Aion - Mithraic Deity of Eternal Time
In various Mithraic temples there have been found representations of a monstrous figure (according to Hieronymus a monstruosum portentum), generally with a lion's head and a human body entwined by a snake. On none of these, however, is there an inscription to tell us precisely which deity is portrayed. Several attempts have been made, particularly in more recent years, to equate this figure with Ahriman, the god of evil, a suggestion made by Prof. R. Zaehner of Oxford and accepted, with reservation, by the Belgian scholar of Persian, Duchesne-Guillemin. There are, it is true, some dedicatory inscriptions to Ahriman, but they are carved on altars and only three of them are recorded, one each in Rome, England and Austria. They were obviously intended to placate the god of evil and to implore him to avert his magic force, and they must have been inscribed by sorely troubled followers of Mithras who preferred to invoke Ahriman himself rather than place complete trust in their own god who, ultimately and inevitably, was to conquer evil. To us it would seem odd to find an altar dedicated to the devil in a Christian church, but to the ancient way of thinking this was not unusual and even sacrifices of wild boars were made to pacify the malicious Ahriman.
The lion-headed figure is the Time-god called Aion by the Greeks and Zervan in Persian literature. As far as the Persian texts are concerned, three different aspects of the Time-god must be distinguished. According to the orthodox teaching of Zarathushtra, Zervan is a creature of Ahura-Mazda, the God of Good. According to a second theory, however, there were originally two archetypes, that of Good and that of Evil. A separate Sassanid sect regarded Zervan Akarana, Infinite Time, as the cause and the source of all things. Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman both sprang from Zervan and were subject to him, and the followers of this cult called themselves Zervanists. It seems plausible that the same Zervan, after having undergone all kinds of foreign influences, was admitted into the Mithraic pantheon and that the figure with the lion's head is none other than Zervan who, by means of a put on Chronos (Time), was identified in the Greek texts with Kronos and, in the Roman world, with Saturn. This god is mostly portrayed in a stiff hieratic pose, with legs close together. Sometimes he is shown nude, though often his sex is disguised by a loin-cloth or by an enveloping snake, as if it were intended either to leave the deity's sex vague or to convey that both sexes were united in him, and that he was capable of self procreation. In between the coils of the snake, which often winds itself, significantly, seven times round the god, are sometimes seen the signs of the zodiac. The horrifying figure usually has a lion's head with flowing mane and wide-open mouth showing threatening protruding teeth. For even greater effect the mouth is sometimes painted red and the gullet is hollowed out. A statue from Saida in Africa has an opening made in its head, and it is highly likely that this was intended to take a burning torch. The statue would thus appear to breathe fire and so inspire even more respect for the god than his dread visage alone could evoke. In one example he is holding two torches, while a long-pointed flame shoots out of his mouth and fuses with the flames of the burning altar beside him. An unknown author records in an essay on Saturn that he 'is sometimes represented with the appearance of a snake because of excessive cold, and at other times with a wide open lion's mouth on account of scorching heat'. Sometimes this strange creature is carrying a key in both hands, a pointer to a connection with Janus, the ruler of the ianus, the gateway to the underworld of which he possessed the keys. Finally, parallels have been drawn between Saturn and Sarapis, the Egyptian deity of the realm of the dead, and he is in some way related to certain Syrian figures who are found entwined by snakes.