Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Power Of The Ten

Imagine an equalteral triangle composed of points. Like a pyramid the apex is a single point and there are four levels. The foundation  is composed of four points.  So altogether there are ten points. This is the tetractys; a mystical symbol to Pythagoras and  initiates into the inner pythagorean mysteries swore an oath over it. The design was sometimes known as the Tetrad, or Tetractys of the Decad

The Tetractys

Like Dee’s monad glyph, the Tetractys symbolised various strata of concepts. The simplest was its practical mathematic impact. It must be remembered that Pythagoras taught that numbers were the divine language of the cosmos. Numbers were endowed with mystical insights. On a metaphysical level it was a seed that gave growth, and as the source of ever-flowing nature it was harmony and represented the principles of the natural world. 

The design influenced cabalist thought, (especially the Tetragrammaton and possibly even the cabalistic tree of life). It is thought that the pythagoreans also used the tetractys to define a musical scale. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

John Dee's Monad

This is one of my favourite symbols. I’ve carved Dee's Monad a number of times over the past three years. I’ve noticed that there are variations of this symbol online but this is the original form. The Monad is a symbol of unification. Separate parts yield a whole. In the diagram you can see the individual elements and their basic significance. However there is more to this symbol and I thought I’d share my research in this post. 

In-keeping with the holistic imagery of this sigil we need to take a look at its creator, John Dee; an important figure in 17th c. English history, John Dee was born in England in 1527, and died late 1608. Through the course of his life he was a mathematician, an astrologer, astronomer and occultist. As a young man he went abroad to learn many of these arts. Returning from studies in Europe Dee was taken into the English aristocratic court, where he became an advisor to Elizabeth I. He advocated Imperial expansion of England and played a vital role in its inception. 

In the final decades of his life Dee dedicated himself to alchemical/hermetic philosophy, searching for an understanding of the divine forms he was certain underpinned reality. These transcendent principles he named “pure verities.” Dee saw no difference between his love of mathematics and science or his hermetic/occult dealings; to Dee they were means to the same end. In his quest for knowledge he gathered hundreds of books and manuscripts. It was said that Dee possessed the largest library in  England at the time. 

Dee is also renowned for his dealings with ‘angels’. It could be that these ventures into angelic converse were instigated because he felt a sense of failure in life. Dee hadn't  gained the knowledge and “pure verities” he sought via conventional methods. He was also losing favour with the Queen at court. So Dee took to scrying and ‘contacting’ divine beings. In 1582 Dee took one Edward Kelley into his service. Kelley has been figured by some scholars as a charlatan, however he was the medium  by which Dee conversed with angels. Together they meticulously detailed their dealings, completing several books  - some in the divine language which they called Enochian**. 

The following year, prompted by his angels, Dee left the court of Elizabeth I. Wishing to keep his head firmly on his shoulders* Dee and Kelley wound up travelling through Europe,  meeting with emperors and kings (all the while their spiritual conferences continued). Eventually Kelley and Dee parted ways after the angels told them that Kelley had to sleep with Dee's young wife. Kelley went to work for the emperor of the Bohemian empire, Rudolph II, in Prague, creating alchemical gold (did he or didn't he? Was Kelley a charlatan after all? A medium through whom Dee's subconscious was extricated in the form of angelic discourse?). Kelley, rising to fame across Europe because of his skills fell from grace. He was imprisoned and was slain whilst trying to escape. Dee returned to England and eventually died in poverty at his home, Mortlake,  at the grand old age of 82. 

One of the books he wrote during his long lifetime was the Monas Hieroglyphica, which is an explanation of the monad symbol. As previously seen Dee divided the monad into separate parts, and as we have also seen these parts can be divided into lunar, solar, element and fire, as well as lunar, solar, earth and spirit. However each part has other significance, as Dee sought to devise an all-embracing symbol - The monad. 

One thing to bear in mind here is that like the Pythagoreans Dee believed that numbers represented the sacred and the divine truth of the construction of the universe. Therefore sequences of numbers served as proof of the wholeness and sacredness of his hieroglyph. To Dee this symbol itself contained great power and mystery.

The Crown - 

The reason the moon features as taurus-like horns is that they are also cornucopia; the bounty of the fertile moon (remember that much cultivation was tied with astrological thought - and still is in modern day Italy). The moon  phases especially are seen as vital to the growth of plants. 

The Head - 

At the point (monad) all things come into being. In geometry neither a line nor a circle can be created without it. However due to the flawed pre-Galilean astronomy of the time the sun circled the earth. We know this to be wrong now, but Dee aligned the then belief with his symbol. Therefore the circle represented the sun's gyration around the central earth point. Entwined in the circle was of course the moon, also circling the earth. 

The Body - 

Represents the mystery of the elements, four stems that are also joined at their fulcrum. The cross also serves a quaternary function, upon which the theorem adds Pythagorean substance in the form of the Tetractys (a formula or sequence of numbers in triangular form that added up to the mystical number 10). Mathematically and numerically the cross was a symbol of perfection.

The Feet - 
As Aries Dee introduced a fire symbol, relating that in the alchemical practice of his symbol fire was a necessary component,

The entire figure could also be recognised by those versed in hermetic law as an alchemical process, complete in itself. Hermetically Dee summed his monad thus: The Sun and the Moon of this Monad desire that the Elements in which the tenth proportion will flower, shall be separated, and this is done by the application of Fire.

John Dee further involved the monad with astrological layers, proving that it was also formed from combinations of planetary symbols: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and elements of aries, sol and the moon. It was also a conjunction of Aries and Taurus. 

The Monas Hieroglyphicus is a dense and unfortunately obscure account of the symbol, however much one delves into numerological formulae, comparisons of the alchemic art and the symbol, along with geometric reasoning, interpretation et al. Other books of Dee's that explored the monad further have been lost. 

For those of you who wish to explore deeper I have provided a link by which you can access the Monas. 

Masters of Darkness - a BBC documentary about JD, featuring Alan Moore.

John Dee

Some believe that Dee was still working for Elizabeth and as he wandered Europe - he was in effect a spy.

Through their discourse Dee 'uncovered' a complete magical system with it's own language. He detailed everything in a scientific manner. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Tree Of Life

Mayan world tree
The Mayan World Tree

In essence  the World Tree represents the universe. In Norse myth Yggdrasil, the sacred ash, joins the underworld and the higher realms of the gods. Within its branches are suspended  nine worlds, while various attendant animals and monsters gnaw at its leaves, roots and fruits it replenishes itself - each animal is a cosmological reference. 

The Norse weren’t alone in choosing the tree to symbolise such a powerful idea. The Mayan World Tree rose through the three spheres of existence. Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Altaic beliefs featured a seven-branched Tree Of Life. In the Egyptian version the Goddess of Destiny sat in the lower branches** and the tree was called ‘aam’ or ‘aama’.    For the Abakhan Tatars  a seven-branched birch tree grew atop an iron mountain. In Chinese mythology the Cosmic tree grew at the centre of the universe, where the perfect capital was to be found; this sacred tree united the Nine Springs with the Nine Worlds. The Irish Dindsenchus mentions huge trees marking the assembly place for the gods, who were linked with the fate and choice of legendary kings. The World Tree of the Yakut of Siberia was called Yryn-al-tojon. 

Under the Universal Tree

Hindu philosophy makes  reference to a Pipal tree, also known as Ashvattha  (mentioned in Buddhist texts as the  Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha meditates).  In  The Mahabharata it is stated: ‘He who worships Ashvattha daily worships the whole universe.”  Indeed Krishna himself said: “Among all trees I am Ashvattha.” And in the Padma Purana: “Ah, there is nothing on earth as great as Vishnu in the form of an Ashvattha tree.” Even today Pipal trees are venerated by Hindus in areas of India. The trees are circled clockwise, wrapped in coloured cord and offered gifts of water, food, flowers, incense and lamps. As with many belief systems the whole is personified in the fragment.  

Its roots above, its branches below,
This is the eternal banyan* tree.
That alone is the bright! That is Brahman!
That alone is called the immortal!
On it all the worlds rest;
Beyond it no one can ever pass

Upanishads (trans. Patrick Olivelle)

While we’re on the subject of the ‘inverted tree’ I’ll mention that  the Lapps used to sacrifice an ox to an inverted tree (as a god of vegetation) - while in Hebraic tradition the Tree Of Life was inverted, as was  the Islamic Tree Of Happiness. An excavation of a site off the coast of Norfolk, dated to around 2000-2500BC, featured  fifty-five split oak trunks arranged in a circle around a central  inverted oak stump (buried in the ground). It became known as Seahenge and it was 'excavated' and preserved in 1999.

Traditional Saami drum from the 19th c
Traditional Saami drum from the 19th c.

The above examples attest to the great age of this symbolism. In fact a great many Shamanistic faiths make reference to the World Tree,  rising through different realms (usually three, seven or nine) and associated with the axis-mundi or sacred centre. For example, in the hymns of the Vasyugan Ostiak shamans, the  Cosmic Tree has seven levels; it passes through all the heavenly spheres and buries its roots in the depths of the earth. 

Thus the Sacred Tree was long seen as a symbol of the cosmos, as a force of life, of endless fertility and total reality.  Because it dies and is reborn the sacred tree contains much power and this regenerative notion  gives rise to the Tree Of Life concept. Not only does the tree tower from the centre of the world, it supports the heavens and can be represented as a pillar.  The Altai peoples believe that the gods attached horses to this cosmic pillar, while in Scandinavia Odin tethered his horse to Yggdrasil. The Saxons called this cosmic pillar Irminsul-universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia. The Maypole is possibly a much degenerated version of this mythos.  

Anglo Saxon cross from the North of England
Anglo Saxon cross from the North of England

Anglo Saxon cross from the North of England
Anglo Saxon cross fragment from the North of England

It is known that the Teutons conflated the World Tree and Tree of Life concepts. To my mind this is apparent in the crosses indicated. These Anglo-Saxon monuments were influenced by Scandinavian heathens and the Church - obviously the populace drew parallels between pagan and early Christian imagery.   Possibly because of their association with resurrection,  the sacred tree and cross (whose wood is supposed to bring the dead back to life - why? Because it is supposed to have been fashioned from the Tree Of Life which stood in the Garden of Eden*** ) were mixed for a time.

In some myths heroes search for the Tree Of Life  but it is guarded by a terrible monster, often a serpent. For example in Slavic myth the Tree Of Life was guarded by  a dragon called Simorg. To obtain immortality from the Tree Of Life the hero had to prove himself. Heroes who took the rite included Hercules and Gilgamesh. 

The imagery of a World Tree is powerful. I can’t help linking it with modern scientific ideas about the universe: Dark matter nested in the structure of the universe, a weblike structure upon which the universe of matter is built - like sap through the boughs of a tree. We could even draw comparisons to fractal forms, such as the branching neural networks of the brain. 

This is a version of Yggdrasil

I’m going to end this post with a piece from about Yggdrasil, basically because there is something about the imagery that stirs me deeply - it’s a personal fave of mine.

I know an ash standing
named Yggdrasil,
a high tree, laved
with white mud:
thence come the dews
that fall into dales
it stands ever green
over Urd´s fountain.

Völuspá verse 19 from The Poetic Edda.


*Pipal/Ashvattha tree

**Compare this to the notion of the Well of 'fate' beneath Yggdrasil in Norse myth.

***Not impossible to read a sort of religious propaganda here: whereby one imposes itself upon the other by conflating it; not to stand as equal but incorporate its mythology as its own. 


Upanishads  - translated by. Patrick Olivelle
People Trees: Worship Of Trees In Northern India - David L. Haberman
Patterns In Comparative Religion - Eliade Mircea 
The Cosmological Origins Of Myth And Symbol From The Dogon And Ancient Egypt, India, Tibet And China - Laird Scranton
Encyclopaedia Of Russian and Slavic Myth And Legend - Mike Dixon-Kennedy 
The Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe - HR Ellis Davidson 
Norse Mythology - John Lindow

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What's In A Symbol?

cave painting
Horse from Peche-Merle cave, France.
Note continuation of dotted sequence out-with the stylised form. 

Lascaux caves
Dotted sequence from Lascaux, France.

In these posts I’ve been busy explaining a few symbols… but exactly what is a symbol? How does it function? In this post I’m going to attempt to explain this. 

30,000 years ago Palaeolithic peoples decorated portable objects with sequences of incisions and dots. That’s 20,000 years before the first recognised forms of writing appeared! Natural forms were translated from the realistic to line drawings, these were pared down, in time some evolved into language, the Chinese language being a great example that exists today - though strictly speaking Chinese characters are logograms, the symbols representing phrases, evolving from ideograms (even the Latin alphabet may still retain elements of its pictorial correspondences). Others take on deeper significance.

Palaeolithic artists left intriguing symbols in the  caves throughout Europe. Some tantalising glimpses of the development of pictograms are evident from these sites: such as the horse painting from Perch-Merle in France - or  sequences of dots found at other sites including Lascaux (see pics). Such instances (and the frequent repetition of  such motifs) point to their existence being more than mere decoration;  imparting other significance to images they might accompany (or significance in their own right). Some prehistorians postulate that a coherent system of meaning once underpinned these designs. Perhaps they imparted hunting information - though the general academic consensus these days is that Palaeolithic cave art was religious in function - the designs were likely relaying mythological ideas.  

Lascaux cave
Vagina in symbolic form, Chauvet Cave
In the above picture it is obvious that the motif represents the idea of a vagina, but it is no naturalistic image. The female reproduction organs have been singled out, streamlined: it has become a symbol! We can only speculate as to its 'then' meaning (possibly fertility, the miracle of birth, or sex - though it reminds me of a headless little goddess figurine from the period).   

We know a lot more about Neolithic symbols and those from the Iron-age, yet our full understanding is still sketchy (Christianity had a propensity to zealously obliterate pagan religion, thus much has been lost to us). With the arrival of the monotheistic religions older symbols were utilised, but new layers of significance were often attached or older concepts were updated to suit (the easiest way to destroy another faith it to incorporate it into the corpus of your own - albeit in a mute and powerless form). 

Maori facial tattoo
Maori traditional Tā Moko, sacred facial tattoos.
In ancient civilisations where little distinction was drawn between the profane and supernatural worlds, we can glimpse the power that symbols can possess. For example Maori tattoos  not only display lineage, rank, but also spiritual and moral leanings.  

Thus, given that symbols are enduring and many remain through the ages, let me point this out: a symbol is no single thing, it is a multi-layered concept.  They can be  devices invested with emotive and conceptual values, reflections of mythology, or religion. But to the viewer who is aware of their significance the symbol is an element that reflects some deeper meaning or paradigm. 

Sure, there are symbols that are purely utilitarian and functional, especially in our modern consumerist, rational biased society. Those symbols that denote an object, or are just trademarks, describe or associate some corporation/product with a logo,  are little more than references that have acquired a recognised association (the loo sign). Jung did not see these as true symbols. To this famous psychoanalyst a symbol  possessed, in addition to its conventional connotation, ‘something else’, something hidden, vague or unknown to us. So a symbolic image “is one that implies something other than its immediate and obvious meaning.”

For Romanian historian,  Mircea Eliade, symbols revealed aspects of reality. Eliade did not see symbols and myths as blind creations of the psyche but systems of thought that corresponded to necessary function, bringing light to the hidden modalities of being. Symbols and myth enable people to elevate themselves into a spiritual world that is beyond the historic present and therefore offers great richness. He believed that the study of symbolism could enable people to gain a more comprehensive knowledge of themselves.

bollingen stone
In the Bolligen Stone, which Jung carved,
alchemical influence is apparent.

In these posts I’ve covered some ground, some more deeply that other topics, but each time I believe I have shown that symbols, especially those from the distant past, are layered with meaning. Symbols bear significance on multiple layers, like archaeological strata. For instance  the triskele, or the nature of triplism (see blog). Modern symbolism has its roots in this distant past (extending as far back as the later Palaeolithic period). So-called primitive humankind was, to a large extent,  inspired/moved and driven into awe by natural phenomena: mountains, storms, hurricanes, floods, the constellations… inspiring common mythological themes that are enduring and lasting, perhaps even embedded in the collective psyche of our race. 

Alchemy sought to make spiritual ’truths’ manifest in material. It was a blend of the esoteric and material. Every element, every motion, every instrument  and process  was symbolised; intellectually and spiritually. Later psychoanalysts (most famously Jung), saw alchemy as “possessing psychological precision,” as Bachelard put it. Jung recognised in alchemy a stimulant for the deepest regions of the psyche. He thought that the symbolism inherent in his psychoanalytical method offered a universal theory and a destiny for the soul: “Symbolism is thinking in symbols, the crystallisation of the inner life. Uniting the material with the supernatural/magical/mythical.” 

hermetic symbol
Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, 1617.

Alchemical Garden 17th c.

This Hermetic page is laden with symbolism.

In those magical realms a symbol can be thought of as a “condenser of consciousness”, “a practical link between objective and  subjective existence". In modern magical thought a magical symbol is seen as a concept for energy-exchanges between different levels/worlds of living. 

Others say that symbols only exist within, like the idea of archetypes and myth being something that envelops the collective consciousness, while others point out that macrocosm = microcosm - therefore the symbol is something that transcends the boundaries of ordinary reality, binding the natural to mythological/magical/metaphysical ‘truths'. 

To a large part I see symbols as trigger mechanisms. When you buy a Celtic ring made in China and the shop has some guff written about how it means spiritual growth, it doesn’t matter (of course these new-age meanings are like a cheap veneer on older symbols, but it's  all part of the course). The fact is you believe it and therefore you invest that object with the significance (no matter how tepid the symbolism might be). To you that is what the object means. But if you delve into the history of symbols things change and the symbols that you see hold deeper significance as you decode them. 

Perhaps, as the psychoanalysts say the symbol then affects us deep in the unconscious. Or maybe as trigger mechanisms the designs shunt the beholder into a certain 'frame-of-mind'.  Or, perhaps, when I carve stones with symbolic designs something external occurs, the old gods nod their heads and smile. 

stone mad crafts
Pictish symbols carved by me.

stone Mad Crafts
Pictish symbol, another by me.


Eliade Mircea - Patterns In Comparative Religion
Eliade Mircea - Images And Symbols 
C.G. Jung - Man And His Symbols  
William G. Gray - Magical Ritual Methods  
Georges Jean - Signs Symbols And Ciphers, Decoding The Message -  

J.E Cirlot - A Dictionary Of Symbols  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Greek Inspiration

History is something that permeates Greece. Every town and city seems to be built upon the past, and there are often points where the ground has been peeled back to expose fragments of mosaics or marble pillars. Sometimes tiny Orthodox chapels are composed of the remnants of previous eras. Around ancient sites shards of pottery are scattered, some dating back to the Mycenaean and Roman eras - the painting still vibrant and colourful.

My love of Greece began in 1999, when I first visited the country. I went overland through Europe, taking a train from Marseilles to Ancona, and from there a night ferry to Patras. I made my way down the coast of the Peloponnese, cutting inland to visit Olympus and Mystra. In Athens I took a trip to the Cycladic Islands. Since then I have visited often and I even lived in Santorini for 3 years.

Chapel in the North-west of Crete with Hellenic blocks
So, this week I thought I post some pictures of some Grecian pieces that I've photographed throughout the years. In my own stone and  illustrative work I am deeply influenced by numerous artistic and historical periods. The Mycenaean is one of those - though I've grown to appreciate the Classical work I much prefer the primacy of earlier epochs (such as the Cycaldic 'goddess' figurines).

This one is from Ephesus in Turkey

The above photo is from the famous ruined city of Ephesus in Turkey. I went there in 2012, part of a three month sojourn. The ruins there are well worth a visit, there are paved avenues and the remains of the ancient library are pretty impressive. Of course much of the ruins are Roman, and this piece is most likely of that era. Who or what it is I'm not sure yet... perhaps when I get around to  Roman symbology!

Pottery from Athens National Museum 

Athens National Archaeological  Museum is another place well worth a visit. They have many of the Mycenaean artefacts, such as the so-called Agamemnon death mask.  I make the pilgrimage there every time I go to Athens. Each time I discover some new treasure.

This simple motif (above), painted on a vase from Mycenae, portrays a design familiar to anyone with the faintest knowledge of Celtic Myth or art (see my Triskele posts, one and two). This doesn't automatically signify that the triskele originated in Greece, or even that the Celtic and Grecian motifs bear any similar significance, but it's intriguing none-the-less... especially when we see the slab below.

Almost looks Celtic doesn't it? Actually it's Mycenaean

 The Stelae above is also from Mycenae. It could very well be mistaken for a later period funerary stone. In fact it wouldn't seem out of place amongst the Pictish stones displayed in the Edinburgh Museum (and it's only one of a series of slabs with similar decorations). However, this one pre-dates the Pictish stones by about a thousand years... so what was going on? Common themes? Transference of ideas, mutations of notions and symbology possibly identified with myth and religion? Migration? Who knows but perhaps I will take the slabs to task and investigate at a later date.

Mosaic, Rhodes
 The mosaic above is housed in the Palace of the Grand Master in the medieval castle of Rhodes. Many of the mosaics housed there were transported from archaeological sites on other islands, such as Symi. The old town is impressive, housed as it is behind massive medieval towers and curtain walls. It was the site of a major siege back in the 16th century and  is built upon the ruins of older civilisations, which can be evidenced by a walk along the old moat, from where you can spot ancient passages cut into the rock. Much of the restoration work of the castle was done in the late 1930's by Mussolini.

Stunning limestone corner piece from Myrna, Lycia.

Myrna is another Lycian site in Turkey. It is part of the Lycian Way, a walking route that traces the Lycian coast and passes several amazing Lycian sites. The piece pictured lays outside the ruins of the ancient amphitheatre there. It indicates the common (Hellenic) culture (in artistic and religious forms though every region had its own tribal identity)  once widespread across the Mediterranean.