Æ’s Religious Cosmology
George William Russell was an Irish nationalist, poet, artist, and mystic, who went by the pseudonym Æ. Today I’ll be exploring his religious views, and his overall religious cosmology. And by ‘religious cosmology’ I mean that set of myths and narratives, through which he understood and orientated himself within the universe. Whenever we’re considering a thinker or writer, we of course gain a great deal of insight by merely learning which thinkers and writers they themselves held in high regard, and the three individuals held in high regard by Æ were Madame Blavatsky, alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.
When it comes to the foundational principle that underlies Æ’s religious cosmology, it is, in an Emersonian fashion, Nature, the breath and pulse of Nature, infusing his imagination. But unlike Emerson, whom we imagine, between his time lecturing, reading, and writing, strolling through Concord’s surrounding natural beauty, Æ had no such luxury. His artistic endeavours were not notable enough in his day to constitute a livelihood in and of themselves, and so he was obligated to take on various clerical jobs throughout his life, working in particular for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, a co-operative movement in Ireland. As such, when Æ reflected on Nature, or remembered back upon those times he spent in Nature as a child, he did so in an office surrounded by heaps of paper.
Nevertheless, amidst that drudgery he was able to escape deep into his own imagination, and experience therein the divine wilderness, traverse broad green landscapes, “the Many-Coloured Land”, and be overshadowed by elemental forces within the psyche. The trouble was, that the deeper he went into that heavenly light, the greater the contrast was between his interior world and the exterior, which increasingly showed up to him as much like a prison. That exterior plane with its “mighty devils of state and empire lurking in the abyss,” claiming souls for its own. The superficial mundane, populated by the lost, that vast majority which would never escape, and never so much as catch a glimpse of anything beyond. But Æ had caught a glimpse, and as such, was driven to go deeper in his own interior world. He did so by practicing meditation, learning to still the mind, to focus on his breath, to get past those strings of thoughts, of frustrations, those preoccupations of the mind, and discover that interior stillness. In this way, he cultivated an ability to leave the worries of the exterior world in the exterior world, and to not carry them as a great burden into that interior. And as such, he found his way unburdened into that vastness. For as we have “imagined ourselves into this pitiful dream of life. By imagination we will re-enter true being.”
Considering then his Many-Coloured Land, he thinks about the relationship between his imagination and his own psychology. And what I find interesting here is the extent to which he foreshadows some of Carl Jung’s ideas, writing, as he was, pre-Jung. Because the question he’s asking himself is something like, what is the nature of his own imagination? And what can account for its depth and breadth? There is something inexplicable which seems to bubble up from beneath. Something of an unknown origin. What he’s wrestling with, though he lacks the psychoanalytic vocabulary to articulate it, is a question pertaining to the nature of the unconscious. Really it is the cardinal question, which ultimately set Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud at odds. For Freud, everything in the unconscious mind was formerly put there by us, although forgotten: senses, feelings, vistas, etc., all internalised and reconstituted. But for Jung, there is a subterranean domain within the psyche that contains a wealth of content: images, senses, forces, etc., that is within us a priori, meaning, from before. It was there before there was even an ‘us’ to consider it, it is part of the architecture of who and what we are. This is what Jung termed the ‘Collective unconscious’, or what Æ describes in his poetical vocabulary as a “fountain of interior light”, out of which cascades Eden-like landscapes, ancient places, dazzling light, and shining faces. All of which in unity, constitutes Deity.
And so, delving deeper into Æ’s imagination, (and I’m paraphrasing here), he saw a land, and fountains jetting forth a luminous mist, out from some hidden heart of power. And shining folk passing into those fountains and inhaling them, drawing in life from that magical air. Those beings that are called in ancient myths, nymphs and dryads of the ancient oak, all moving to a unified rhythm, full of an inexplicable beauty, and drawing me ever closer in my journey towards Deity. And there also, I saw a glowing figure, carried by the winds, with a harp in hand, and birds flying all about it. “Its body was pervaded with light as if sunfire rather than blood ran through its limbs.” It passed over me, a face of immortal youth, and onwards into the distance.
Here then we’re blurring the line between the imagination and what ancient mystics would describe as visions. Because the claim being made here by Æ, is that at least aspects of this content are not fancy, or glorified memories, but something that arises out of an unknown place, like a visitor from a far-off country. So, Æ wants to lead you to this Many-Coloured Land, but he wants to ease you in, he recognises that if he simply invoked all at once, all the nymphs, imps, and fairies of his interior world, all that Celtic folklore, he would lose most of us, and by his own reckoning rightly so. And so, he doesn’t want you to accept his claims based on authority, or any appeal to a trust in him, he would have you journey for yourself along that path. He invites you to penetrate the mysteries of your own thoughts, and as such, have visions, and learn the geography of the spirit, and discover “the many mansions in the being of the Father.” This reference to mansions is a reference to one of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, in which he says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.” The implication being that divine reality, whatever word you want to use for that - God, the Kingdom of Heaven - is located within. It is an interior reality, not some far off inaccessible realm, that requires death to reach, but an accessible space within.
Æ then muses upon the possibilities this collective inner space may afford us. For if within that space we do encounter other beings, perhaps they are beings such as ourselves, other individuals strolling through the Many-Coloured Land and coming upon one another. “We find the house of our being has many chambers, and creatures live there who come and go, and we must ask whether they have the right to be in our house; and there are corridors there leading into the hearts of others, and windows which open into eternity, and we hardly can tell where our own being ends and another begins, or if there is any end to our being, if we brood with love upon this myriad unity.” “We are haunted by unknown comrades in many moods, whose naked souls pass through ours, and reveal themselves to us in an unforgettable instant, and we know them as we hardly know those who are the daily comrades of our heart, who, however intimate, are hidden from us by the husk of the body.”
This line of reasoning that Æ has taken us on is, in effect, bridging the gap between Emerson’s transcendental conception of Nature, and Madame Blavatsky’s world of hidden masters. Because it follows that if this collective inner domain is “real”, you would anticipate there to be individuals in this world who are particularly adept at navigating that space. Highly evolved souls, whom have embodied a certain wisdom. And this was Blavatsky’s central claim, that there were these hidden masters, most significantly Koot Hoomi, whom Blavatsky was in psychic contact with, from whom she gleaned her insights pertaining to the fullness of human potential. Within this inner domain then, Æ talks about this great archive of information, containing beings, images, moods, ideas, even books, which sit outside of time, and to this list, we can add (though he doesn’t use this language) ‘primordial archetypes.’ Those pieces of knowledge long past in time, but there and accessible, and open to anyone who would but look. As it opened to Æ, and when it opened to him for the first time in his late teens, he perceived it as an awakening. The awakening of Aeon.
The word ‘Aeon’ resonated with him deeply. He felt that the word came to him, and that it seemed to invoke to him the sense of this entire experience, the moods and memories most ancient coming out from some ancestral life where all this was hidden. The awakening of Aeon was his calling, his quest to fashion his own interior spirit mansion. This was the self-incarnated reality he was called to manifest; this was his myth, this was his ‘religious cosmology.’ And so, in the same way that some take on new names when they find their spiritual calling, like Saul becoming St. Paul, or Simon becoming St. Peter, so George William Russell became Aeon, or as he abbreviated it, Æ.
Æ, the mystic, wanted to communicate to others his own interior reality, and although he used various artistic forms in this endeavour, it was poetry which he held in primacy. He was convinced, quoting Emerson, that ‘poetry [is] all written before time was’ in the heavens. That is, it is conceived by the deepest part of us, and when it speaks to us, we taste the elixir of immortality. Ultimately, like Emerson, Æ returns his attention to Nature, to the Earth, Earth which is much like the floor of a cathedral, where the present of the Divine is everywhere. The same spirit calls out from the birds, the grass, the air, and the trees, the same companion. And so, the lover of earth receives their reward, and the veil is lifted to them. “By this meditation, we can renew for ourselves the magic and beauty of Earth, and understand the meaning of things in the sacred books which had grown old… When we attain this vision nature will melt magically before our eyes, and powers that seem dreadful, things that seem abhorrent in her, will reveal themselves as brothers and allies.