimately have responsibility for our own awareness and attitudes—and in some ways that may be the most Aquarian lesson of all.


References

Manly Palmer Hall. "Francis Bacon: The New Atlantis." No. 1. Audio transcript: Landmarks of Esoteric Literature. Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1998.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. The Divine Romance. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1986.


Ray Grasse is author of The Waking Dream (Quest Books, 1996) and Signs of the Times: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of World Events (Hampton Roads, 2002), from which this article is adapted. He worked on the editorial staffs of Quest Books and Quest magazine for ten years. He can be reached at jupiter.enteract@rcn.com or through his Web site at www.raygrasse.com