After breaking down the symbolism of the cover art for Bon Iver's latest album 22, A Million, and the initial frame of the music video for its current single "8 (circle)," we're not even one second into the song. As can probably be inferred at this point, the profound and interweaving symbolic meaning throughout 22, A Million makes for a (literally) exhaustive analysis. And in that sense alone, it really is a masterpiece. But for the sake of keeping this relatively brief, we'll make the remaining analysis less detailed, leaving the rest of the rabbit hole for the reader to tumble down at their discretion.
In part one, we made what we feel is a convincing case for an occult, and more specifically esoteric-Freemasonic, influence behind the album cover art for 22, A Million, and began to outline the same for the "8 (circle)" music video. A key to this puzzle is Eric Timothy Carlson, the man Justin Vernon tapped for the album's companion visual art, which plays an equally important role as the music. In the first part of this series, we also summarized Eric's take on the project in his own words, and stated why we differ with his claim these symbols are "unanswered questions," and "open containers to be filled with new meaning." To this end, we recommend you to read it if you haven't already.
The first symbol we'll analyze in this part is displayed at 0:47, in sync with the lyrics, "Philosophize your figure; what I have and haven't held." The first thing to note about the symbol is that it denotes the song title, with a large circle and an 8 at its center. This is highly significant, as the title in this form represents the Masonic "point within a circle," which in turn symbolizes the zodiacal sun, the Sephirah Tiphareth, and Alchemical gold. Known also as the "circumpunct," it essentially represents "God," one's higher self, and the wisdom one receives from "God" to attain that self-ascension (see part one for more on how those intersect). This is reflected in Freemasonry, as well as mystery traditions throughout the ages.
To "philosophize" the "figure" of deity (which is really a placeholder for the all-encompassing nature of reality – something incomprehensible to humanity) is what these mystery traditions, and really all philosophy, have been aiming at since their inception. And although throughout our evolution we've been able to "hold" in our conception some of its aspects, we have far more of "deity" yet to conceive. So, it would seem those lyrics and that symbol are elegantly paired.
More strikingly, the circumpunct also symbolizes "the point of the beginning of creation, and eternity," and being that an 8 turned sideways is the symbol for infinity, we see yet another parallel. In that sense, a circle with a symbol for infinity at its center seems to infer a sense of infinite potential, especially at the beginning of creation. To an artist, this is an especially powerful concept.
This seems like a good time to give Justin Vernon some context, as we may have lead the reader to think we're implying he or Carlson are speaking coded messages about the spiritual evolution of mankind, or the universe itself, or some other highfalutin concept. They may very well be, but for the sake of grounded speculation, we'll also suggest that maybe they're using these symbols to represent something more personal, like their own spiritual journeys, or are even just breathing deeper meaning into the creative act of making an album (see: "Deus Ex Messina"). That's the beauty of these esoteric (really technically archetypal) symbols: their meaning is infinitely layered, and fractal.
But that doesn't mean they don't have a common thread. In fact, symbolism is a literal representation of the Hermetic Law of Correspondence, in that its broader and more spiritual meanings can also have narrower, material significance (for instance, the circumpunct can also represent "a blank canvas to draw from," in its simplest or most profound sense). Like any other symbol used to communicate, it really comes down to the clarity of the message, and the levels of consciousness held by sender and receiver alike.
Moreover, the level of occult knowledge displayed in this project gives us pause. It begs the question who Carlson referred to when talking of the "musicians, writers, chillers, curators" that frequented Vernon's Wisconsin recording studio. If only we could have been flies on the wall during those winter conversations on humanism, metaphysics, and spirituality while Vernon and his revolving cadre were holed up in Eau Claire's April Base. Alas, all we can do is speculate.
The symbol at 1:35 is notable in that it seems to have a distinctly Thelemic bent (for those not versed in the more infamous tropes, Thelema is the religion practiced by an occult organization called O.T.O., with Aleister Crowley – a man who to some is a savant, and others an abomination – as its figurehead). The number 777 is a centerpiece of Thelemic numerology to the extent one of Crowley's books is titled such. The pyramid's omnipresence among the occult doesn't exclude "Crowleyanity," nor do the beams of light radiating from it, signaling divinity and illumination.
What kind of illumination, you ask? As to what constitutes official Thelemic practices is a controversial topic; however if the example set by Crowley is any indication, they involve a kind of hedonistic mysticism utilizing both sex and drugs. This is pertinent, because, according to an entry on the lyrics for "8 (circle)," the corresponding passage "I'm underneath your tongue" references the hallucinogenic – and some say spiritually illuminating – drug acid, also known as LSD.
"The popular hallucinogenic drug LSD can be taken by placing a small piece of chemically-laced paper under the tongue. Vernon is using the same imagery here, but with himself as the subject instead. This could mean two things: Justin is equating his music with a psychedelic experience, telling the listener that they are about to do the equivalent of tripping; or Justin is equating himself with a psychedelic experience, telling the subject of the song that he’s altering their mental states in the same way as LSD would."
Light and the pyramid are also symbolic working tools in Freemasonry. This is no surprise as, like its spiritual forefather the Golden Dawn, Thelema draws from the same occult wellsprings as Freemasonry, and also from the Craft directly.
The equal-armed cross at the apex of the pyramid is also used by Thelema and Masonry in their shared incorporation of Knight Templar symbolism in their traditions. A slightly modified version of this cross was also used an ancient symbol for a shaman or magician, and was the precursor to the cross used by Godfrey of Bouillon when he helped lead the First Crusade. The tradition of crusades would lead to the birth of the Knights Templar, and is a curious symbolic link.
The symbol around the 3:30 mark seems to be Carlson's take on the Tree of Life, which again is prominent in Thelema, Freemasonry, and any other traditions incorporating Qabalah (loosely referred to as Western esotericism or the "Western Mystery Tradition"). The reader will note their similarity on face, and how, like the Tree of Life, its spheres are organized into 3 columns. It is unlike the tree of life in its rows; however, it does incorporate 11 Sephirot, in keeping with the Tree of Life graphics incorporating the sphere of Daath. It's also notable that an 11-sphere tree is used here instead of the traditional 10-sphered one, as Crowley was fond of 11s and incorporated that number into Thelema, as with 93 (located in the top-middle column).
The altered, somewhat compressed version of the Tree is reminiscent of what Jewish Kabbalists describe when they talk about creation prior to the Fall of Man. This is interesting in the context of themes touched on earlier (new beginnings, cycles, infinity, the source, the blank canvas, etc.) When paired with the scythe running from bottom-left to top-right – a contrasting symbol representing time, limitation, mortality, and endings – the meaning becomes somewhat ambiguous; but the common thread remains uncut.
The "M" that appears at 3:38 isn't really significant on its own; but in relation to the subsequent glyph, the interlinking 2s we analyzed in part one, it becomes noteworthy. The Masonic connotations of the 2s seem to be confirmed by the presence of the "M" directly beforehand. Additionally, in numerology, the number 715 (a western Wisconsin area code covering Eau Claire, which he incorporated into the song title "715 – CRΣΣKS") may be reduced to 13 (7+1+5), the ordering of the letter "M" in the English alphabet.
The letter "M" also plays a role in the album title (aside from the obvious), in that the accounting symbol for a million is "MM;" the reference in this context may be an abbreviation for "Master Mason," especially in relation to the symbolism of 22 (which we've already covered). This symbolically translates the album title as "Square and Compass, A Master Mason."
Is this the smoking gun implicating Bon Iver as a bunch of Freemasons?
Not necessarily. (After all, the reader may note the presence of a double "M" in the title of this media venture as well!)
Our final analysis is of the passage around 3:40, "To walk aside your favor, I'm an Astuary King; I'll keep in a cave, your comfort and all, unburdened and becoming." A Genius annotation for the first line states, "Astuary is likely a combination of the Greek term for star, 'aster,' and estuary, a meeting point between freshwater and saltwater bodies. Vernon likely utilizes the 'estuary' piece to represent the dichotomous relationship between divinity and humanity, or more personally, God and himself.
"The phrase 'astuary king' likely indicates his kingdom Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and potentially his role as point positioned between the worlds of the temporal and the eternal. One defining characteristic of Eau Claire, Vernon’s hometown, is the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Whilst not an 'estuary' in a traditional sense, this meeting point between the two bodies of water provides the line with interesting context. This image is hardly a new idea to Vernon himself – as author and collaborator Michael Perry remarked before Bon Iver’s 2015 performance at Eaux Claires Music Festival: 'It’s good to have music near a river. There’s this idea of baptism, of absolution, no matter what you believe. Better yet, it’s good to have music near a place where two rivers come together, a confluence. What are we but a confluence?'"
The line about remaining in a cave should be familiar to those up on their alternative media, since Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" has been discussed over countless fringe research platforms at this point. In relating the 2, a Genius contributor had this to say:
"Another interpretation links this line with Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ an allegory presented by the Greek philosopher in his greatest work, ‘The Republic.’ The cave represents the sheltered existence of [a cave], in which 'prisoners' (normal people) are made to believe that the shadows cast on the wall are real and pure objects. When one prisoner escapes from the cave he experiences a newfound reality, beyond what he previously considered to be 'real.' Plato surmises that the escaped prisoner would be unable to persuade his peers to take a similar journey, thus leaving them comfortably confined in their ignorance. Here, Vernon could be taking 'comfort' in his ignorance by 'keeping in the cave,' 'unburdened' by the knowledge of reality and 'becoming' in his comfortable demeanour."
We agree with this take, excluding the last part. Instead of Vernon symbolizing some kind of self-imposed ignorance, it makes more sense these lyrics refer to those in general who are unready or unwilling to deepen their understanding of themselves and reality. These are the ones doomed to remain in the cave, so far-gone they ridicule or even lash out at others who speak plainly to them of the vast expanse lying just beyond its walls. They, according to Vernon and Carlson, are the ones who must be conveyed meaning symbolically, in stories silhouetted against walls with shadow puppets.
Now, the skeptical reader may be inclined to say something like, "You're just cherry-picking symbols to fit your theory this somehow connects to the occult and Freemasonry!"
And to a certain extent, they'd be right. However, the symbols we're selecting happen to be important relative to the song, the album as a whole, and most of all, each other; and the motifs expressed in their meaning occur throughout the project. After all, what is a work of art without thematic elements that drive a coherent narrative?
That said, the aim of an artistically symbolic piece isn't always to evoke an objective meaning. Instead, it sometimes attempts to project the artist's own subjective landscape onto the external world, and affect the audience on a mostly subconscious level. Still, more often than not there are concrete, symbolic meanings that can be derived utilizing a thorough knowledge of archetypal symbolism.
The overarching theme here seems to be the implication of occult and Freemasonic concepts – and the wisdom derived from their consideration – on the consciousness of Justin Vernon, and by extension the music of Bon Iver. This, to us, is an abstract, multimedia expression of the doctrines driving Western occultism. It is also a staggering accomplishment on the parts of Justin Vernon and Eric Timothy Carlson.
We don't think the takeaway from this piece is necessarily the esoteric significance of an individual song, or even the album as a whole – nor is it evidence of a vast occult conspiracy. This is valuable as an example of the saturation of overt occult symbolism in entertainment and media, especially music and the visual art it employs. These symbols are pervasive in hip-hop, EDM, and rock/metal, but as seen here, also appear in indie and mainstream music (which dovetails with a broader discussion on fringe topics like occultism becoming a greater, more transparent part of popular culture – but we digress).
We hope we've emphasized how our position isn't that Bon Iver and Eric Timothy Carlson are in on some shadowy occult agenda – nor is it that they aren't. We're simply using this as an exercise in symbolic analysis to find deeper, hidden meanings in popular culture. After all, as Confucius noted some 2,500 years ago, "Signs and symbols rule the world, not words, nor laws.”