27 Dec 2017

Selections on Aion and Chronos [αἰών; χρόνος] in Onians’ Origins of European Thought


by Corry Shores


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Richard Broxton Onians


The Origins of European Thought: About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate


Selections on Aion and Chronos

[αἰών; χρόνος]



Brief summary:

In ancient Greek mythology, philosophy, and literature, there are (at least) two important names for time. First note some cosmological ideas. Around the world flows a river, Ὠκεανός, which is the source of all generation in the world. And, a body’s procreative element is the ψυχή, which is both a liquid and also appears under the form of a serpent. Likewise, Ὠκεανός is thought to be the primal cosmic procreative power or ψυχή, being as well both liquid and serpent. The Orphic version of this serpent is called Χρόνος, which is also the word for the usual meaning of “time”. Euripides also names the circling stream around the universe as Χρόνος. And for the Orphics, Χρόνος is mated to Ἀνάγκῃ, which means “necessity”. For the ancient Greeks, time and fate are also understood in terms of movements circling around the earth. The other word for time is αἰών, which like Χρόνος, is understood in terms of the waters and a serpent circling around the world. In Homer, αἰών means a couple things. It can mean a vital fluid from our marrow or cerebral system that comes out as tears and sweat. As such, it can be understood as the fluid that we are drained of as we age and that we lose when we die. So αἰών also means “lifetime”. As a fluid that gives life, it is thus related to the Ὠκεανός, which is also the life-fluid of the world, and, as a circling movement around the world, is time and fate. For Pindar αἰών is both the life-fluid and a compelling destiny or δαίμωνthat controls life. Αἰών, then, also means “eternity.” And Heraclitus uses the word to mean “the power controlling the changes of the world” (Onians’ words, p.251). In Heraclitus’ conception of αἰών as this cosmic principle, it is like a child playing a game.





[The following are quotations]


On the assumption that its nearest cognates are ἀεί and aevum it is generally agreed that the fundamental meaning for Homer and later is ‘period of existence’ and so, from the meaning ‘lifetime’, that of ‘life’ is derived. But the passages, from which this is inferred for Homer, can be put thus: “If I go home, my αἰών will exist for a long time.’

(200, citing Homer Il. IX, 415f)


And elsewhere in Homer αἰών clearly is not a period of time but a ‘thing’ of some kind like ψυχή persisting through time, life itself or a vital substance necessary to living. At death ‘ψυχή and αἰών leave’3 a man, or we are told merely that ‘αἰών leaves’4 him or that he ‘is deprived’ of it5 or of it and ψυχή.6

(200, citing, 3: Il. XVI, 453. 4: Il. V, 385; Od. VII, 224. 5: Il. XXII, 25. 6: Od. IX, 523f).


Later also, as we know, tears and sweat were thought to be the same liquid.2 It is this liquid which Homer calls αἰών.

(p202, citing the Problemata, 884 b 22ff).


‘nor were his eyes ever dry of tears, but there flowed down the sweet αἰών as he lamented for his return’ …. This has hitherto been ignored and paraphrased away: ‘his life ebbed’, etc., but its natural interpretation in fact is that the liquid flowing down was αἰών and that it is the same liquid which is said to be ‘wasted’ when husband or wife weeps.

(201, citing maybe Od. V, 151 ff.)


This liquid was, we saw, thought to be concentrated particularly in the head, to be dependent upon the cerebro-spinal fluid and ‘marrow’.



For Aristotle 'the living creature is by nature moist (“liquid”, ὑγρόν) and warm, and to live is to be such, but old age is cold and dry and so is what has died... it is inevitable that one who grows old should dry up’.2 It was thus natural to regard the liquid (αἰών) as the life, the stock of life inevitably diminishing with the passage of time, the measure of lifetime like the diminishing sand in the glass.

(215, citing De Long, et Brev. Vit. 466 a, 19ff. Cf. De Gener. Anim. 784 a, 34, etc.)


The thought traced that it is the ‘fluid’ in which life is and by which life is generated not only appears from Homer onwards in the recognition and worship of rivers as the generative powers (see pp. 229 ff.), but it also has its cosmic correlate.



For Homer the ‘generation’ (γένεσις) ‘of all’ (πάντεσσι) is the river ‘Ὠκεανός1 (Okeanos) which surrounds the earth and is associated with ‘mother Tethys’.

(247, citing Il. XIV, 246; cf. 201, 302. Cf. patrem rerum, Virgil, Georg. IV, 382; parens rerum, Anth. Lat. (Riese) 718, 14).


We shall see that Ὠκεανός was believed to be a bond around | the earth, apparently of serpent form even as Acheloos, the primal river or water, was conceived as a serpent with human head and horns. The procreative element in any body was the ψυχή which appeared in the form of a serpent. Ὠκεανός was, as may now be seen, the primal ψυχή and thus would be conceived as a serpent in relation to procreative liquid. The conception of Ὠκεανός has no basis in observation. It can now be explained as the imagined primal cosmic ψυχή or procreative power, liquid and serpent.

(248-249, citations removed)


While identified with or believed to be in the procreative liquid, the ψυχή was πνεῦμα. We can now understand as a survival of the earliest Greek conception the picture attributed by Epiphanius to Epicurus, who said almost the last word of Greek science about the structure of the universe. He is credited with saying that ‘the all was from the beginning like an egg, and the πνεῦμα in serpent wise around the egg was then a tight band as a wreath or belt around the universe’ ...  It is the same conception which appears in two versions of the Orphic cosmogony which we may now correlate: (1) that the world egg was begotten by a wind ...; (2) that it was engendered by a serpent which arose out of water and slime; the upper part of the egg became Ὠκεανός and the lower part Earth, including Τάρταρος in its nether depths .... We can perhaps also better understand at one and the same time why in this Orphic version the serpent was called Χρόνος and why, when asked what Χρόνος was, Pythagoras answered that it was | the ψυχή of the universe.1 According to Pherekydes it was from the seed of Χρόνος that fire and air and water were produced. This conception of Χρόνος, the usual meaning of which is ‘Time’, may be related to that of αἰών, which was not only the procreative life-fluid with which the ψυχή was identified, the spinal marrow believed to take serpent form, but also came to mean ‘lifetime’, ‘period of time’ and so ‘eternity’. For Pindar αἰών meant not only the life-fluid but also a compelling destiny, a δαίμων controlling life.7 It is the name Heraclitus gave to the power controlling the changes of the world.8 For the Orphics Χρόνος was mated to Ἀνάγκῃ, ‘Necessity’, which also, according to the Pythagoreans, lies around the universe.9 Below10 it will appear how for the earliest Greeks time and fate were circles. The process of time was the movement of the circle around the earth.

((250-251, many citations removed.

1: See Plut. Quaest. Plat, VIII, 4 (1007 A f.). For Χρόνος as a circling stream around the universe see Eurip. Fr. 594 (Nauck) = Krit. B 18 Diels: ἀκάμας τε χρόνος περί τ' ἀενάῳ / ῥεύματι πλήρης φοιτᾷ τίκτων / αὐτὸς ἑαυτόν.)

7: See pp.405f.

8: See pp.252f.

9: See p.332.

10: Pp. 442ff.



He [Heraclitus] calls the cosmic | principle αἰών and conceives it as a child playing.



[Note, the following are from other sources, but they expand on this last quote by Onians. They give the Heraclitus text:]


XCIV (D. 52, M. 93) Hippolytus, Refutatio IX.9.4

αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη.

“Lifetime is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. Kingship belongs to the child.”


Lifetime: aiōn, vitality, life; lifetime, duration, time; cognate with aiei, forever.
moving pieces: pesseuōn, playing pessoi, a board game perhaps involving dice, like backgammon and modern Greek tavli.

(Kahn 1979: 70-71)


Some other translations:

Time is a child playing draughts, the kingly power is a child’s.

From: Samuel Béreau / 



Eternity is a child playing draughts, the kingly power is a child’s.

From: John Burnet



Other translations listed at






Kahn, Charles. 1979. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University.











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