"...remnants of forgotten dreaming..."

The AOXOMOXOA Song Cycle

An essay for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
By David Dodd
1997-98 Research Associate, Music Dept.
University of California, Santa Cruz
(The opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the University of California.)

Of the two albums (the other is Workingman's Dead) whose words are all by Robert Hunter, AOXOMOXOA is perhaps the best realized as a set of interrelated songs, whose texts shed light on each other, without ever yielding up their meaning in any set way. The fact that Hunter wrote an explicit song cycle, "Eagle Mall," which was never set by the Dead, is evidence that he was thinking in an interconnected way about his lyrics at the time. (The "Eagle Mall" suite is interesting for several parallels in motif to the AOXOMOXOA songs: there is a reference to the Mountains of the Moon in "Lay of the Ring," and in "Invocation" there is mention of an Eagle Palace.)
The songs:
This just in from Skeleton Key co-author Steve Silberman:
From digaman@well.sf.ca.usMon Apr 3 09:23:21 1995
Date: Mon, 3 Apr 1995 07:30:27 -0700
From: Steve Silberman
To: ddodd@well.sf.ca.us
Subject: Re: Aoxomoxoa

This was posted in deadlit 232 this morning, David:

I was up at Hunter's yesterday, and he said that Rick Griffin called him up and asked him about a title for the record. Hunter said he told Griffin, "Why don't you put a bunch of those palindromic things that you've been doing - 'oxo,' 'mom,' and the others - together?"

Steve Silberman

This nearly unpronouncable title was suggested by Robert Hunter (see note above) to Rick Griffin, to fit in with his famous palindrome album cover. I have yet to find much speculation on whether there might be any actual "meaning" in the word. (And for that matter, how is it pronounced, exactly?)
But if we look at the elements of the "word," that is, take it apart into its smaller pieces, we can speculate. Always a fun thing to do with language.
"AO" is the classic abbreviation for "Alpha and Omega," or the beginning and the end. "X" might be interpreted as a number of things: a mathematical symbol meaning "times" (which can also be expressed as "of"; the classic Christian cross; or merely a dividing symbol, meant to separated the "AO" from the "OM". "OM" is a little too big to take on here, but it is the sound which, in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, contains all the other sounds of the world. The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say about "Om"

"...a sacred syllable that is considered to be the greatest of all the mantras, or sacred formulas. The syllable Om is composed of the three sounds a-u-m (in Sanskrit, the vowels a and u coalesce to become o), which represent several important triads: the three worlds of earth, atmosphere, and heaven'; the three major Hindu gods..., and the three sacred Vedic scriptures. ... Thus Om nystically embodies the essence of the entire universe."
There is a wonderful section in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha on the "OM":
"Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices--the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om-- perfection." (pp. 110-11)
So this seemingly nonsensical word could, conceivably, mean "The beginning and the end of everything."

Cover symbolsim:
Griffin's cover is a concoction of symbols, which mainly tie together in the birth to death cycle. A grinning skulll grasps two eggs, while embryos, and seeds live under the ground, sending up trees and lotus flowers. The sun image, looked at from a slightly different angle, could be construed as an egg being beset by sperm. The scarab which resides squarely in the middle of the "M" at the bottom of the painting is, according to The Encyclopedia Britannica:

"In ancient Egyptian religion, important symbol in the form of a dung beetle. The Egyptians apparently believed that the beetle laid its egg in the ball of dung, which it rolled to its burrow and consumed; they saw in the life cycle of the beetle a microcosm of the cyclical processes in nature, and particularly of the daily rebirth of the sun. The scarab became a symbol of the enduring human soul as well."
According to the book about Griffin's art, Rick Griffin, "The images...on pieces from this San Francisco era did not have anything to do with his beliefs. They were simply distinctive, graphically intriguing symbols he found on currency or in old engravings in public library books." (p.16)

And this note from a reader:

Subject: aoxomoxoa
Date: Wed, 12 Feb 1997 20:49:42 -0800
From: Luke Meade

Re. the word "AOXOMOXOA":

X is a mathematical symbol meaning a lot more than "times" or "of" --let's not forget our old variable friend, "X" the Unknown!

(reminds me of the old Firesign Theatre gag: "This film has been rated X, the Unknown. Positively no one admitted.")


The Overall Theme:
The first and most obvious theme in the songs is that of the child, or the infant. From the opening track, "Saint Stephen", with its line "Wrap the babe in scarlet colors," to the closing track, "Cosmic Charlie," with its "Go on home, your Mama's calling you," the album is sprinkled with references to children, infants, babies, and childhood itself. And, of course, there is the notably weird song, "What's Become of the Baby?"
I believe that all these references, and the use of distinctly nursery-rhyme-like lyrics in some of the songs ("Is it all fall down, Is it all go under?"; "Heigh ho, the carrion crow...") conspire to induce a vague sense in the listener that the album is speaking directly to the experience of childhood, and to the loss of childhood, whether by death or by growing up.
This is consistent with Griffin's cover and title.
Other motifs These minor motifs lend a continuity to the songs which is not quite describable. Admittedly, these motifs are all popular throughout Hunter's lyrics, but their presence here serves a special purpose.
Cirlot has this to say about the symbolism of the diamond:
"Eytmologically, it comes from the Sanskrit dyu, meaning 'luminous being.' It is a symbol of light and of brilliance. The word 'adamantine' is connected with the Greek adamas, meaning 'unconquerable.' In emblems, it often indicates the irradiant, mystic 'Centre'. Like all precious stones, it partakes of the general symbolism of treasures and riches, that is, moral and intellectual knowledge." (p. 81)

A postscript sent in by a reader:
From: IceFire813@aol.com [mailto:IceFire813@aol.com]
Sent: Wednesday, July 23, 2003 9:33 PM

I've been visiting your site for quite a while, actually, as long as I've been a fan of The Grateful Dead, and, as every e-mail that I've read on your site starts this way, I must say that it is absolutely amazing, and as a realtively new (I'm 16 years old and have been listening to The Grateful Dead for only around 2 years) Deadhead, it has been a great help in not only understanding the words in the songs, but what they were meant to convey.
Also, ever since I've visited your site, I've wanted to contribute something, and I think I may finally have chance to. I'll send more about this later if I find out (more like when, because I know it'll botehr me until I do!), but I just found my dad's copy of Aoxomoxoa, and decided that I needed to know what it meant. Surprise, surprise, it's not a real word, so I typed it into a search engine, and the most common thing that showed up was kites. There was nothing about kites on your website, so I thought it might be helpful if I could send something in.
It (the word) seems to mean, or have been adopted to mean, or signify/represent, a sense of freedom and spiritual contentedness found through flying a kite. A small webpage explains it rather... poetically:
http://www.reckites.com/aoxomoxoa/ Also, pictures that attempt to convey the feeling of Aoxomoxoa can be found at:
I hope you can use this in your website, of course, please feel free to, that's why I took the time to type it up! Also, if anyone knows anything more about this, please e-mail me at: IceFire813@aol.com - thanks a lot!

First posted: February, 1995
Last revised: July 24, 2003