Reflections on Sacred Symbols
Symbols, whether sacred or secular, pervade human culture and are frequently found in the arts. They are keys that open the door to higher consciousness, codes that winnow the kernel from the chaff, seeds that contain hidden knowledge. A symbol is like a tree with branches extending in many directions or like a neuron with dendrites spreading out. When a musical chord is played, pitches vibrate and produce a cluster of resonating overtones. The listener hears a multiplicity of sounds that have grown from only a few notes. A symbol has a basic duality, objectivity and subjectivity; simultaneously, it functions as both object and subject. Our minds experience a symbol in both roles. This paradox can be described in another way. When looking at nature, the artist sees many forms as if they were reflected in a mirror. Moving into the imaginative realm, the artist changes focus and becomes aware that actually a single form is reflected in many mirrors.
Perhaps all symbols are sacred in the sense that they connect us with a level of reality beyond our ordinary five senses. They have more than a literal level of meaning. A symbol can be sacred for one religion but not for another; it can be sacred for several religions although not understood as such by a particular group. The cross is a sacred symbol for Christians, who might not realize its sacredness for Native Americans. Something is sacred if it can link us to what we consider to be spiritual. For many, especially indigenous people, all creation is spiritual because it contains a divine spark, some aspect of divinity. And so for these people the distinction sacred and secular does not exist. All is sacred and all secular.
Those with a different set of religious beliefs might answer that the distinction is real and very important to maintain. Otherwise, pantheism would arise, the idea that the deity is in very thing, in all creation. This idea of pantheism seems be a basic principle of goddess religion and so is often challenged by patriarchal religions which separate the creator from the created.
Traditionally, the goddess has many images linked to her: cave, moon, stone, serpent, bird, fish, and tree; spiral, meander, and labyrinth; wild animals such as lion, bull, bison, stag, goat, and horse; rituals of fertility; and journey of the soul to another dimension. Whether the image is presented visually, in words, or sounds—it is sacred and assists seekers on their paths of enlightenment.
Each historical goddess has many of these characteristics and often several different ones. Isis, the greatest goddess of Egypt, was worshipped for over 3000 years. Her attributes are the tree of life, cow, serpent, pig, bird, underworld, Sirius, words of power, and great mother goddess of the universe.
According to the twentieth century scholar Marija Gimbutas, author ofThe Living Goddesses, the serpent crown refers back to the Neolithic snake goddess, who wore such a crown. These snake crowns symbolize wisdom and wealth. Struggling with a huge white snake will gain the seeker a crown. Wearing the crown, the initiate knows all, is able to find hidden treasures, and can communicate with animals.
In alchemy, for many a spiritual path to higher consciousness, Hermes knows that the serpent goddess is the living water, the philosophical mercury, and the white queen. To the alchemist these are sacred symbols, not just metaphors for chemicals and their laboratory processes.
Buildings are practical yet have sacred aspects. Religious structures not only contain art works but are often aligned to specific directions. Major doorways open to the east or west depending on the religious beliefs. Many Christian cathedrals in Europe are aligned on an east-west axis: the main portals face west while the apse with its window face east so the rising sun can shine upon the altar. The duality of sacred-profane is clearly perceived here. The sun, symbolizing the deity, blesses the altar and also marks the season of the year as the sun moves along the horizon. Perhaps, we should ask, “Is the distinction between sacred and profane necessary? Isn’t the sun’s seasonal markings as spiritual as the symbol of its blessing?” The sweat lodge of Native Americans is also aligned on an east-west axis with the opening facing east. For Native Americans the placement is sacred, although ‘practical’ information can be gained.
A stone is a rock is a stone. So? The stone has been a sacred symbol for a very long time. The discussion about the stone symbol in Anne Baring and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess is profound. A stone lasts a long time and can symbolize eternity or timelessness. During the Neolithic, or earlier, it represented the foundation or essence of life, such as the soul or spirit that endured after the death of the body. The stone is, of course, a dominant symbol in alchemy: its goal is to obtain the philosopher’s stone.
Two major symbols of religious ceremony, starting in the Neolithic if not earlier, are the sacred marriage and birth of the child. A union with a divine spirit is inherent in all mystical ceremonies and practices. Initiation into the great spiritual mysteries has been a human activity for thousands of years, perhaps since the beginning of time. The female signifies the continuous pattern of birth-death-rebirth, which is the principle of regeneration. The male signifies the life of the individual, the short span of temporal life beginning with birth and ending with death. The neophyte enters the hidden subterranean recesses and dies a first death and only then does rebirth occur. Now the worldly and spiritual realms remain open to each other. The goddess was the portal into the hidden dimension through which the dead passed on their way to rebirth. The dying god, a religious image originating in antiquity, symbolizes physical life that is constantly changing, and the goddess illumines the principle of life that endures by eternally renewing itself. The goddess represents continuity while the god, sharing in the impermanent essence of the seed, dies annually.
In Foundation for a New Consciousness I detail and illustrate the vesica piscis, vessel of the fish, an ancient symbol for the sacred marriage. It was used in the construction of churches. Very simply, to construct the vesica piscis, draw a circle and its diameter. Then using the diameter as a measuring unit, draw two circles whose center is at the point where the diameter and circumference of the first circle touch. A straightedge and compass are all that are needed to do these experiments.
The signs of the zodiac—those of the twelve constellations and the nine planets—are used in many disciplines besides astrology. Perhaps, the second best known is alchemy. They are also used in palmistry.
A basic idea underlying symbols and their power is the micro-macrocosm relationship. What is above is reflected in what is below, and so too what is below is like what is above. A commonality and unity, whether physical or spiritual, exist between the two. The Hindu system of chakras illustrates this bond. A chakra, literally meaning wheel, is a rotating energy field. Every human being has seven major chakras and several minor ones. Each physical chakra symbolizes a spiritual dimension and at the same time allows seekers to enter the sacred. The physical and spiritual energy that flows up the spinal column, in Western tradition Hermes’ caduceus, upon reaching the final chakra, the mystical seventh, positioned on the top of the head, becomes the thousand petalled lotus, a sacred image of the perfection of all faculties.
The great serpent spirit being is the oldest, continuously used religious symbol in the world. For Australian Aborigines this spirit being is the rainbow serpent; and it is associated with power, vibrations, water, blood, and red ochre. The serpent stands on its tail so that the shaman can travel to the sky world or underworld. In ancient Mesoamerica this spirit being was called the feathered serpent. A great python guarded the oracular shrine at Delphi, Greece, until it was defeated by Apollo, who then appropriated the oracle for his own. Apollo, however, still had to share the shrine with its previous patron Dionysus. In Jewish and Christian tradition, as evinced in the Old Testament (Isaiah 6:2), seraphim, the highest order of angels, stand above God’s throne. Few today realize that the Hebrew word for seraphim means fiery serpents! Yet in the Garden of Eden story the serpent acts as tempter, but it is not actual evil. For many cultures the serpent symbolizes birth, death, and rejuvenation.
The sleeping serpent at the spinal base is awakened, and energy slowly moves up the spinal column. When all the chakras are vitalized by this energy--and their sequence of vitalization differs according to the individual--the thousand petalled lotus unfolds and the child of light is born. Why we allow ourselves to be bound in ignorance, forsaking our heavenly gift of freedom, is the Great Cosmic Mystery.