Chapter 16: Symbolism - Religion and CultureThe importance of symbols in the realm of religions goes far back into human history, sometimes the meaning of a symbol changing from its original representation and design. This occurred more noticeably during the transition between paganism and Christianity in the western ancient world. The early Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church established traditional symbolism, as they did in matters of doctrine and the canonical scriptures that comprised the Christian Bible with two sections, the Old Testament representing the borrowed text from Hebrew origin concerning the concept of monotheism.
Due to their hieroglyphic writing, symbolism was key to ancient Egypt's religion and culture, its mystical properties carried through to modern times through Gothic fictional tales of horror.
|“Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866.|
During the Medieval period of human history, symbolism came to be prominent when heraldry became fashionable, as well as symbols representing evil and good, mostly designed by men dedicated to Christianity, as well as borrowing symbols from pagan origins to represent the nemesis of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, based upon the concept of Lucifer, the fallen archangel who became the icon of evil whose was also known as the devil and Satan.
Symbolism has also been instrumental in interpretation of dreams, a concept that reaches far back into human history, embellished as civilizations grew and nurtured upon mythical and superstitious concepts within various religions. As alchemy progressed during the medieval period of history, new symbols appeared along with older ones representing things such as the basic elements of fire, water, air and earth. In the philosopher Jung's treatise On Psychic Energy, he wrote:
The spiritual appears in the psyche as an instinct, indeed as a real passion … It is not derived from any other instinct, but is a principle sui generis, that is, a specific and necessary form of instinctual power.
According to J. E. Cirlot ...
The basic ideas and suppositions which allow us to conceive of 'symbolism', together with the creation and vitality of each symbol, are the following: [a] Nothing is meaningless or neutral: everything is significant; [b] Nothing is independent, everything is in some way related to something else; [c] The quantitative becomes the qualitative in certain essentials which, in fact, precisely constitute the meaning of the quantity; [d] Everything is serial; [e] Series are related one to another as to position, and the components of each series are related as to meaning. This serial characteristic is a basic phenomenon which is true of the physical world (in its range of colours, of sounds, of textures, of landscapes, etc.) as of the spiritual world (in its virtues, vices, humours, feelings, etc.). Factors which account for serial arrangement are: limitation; the integration of discontinuity and continuity; proper order; graduation; numbering; the inner dynamism of the component elements; polarity; symmetrical or asymmetrical equilibrium; and the concept as a whole.
The following is a list of symbols that have been used from ancient times to the present for various reasons and interpretations in religious beliefs and cultural use such as symbols of fraternities of universities.
Abracadabra – Represented both phonetically and graphically, this word was used frequently in the Middle Ages as a magic formula, derived from the Hebrew phrase abreq ad hâbra meaning hurl your thunderbolt even unto death. It was usually inscribed inside an inverted triangle or set into lettering to form a triangle:
A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
This magic word has also been related to the Abracax (Abraxas or Abrasax) of the Christian Gnostics. Its origin, however, comes from one of the names of the sun-god, Mithras.
Acacia – This shrub that blooms white or pink flowers was considered to be sacred by the ancient Egyptians, mostly due to the great mystic importance given to white and red, as can be seen in tomb paintings. In Hermetic doctrine, it symbolizes the testament of Hiram which teaches that ...
'one must know how to die in order to live again in eternity'.
In that respect it is represented in Christian art regarding the soul and immortality, especially in the Romanesque period.
Acanthus – The acanthus leaf is a common ornamental motif found in architecture, especially during the Middle Ages, derived from Greek architectural columns, its meaning derived from two physical features: growth and its thorns. Appearing in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter VIII, paragraph 7, in the parable of the sower, it represents natural life, where some of the seeds fell amongst the thorns and was choked. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis 3:18, where the Lord tells man that the earth will yield to him thorns and thistles.
Alchemy – Alchemy is mentioned here because of its prominence during the medieval period, but its beginnings date back to 1st century AD, when it was practiced by mostly Greeks and Arabs to understand and control elements found in nature. The most significant endeavor of alchemists was to make gold, mimicking the process produced in nature as well as procedures steeped in mysticism. Gold itself is symbolic that represents illumination and salvation. It was alchemists who began to catalogue elements found in nature by using Greek symbols, which can still be found in a chart of elements today. Therefore, transmutation was the principle endeavor of alchemy, its symbol represented by the color white. Indeed, the process of alchemy was signified by four colors: black (latent forces) for prime matter , symbolizing matter in its original form; white (symbol of original transmutation); red for sulfur and heat; and gold – final transmutation. Alchemy was a process comprising of an order of operations: Calcination; putrefaction, constituting the process of separation, a consequence of the first operation; solution, the purification of matter in distillation; 'rain', isolation of matter processed in previous operations; conjunction, joining of materials; sublimation, spiritual dedication.
The Christian Church usually accepted alchemy, maybe due to the prospect of creating gold that would further the wealth and prosperity of the Church; however, in some Christian circles, it was deemed unnatural to godly matters, especially when alchemists attempted to create life in mimic of God the Creator. Alchemy was then deemed heretical and a tool of the dark spiritual forces ruled by the fallen archangel, Lucifer, and other superstitions of the medieval period. Science eventually replaced alchemy and its remnants can only be seen in pharmaceutical and scientific symbols like the chart of elements.
Alpha and Omega – The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, therefore representing the beginning and the end. In more recent times the symbol has been used in Romanesque art. Alpha, because of its shape is related to a pair of compasses and an attribute of God as the creator; while omega is similar to a torch, symbolizing the fire of destruction or apocalypse. In the 12th century manuscript of Paulus Orosius (Bibl. Laon, 137), alpha and omega appear as a bird and a fish.
Anchor – Found in the emblems, signs, and graphic representations of early Christians, the anchor signified salvation and hope. It was often depicted upside down with a star, cross or crescent to denote its mystic nature. The Epistle to the Hebrews states …
Which hope we have as the anchor of our soul.
Angel – A symbol of invisible forces, ascending and descending between the spiritual world, the Source-of-Life and the material world. In alchemy, the angel represents sublimation and the volatile spiritual principle. The angel is the communication between the astral world and comprises, according to the Roman Catholic Church, a hierarchy of angelic order. Humans have been fascinated by the concept of angels and the belief of their existence can be found in several religions and cultures throughout human history. From early ancient cultures, the angel figure has been used in artistic iconography right up to the modern day representation on holiday Christmas cards. Up to the 4th millennium BC, no real distinction was made between angels and winged deities of the pagan world. Indeed, the Hebrew and Christian archangel Lucifer is often depicted being winged, which correlates to his previous membership of God the Creator's angelic host. Angels were popular in Gothic art, more often dark and evil winged figures, such as the gargoyle being depicted within Christian architecture of the medieval period. Some have wondered and scholars have argued about the phenomenon of depicting evil creatures on Christian buildings and statuary, often along with the astral symbols of goodness and hope, the angel. Humanity has been fascinated with the concept of angels, thus the popularity of their representation in art form, especially in the western world.
Animals – As symbols, animals have been depicted as far back as when humans occupied caves and before recognized civilization. It is the oldest form of symbolism, thousands of years before any form of written language. Those origins are closely linked to totemism and animal worship. The symbolism of any animal varies as much as there are different cultures and origins; however, universally the tamed animal and wild animal symbolizes opposites within the human existence, as well as in nature. Animal symbolism is used extensively in heraldry and indeed, animals of fantasy and mythological tales can be found depicted with a knight's glorious defeat of a wild or fabulous animal. In the legend of St. George, the conquered dragon esteems its conqueror. In Chrétien de Troyes' medieval romantic tale, Yvain, the hero, is assisted by a lion. In western culture, the earliest reference to animal symbolism can be found in the works of Aristotle and Pliny, but the most significant source is in the treatise Physiologus, written in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD. One or two centuries later an important source was written by Horapollo with his two treatises Hieroglyphica, based upon Egyptian symbolism. It is from these sources, recovered from the Library of Alexandria and not destroyed by the zealous Roman Catholic Church, that medieval animal symbolism was derived, most notably in the bestiary works of Philipof Thuan (1121 AD), Peter of Picardy and William Normandy (13th century); or the De Animalibus, attributed to Albertus Magnus; Libre de les besties by Raymond Lull; and Bestiaire d' Armour by Fournival in the 14th century. The different stages of evolution of animals within symbolism ranges from the insect and reptile to the mammal. In Assyrian and Persian beys-reliefs, victory of higher forms of animal life over the lower animal represents the victory of the higher order of nature. The struggle between the eagle and the snake can be found in several ancient cultures similar to what can be found in pre-Columbian America. The victory of the lion over the bull usually represents the victory of Day over Night, Light over Darkness and Good over Evil.
Symbolic representation can also be related to the four elements. Generally, reptiles are associated with the earth, birds with air, mammals (warm-blooded) with fire. Often the duck, frog and fish represent water. Animal symbols that are not found in nature but are concoctions of fantasy have been derived from ancient peoples discovery of fossilized bones of antediluvian and later animals now extinct combined with animals found within nature who carnivorous or transform from one form to another or feared creatures such as the bat. The most important creatures of fantasy are: chimaera, sphinx, lamia, minotaur, siren, triton, hydra, unicorn, griffin, harpy, winged horse, hippogryph and dragon. Demons were given symbolism as fantasy creatures with some semblance to the human form, such as gargoyles.
In Hebrew and Islamic traditions references are made to animals as symbols that include animals that can speak. The animal emblems used by the Romans were: eagle, wolf, bull, horse and wild boar. In symbolism, the animals are put together in a system and always in hierarchical order. The symbolic grouping of animals are usually based upon analogical and numerical patterns.
The Chinese categorized four benevolent animals as the unicorn, phoenix, turtle and dragon; however, in the western world the dragon represents evil and a conquering power in the concept of Christians, while the pre-Christian pagans, such as the Celts, looked upon dragons as being either benevolent or evil, just as can be found in the human species – most often evil dragons depicted red in color while benevolent dragons depicted in white or green. To the medieval Christian Church, the dragon was ugly, therefore it must be evil. Goodness is always depicted as being beautiful, whether in animals, such as the unicorn or human form such as angels.
Winged animals can be found in many cultures of several ages, the wings representing speed and purpose as a messenger.
Animal symbols also can represent identity of a trade, such as counterbalancing animal depictions to represent justice or the two snakes of the caduceus as a medical symbol that dates back to the ancient Roman culture.
Importance of animal symbols in Christianity, especially when knightly orders were devised and there was a need for heraldry including the classic early Christian symbols of the dove, lamb and fish.
Ancient symbols of animals as emblems of cosmic meaning has been depicted since the Neolithic Age on up to as late as 1767 in the publication of such works as Jubile van den Heyligen Macarius, a treatise that describes processions in which symbolic chariot has an animal pulling it such as a peacock, phoenix, pelican, unicorn, lion, eagle, stag, ostrich, dragon, crocodile, wild boar, goat, swan, winged horse, rhinoceros, tiger, and elephant – all used in heraldic symbolism as well as the coat of arms or emblems of modern military units.
The use of watermarks were of mystical and symbolic origin that spread throughout the Western world from the end of the 13th century up to present. This mystical symbolism is usually represented with animals. According to the philosopher, Jung, the animal stands for the non-human concept of the psyche. The more primitive the animal, the deeper its significance in symbolic meaning. Identifying oneself with animals represents the integration of the unconscious as well as representing the base character of the individual. Thus identifying oneself with the wolf could mean an individual's correlation and attribution towards being wild and free, fierce in defense and offense, and loyal member of the pack. Wolves, along with eagles, were significant in Roman symbolism and their insignia that were placed upon cubes (earth) and spheres (heaven and universe) in order to express the triumphant power of the empire.
Arabesque – This form of symbolism can be found in ornamental architecture in Arabic and Islamic art, The idea relates to the Celto-Germanic ornamentalism found in Irish and Viking (Danish) art, despite being different. There is more freedom in design in the Nordic art form than the Arabic one. In the world of Islam, it was an artful expression allowed because of the forbidden use of likeness of human or beast that would constitute or be represented of idolatry. This same argument occurred with the early Christian Church that caused a schism that separated Christians into two factions of thought – the Roman Catholic Church taking up the idea of Roman pagan idolatry in the form of artwork of Jesus, Mary, Joseph as well as angels and saints and the Byzantine Christians of the Eastern Christian Church that forbade idolatry in any form. Because of the conquests of Muslims, the Eastern Church fell and the Roman Church prevailed until Christian sects formed as Protestants, Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, etc.
Architecture – It may seem strange to view architecture as being symbolic in itself until one remembers the pyramids of Egypt, Peru, and Mexico as an example. It is the basic pattern of architectural construction that provides the primary meaning of symbolism with secondary meanings in color, form and material as well as the reason for it being built. Famous ancient temples of Babylonia, Egypt and the teocalli of the Americas or even the stepped pyramid found in Buddhist culture are all related in symbolic form. For example, the Temple of Heaven in Peking has three floors is the number multiplied by itself because of the three platforms and three roofs equaling six. It is a mountain temple representing civilization's answer to the use of caves in most ancient times. The cave also stands for the spiritual Center [Centre], the heart of the hearth, as the cave in Ithaca and the Cave of the Nymphs in Porphyry.
|Tower of the Winds|
In Christian architecture, especially Romanesque, ordered patterns are present as well as forms of the cross, the circle and the square resting upon pillars of strength, The number three used in
represents the Trinity. In Gothic architecture, the symbol of the
Trinity occurs frequently in triple doors, trefoiled, scalloped and
pointed arches. The flammigerous arch, as the name depicts, is a
symbol of fire, an apocalyptic meaning of the Gothic period. Porches
are the external counterpart of the altar – the heart of the
Temple. Jambs, pillars and side columns can be interpreted as
guardians of the doorway, not unlike the statuary in the
temples and tombs of ancient Egypt. According to Pinedo, the South
side, where the warm wind blows, symbolizes the Holy Spirit that
inspires the soul and represents divine love. The North side,
opposite to the South, is exposed to the cold winds and symbolizes
Lucifer and the concept of a frozen soul.
Christian architecture integrated pagan Rome and Greek architecture with Tuscan, Doric, and Ionic design seen in ancient temples, yet each scheme is related to a certain degree of holiness pertaining to the Christian faith.
Ark – This artifact symbolizes both the material and spiritual planes, as well as the power of the God Creator to preserve things, ensure rebirth, as well as vanquish enemies of God's Chosen People - Ark of the Covenant. The symbolic ark in the form of a vessel, such as Noah's Ark has been the subject of discussion that began with St. Ambrose in his De Noe et Arca, as well as De arca Noe morali and De arca mystica written by Hugh of Saint Victor. Symbolic parallelism is found between the ark and the rainbow. In medieval mysticism the ark becomes a drinking vessel, a symbol of the heart or the ancient symbol of the world egg.
Arthur, King – Arthur as a symbol and legend were established by Brut of the Normans [c. 1155], by Wace in Historia Regum Britannae [c. 1150], by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Welsh Mabinogen (Red Book) that contains the tale of Kuhlwch and Olwen (end of 9th century). In history, Arthur appears to have been the son of the Breton leader, Uther Pendragon, whom he succeeded in 516. Arthur is credited with deeds of mythical dimension. He is an avatar of the Gallic god Mercurius Arterius, king of the fabled land of Oberon. He is the archetype of the 'mythical king' who represents the aspirations of the human race. Tradition and in the legendary tales demonstrates the refusal to accept his death and attests that Arthur will return one day when the English need him. Of course, this is medieval conjecture. Symbols are connected to King Arthur, such as – magic sword provided by the Lady of the Lake and a shield that not only physically protects him in battle, but helps heal any wounds received; the 'holy war' – struggle between good and evil; the twelve knights of the legendary Round Table implying a relationship to the zodiac circle of twelve months in one year, as well as the idea of unification under one cause. Of course, the medieval Christians believed that King Arthur established the Knight Code of Honor as well as initiating the first search for the Holy Grail, supposedly the cup from which Jesus Christ drank from during his last supper with his disciples.
Aureole – A circular or oblong halo that surrounds bodies or heads in glory. According to a 12th century text it is attributed to the abbey of St. Victor and the oblong shape symbolizes the almond that is identified with Christ. However, the general sense or meaning of the aureole originates from relics of solar cults, as well as the manifestation if spiritual light becoming part of the Christian Trinity. In modern times, based upon Kirlian Theory, the aura exists and is brightest on the healthiest parts of the human body, only seen by special photography. In this respect it is not only spiritual, but physical in nature because weaker aureole zones depict a defect of a human body, disease or injury. In religious theory, it depicts the strength of spirituality in an individual and can only be seen by human eyes when a person reaches a point of spiritual attainment in which the aureole glows bright enough to be seen by the naked eye.
Caduceus – A wand entwined by two serpents topped with two small wings or a winged helmet. To the Romans, the caduceus was a symbol of good conduct and later in the empire it became the symbol of medicine, which could be seen etched into stone in buildings that served as medical treatment centers. The caduceus is also the symbol of the Catholic bishop in the Ukraine of Russia. The symbol is very ancient that began in India found engraved upon stone tablets called nâgakals, a votive offering that was placed at the entrance of temples. Heinrich Zimmler has traced the caduceus back to Mesopotamia, discovering it in the design of a sacrificial cup of king Gudea of Lagash (2600 BC). The Mesopotamians regarded it as a symbol of the god who cures all illnesses, a meaning passed into Greek culture, then Roman culture and on into modern times. In Buddhism, the wand represents the axis of the world and the serpents refer to the force called Kundalini, which the Tantrist teaches sleeps coiled at the base of the human backbone – a symbol of pure energy. When used in heraldry it symbolizes unity and balance.
Candelabra – Symbolizes spiritual light and salvation. The Hebraic seven-branched candelabra corresponds to the seven heavens and the seven planets, as well as the seven days mentioned in the Bible when God created the world. In ritual doctrine, during a seven-day period, one candle is lit each day until all are lighted.
Castle – This symbol is often seen in heraldry, as well as the symbol for the United States Army's Engineer Corps. This complex symbol since the days of the Crusades represents Jerusalem, the Holy City of Christians, Jews, and the Muslim.
Chalice – In traditional Christian liturgy it is the transcendental form of the cup. Related to the concept of the Holy Grail, it frequently takes from of two halves of a sphere, the lower part open to spiritual forces and the upper part the Earth. The chalice and the cauldron are important in Celtic symbolism.
Chariot – While in universal tradition of symbolism, the chariot is in direct relationship with human beings; however, this is when chariots are represented with a charioteer. It is also a counterpart of animal symbolism its meaning depending on what animal is depicted pulling the chariot. The chariot also plays a part in heraldry symbols. The chariot, the charioteer, and the animal all represent parts of a whole that are intertwined and relevant to the general meaning. The chariot can also be found in the Tarot card pack as the seventh enigma. It depicts a youth dressed in a cuirass who holds a scepter and rides in the symbolic chariot. He represents the higher principles of human nature. This Tarot card is associated with the concepts of self-control, progress and victory.
Cherubim – Originating as decorations at the entrance of Assyrian temples and palaces who were placed there to protect the building, called keepers of the threshold. The Egyptian cherub was a figure with many wings that were covered with eyes. It was an emblem of the night sky and of religion and vigilance. Later it would become part of Christian art forms, described as child angels that could sometimes be mischievous like the Greek originated cherubim, Cupid who pierced hearts of men and women that made them fall in love. They are part of the angel hierarchy.
Chimaera – Monster born of Typhon and Echidna represented as having a lion's head, body of a goat and the tail of a dragon. Flames usually flicker out of its mouth. It is a symbol of complex evil.
Chrism – The signographic emblem of Christ that is based upon the first two letters of the word Xpiaros – 'X' and 'P'. This symbol was used on the Roman labarum (banner) from the time of Constantine, as well as the Egyptian cross.
Circle – Often depicting a circular movement, but this is a general meaning being more complex as well different meanings in different cultures and religions. It has been used as a symbol of the sun, usually depicting rays emitting from the circle. It also has a certain relationship to the number ten when it stands for heaven and perfection, as well as eternity. The circle is the ultimate state of Oneness. The octagon is the intermediate state between the square and the circle. It represents the morphology of the universe and spiritual world in India, Tibet and Chinese emblems. For example, the Yang is a white circle that represents heaven and the Yin is denoted by a black square that portrays the Earth. The famous symbol of the Yang-Yin is a circle divided into two equal sections by a line across its diameter, the white section is the Yang and the black is the Yin. These two spots depict there is something of the feminine in the masculine and masculine in the feminine. The sigmoid line is a symbol of communication between the two. Symbols surrounding the Yang-Yin represent the idea of rotation and the concept of polarity.
Clover [Trefoil] – An emblem of the Trinity. When it is depicted upon a mountain it signifies the knowledge of divine essence gained by hard work, either through sacrifice or study. Trifoliate forms appear in Gothic architecture.
Crescent – This symbol is dual in significance. Generally it pertains to the moon, thus its use in the religion of Islam, the moon being the guidance of the Islamic calender. It also represents things that are aquatic as well as the passive feminine principle and world of changing forms. In medieval significance, it was used in emblems of the Western world, especially in heraldry that was associated with a star, the symbolic image of paradise, much as can be seen on Islamic nation's flags.
Crook – A hooked staff used as a pastoral attribute of the Christian Church and a symbol of faith.
Cross – A complex symbol that transcends across human history that today is mostly attributed to Christianity. The cross is depicted in various forms and used by various religions and cultures.
In Christianity, of course, the cross represents the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth - the Christ. The Egyptian anserated cross and in Egyptian hieroglyphics it stands for life or living (Nem Ankh), usually called an ankh and forms parts of words like health and happiness. In tomb paintings it is held by fabulous individuals that hold it as one would a key – literally symbolizing the key to heaven for those who travel at death through the hall of justice must answer questions correctly and show that they deserve to transcend into the Egyptian paradise.
Crow – To the Native American tribes, the crow (and the Raven) is the great civilizer and the creator of the visible world, the material world. Interestingly, it means the same for the Celts and Germanic tribes, as well as people in Siberia. In Christian symbolism it is an allegory of solitude, while the crow's cousin, the Raven. is usually a dark messenger or the eyes and ears of Lucifer. When the crow is represented with three legs within a solar disk, as in ancient Chinese tradition, it represents Yang or the active life of the Emperor.
Crucifixion – The symbolic meaning corresponds to the historic fact and its use. To Christians it represents the pain and suffering Jesus of Nazareth experienced for the benefit of humanity, mystically to absorb and pay for the sins of humanity so, if they have faith in the teachings of Jesus the Christ and that he was not just a man, but the biological son of God the Creator, then believers will be relinquished of their sins and guaranteed a place in paradise if they follow the laws of God the Creator. The two thieves, according to Christian symbolic philosophy, that were crucified along with Jesus of Nazareth, represent which humans must choose – repentance that leads to salvation and prevarication or refusal to repent that leads to damnation.
Devil – The fifteenth mystery of the Tarot card pack it is in the form of Baphomet (of the Knights of Templar) who was portrayed by the Roman Catholic Church as having the head and feet of a he-goat and the bosom and arms of a woman. The Templar Order, once a knightly instrument of the Church during the Crusades later was demonized by the Pope because he feared their growing power and influence and in sweep of their homes placed them under arrest and tortured and executed them into extinction as a religious order claiming that they had become devil worshipers, instruments of Lucifer. Like the Greek sphinx, it depicts the four Elements: its black legs are the Earth and spirits to the nether world; the green scales on its flanks depict water' its blue membranous wings to sylphs and bats; and the red head is related to fire and salamanders. This Tarot mystery-card is related to magic arts, disorder and perversion.
Disk – Emblem of the sun and the heavens. In China, the sacred disk is a symbol of celestial perfection. The winged disk is one of the most widespread symbols of the ancient world, still in use today in signs and emblems and represents a state of sublimation and transfiguration.
Dove – The Slavs believe that the soul turns into a dove at death. In general symbolism of all winged animals is spirituality and the power of sublimation. Inspired by the mention of doves in the scriptures, the dove depicts the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, that also represents the image of a tongue of Pentecostal fire. It is also a symbol of peace when depicted with an olive branch in its beak.
Dragon – A fabulous animal that is found universally in the majority of cultures, primitive and oriental as well as classical. It is believed by anthropologists, historians and scholars that the concept of the dragon was derived from the discovery of fossils of animals existing in prehistorical ages, specifically the antediluvian flying reptiles. The dragon is the fierce enemy and represents the test of warriors who combat it, as in the case of the medieval period. Dragons are found in various legends and symbolize the periods in history when plagues struck the multitude killing millions at various times. Some dragons take the form of a winged serpent, echoing the story of the serpent in the Creation story of Genesis and representing an animal form of Lucifer to deceive humans. In some fantastical accounts the dragons are divided in two groups by color – red and green, red being the evil group and green the good and wise patriarchs of humans. Dragons are mentioned in the Holy Bible in several books of the Old Testament – Daniel XIV, 22, 27; Micah I, 8; Jeremiah XIV, 6; Isaiah XXXIV, 13, and XLIII, 20; as well as the New Testament in the Book of Revelations XII, 3. 7. Rabanus Maurus mentions dragons in Opera, III; Pliny VIII, 12; and Pascal in De Coronis, IX. Like the griffins, dragons guard temples and treasures most often hoarded in caves where dragons dwell; but also depicted as wise beings who have the gift of prophecy and whose advice is sought by learned men. In the Bible the dragon is depicted as the negative of goodness – a terrible beast to view. Some dragons have several heads as depicted in Revelation XII, 3 …
And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
In other cases the dragon is used in emblems, such as in heraldry to denote symbolism in a combination with other symbols depicting a family history. The dragon figure was used frequently in alchemy. In China, the dragon symbolized imperial power.
In the medieval period of the Western world, dragons made their appearance with the throat and legs of an eagle, the body of a huge serpent, the wings of a bat, and a tail that culminated into an arrow that twisted upon itself. This depiction can be seen in some heraldic emblems of the period. To the Gnostics the dragon represented chaos, while in Hebrew tradition the deepest meaning of the mystery of a dragon must remain a secret.
In other legendary tales, the dragon was driven to extinction because humans didn't understand the dragon and because of its size and ferocious appearance were feared and sought to be destroyed.
Eagle – An animal symbol that represents height, spirit of the sun and the spiritual principle in general and freedom. In Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, the letter A is represented by the figure of an eagle and also depicts the warmth of life, the Origin, and the day. The eagle signifies the father as well as heroic nobility. From the Far East to Northern Europe and in the Americas, the eagle is associated with gods of power and war and the significance of bravery. In pre-Columbian America, the eagle symbolized the struggle between the spiritual and celestial principles and the lower world. In ancient Syria, the eagle with human arms symbolized sun-worship. It also conducted souls to the afterlife.
According to St. Jerome, the eagle is the symbol of Ascension and the Greeks believed it flew higher than any other bird and thus was regarded as a symbol of divine majesty. On Roman coins and other symbols of the empire, the eagle represented imperial power and was used as a symbol of the legions that occupied the known world at the time.
Emperor – The fourth mystery in the Tarot card pack. It is in allegorical form as a figure seated upon a throne which is a cube of gold. Above him is a black eagle. In his hands he holds the globe of the world and a scepter surmounted by a Fleur-de-lis. The crest of his helmet includes four triangles, emblems of the four Elements. The red color of his clothing signifies fire or intense activity. This mystery card is closely related to Hercules holding his club and the golden apples which he took from the garden of Hesperides. The golden cube of the throne represents constructive material and the Fleur-de-lis represents illumination. The card, in total, signifies magnificence, energy, power, law and severity; on the negative side it depicts domination and subjection.
Empress – The third enigma of the Tarot. She is depicted with a full face, yet stiff. A smile is upon her face that is framed with golden hair. Her attributes are the scepter, the Fleur-de-lis and a shield with a silver eagle upon a purple background. In the positive meaning, this card denotes the ideal, sweetness and domination of affective persuasion. In the negative sense, it stands for vanity and seduction.
Eve – A symbol of the material aspects of life and the mother-of-all-things. Eve is the mother of humanity while the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady, is the mother of souls. Eve is of the material world and Mary being of the spiritual – opposites in symbolism.
Eye – The divine eye is depicted frequently in ancient Egyptian art forms, a sign in hieroglyphics that is called Wadza – 'He who feeds the sacred fire or the intelligence of Man'. The pupil is the center thus making it in relationship to the sun.
Fleur-de-lis – An heraldic flower that is non-existent in nature that is a symbol of royalty that dates far back into history. As an emblem, which the French adopted, its base is an inverted triangle that represents water with a cross above it that expresses conjunction and spiritual achievement with two leaves wrapped around the horizontal arm. The central arm is straight and points toward heaven. During the medieval period, the Fleur-de-lis was regarded as an emblem of illumination and attributable to the Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Fool – The final enigma of the Tarot that is distinguished from the others because it is un-numbered – all the rest are given numbers from 1 to 21. The figure on the Tarot card is dressed in a costume of many colors to denote influences upon himself from others. The red color turns to orange that indicates the fire within him. He carries a bag at the end of his staff, which is symbolic of the mind and its burden. A white lynx is shown in the act of biting his left calf that signifies is remorse. But this does not deter him and he continues onward towards the background where an overturned obelisk – a solar symbol – and a crocodile about to devour the character, an impending doom. This Tarot enigma corresponds to the irrational, but also related to impulse and the unconscious. The Fool is closely related to the clown who play a part as scapegoats with painted smiles upon their face not revealing the inner self or the misery within.
Fox – During the Middle Ages, the fox was the symbol for the devil with base attitudes and wiles of an adversary.
Frog – Represents transition from water to earth elements and vice versa in alchemy. In Egypt, it was attributed to Herit, goddess who assisted Isis in her ritual resurrection of Osiris. Little frogs that appeared in the Nile a few days before it overflowed signified fertility. Frog-gods were once placed upon mummies and the early Christians incorporated them into their symbolic system. The toad is the antithesis of the frog, just as the wasp is to the bee.
Gargoyles– Animals and monsters in fables who appeared in medieval religious art as symbols of the forces of the cosmos or as images of the demons that infest the underworld. They are the opposites of the angelic order.
Grail [also Holy Grail ] - The Grail is one of the most complex legendary symbols, as well as the tale surrounding it. It consists of two forms of symbolism – one of the Grail itself and the other the quest to find it. According to Western legend (Fisher King), a mysterious illness had stricken down the ancient monarch, the keeper of the Grail's secret and everything around him wilts and dies, as the king himself. Day and night, physicians and knights tend to the ailing king. Sir Pasifal questions the king and asks where the Grail is. Instantly the king recovers. It is said that the Grail came from the East and it must be returned. The cup itself has its own symbolism as well as legend which tells how it was made by angels from an emerald that dropped from Lucifer's forehead when he was hurled into the abyss from God's favor. However, the most common thought is the Grail is the cup from which Jesus the Christ drank from at the Last Supper with his disciples; which means it was just an ordinary cup for a person of Jesus of Nazareth's social station. But since Christ died on the cross for humanity's sins, then the cup was imbued with powers to heal if one drank from it. The most widespread legend is that Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ when he was nailed to the Cross, which then gave it the powers of healing for those who drank from it.
Great Priest – The fifth enigma of the Tarot card pack. The card shows him seated upon a throne between two columns Jachin and Boaz (intuition and reason), He wears white gloves to symbolize the purity of his hands. His scepter terminates into a triple cross, the rounded ends of whose arms rise to the septenary, which represents the virtues necessary to combat the seven capital sins – Pride (Sun); Sloth (Moon); Envy (Mercury); Wrath (Mars); Lust (Venus); Greed (Jupiter); and Avarice (Saturn). Also depicted in the image are two disciples, both kneeling, one dressed in red (activity) and the other in black (passivity). On the positive aspect the enigma signifies moral law, duty and conscience.
Great Priestess – The second enigma of the Tarot that represents Isis as the goddess of the night. She is seated, holding a half-opened book in her right hand and the two keys in her left, one of which is golden (sun) and the other silver (moon). Her throne is between two columns, which is an allegory denoting the principle of femininity, which are the columns called Jachin and Boaz in the Temple of Solomon, joined together with the veil that covers the entrance to the sanctuary. The tiara which crowns her head has a lunar crescent – symbol of cyclic phases. She is leaning against the sphinx of the great cosmic questions, and the floor which is composed of alternate white and black tiles that denotes the laws of chance and of opposites. On the positive aspect, the Great Priestess signifies reflection and intuition; on the negative, intolerance.
Griffin – An animal of fantasy whose front half is like an eagle and rear half like a lion with a long, serpentine tail. The griffin, like certain dragons, are guardians of the roads to salvation, standing beside the Tree of Life or some similar symbol. In medieval Christian art, the griffin is common and associated with signs which tend towards ambivalence that represents both the Savior and Antichrist. The griffin is also found in heraldry symbolism.
Halo – an aureole that is a luminous circular light that appears as a crown with which ancients depicted their deities and which Christians affixed holiness to Jesus the Christ, Saints and Angels. It is an expression of supernatural force and intellectual energy. Other halo forms are spherical in form, such as Islamic art forms depicting the pearl to represent paradise, although it is forbidden to create art (fundamental and orthodox Muslims) to depict human figures to prevent pagan idolatry in any form.
Hanged Man – A complex form of symbolism. It is enigma number twelve of the Tarot card pack, but its meaning is significantly broader. The Tarot card depicts a figure like the Minstrel hanging by one foot from a rope tied to a crossbar supported by two leafless trees. The interpretation means that the Hanged Man does not live the ordinary life on Earth, but lives in a dream of mystical idealism. The strange gallows from which he hangs is yellow in color to indicate concentrated light or concentrated thought. Thus the Hanged Man hangs from his own doctrine, to which he is attached. The two trees represent Jachin and Boaz pillars of the Cabala. The Hanged Man's clothing is red and white, the mystical colors of alchemists. His arms are tied together and hold half-opened bags out of which gold coins are tumbling, an allegory of the spiritual treasures to be found in the being who performs this self-sacrifice. According to Wirth, the closest mythological hero closest to this symbolism is Perseus, who overcame the forces of evil in order to free Andromeda, who symbolizes a soul chained to the dull rock of matter, rising from the waves of a primeval ocean. In the positive meaning, number twelve of the Tarot stands for mysticism, sacrifice, self-denial and continence. In the negative meaning it denotes a Utopian dream-world.
Hawk – An emblem of the soul in ancient Egypt with implications of solar transfiguration.
Herald at Arms – Like Egyptian and Chaldean scribes, heralds at arms are vessels of hermetic wisdom – 'keepers of secrets'. They are related to shield-bearers and to standard-bearers of ancient armies like the Roman aquilifer or eagle-bearer.
Hercules – As a Greek hero, Hercules became a symbol of the individual freeing himself in the quest for immortality, expiating his sins through suffering and heroic deeds. His attributes are the club, which was adopted in carvings on stones usually near or at a gladiatorial combat arena spread across the Roman Empire's cities, especially in Italy, the largest and most magnificent being the Colosseum in Rome.
Hermit – The ninth enigma of the Tarot card pack. It is an allegory of an old man carrying in his right hand a lantern partially covered by a portion of his cloak, which is dark outside (withdrawal) and with a blue lining (aerial nature). He is the master of the invisible and if he finds a serpent upon his journey he does not kill it, but instead charms it to wind itself around his staff. On the positive side, the Hermit signifies tradition, study, patience and work. On the negative, he stands for all that is tedious and meticulous.
Hieroglyphics – Schematic images representing symbols of ideographs and this form of writing is strictly belonging to the ancient Egyptian civilization that recognized three forms of writing – hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. The hieroglyphic system was comprised of a total of 900 signs that represented ideas, syllables, words, and letters. Because it was so complex, it was only mastered by the priestly caste, and by the Roman period, Egyptians were already beginning to forget how to decipher it. Horapollo Niliacus attempted to restore it in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The subject was forgotten for centuries until Father Athanasius Kircher revived it during the 17th century. The Rosetta Stone aided deciphering of hieroglyphics found in tombs during the dawn of the science of archaeology.
Hippogryph – An animal of fantasy that was half-horse and half griffin, which Ariosto and other authors of books of chivalry gave to their heroes as their mounts. They were kind of like a supercharged, fuel injected Pegasus – a blend of griffin and winged horse and symbolized as a spiritual mount.
Honey – A symbol of wisdom in Orphic tradition. Honey was also credited with rebirth or change in personality; and in India, symbolized the superior self. Honey is the product of mysterious and elaborate process in nature, so it is easy to see the symbolism of the spiritual exercise of self-improvement.
Hour-Glass – A symbol that denotes the inversion of the relationship between the Upper and Lower Worlds and also an inversion by Shiva (Siva), the lord of creation and destruction in India.
Ibis – The ibis is related to Thoth, Egyptian god of wisdom. According to the Greek scholar, Aelian, in his De Natura Animalium, this bird was chosen because it tucks its head under its wing when it sleeps, so it resembles the shape of the heart and also the fact that the stride of the ibis measures exactly a cubit, the measurement used to build temples, and it destroys harmful insects. There were two kinds of ibis – one white (associated with the moon) and one black. The belief is that Thoth hovered over the Egyptian people in the form of an ibis religiosa, and that he taught them the occult arts and sciences.
Ishtar – She is pictured in many Western images and books of magic with a ring in her left hand and a cup or chalice in her right; or else she is armed like Minerva. These attributes denote the continuity of life and the hardships of existence. Her weapons demonstrate that Ishtar loves the hero and despises the coward.
Justice – The eighth enigma of the Tarot is an allegory of the idea of justice personified as an image rather like that of the Empress. In one hand she holds a pair of scales (symbolic of good and evil) and in the other hand is a sword that represents the Word of God. Her throne is like the Emperor's. A crown with fleurons shaped like iron lances that are affixed at the top of the figure's headdress. The enigma is related to Libra, the sign of the Zodiac and represents inner judgement involved in the process of deciding guilt. Astronomically speaking, Justice is Astrea. In the positive sense this enigma denotes harmony and a strict code of behavior; in the negative sense it represents restriction, pettiness and craft.
Knot – A complex symbol embracing several important meanings all of which are related to the central idea of a tightly closed link. The slip knot is a sign in the ancient Egyptian language that represents an oath or a journey. The endless knot is one of the eight Emblems of Good Luck for Chinese Buddhism that represents longevity. The famous Gordian Knot that was cut by Alexander the Great is a symbol of the labyrinth and the undoing by the sword of chaos. To undue the knot was equivalent of finding the Centre which forms an important part in mystic thought. To cut the knot instead of untying it signifies the idea of achievement and victory on the level of existence that is war.
Labyrinth – An architectural structure whose pattern is complex and once inside it is impossible or difficult to escape. Gardens of royalty and the wealthy had a labyrinth designed with high-growing shrubbery. The emblem of the labyrinth was used extensively by medieval architects. It was considered a symbolic substitute of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Some labyrinths were shaped like a cross, which in Italy was known as Solomon's Knot. It is also a feature in Celtic, Germanic and Romanesque decoration – dual symbolism as a knot and labyrinth.
Lemures – The Romans gave this name to disembodied spirits. According to Ovid, the Festival of L:emuralia was a commemoration to the dead. It is likely that the umbra – ghost or apparition – were closely linked with the lemur and both are symbolic of certain states of psychic disassociation.
Lily – An emblem of purity, used in medieval Christian iconography as a symbol and attribute of the Virgin Mary. It is often depicted standing in a vase or jar, which in turn represents the female. The lily, in Byzantium and among Christianized Franks, the lily was the sign of royalty.
Locusts – In Christian symbolism, locusts represent the forces of destruction, a symbolism that can be traced back to the Hebrew tradition of the plagues of Pharaoh. To quote the Book of Revelation IX, 1-10 …
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth; and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but they should be tormented for five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall man seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared for battle; and on their heads were as it it were crowns of gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
|Lyre musician, Greek vase|
Mandorla – The geometric symbol of the Earth is the square (cube) and the symbol of heaven is the circle, two circles are sometimes used to symbolize the Upper and Lower worlds that is heaven and Earth. The union of the two worlds, or the zone of intersection is represented by the mandorla – an almond-shaped figure formed by two intersecting circles. The zone of existence symbolized by the mandorla, like the twin-peaked Mountain of Mars, stands for the opposing poles of all dualism. It is a symbol of the perpetual sacrifice that regenerates creative force through dual streams of ascent and descent (life and death, evolution and involution). In another aspect, it is compared with the spindle of Magna Mater with magical spinners of thread.
|Mandragora, from Tacuinum Sanitatis (1474)|
Mandragora (or Mandrake) – A plant which was supposed to have various magic properties and the belief stemming from the fact that its roots are the likeness of the human body. Mandragora was also the name of the ghost of a devil, who appeared as a tiny black man, beardless and with unkempt hair.
Minstrel – The first enigma of the Tarot card pack whose figure is a minstrel that is a symbol of the creative power of humans. He is depicted as wearing a hat in the form of a horizontal eight (mathematical sign for infinity) and holds up a magic wand (clubs) in one hand, and the other three symbols of the card-pack are on the table facing him which are equivalent of diamonds, spades and hearts which together with the wand (clubs) represent the four Elements as well as the points of the compass. The minstrel's clothing is multicolored, predominately red, which denotes activity. The enigma is related to Mercury.
Mirabilia – During Antiquity and the medieval period, this name was given to strange and amazing incidents and miracles. The literature of Mirabilia was popular, especially in Hellenistic Egypt, where it was passed on to the medieval Western civilization through the Arabs. Strange or amazing incidents are frequently traditional symbols and sometimes were connected to magic and alchemy.
Mistletoe – A parasitic plant found on oak trees. Celtic druids once used to gather it to use in their fertility rites. It symbolizes regeneration and the restoration of family life. The yellow color of the withered mistletoe branch was thought to be endowed with the power to discover buried treasure.
Moon – In symbolism, the moon covers a wide area and is complex in its interpretation of symbolic attributes. Cicero noted the power of the satellite of the planet Earth when he observed …
Every month the moon completes the same trajectory executed by the sun in a year … It contributes in large measure to the maturation of shrubs and the growth of animals.
This explains the important role of the lunar goddesses such as Ishtar, Hathor, Anaitis, and Artemis. The moon governs the tides of the waters on Earth and the rhythm of menstrual cycles of women, which Krappe believed, as Darwin did is the result of animal life originating in the primeval oceans that imparted the rhythm of the moon and its phases that lasted for millions of years. The moon is regarded as the occult side of nature, where the sun is responsible for life on Earth. In pre-Islamic Arabia, as in other Semitic cultures, the cult of the moon prevailed over sun worship. Mohammed forbade the use of any metal in amulets except silver. The Moon is also depicted in the eighteenth enigma of the Tarot card pack. It shows an image of the moon dimly lighting up the objects of the world. Beneath the moon there is a huge red crab resting on the mud. It also shows two watchdogs guarding the orbit of the sun and barking at the moon. Behind the dogs, to the left and right, are two castles in the form of square towers that are flesh-colored and etched in gold. The moon is represented by a silvered disk that forms the outline of a woman. Long, yellow rays stream out from this disk, intermingled with shorter, reddish rays. Inverted drops of water are floating in the air, as if attracted by the moon. The visionary see things in a lunar light. The crab, like the Egyptian scarab, has the function of eating volatile elements and the watchdogs are warning the moon to stay away from the realm of the sun.
Numbers – In symbolism, numbers are not merely the expressions of quantities, but ideology of forces, each with a particular character of its own. The first ten numbers in the Greek system (or twelve in the Oriental tradition) pertain to the spirit that are entities, archetypes, and symbols. The rest are product of combinations of these basic numbers. The Greeks were preoccupied with the symbolism of numbers. The philosophy of numbers was further developed by the Hebrews, the Gnoptics and the Cabbalists, spreading to the alchemists as well. The idea spread to the orient as Lao-tse wrote, for example …
One becomes two; two becomes three; and from the ternary comes one.
Mysticism of numbers as symbols with mystic meaning is also referred to as numerology, just as the scientific endeavor of mathematics.
Numismatic Symbols – Coins have from the time of Antiquity, have had a level of talismanic meaning that was gradually lost over time. Symbols, allegories and personifications have been stamped on coins and clearly reflect the culture of the period. Greek coins bore symbols such as the Swastika, tripod, trident, labyrinths, chariots, winged horses, roses, tortoises, eagles, griffins, shields, crowns, bulls, cornucopias, etc. On Roman coinage – military trophies, standards (signa) of the legions, on the prow of ships, heads of gods (especially double-headed Janus), eagles votive crowns, chariots, temples and so on. From the 4th to the 2nd centuries BC in the coinage of Luceria (Apulia) there were geometric symbols like ovals, triangles, and a series of dots alongside Jupiter's thunderbolt, and also the cross that appeared later in Christian Jerusalem. Medieval coinage dating from the Carolingian period displayed crosses, anagrams, triple enclosures and schematic temples. Byzantine coins are characterized by emperor's heads and figures of Christ, the Virgin and saints, as well as crosses and schematic ladders or steps. Medieval coinage in the Western world had a wide range of motifs that embraced various forms of the cross, triple enclosures, roses, Fleur-de-lis, crowns, angels, armed knights, swords, hands raised in benediction, castles and shrines, lions, eagles, etc. On the reverse side of some coins there are mandalas formed by enclosures, circles and crosses.
From the Renaissance period to modern times money became secularized which takes on the characteristics of Imperial Rome with the face of a monarch on the obverse side and heraldic shields on the reverse side. Islamic coins are usually based on calligraphy, but sometimes depict stars, figures and conjunctions of the square and circle. Oddly, to my knowledge, no one has written a history of numismatic motifs in geography and chronological history. Maybe this should be a project I should take on.
Oak – A tree sacred to Jupiter and Cybele, standing for strength and long life. According to legend, Hercules' club was made of oak. It may be because, according to ancient belief that the oak tree attracts lightning more than others. The oak has had symbolic meaning across the spectrum of Aryan cultures in Russia, Germany, Greece, and Scandinavia. Like all trees, it represents a world axis.
Oar – In ancient rites that were connected with the founding of temples, the king would walk around the site with an oar in his hand. Virgil mentions this ceremony in the tale of rebuilding Troy. The oar is a symbol of creative thought and the Word, which is the source of all actions.
Obelisk – A symbol of the sun ray, thus its particular shape. It is also symbolic of stone. It is related to myths of solar ascension and light as a penetrating spirit because of its upright position and pyramidal point that terminates at the top.
Olive Tree – A symbol of peace that was consecrated by the Romans to Jupiter and Minerva. Its symbolism can be found in many Oriental and European countries.
Ouroboros – This symbol appears mostly among the Gnostics and is depicted as a dragon, snake or serpent biting its own tail. It is symbolic of time and the continuity of life after death. It sometimes has the caption Hen to pan – 'The One, the All' – as in the Codex Marcianus of the 2nd century AD.
Owl – In the ancient Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, the owl symbolizes death, night, and cold. In Native American tribal myths, if an owl flies over one's head that person will die soon. The owl also symbolizes wisdom.
Palm – A classic emblem of fecundity and of victory.
Pan – The ancient Greek god, Pan, is a symbol of nature and is usually depicted with horns and with legs covered with hair. It is interestingly noted that the likeness of Pan was used in depicting Satan, the Christian's name for Lucifer, the fallen archangel; as well as a symbol in astrology for the planet Saturn.
Pandora – Pandora is symbolic of human wicked temptations and represents the irrational as well as tendencies of wild imagination.
Papyri – In the ancient Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, a rolled papyrus depicts the concept of knowledge.
Pearl – It symbolizes obscure genius and is one of the eight common emblems of Chinese traditions. Lao-tse wrote …
Hence, the chose one wears coarse garments, but in his breast he hides a precious stone.
To the Moslem, the pearl is a symbol of heaven. It has also been identified as the human soul.
Pegasus – A winged horse that sprang from the blood of Medusa, the Gorgon, when Perseus cut off her head with the use of magic weapons given to him by the gods. Bellerophon rode on Pegasus in his fight with the chimaera. A similar fabulous animal can be found in medieval tales using the name hippogryph. It symbolizes the power of natural forces and the fight against evil.
Phallus – A symbol for the perpetuation of life as well as propagation of cosmic forces.
Pine Tree – Like other evergreen trees, the pine is the symbol of immortality. Conifers also are used in this symbolism. Pine cones were regarded as symbols of fertility.
Playing Cards – The most symbolic of playing cards is the 22 major enigmas of the Tarot pack, followed by 56 lesser enigmas. The latter is made up of 14 figures in each of the four suits. The gold symbolizes material forces; the club or staff symbolizes power of command; the cup or chalice varies in meaning, but generally represents a receptacle; the sword is an emblem of discrimination between error and justice. The number inscribed on each card implies the symbolism pertaining to that particular number.
Rose – The single rose is a symbol of completion, achievement and perfection. More precise meaning is derived from the color and number of petals of a rose. Prized for its fragrance and beauty and despite difficulty in growing them, the rose dates far back in history as the most popular and treasures flowering plant. The Romans, as in other cultures, would sprinkle rose petals in their washing bowls to clean themselves and provide a pleasant fragrance. Rose petals tossed in front of a procession or upon the heads of dignitaries and heroes was a sign of deep respect. Victorious and popular gladiators would have rose petals thrown at them by the crowd of the arena after a hero achieved victory over his opponent or opponents. The white and red rose are symbolic in alchemy. The blue rose is symbolic of something impossible. The golden rose is a symbol of great achievement. The rose with seven petals correspond to the seven days in a week, the seven planets and the seven degrees of perfection. The eight petaled rose symbolizes regeneration.
Sceptre [Scepter]– Related to the magic wand, the club, the thunderbolt, and the phallus, as well as Thor's hammer. One of the most common depiction of a scepter terminates in a Fleur-de-lis, which is a symbol of light and purification.
Serpent or Snake – Too complex to write about here, the snake has a long history in symbolism in many cultures and religions. Its slithery movement, its association with the tree, the way it sheds its skin, its threatening tongue and the fork shape at the end, its hiss, and its methods of attacking by bite or coiling itself around them all play into the symbolism. They thrive in many climates and geographies – in the desert, in lakes and ponds, wells and springs. In India there are snake cults that connect themselves to the serpent with symbolism. Snakes are guardians of the springs of life and immortality. Serpents or snakes appear in many stories that date back throughout written history. Starting with the legend of Adam and Eve, the snake can be found throughout oral and written history. In Egyptian hieroglyphics the serpent/snake personifies the letter Z. A horned snake represents the letter F. The demonic implications of the serpent can be found in several cultures, mostly commonly known in Hebrew and Christian scriptures personifying evil. Indeed, the serpent once walked on legs, but after tempting and deceiving Adam and Eve, the serpent was condemned to crawl on its belly forever.
The connection of the snake with the wheel is expressed in graphic form in the Gnostic symbol of the Ouroboros – the serpent biting its own tail. This symbolism can also be found in the Chinese Ying-Yang symbol. The serpent also can represent sexual references, specifically the male sexual organ as in Hindu symbolism.
Shekhinah – Not literally a symbol, it is a Cabbalistic sefirah. It represents the feminine side of the Supreme Being in which souls of a young woman, stranger and one beloved are mirrors. Gershom G. Scholem wrote in On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (London, 1965) that the Shekhinah may contain aspects that are negative as in the occult and destruction and also leads one down an alternate path to the Hindu trinity in which Siva (Shiva) symbolizes the destructive side of the deity. It is generally a transformation, renovation and rebirth.
Shell – One of the eight emblems of good luck in Chinese Buddhism and can also be found in allegories about royalty as well as a sign for a prosperous journey. Shells are also related to the moon and to woman. Peal symbolism is closely linked with the shell.
Shield – The symbolic significance of the shield is primarily a depiction of its defensive function to the material and spiritual plane. The coat-of-arms that can be found on shields shows that the knight defends himself and his family honor as well as displaying to his enemy his background and identity.
Ship of Fools – This symbol is common in medieval iconography and is related to the Biblical story of 'foolish virgins'. It is a parallel symbol to the Accursed Hunter.
Sigma – Shown in several positions in its S-shape it can be found in the art of ornamentation as scrolls symbolizing rhythm of continuous motion. It has been used as a symbol of the wind – more often the whirlwind or whirlpool.
Stag – Its symbolic meaning is linked with that of the Tree of Life because its antlers resemble branches. The stag in several Asian and pre-Columbian cultures is a symbol of regeneration. Like the eagle and the lion, it is the secular enemy of the serpent, which shows it is viewed as a favorable animal. It is closely related to heaven and light, whereas the serpent is associated with night and subterranean life. Romans gave the stag certain mystical gifts, one of them being psychic projection. Another gift was the ability to recognize medicinal plants. The stag represents prestige, beauty, agility, and grace. Because of the stag's role as a messenger of the gods, it may be considered to be the antithesis of the he-goat.
Star – The star is a symbol of the spirit – a light shining in the darkness. However, the star has a multitude of meanings in various cultures, the struggle against the forces of darkness, for example. The star can be depicted as having five points or six, the latter recognized as the Hebrew symbol. The 'flaming star' is the symbol of the mystic Centre. As far back as ancient Egypt, the star signified a rising symbol that reaches to the point of origin. An inverted five-pointed star is a symbol of the infernal that is used in black magic. It is also used in the 17th enigma of the Tarot deck that depicts an allegorical image of a naked girl kneeling down beside a pool pouring a life-giving liquid into the still waters. In her left hand she holds a silver jar from which she pours fresh water. A bright star and several lesser ones hover above the figure's head.
Steps – This is a common symbol in iconography that can be found all over the world. It is a means of ascension and communication between the Lower and Upper worlds as depicted in Jacob's Ladder.
Indeed, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, it represents the word to ascend or rise. In Islamic tradition, Muhammad saw a ladder that reached up to God. Steps are one of the most notable symbols in ancestral rites. Symbolism of steps in architecture can have more meaning than just a means to ascend to another floor, like in temples and pyramids. This is especially true with the pyramid temples of America in pre-Columbian period.
In Bettini's Libro del monte santo di Dio (Florence, 1477), steps are shown superimposed on a mountain; emphasizing the parallel/identical symbolism of the ladder and mountain, the latter portrayed as it was terraced, the terraces looking like a ladder. On the rungs of the terrace/ladder there are the names of the virtues – Humility, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, Awe, Mercy, Science, Counsel, Understanding, and Wisdom. On the peak of the mountain is a mandorla formed of angels with Christ in the center.
Stone Circle – Often called a cromlech, popularly known as the giant's circle. Diodorus Siculus thought of the stone circle of Stonehenge when he referred to the 'circular temple of Apollo' where the Hyperboreans sang the praises of god-the-sun. Often standing in the middle of a circle of monoliths is the hyrmensul or sun stone.
Styx – A subterranean spring or lake in Greek mythology that corresponds to the underground sea in Egyptian mythology, which the sun crosses every night. In analogical thought, the lower waters of the Styx pertains to death, just as every sunrise symbolizes resurrection.
Sun – The Sun is a star that is the center of our galaxy and in many cultures as Egyptian, Peruvian, Mayan and Aztec; it appears as if it is a god itself. In India it is the eye of Varuna; in Persia it is the eye of Ahuramazda; in Greece, as Helios, it is the eye of Zeus (or Uranus); in Egypt it is the eye of Ra; and in Islam the eye of Allah. In certain periods of history and in certain levels of culture, the solar cult is predominant, if not the only one. Solar activity is in the sacred rites of Africa, Australia, and Oceania (Polynesia, etc.) as well as North and South America. The cult of the Sun reached an advanced stage in the New World, the most advanced being in Mexico and Peru. These were the only countries in pre-Columbian America to develop a viable political system, Rome, the most powerful political force in antiquity, practiced solar hierophany, which during the Empire dominated all other cults in the form of Mithraic ritual. The sun had long served the Egyptians of the Ancient Empire for its brightness and power. They also were aware of the analogy between the daily disappearance of the Sun and the winter solstice.
The Sun is also depicted upon the 19th enigma of the Tarot deck. The allegory shows the sun disk of the astral king surrounded by alternating straight and flame-like rays that are golden and red and symbolizes the dual activity of the Sun that gives both warmth and light. Beneath the Sun there is a golden spray falling and a couple in a green field, and in the background there is a wall. The couple symbolize the Gemni under the influence of spiritual light. The Sun also represents purification and tribulation, glowing brightly to reveal higher truths. On the positive side, the Tarot enigma symbolizes glory, spirituality, and illumination. On the negative side it stands for vanity or an idealism that is incompatible with reality.
Swastika – This graphic symbol has been thought of as a sign of evil because the Nazi of Germany in the late 1930s and until the fall of the Nazi Regime and its founder, Adolf Hitler, was its symbol, stolen from the emblem of antiquated cultures.
The symbol can be found in almost every ancient and primitive cult around the world – in Christian catacombs, in Britain, Ireland, Mycenae and Gascony; among the Etruscan, the Hindus, the Celts and the Germanic peoples; in central Asia as well as in pre-Columbian America. Its meaning is varied as much as it is scattered around the globe in antiquity and is really representing two symbols of independent force. The Greek cross with arms of equal length and the cross with four arms rotating in the same direction. The tetraskelion (swastika) with four arms at right angles is also called the gammadion because it can be formed by joining up four gamma letters. According Ludwig Müller, the swastika was the symbol of the supreme deity in the Iron Age. 1 It is also associated with agricultural with the points of the compass around an axis. There are two types of swastikas – right-handed and left-handed. The shape of the swastika has been interpreted as a solar wheel with rays and feet to symbolize movement and power of the Sun.
Thorn – In particular, the thorn of the acacia that was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as an emblem of the mother-goddess Neith. It is also signified as the world axis, as well as the cross. The crown of thorns in the story of crucifixion of Jesus the Christ can symbolize suffering or something evil.
Trident – In various cultures, the trident has different meaning. It is basically a three-point spear that originally represented the teeth of sea monsters. It is an attribute or instrument used by Neptune and Satan (Lucifer, the fallen archangel) – it is thought by many scholars that the latter was copied from the former as an instrument of evil because of its significance in pagan religion, therefore antichrist in analogical thought; just as the god Pan with hooved feet closely resembles medieval depictions of Lucifer as Satan. According to Bayley, it is a corrupt form of the cross that was adapted to depict the opposite of goodness. 2 In another view, any object with three points or quantity of three signifies symbolic force of hostility and evil. The third point can be analogized to the third eye of Shiva (Siva) the Destroyer. The trident was used in the Roman gladiatorial arena as a weapon, along with a net which also is related to the Uranian deity.
Unicorn – Symbolic of chastity, purity and an emblem of the sword or word of God. Traditionally it is depicted as a white horse with a single horn protruding from its forehead with blue eyes. Legend states that the only creature that can tame a unicorn is a human female virgin; for him the unicorn would protect if need be. In China, the animal known as Ch'i-lin is identified with the unicorn; however the Chinese fabulous animal has two horns. It is an attribute or emblem of high-ranking army officers as well as representing uprightness and noble birth. The Chinese version has five colors – red, yellow, blue, white, and black; and its cry sounds like ringing bells. It is reputed in legend that it can live for a thousand years and is considered the noblest of all animals. To kill one, in any cultural legend, is a mortal sin. Honorious of Autun wrote in his Speculum de Mysteriis Ecclesiae of the Unicorn …
The very fierce animal with only one horn is called unicorn. In order to catch it, a virgin is put in a field; the animal then comes to her and is caught, because it lies down in her lap. Christ is represented by this animal, and his invincible strength by its horn. He, who lay down in the womb of the Virgin, has been caught by the hunters; that is to say, he was found in the human shape by those who loved him.
While the Physiologus Graecus mentions the unicorn in disfavor in that it harbours ill will toward men; the Christian Church in the medieval period did not recognize this negative view. In regards to the Unicorn's iconography, the 15th century tapestries in the Cluny Museum in Paris illustrates the creature in La Dame à la Licorne. 3
Wolf – Symbolic of valor among the Romans and Egyptians, it is also seen in heraldic emblems. It also can be seen as guardians of certain monuments. In Nordic mythology the wolf is presented as a monster. Fenris, the monster-wolf is bound by iron chains and shackles and was imprisoned within the bowels of the earth. When the twilight of the gods appears, the end of the world, the monster-wolf will break out of his prison and devour the sun. The wolf also appears as an evil symbol in Gnostic cosmogony. In most cultures, the wolf can be friend or foe, as in indigenous peoples of North America. It also can be found in legendary tales of men cursed to become a wolf when the moon is full – symbolic of the moon's influence upon water and anything that consists of it.
Woman – In anthropology, woman corresponds to the passive principle of nature. Indeed, in symbolism, woman plays an important role in ancient religions and rites. Woman has three basic attributes – as a siren who enchants, diverts and entices men away from the path of evolution or a journey across the seas; as a mother, or Magna mater (motherland); and as the unknown damsel, beloved in Jungian psychology. As Mother Nature or a Mother Goddess, it is the oldest form of a deity, clay or stone idols of a pregnant woman with large breasts and hips found at archaeological sites dating 35,000 years ago. C.G. Jung states in his Symbols of Transformation that ancient people, even today, see woman as Eve, Helen, Sophia, or the Virgin Mary. In Commedia by Dante, woman is the purest of living beings. In some cases, woman is symbolized with the figure of an animal – the swan-woman in Celtic and Germanic mythology and woman with the hoof of a goat in Hispanic folklore. The woman becomes the matron once she loses her virginity. In iconography, it is common to see woman depicted as part lion. The woman figure can be seen frequently in the form of a cat and the great mother in Egyptology. In the basic form as Eve or as Helen, woman at the emotional level the woman is depicted as lower in station than man. In the form of Sophia or Mother Mary, she is a personification of purity and supreme virtues. In most respects, ancient cultures realized that without woman there would be no humanity, and held with high regard and awe at their ability to reproduce and nurture.
Yang-Yin – A Chinese symbol that shows the dual distribution of forces that comprise the active or masculine principle (Yang) and the passive feminine principle (Yin). It takes the form of a circle bisected by a sigmoid (curved) line, and the two parts form a dynamic division, yet interlocking. The light half represents the Yang force and the darker one represents the Yin. It also expresses the counterbalancing between evolution and involution.
Yoni – Like the mandorla, the Yoni is the gateway, or the zone of interpretation where two circles intersect. Indians, in order to ensure regeneration, make an image of the Yoni in gold and pass through it.
Zodiac – One of the most widespread of all symbols, despite its complexity. In almost every land and any age in history, its characteristics are the same circular form, the twelve subdivisions with their corresponding signs, and their relationship with the seven planets. The Mesopotamian cultures, Egypt, Judea, Persia, India, Tibet, China, America, Islam, Greece, and Northern Europe – all were acquainted with zodiac symbolism. The name comes from zoe (life) and diakos (wheel) and the basic element of this wheel of life is found in the Ouroboros (snake biting its own tail). To show the extreme age of the Zodiac, it can be found among the rock paintings in the Cueva de Arce, the celestial maps in the stone engravings at Eira d'os Mourus (Galicia), and the sculpting of the cromlech at Alvão (Portugal) and numerous other examples/places. However, there is no evidence thus far that reveals that the Zodiac was understood before the time of Sargon of Agade (2750 BC), who was known to possess the work of astrology that contained forecasts of the eclipses of the sun. From the time of Hammurabi (2000 BC) man's study of the heavens began to form into a scientific endeavor.
The symbolism of each of the twelve signs would take a volume onto itself, so it will not be discussed here, except that the Indian Zodiac is composed of the following signs – edu (ram), yal (harp), nand (crab), amma (mother), tuk (scales), kani (dart), kuda (pitcher), and min (fish).
The Zodiac signs can be found depicted in the Tarot card deck.
The most commonly known Zodiac is as follows – Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces; and all represent one of the seven planets as used in ancient astronomy, alchemy, and astrology. Each sign has a significant attribute, just as in alchemy and the Tarot pack. Interpretation of the signs as well as correlation of one's identity and fate are related to the sign in which a person is born in the most often symbolism that can be seen around the world within many cultures.
Frazer, Sir James G.;The Golden Bough; London, 1915.
Fromm, Eric; The Forgotten Language; London, 1952.
Jung, C.G.; Symbols of Transformation; (Collected Works), London, 1956.
Lehner, Ernst; Symbols, Signs and Signets; Cleveland, 1950.
Seznec, Jean; The Survival of the Pagan Gods; New York, 1953.
1Amulettes, talismans et pantacles by Riviére Marqués, Paris, 1950.
2The Lost Language of Symbolism by Harold Bayley, London, 1951.
3Psychology and Alchemy by C.G. Jung, London, 1956.