Occult Symbolism in Bon Iver’s “8 (circle)” – Part I: Squaring the Circle

By @BenjaminSeagram, with @SwaggerPrance and James Evan Pilato of Media Monarchy
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As soon as anyone with eyes to see takes a gander at the album art for Bon Iver’s newest work 22, A Million, which debuted on August 13th live at this year’s Eaux Claires Music Festival, they will know this is one of the most overtly symbol-rich pieces of art so far this century. Its titles, lyrics, and companion art all convey robust symbolic messages just begging to be deconstructed. And since breaking down hidden meanings in art and entertainment is a Media Monarchy thing, we thought ourselves perfect for the task.

After tumbling down the symbolic rabbit hole that is 22, A Million, we are confident in framing the symbolism in an occult context, and most in a distinctly esoteric-Masonic one. This isn’t to say we’re implying Justin Vernon (Bon Iver‘s front-man and creative force), his band-mates, or anyone involved with the album are either practicing occultists or card-carrying Freemasons; however, we will emphatically state there are intentional references, both visual and lyrical, to occult and esoteric-Masonic concepts that, in this context, cannot rightly be interpreted otherwise. This is despite claims to the contrary by the man behind 22, A Million’s album art.

“I enjoy the puzzle of creating a ligature,” visual artist Eric Timothy Carlson said in a recent interview for Walker Art Center blog The Gradient. “Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and a logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning.”

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He also noted, “Between the numerology, the metaphysical/humanist nature of the questions in 22, A Million, and the accumulation of physical material and symbolism around the music, it became apparent that the final artwork was to be something of a tome. A book of lore. Jung’s Red Book. A lost religion. The Rosetta Stone. Sagan’s Golden Record. Something to invest some serious time and mind in. Something that presented a lot of unanswered questions and wrong ways. A distant past and future. An inner journey somehow very contemporary.”

But we believe the questions can be answered – at least some of them. We see a more coherent theme in this work, one that visually and lyrically echoes motifs found in many occult doctrines, including the one at the core of Freemasonry (which, by the way, is “metaphysical/humanist” in nature). To illustrate this, we’re going to analyze the music video for 22, A Million’s latest single “8 (circle).”

“For 22, a Million, there will be lyric videos that I created with Aaron Anderson for each song that will be available for free on YouTube (save the ad experience/big data), which is great as it opened another gate for us to expand the language of the artwork into an entirely different realm—time and motion and the casually fluent—because internet.” –Eric Timothy Carlson

Although “8 (circle)” isn’t the most interesting track on 22, A Million in terms of symbolism, it is possibly the best initiation into symbolic elements at play throughout. The first frame in the video (you have to pause and rewind to the absolute 0:00 point to see it) is a modification of album cover itself, with the word “circle” written across it, and a three-circle glyph symbolizing the title. A square, black and red yin yang alludes to the number 8, and also the letter “B,” as noted in the Gradient article. An “i” takes the central focus, it’s point also merging into the yin yang (these are of course the initials for Bon Iver).

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On the cover, Carlson said, “The yin yang proper was in play loosely from the start, working well in the context of the humanist/spiritual pursuits of the project. I created the collage compositions for the LP package by hand at 33˝ x 33˝, as it proved the best way for me to deal with the amount of material produced, and to massage it all into a sound and organic composition. The center was originally occupied by an altered mandala, as a satisfying placeholder, waiting to be filled with the final symbol.  The yin yang design we ended up with happened while working in vector—on something of a whim. Changing the symbol into a square format proved to be enough to keep it recognizable but make it unique to the project.”

We have no reason to doubt Carlson regarding his decision to make the dimensions for the original collage 33″ x 33″. However, it is curious in relation to another song on the album titled “33 ‘God’,” and what we see as implicit Masonic references throughout. More curiously, though, is the fact that Carlson’s description of altering the yin yang from its original circular design to that of a square is literally an act of “squaring the circle,” a concept of paramount interest to Freemasons, representing the occult idea of “the relationship between the spirit and the physical.

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The same article notes, “The very symbol of Freemasonry means combining the square and circle, because the [compass] draws the circle and the square draws the square. In Freemasonry, the compass and square have a very spiritual significance.”

Given that the circle is representative of spirit, and square matter, it’s curious that Carlson would choose to make square the originally circular yin-yang design. Was the symbolic meaning behind this choice intentional?

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Moreover, the squaring the circle as nod to a Masonic square and compass is more plausible when we look at the most ubiquitous version of this glyph, which incorporates two other symbols. On the left are 2 interlinking 2s, one upside-down. On the right is a division symbol with apostrophes for points. The interlinking 2s are worth putting under a microscope; this because, at first blush, the way they are arranged makes their intersecting points resemble the Masonic square and compass itself. If that’s not enough, the use of 2 twos has a distinctly Masonic numerological meaning as well.

“SYMBOL 2 is composed of two lines. The horizontal base-line is used the world over as a symbol of the lowest point of involution, the stage of inorganic matter, the level of the mineral kingdom. The curved line above rises from this base, although we usually write it first, and start at the top of the figure. I say it rises, because the curve is the same kind of a curve as that at the right side of 0. Notice that although one of the lines in 2 is straight, both are feminine, because the horizontal line, though straight, is always a symbol of the passive, receptive, feminine phase of the Life-Power’s self-expression. The Roman notation for 2 is 11, and this is the number of the apparent self-division of the One which takes place at the beginning of a cycle of manifestation. It is analogous to the sign for Gemini, the Twins, and represents also the Pillars of the Temple.”Paul Foster Case, Occult Fundamentals and Spiritual Unfoldment, p. 78

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This ties to Masonry in its signifying the “Pillars of the Temple,” since both pillars (2 of them, in this case) and temple are key Masonic symbols. Furthermore, there’s an added layer of Masonic symbolism when, in keeping with numerology, the 2s are considered as adding together to equal 4.

“SYMBOL 4 is one of the most ingenious of the numeral symbols. When it is drawn in accordance with the ancient rules of proportion, the vertical line is six units long, the horizontal is five units, and the diagonal is also five units. Thus the total number of units in the three lines required to make the figure is 16, the square of 4. This symbol, so drawn, combines the Egyptian triangle of 3, 4, 5 with a right angle of 2 x 2. A triangle of these proportions was used in Egypt for surveying, and the right angle is a mason’s square. Thus 4 suggests the ideas of measurement, reduction to order, regulation, and so on. Geometrically 4 is the square.” -ibid.

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The interplay between spirit and matter as symbolized in the square and compass can also be seen in the division symbol, which could symbolize the Hermetic axiom “as above, so below;” this touches on the sympathetic relationship between spiritual and material/macrocosmic and microcosmic planes. Moreover, the stylized points on the division symbol may refer to the Hebrew letter “Yod,” which Masons consider the “letter [of] thought or idea, and prescribe no bounds to its efficacy. It was this letter which, flowing from the primitive light, gave being to emanations. It wearied itself by the way, but assumed a new vigor by the sense of the letter t which makes the second letter of the Ineffable Name.”

It’s also worth nothing how “in Symbolic Freemasonry, the god has been replaced by the letter G. But in the advanced Degrees [Yod] is retained, and within a triangle, as in the illustration, constitutes the symbol of the Deity.”

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This is no surprise, as Masonry is shares its lineage with Hermetic Qabalah, which employs the mystical Judaic alphabet in its occult workings. Yod is the letter which in English translates to “i” – and, if you’re into wordplay, could be a substitute for “eye.” This then links (albeit somewhat ambiguously) to Bon Iver’s initials “B” and “i,” and their incorporation into the album artwork, since the “i” may also represent the Eye of Providence. Regardless, if the top apostrophe is representative of god in the spiritual or macrocosmic sense, it follows the bottom implies the god of the material/microcosm. Now, the more superstitious or sensational analyst may here draw the conclusion that some evil entity is being referred to; but in keeping with a humanist perspective, the more contextually-accurate interpretation would be that the bottom Yod symbolizes man as the image of deity, having the potential for godhood as well. Again we find a central theme of “33 ‘God’,” one we will observe in “8 (circle)” as well.

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As can be seen, the visual artwork for 22, A Million is a symbolic feast in its own right; one that, from our vantage, is neither an unanswered question, nor an open container to be filled with new meaning. These symbols all have distinct and, in our opinion, intentional connotations, many drawing from Masonry’s philosophical framework, and most if not all having deep esoteric significance. In part 2, we’ll finally get around to dissecting some of the more interesting symbols contained in “8 (circle).”