referred earlier to the precession of the equinoxes. Along with the movement of the
North Pole, the sun’s position relative to the zodiac at a given season also shifts. This is usually
reckoned by looking at key moments in the sun's annual cycle, the equinoxes, hence the name. At the spring or vernal equinox the
sun used to be in the constellation of Taurus until about 2000 BCE, when it
drifted into Aries, and around the beginning of the Christian era it shifted
sun’s position at the spring equinox is currently moving from Pisces into
Aquarius. One writer in the 1830s thought that it had already happened and
nowadays some people still put the transition many centuries in the future (constellations are vague things and had no clear boundaries until
20th-century astronomers needed to create them).* However, the opinion of
the Theosophists placed it in the early 20th century. George Russell (Æ) wrote to Yeats in 1896 that, “I agree with you that we belong to the coming cycle. The sun passes from Pisces into Aquarius in a few years. Pisces is phallic in its influence. The waterman is spiritual so the inward turning souls will catch the first rays of the New Aeon” (W. B. Yeats, Collected Letters, vol. 2, pp. 6–7 n3).
And as the spring equinox moves from Pisces into Aquarius, the autumn equinox moves from Virgo into Leo. Several theosophical writers at the beginning of the twentieth century were speaking of the coming time when the head of Virgo, the virgin, and the body of Leo, the lion, would meet and the sphinx would tell her secret.
“I am the Sphinx. . . . I am the fabled monster of the desert, having the head of Virgo and the body of Leo. . . . When the finger of time points into the Cycle of Aquarius, then will the Sphinx of the heavens arrive at the Autumnal Equinox. I am the Sphinx and the key to time in the heavens, and thus do I unlock the cycles of time. . . .”
Charles Hatfield, “The Mystery of the Sphinx; or, The Shiloh,” Part II,
The Sphinx 4:2 (February 1902)
Such a “Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw" (“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes") is said to be personification of the forces presiding over the incoming age in A Vision (A Vision B 207–08; Collected Works, vol. 14, 153). She also presided over the age that started over four thousand years ago with the heroic age of Ancient Greece: the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece and the Trojan War (an antithetical dispensation, in Yeats's terminology). This age was replaced when the Roman Empire was in the ascendant, with the rise of Christianity (a primary dispensation), as the autumnal equinox had shifted from Libra into Virgo.
Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo’s painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.
Song from The Resurrection.
Other theosophically minded writers wrote of a fusion of spring and autumn equinoxes, the water-carrier and the lion, a sphinx with a man’s head. One of these writers was represented in the Yeatses’ library:
Egyptian Sphinx combines in its form the pictorial symbols of Aquarius and its
opposite sign Leo.. . . . The Egyptian colossus has the body of a lion with a
bearded man’s head (not a woman’s as in Greece), and upon the forehead is
placed the uraeus serpent. . . . In the power and strength of the lion’s body
controlled by the human intelligence . . . the Sphinx is seen to be the
personification of Aquarius-Leo. The potentialities of Leo, which in their
higher aspect, are very great, become manifested in the polar opposite,
J. H. Van Stone, The Pathway of the Soul: A Study of Zodiacal Symbology (1912)†
just as the GD’s card of the Lovers seems to lie behind the scene in “Her Triumph",
it’s possible that J. H. Van Stone’s symbol of the coming age of Aquarius remained in Yeats's memory and informed the “shape with lion body and the head of a man" in “The Second Coming". This figure
announces the coming new era, the antithetical dispensation in terms of A Vision (A Vision B 207–08; Collected Works, vol. 14, 153), and like the Polar Dragon is shaking off long sleep.
Note how the symbols of the constellations take on their own autonomy and mix and merge as symbols rather than anything objectively in the heavens. There is no sphinx in the sky—the lion’s body points away from the virgin’s head and the water-bearer is on the other side of the sky, but the symbols make their own combinations.
* Godfrey Higgins, in Anacalypsis: An attempt to draw aside the veil of the Saitic Isis; or, An inquiry into the origin of languages, nations, and religions (1836), builds on earlier theorists about the precession of the equinoxes. He takes it as given that the equinox in his time was entering Aquarius, commenting on several occasions to the effect that “any one may see by looking at our common globes, where he will find the Vernal equinox fixed to the 30th of Aquarius" (vol. 2, 139), i.e. entering the sign of Aquarius from Pisces.
Using the International Astr0nomy Union's boundaries, Jean Meeus puts the equinox's transition into Aquarius at 2597 (see “When will the Age of Aquarius begin?").
† This book is in a listing of the Yeatses' books from the 1920s, but is not in the library now held at the National Library of Ireland. See Edward O'Shea, “The 1920s Catalogue of W. B. Yeats's Library", Yeats Annual 4, 289.