In the final volume of his classic survey of mythology, The Masks of God (Vol.IV): Creative Mythology, Joseph Campbell writes pointedly, perceptively, and repeatedly, of "the popular mistake of reading mythology as a reference to hard historic fact". Though the results of this mistake can be extremely severe, the fact that this confusion between metaphor and literal truth does indeed take place is not altogether surprising when we consider that, while most words, by definition, have an explicit meaning, the very method of metaphor is the use of words in a figurative and implicit rather than literal way. Since it is not the word that one uses but rather the thought which another person understands by it which ultimately determines the actual meaning of a communication it is only natural that the understanding of metaphorical communication would require a certain set of life experiences, just as the correct apprehension of any literal definition presupposes some knowledge that is ultimately based upon experience.
Therefore, with metaphors it is not the specific vocabulary, but rather the context of the words, which is all-important. When I tell my beloved that I want to eat her I am not confessing to a weakness for cannibalism. And if I am speaking in the context of a mutual romantic attraction then she is quite unlikely to run away from me in terror (unless she's had remarkably few experiences with the metaphorical use of language). In a completely different context, we have the New Testament story of Mary's virginity at the time of Jesus' birth, which is only the ludicrous lie it appears to be when it is considered as a narrative of fact, while if, on the other hand, we consider Mary (like Cybele or Isis) as a type of the 'Great Mother Goddess' of nature, and Jesus (like Attis or Osiris) as a type of the 'Dying and Resurrected God' of vegetal and other life, then the biblical story could become an enlightening, even liberating, metaphor of the cyclical processes in humanity's physical and psychological existence (for instance, it is the Holy Spirit which impregnates Mary and fulfills the function in the creation of the Son of Man that semen performs in the creation of a man's son, and it is that same Spirit, when we consciously partake of it, that serves to propagate the rebirth of the Child both within and without us).
The confusion between the metaphorical and the mundane is especially frequent in the context of religious thought for at least two different reasons. Firstly, most, if not all, significant religious experiences are generally described as ineffable, that is, not expressible in words. When literal description is impossible, and yet one still feels compelled to speak out about one's moments of revelation, then metaphor is the only possible vehicle for verbal communication. Perhaps, on occasion, there will be a few people in some realized one's audience who have had similar (or at least preparatory) experiences, and will recognize (or at least ponder) what is being said, but certainly most people, having no first-hand basis for understanding, will either quickly reject it as utter nonsense or, much worse, credulously accept the metaphor as a literal truth.
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, in many religious contexts there are obvious social motives for people to maintain that particular religious metaphors are factual statements. If Jesus is an archetypal myth rather than a historical personage then how does one justify the enforcement of his worship to the exclusion of all others, especially when some of the other archetypes (e.g., Dionysus, Orpheus, Mithras, etc.) are so very similar? In societies where religious literalism acts as an important justification for the dominant position of particular individuals and classes it has almost invariably been a capital offense to question the mundane truth of received wisdom. Although mystics may teach that the popular religious tradition has a metaphorical significance that may even outweigh the importance of its literal truth, they will do so at their own, often substantial, risk. Even in our so-called enlightened society, there are many Christian denominations wherein theologians who question the historical details of the gospels are liable to lose their jobs, and may even face ostracism and harassment.
At its most extreme this 'historicization' of myth even manages to entirely displace the original mystical metaphor. For example, the passage in Matthew's gospel where Jesus gives Peter the "keys of the kingdom" is redolent with meaning to mystics and hermeticists of many stripes, but in the hands of the Roman Catholic authorities this story has all too often been robbed of its inner veracity and reduced to a mere pretext for theocratic tyranny. At some later point, after the gospels were written, Peter was credited with being the first bishop of Rome by the early Christian community. As there is, to me, no discernible mystical metaphor involved in such an elaboration of the legend it must be either based upon actual fact (a highly dubious premise) or a fiction invented to add weight to the papal claims of universal sovereignty.
Despite the social embarrassments and physical risks, insightful mystics throughout the ages have understood and appreciated the crucial differences and interfaces between the metaphors of eternity and the actualities of space-time. In today's milieu, for instance, it is possible (though not, alas, ordinary) for a person to find great psychological value in 'out-of-body' or 'near-death' experiences, 'past-life' or 'precognitive' visions, and yet still not become a true believer in 'astral planes', 'the afterlife', 'reincarnation', or 'akashic records'. However, it is usually far more common to find people (including the most hard-core of skeptics) being seduced by their desires and assumptions into mistaking the 'four-dimensional' signs and symbols of their experiential map for the 'five (six, or whatever)-dimensional' reality of the territory which they actually inhabit.
Even the most authentic of sacred revelations are necessarily viewed in the distorted mirror of individual (and hence, social) consciousness. Muhammad had no acquaintance with concepts like "archetypes of the collective unconscious"; for him, his dictation sessions with the angel Gabriel had an entirely explicit meaning. It is therefore only natural that most of his followers to this day insist upon the literal truth of an eternal Qur'an. That Islam could also produce a mystic theologian like Ibn al-Arabi is every bit as natural when one considers that authentic mystical experience is not to be captured by words, ideas, or even entire cultural establishments.
For Crowley on the other hand, in an era rich with psychological jargon, Aiwass was "almost the 'Unconscious' of Freud", and it is therefore unsurprising to find that some Thelemites consider "the fresh blood of a child" and the "dropping from the host of heaven" mentioned in the Book of the Law to be not literal prescriptions, but rather metaphorical references, some say to semen and feces, while others, of course, say that the 'initiated' know these metaphors actually refer to a mixture of menstrual blood and semen, and to pure semen, respectively. Or an entirely different theory is expounded. What explanation is given is not important. Sooner or later most Book of the Law-based Thelemites (for let us not forget that a Thelemite way of life was also described by Rabelais in the 16th century, which idea has resonated with at least some thinkers in most succeeding generations) are forced to recognize that a purely literal interpretation of their scripture is repugnant to the very law of love which it proclaims.
Despite the fact that almost all of them live in relatively sophisticated technological cultures, the individuals who make up the modern Thelemite movement are hardly immune to experiencing the common confusions between spiritual and mundane reality. Crowley himself was very often leaping to untenable conclusions in his interpretation of Thelemic metaphor (of course, as an experienced mountaineer he usually did not stop to rest in these places, but quickly stepped onto firmer ground), and his writings are littered with unsupported assertions, and (it seems) deliberately ambiguous tropes which are sure to mislead his unwary followers into wishful thinking at best or knee-jerk fundamentalism at worst.
One example of the kind of potentially misleading chimera which AC often pursued in his quest to define Thelema was his recurring and enthusiastic belief in the inestimable value of the Book of the Law as an aid and guide to scientists, especially mathematicians, in the making of great discoveries and advances. Careful reading of The Confessions suggests that the dedicated pursuit of such a chimera helped to contribute to the decline and fall of one mathematician, named Norman Mudd; and it appears that two other men, a science writer and mathematician named J.W.N. Sullivan and a mathematician named Edward Saayman, may have narrowly escaped similar obsessions. Needless to say, no one, from Crowley and his hundreds of students down to the several thousands of present-day enthusiasts, has yet publicly produced any important discovery or advance in math or science as a direct result of some clue in the Book of the Law.
In fact, to expect to find any new scientific knowledge in spiritual communications is naive at best, and more often than not it is seriously deluded. Of course, it cannot be categorically denied that such a discovery, involving a clue from the Book of the Law, may possibly occur in the future (or even that it has already occurred and is being kept secret for one good reason or another), and in any event it would be tyrannical to attempt to refuse people their right to conduct and interpret their own 'spiritually-inspired' researches. Still, I must also admit that the arguments of "creation scientists" might just possibly be true (if God is indeed the cruel joker they make "Him" out to be!), and also it's true that I would never dream of trying to prevent creationists from speculating publicly on the subject. But nonetheless, I do not want creationists to control how my children's schools' science textbooks are written!
By the same token, since I believe that Thelemites are almost certainly wasting their time when they try to discern new mathematical or scientific principles in the texts of Crowley's holy books, I would rather see AC's misplaced enthusiasm become an object lesson to his followers instead of an exemplar. Indeed, it is true that scientists and mathematicians may derive real inspiration from religion or philosophy, perhaps even especially from Thelema, but measuring the Great Pyramid or counting the letters in the Book of the Law is not the way to revolutionize scientific thought. The practice of numerology may involve arithmetic, but that fact does not make numerology a branch of the science called mathematics.
Fortunately, in most of Crowley's published commentary on the Book of the Law, he concerns himself primarily with the ethical and metaphorical significance of his revelation; however, too much of the time he is also trying to read in whatever literal significance he can (e.g., what percentage of present-day Thelemites believe that the outbreaks of many 20th-century wars, including the two World Wars, were integrally linked with the publication dates of various editions of the Book of the Law? Crowley apparently did, and it seems that a great many of his devotees concur!). One of AC's radically varied approaches to interpreting the text of LIBER CCXX is particularly evident in his commentary upon its repeated nihilist/dualist themes; his perusal led him to propose the equation 0=2 to graphically express one of the book's primary motifs (though of course he had devised this equation all by himself several years before he ever met Aiwass - one more example, like "Abrahadabra", that perhaps one never learns anything from a spirit unless one's already somehow known it!).
If the Prophet (Peace, Rest, Ecstasy be upon him!) had presented this equation entirely as a metaphor I would be among the first to applaud; as will become readily apparent below, I find this metaphor extremely fertile and satisfying. And in fact, much of Crowley's explanation of his equation is quite instructive and thought-provoking. However, in Chapter V of Magick Without Tears (among other places), I think he badly tarnishes the brilliant subconscious metal of his valuable insight by trying to palm off the 0=2 equation as mathematically valid; either he does not recognize the obvious arithmetical errors he is making in this attempt to assert the literal truth of his metaphor, or he is purposely trying to deceive, and thereby impress, those who are ignorant of basic algebra and arithmetic. I don't know which explanation, if correct, would be more disillusioning. Another possibility is that my admittedly high school knowledge of math is inadequate to the task. A friend and brother who is a college graduate in mathematics has assured me that it all makes sense. He even wrote out a proof for me that looks convincing at first glance, but what I think he actually proves is that a set with one term (which in the case of the proof happens to be zero) is equivalent to a set with two terms (in this proof, plus one and minus one). To really prove the equation 0=2 I believe he'd have to show that a set with two terms is equivalent to the null set. But like I say, he's a much better mathematician than I am, so who knows?
One example of the sort of truly elementary arithmetic error Crowley occasionally perpetrates is his naive use of division by zero. He apparently believes that 1 divided by 0 equals infinity because zero is "infinitely small". In fact, zero, by definition, is a nothing while the "infinitely small" is a something which forever approaches nearer and nearer to nothingness. If zero actually were the "infinitely small" then it would indeed be perfectly logical to equate an infinity of zeros with oneness. Unfortunately for the literal truth of Crowley's equation, an infinite number of 0's added together still does not equal 1, it equals 0! Furthermore, AC's illusory 'scientific' parlor trick serves only to distract us from some very real philosophical truths which the 0=2 equation conveys. For one thing, it graphically explains the process of creation by the fact that nothing (the point) implies everything (infinity), and vice versa. These two basic facts of existence make up the original pair of opposites which then establishes the dualistic pattern that runs throughout all the subsequent existential continuum(s). This is why the Buddhists say that nirvana (the 'extinct') and samsara (the 'world of forms') are identical. There are even a few contemporary physicists who explain emptiness as a perfect balance of virtual particles of matter and anti-matter continually canceling out each other's existence, though that's not to say that any of these physicists would recognize the 0=2 equation as meaningful evidence for their theories.
In addition to chasing his mathematical and scientific chimeras Crowley also hunted a few historical ones. Foremost among them, at least in its latter-day currency, is his concept of the progression of 'aeons', those grand epochs in human history during which one divine energy or another holds sway over our collective and individual destinies. That Crowley meant the 'aeon' to be understood as an actual period of historical time can hardly be doubted; throughout his writings he uses definite phrases to indicate this view (e.g., "during the whole period of the Aeon--approximately 2000 years", in Magick Without Tears, Chapter XLVIII). He certainly considered this Aeon of Horus as having a definite historical beginning point, the spring equinox of 1904 c.e., and he foresees, though less precisely, this age coming to its end with the occurrence of the "Equinox of Maat ... [which] may be a hundred or ten thousand years from now" (in The Law Is For All, Part Three: verse 34).The idea that history, past and future, is a proper subject of prophetic revelation, which Crowley displays in the case of his 'aeons', is far from unique to him. In fact, this is a very similar attitude to that of most other religious enthusiasts. Most Christian fundamentalists count some 6000 years from the 'Creation of Adam' until 'Doomsday'; and equally, many Orthodox Muslims and Jews expect some sort of 'Final Judgment' to occur at some time (definite or indefinite, as each particular sect would have it). Perhaps the Hindus have carried this art of 'sacred historiography' to its highest levels, with an intricate sequence of cycles of epochs, revolving from Satyuga through Kaliyuga and back, and covering literally millions of centuries.
Briefly described, Crowley's scheme of human history involves four aeons. First is the Aeon of Isis which, though I cannot find a reference to a specific beginning, seems to encompass at least the 'Neolithic' era and to end in the 6th century b.c.e., when the Equinox of Osiris took place and opened a new period which ended in 1904 c.e., to be followed by this present Aeon of Horus. The fourth epoch will be that of Maat (as referred to in the Crowley quote above). With charming inconsistency, his "a hundred or ten thousand years" leaves a large loophole in his more astrologically orthodox "approximately 2000 years", so his followers are left to determine the length of Horus' Aeon as best they can on their own. But even though the chronological details of Crowley's system may often be debated it seems that the acceptance of a divinely-inspired sequence of eras is bedrock belief for the vast majority of Book of the Law-based Thelemites.
Among contemporary historiographers the systematic division of history into 'ages' is called "periodization" and, though deities are nowadays only very rarely invoked to justify the divisions suggested, much thought and discussion has been engaged in upon this subject. Unfortunately for the tenability of Crowley's (or any other religionist's) interpretation of history some of the conclusions reached through professional debate cast a good deal of doubt upon the ultimate validity of any system of periodization, whether it is based on prophetic revelations or academic reasonings. The main problem with objective periodization lies with the nature of time itself which, though we may experience it as a series of discontinuous 'nows', can only be understood logically as a single indivisible flow. As the historiographer and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955 c.e.) has so aptly put it, "in his individual and fleeting today man will see, foreshortened, the whole of man's past still active and alive. For we can only throw light on yesterday by invoking the day before yesterday; and so with all yesterdays. History is a system, the system of human experiences linked in a single, inexorable chain" (in the essay "History as a System", section VIII).
The true believer will of course argue that any idiot can see how different are the eras before and after 1904, and indeed, a careful observer may point to any number of very real differences, but then the same can be said of 1903 or 1905, or of any other moment at all. A historical period, like a calendar, may be a convenient social fiction, but it is no more established by fact than the choice of which day to celebrate as New Year's is predetermined by astronomy. The truth is that there are only two definite eras which may be said to occur in history; they are the Past and the Future, and each moment, as we experience it, is the end of one and the beginning of the other. The Equinox of the Gods (just like Hiroshima, the Presidential election of 1820, and the earliest appearance of eohippus) may turn out to be a landmark event, possessed of enormous cultural significance, but only if that God in the East works through actual men and women to make for a new historical reality. Even though it took place back on March 20, 1904, in a way, as a 'historic' event it has yet to happen.
Of course, Crowley was certainly not alone in believing that a "new age" had opened early in this century, and it's quite easy to see why. The capabilities and effects of technology, the state of humanity's cultural development, the global 'balance of power', etc., had all been altering inexorably throughout the generations preceding the First World War; however, it was only in the buildup to that war, and in its aftermath, that these various and cumulative changes became fully apparent to the 'average' observer. To people schooled in the 'Concert of Europe', events like the defeat of Russia by Japan, or the invention of the airplane, or the victory of Bolshevism, could only have taken place in a fundamentally different world, and hence, implied a new stage in human history. All of the signs of a coming change of epoch were there to see for an astute observer of European fin-de-siècle decadence and spiritual crisis. Thus, to a contemporary historian the Book of the Law seems much more like the product of its times than the initiator of them. For the present, a Thelemite's article of faith in the historical significance of the Aeon of Horus is only significant to historians specializing in the study of modern alternative religions.
But as with the 0=2 equation, the value of the notion of 'aeons' is not to be sought finally in historical literalism, but in metaphor. By this reckoning the Aeons of Isis, Osiris, Horus, and Maat, refer not to time periods in human history, but rather to human individuals' and societies' modes of experiencing and reacting to the world. There are places in his writings where it seems that Crowley realized this truth at least instinctively (as in the postscript to Chapter 38 of Magick Without Tears, where, in his own inimitable blend of wit & misogyny, he describes three ideal types of female psychology as the Isis, Osiris, and Horus 'classes'). Thus, we ought to examine ourselves, our societies, and our entire history for the psychological qualities exemplified by Isis, Osiris, Horus, and Maat, without being constrained by the unnecessary restrictions which literalism imposes upon those who are unimaginatively 'religious'. It may well be that Isis types of behavior were the rule during the Neolithic, or that Osirian psychology has predominated for the past two millennia, but such ideas can only be supported or contradicted (not proven or disproven) by careful studies using uniform methodologies, controlled vocabularies, and statistical analyses.
When it comes to scientific learning imagination should not be allowed to override reason. But in fact, imagination is the one human faculty best adapted to the true apprehension of metaphorical expression. As long as we refrain from confusing our visionary speculations with scientific theories or literal facts we can gain valuable insights and inspirations, and continually reinterpret our personal and social traditions. So it is not very surprising that, in a curious way, the two primary metaphors examined in this essay, the 0=2 equation and the concept of 'aeons', can come together to create an interesting and, I think, somewhat illuminating correspondence.
Let us suppose that the extinction which is accomplished by the union of opposites (0=2) is characteristic of Horus' psychological mode of action (this connection being exemplified by the message of the Book of the Law). Then let us proceed to some 'spiritual mathematics'; by adding 1 to each side of the equation we enter the Osirian mode, 1=3, where the One Godhead is represented by a Trinity. Further addition takes us to the realm of Isis, 2=4, the dualistic natural world of the Four Elements. If we move in the other direction, subtracting 1 from each side of the 0=2 equation, we arrive in the universe of Maat, -1=1, the opposites are seen as identical, and perfect Balance is achieved.
So, what is the point of all these thousands of words on the subject of the metaphorical/literal dichotomy? Will Thelemites now cease their search for scientific secrets in the Book of the Law? Or will people suddenly stop sneering at those metaphors which they deem to be "Old Aeon"? I hardly think so. Nonetheless, I hope that some of my readers may in future be encouraged to laugh more heartily when they encounter such foolishnesses in themselves and their co-religionists (and perhaps a few of you will even be encouraged to read some Joseph Campbell, or Jose Ortega y Gasset!).