The power of nine: an instant and eternity

Picture from The LItmus Paper Test:

This reading-with-your children lark. The avenues of enquiry it opens up.

Felix and I had already defined what a suburb was, somewhere within the pages of Terry Pratchett’s Mort,during our bedtime reading session, when I barged past another word and my son reined me in.

“Hold on, Mum: what’s an aeon?”

Oh, help.

“Well, darling, it’s a very long time indeed. I think – Google may prove me wrong here, but I think it might be the longest time you can have.”

Thin ice , Kate, thin ice. I scuttled downstairs to check a few of my favourite reference books; Rodney Dales’s Dictionary of Time and the Seasons, The Book Of When, and my trusty old Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Officially, an aeon – that’s eon to those living in America – is 10 to the power of 9 years. That’s a billion, to you and I. But whilst such niceties are important in astronomy, and cosmology, and geology, many of us wave vaguely in the direction and say it’s just a very long time indeed.

Take the Hadean aeon.

Beginning about 4,567 million years ago and ending about 4 million years ago, the earth was still an inferno worthy of Dante, but unpopulated. It takes its name from its fiery hellish qualities. For much of an aeon, the earth was battered by heavy bombardment from great shards of space debris: at the dawn of the aeon the moon was created. At its close, our oldest rocks show, water was already present. And shortly afterwards, somehow, out of the volcanic maelstrom, life found a way to make food using sunlight.

It it just me, or is that pure poetry? The very idea of a spell of time to the power of nine?

Ted Hughes, that mystic: he thinks so. But its very vastness renders it the perfect symbol of desolation.

There is a beautiful set of verses- published in 1967, though there is an earlier anthology which includes it. The verses are named after gaelic bagpipes: Pibroch. In them, he addresses the vast, and makes it desolately dispassionate:

 A pebble is imprisoned
Like nothing in the Universe.
Created for black sleep. Or growing
Conscious of the sun’s red spot occasionally,
Then dreaming it is the foetus of God.

The whole poem is a wail to the eternal. The final stanza howls across the aeons to the age which holds our oldest secrets:

Minute after minute, aeon after aeon, 
Nothing lets up or develops. 
And this is neither a bad variant nor a tryout. 
This is where the staring angels go through. 
This is where all the stars bow down.

Of course, the old gnostics saw aeons as having personalities. To them, an aeon was a source of power which came directly from the divine. But the thing was: the further away from God they travelled the more fallible they became. And it was out of the mistakes they made, as they became more remote from the holy, that the earth and its fellow planets were made.

To a gnostic, the aeon had two sides. It was a part of God: but it was also a trial through which everyone must pass to get to utopia.

So, what is an aeon? Ten to the power of nine. The longest time. A desolate eternity, a divine power source, a poet’s sombre muse, the time it takes to turn a tumult into a future.

Take your pick.



30 thoughts on “The power of nine: an instant and eternity

  1. Now this’s a post to set us thinking Kate – I love it, but I’m wondering if we need to begin inventing a new word now we know that ten to the power of nine is a bit short of the mark. At my virtual dinner party I wanted to talk to Richard Dawkins about it, in light of NASA’s latest determination of the age of the universe.

    I don’t know whether you saw it but they’ve put together data from Hubble’s shots back home, what they’re calling the Hubble XDF photograph – a “time tunnel into the distant past” – which puts the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. That’s very specific, isn’t it? … and how many powers to the power of ?

  2. So, what is an aeon? Ten to the power of nine. The longest time. A desolate eternity, a divine power source, a poet’s sombre muse, the time it takes to turn a tumult into a future.

    Take your pick.

    Well put, Kate.

    1. Thank you, Chris! Eternity is rather a song, isn’t it? I wonder if you have come across CS Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew, the first nook in the Narnia Chronicles. The stars begin the world by singing. Magical.

  3. Dear Kate, this poetic posting captured me immediately. (I always like to spend time with Felix.) But the line that echoes in the chambers of my heart and mind is the following: “the time it takes to turn a tumult into a future.” That’s the journey we are all on. Peace.

  4. Interesting, and how poetic you are. I dont’ think I’d ever heard that an eon is a specific number of years. I thought it was just a long, long time.

  5. I will now have to readjust my thinking on eons. I thought of it as across centuries, not across the space time continuum. Love the poetic way you make the vastness of space so beautiful … within our grasp.

  6. I have used the word so carelessly! It would be better to use it sparingly and allow for special meaning. I never gave it enough thought, but with your amplification it really is a beautiful word.

  7. “Minute after minute, aeon after aeon,
    Nothing lets up or develops” – the ambiguity of everything and a great big mystery waiting to be solved.

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