Aion (Greek: Αἰών) is a Hellenistic deity associated with time, the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the zodiac. The time represented by Aion is unlimited, in contrast to Chronos as empirical time divided into past, present and future.
He is thus a god of the ages, associated with mystery religions related to the afterlife, such as the mysteries of Cybele and the Dionysian mysteries. In Latin the concept of deity may appear as Aevum or Saeculum.
Iconography and symbolism
Aion is usually identified as a naked or semi-naked young man within a circle representing the zodiac, or cyclic time. Examples include two Roman mosaics of Sentinum (modern Sassoferrato) and Hippo Regius in Roman Africa, and the Parabiago plate.
But because he represents time as a cycle, he can also be imagined as an old man. In the Dionysiaca, Nonnus associates Aion with the Horae and says that he shifts the burden of old age like a snake shedding the coils of old and useless scales, rejuvenating as they wash away the waves of the laws of time.
The image of the twisted serpent is connected to the hoop or wheel through the ouroboros, a ring formed by a snake holding the tip of its tail in its mouth.
The 4th century AD Latin commentator Servius notes that the image of a snake biting its tail represents the cyclical nature of the year. He says that "according to the Egyptians, before the invention of the alphabet the year was symbolized by a figure, a snake biting its own tail, because it repeats itself" (annus secundum Aegyptios indicabatur ante inventas litteras picto dracone caudam suam mordente, quia in se recurrit).
In his 5th century work in hieroglyphics, Horapolo makes another distinction between a serpent that hides its tail under the rest of its body, which represents Aion, and the ouroboros that represents the "kosmos," which is the serpent devouring its tail.
In his highly speculative reconstruction of the Mithraic cosmogony, Franz Cumont positioned Aion as Unlimited Time (sometimes represented as Saeculum, Chronus, or Saturn) as the god who emerged from primordial Chaos, and who in turn begot Heaven and Earth.
This deity is represented as the leontocephaline, the winged lion-headed male figure whose naked torso is intertwined with a serpent. He typically holds a scepter, keys, or a thunderbolt. The figure of Time "played a considerable, though to us completely obscure, role" in Mithraic theology.
Aion is identified with Dionysus in Christian and Neoplatonic writers, but there are no references to Dionysus as Aion before the Christian era. Euripides, however, calls Aion the son of Zeus.
The Suda identifies Aion with Osiris. In Ptolemaic Alexandria, at the site of a dream oracle, the syncretic Hellenistic god Serapis was identified as Aion Plutonium. The epithet "Plutonium" marks shared functional aspects with Pluto, consort of Persephone and king of the underworld in the Eleusine Tradition.
Epiphanius says that the birth of Aion of Kore the Virgin in Alexandria was celebrated January 6. On this day and at this time the Virgin gave birth to Aion. The date, which coincides with Epiphany, closes the new year celebrations, completing the cycle of time that Aion embodies.
This syncretic Aion became a symbol and guarantor of the perpetuity of Roman rule, and emperors like Antoninus Pius issued coins with the legend Aion, whose Roman female counterpart was Aeternitas. Roman coins associate Aion and Aeternitas with the phoenix as a symbol of rebirth and cyclical renewal.
Aion was among the divine virtues and personifications that were part of late Hellenistic discourse, in which they figure as "creative agents in grand cosmological schemes."The significance of Aion lies in its malleability: it is a "fluid conception" through which various ideas about time and divinity converge in the Hellenistic era, in the context of monotheistic tendencies.