The Underground Culture: Images and Symbols
© 2007 by John Caris

Starting with the assumption that human culture contains at least two strands, I will focus on that part many call the Underground Spring. For over four thousand years European culture and its transplanted progeny have had a dominant patriarchal appearance, fortified by repressing other cultural ideas and values. The violence of the dominant culture, of course, causes opposing beliefs to remain in the background, if not at times totally hidden to most of the populace. The set of ideas that is most opposite to the patriarchal stance is the goddess religion and cultural focus, which has tended to stay underground. Recently, its ideas have appeared in public view through the social movement of feminism.

Visual images can have both mundane and sacred meanings. The spiritual level is hidden from public view until one examines the image carefully and finds similarities to other images. The connections generate a pattern that allows ideas to be contained within. The Underground Spring possesses spiritual insights for the seeker who is thirsty enough to drink from it. Those who are sated by popular culture will never realize what they are lacking.

I would like to offer a few examples of the power of the Underground Spring to refresh the earth and maintain a balance and harmony in human culture. When the dominant culture becomes top-heavy and falls, living energy bursts forth and revitalizes people, bestowing a healing perspective and lifestyle.

The scallop shell is a feminine sign and has been used in sacred ceremonies and art for thousands of years. The scallop shell images a circle of light with its radiant rays reaching outward.


The crescent is a sign of Isis, the greatest goddess of the ancient Mediterranean region.


The ancients encoded knowledge in many forms. Visual designs contain many layers of meaning and can convey secrets across cultural barriers. The bull and cow were associated with the goddess in archaic culture. The similarity between a bull’s skull and Isis’ crown is profound.

bull horns                        Isis Crown

In many ancient cultures horns, which can curve outwards or inwards, were a sign of power. The solar circle behind the curved horns in Isis’ crown demonstrates her authority.

These basic images have been used by many later artists. They can even be found in Christian art. Around 1100 A.D. the crucifixion portrayed Jesus standing erect against the cross, his arms parallel to the horizontal bar. By the fifteenth century Jesus is hanging from the cross bar. Antonello de Messina’s Crucifixion is a clear example.


This drawing is based on Messina’s painting finished in 1475, and now residing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. The curved line of the crescent moon or a pair of horns continues to offer a primal conception. The design can be seen in Matthias Grunewald’s masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece, which was completed in 1515 and is housed at the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar, France. In the Resurrection panel Jesus appears to be levitating with his arms raised and the sun glowing behind him.


This drawing of Jesus illustrates that the template for Grunewald’s Resurrection resembles the pattern underlying Isis’ crown.

The human skull has long symbolized a chamber for the mystical union. Attached to the skull is the spinal column, which, the chemical philosopher knows, guards the ancient secrets of spiritual transformation. First, visualize the two energy spirals flowing next to the spine. Now moving the spirals onto the spine will show the fundamental energy system.

spirals                        spine                        spine-spirals

The dual energies meeting in the brain unite to make the lotus blossom. Here is the emergence of the spiritual soul, the place where the soul and spiritual guardian coming down from above embrace. When the lotus blossoms, the soul is ready for the mystical marriage.

A tree is an illuminating symbol for the spinal column. Applying the image to the body, we notice that the roots are in the underworld at the base of the spine. The navel, center of worldly consciousness, is the earth or middle zone, which is based on duality. The alchemical king and queen and the two trees of life and knowledge exemplify the symbolic paradox: the apparent duality is actually a unity. The top branches of the tree, reaching skyward, represent the lotus blossom.

Ritual or ceremony is a means of communication between humans and spirit beings: it is a language we share. As the two halves of our brain communicate, so too the dual dimensions of reality, the ordinary and spirit realms, the manifested and unmanifested.

The snake is a dragon and both are mercury. A snake on a cross or staff is mercury fixed on its inherent cross of matter. The caduceus with its two snakes coiling the staff is an ancient symbol for Hermes or Mercury and later the medical profession. The caduceus is visually similar to the spinal column and its dual energy spirals.


The symbol for mercury reverberates through the centuries, a basic ingredient in the perennial philosophy. We can draw two images of mercury by placing a circle on top of a staff and then adding a curved line, one image with curved lines pointing outward and the other inward, which is the medieval sign for mercury. In the sixteenth century the crossbar was added as sign of death and resurrection.

mercury                         merucry                        merucry

The ancient Egyptian ankh is a sign for imperishable life. The sign of Venus has an appearance similar to the ankh. Add a pair of horns to the top of the ankh and behold a sign of the mercurial matter, the quicksilver of the sages.

If we observe our culture carefully, inspecting its hidden byways and public images, we will gain further knowledge to assist on our life’s quest. The past is part of the present and extends into the future.