Symbols & Psyche: Exploring Gateways to Realms of Knowledge, Power & Understanding
BY JAMES WASSERMAN
The Muggle world is filled with symbols. From Coke cans to McDonald’s arches, IBM computers to Apple Macintoshs, from flags to emblems and medals, to the endless variety of product packaging, modern culture is brimming with images. Open the Yellow Pages of your phone book – with the emblematic pair of walking fingers – and you will find a myriad of professional logo designers and artists, many of whom have trained at colleges whose crests may date back a century or more.
Walk or Don’t Walk based on a traffic light flashing a message designed to prevent you from being run over by a car – whose distinctive hood ornament differentiates it from its competitors, and which is fuelled by different brands of gasoline whose identity may be apprehended from afar while travelling at high speed. Look at the dashboard and you can ascertain operational norms, be warned of engine trouble, and learn by iconic means about the vehicle and its amenities.
We live in a world filled with visual identifiers intended to convey meaningful information at a glance without the need for words.
Heraldry, the distinctive symbols of noble warrior families, traces back to the Middle Ages, when grand tournaments were held with jousts between heavily-armoured knights wearing visors. Since individuals were unrecognisable in such gear, unique coats-of-arms were designed to identify the combatants to fans and foe alike. Taverns and inns, village blacksmiths, printers and publishers, all manner of craftsmen and merchants were as recognisable in villages and cities a thousand years ago, as they are in today’s hyper-illuminated metropolitan areas and quieter rural main streets.
However, there is another level of symbolism that goes beyond the merely commercial, socially informative, or technologically useful.
And that is the universe of sacred symbols, whose resonance in the archetypal levels of the human psyche can cause spiritual change and expand consciousness beyond the confines of mundane reality. Symbols that serve as gateways to realms of knowledge, power, and understanding that inform and control life on earth, and, presumably, the after-death state of non-physical life as well. Symbols that can open the mind to communication with spiritual beings who welcome the opportunity to interact with human consciousness. Symbols that confirm to the aspiring student the nature of the truths he or she seeks.
Symbols are the alphabet of the Law of Correspondence. This universal principle acknowledges the inter-connection of all things with all other things, the existence of multiple relationships within Nature’s kaleidoscopic richness.
In The Mystery Traditions, I quoted the following statement by Titus Burckhardt from his book Alchemy, “True symbolism depends on the fact that things which may differ from one another in time, space, material nature, and many other limitative characteristics, can possess and exhibit the same essential quality.”
This article will briefly examine two symbols of great importance to human life. I hope the reader may gain an insight into the richness of the subject and an appreciation for the multiplicity of ideas involved in the study of symbolism. I also hope it may suggest a means by which other symbols may be explored.
Let us then begin with the Circle, a symbol of unity, wholeness, and completeness – a figure that seems to contain all within itself. Yet, conversely, it defines and delineates space. Thus it is simultaneously an image of distinction, separation, and difference – setting boundaries between that which is within and that which is without. It is a barrier against intrusion, offering a cocoon of protection within which growth may occur in safety – the egg wherein the babe may take form and mature, the magical circle in which spiritual progress may be made.
The circle is traditionally a symbol of the Sun. To understand the derivation of this association, one need only look up at the sky. With a point in the centre, the circle is the glyph of the Sun in the alphabet of astrology. Its astrological zoomorph is the male lion, king of beasts, powerful, ravenous, swift, courageous, triumphant, regal. He is filled with a self-confidence that allows for the enjoyment of leisure, a kind of benign self-indulgence or laziness that springs from an understanding of his role in the aptly-named pride, or family of lions, over which he rules.
The Sun is a symbol of resurrection. Each day it rises from the depths of night to gradually illumine the world. Through the course of the day it waxes in power and pulses with life-giving heat. Its radiance sustains the growth of crops and the activities of all species on earth. As the day draws to a close and the light of the sun diminishes, it sends forth rays of magnificent colour that herald its decline and descent, its apparent death as it is about to be swallowed by the dragon of night. And yet on the morrow it comes forth again, bursting the chains of its imprisonment, rising to herald the new dawn. It is the embodiment of continuity and hope, of the possibility of life beyond death, and of triumph in adversity.
The Sun is a symbol of the self and of self-consciousness. It represents the unique individuality of each being. As he stands out among the luminaries of heaven, so is each of us the centre of our own universe. While it may not be quite politic to express it in words, each of us feels that he or she is the centre around which the world, as we know it, revolves. The Book of the Law expresses this image beautifully in the passage, “In the sphere I am everywhere the centre, as she, the circumference, is nowhere found.” While there are many who like to imagine themselves as amorphous ripples in a universal continuum, Nature herself rebels against this fantasy. The Sun is her proof.
In the world’s mythology, the Sun is the archetypal essence of numerous deities who span all cultures while sharing the same identity.
Ra in the Egyptian pantheon is hawk-headed. The hawk is far-seeing, inhabits the very heights of the celestial environment, is swift as a beam of light, able to penetrate all darkness and depths to snatch forth his nourishment from the myriad of creatures over whom he reigns. Ra is the creator god, both the spark that enlivens the world and the sustaining energy that keeps it alive. Ra was the first and most powerful of the gods; like the Sun, his role is that of prominence, leadership, and dominion.
The Sun subsumes the resurrection gods, the saviours who act as mythic intercessors between Deity and humanity. The Sun is the eye of God monitoring its creation – prominently, unavoidably, consistently omnipresent in our world that we may learn the lesson of our own essence. The Sun is the link, the representative, the prince, vice-regent, and son of God – visible representative of the Invisible Father of all. As such, he is Jesus, Adonis, Bacchus, Krishna, Apollo, even the Buddha. His death is suffered as an inspiration to us of a life beyond, offering the promise of victory over the chthonic states of non-existence.
The Tree of Life
In the diagram of the Tree of Life – the traditional esoteric geometric representation of the mystic totality of existence – the Sun is the number six, the Sephira, or sphere, of Tiphareth, Beauty. Tiphareth stands in the balance, midway between the topmost sphere of Kether, the Crown – the Point, the first manifestation of the Infinite – and the bottom sphere of Malkuth, the Kingdom – the world of three-dimensional physical reality in which we live. Tiphareth occupies the central of the three pillars of the Tree of Life, the Middle Pillar, surrounded on either side by the Pillars of Mercy and Severity.
As the Sun is Tiphareth, the number six, its geometrical figure is the hexagram. The hexagram further exemplifies the nature of the Sun as intercessor or balance point between above and below, heaven and earth, God and man. The hexagram is formed by the union of the ascending male triangle of Fire, and the descending female triangle of Water. The number six, or hexad, was called “the Perfection of Parts” by Pythagoras. This reminds us that Tiphareth (Beauty) is the sphere of Harmony. And harmony is produced by the joining together of distinct, and, in some cases, discordant elements, to produce a unified and aesthetically pleasing whole. Pythagoras observed that the number six is the first mixture of odd and even, being the multiplication of two by three. The Pythagoreans designated odd numbers as male, and even numbers as female. Thus, we are reminded once again that the number six and the hexagram represent the union of male and female, the harmony upon which all creation relies.
The Sun’s metal is gold, the luminous and most beautiful of all, whose value has been an unchanging indicator of wealth and a medium of exchange for millennia. A visit to any fine Egyptian collection, in either a museum or the pages of a book, will show the prominence of gold as the chosen metal of pharaonic iconography and architecture. Similarly, gold was the metal chosen for most of the ritual implements in the Temple of Solomon. It was also used to cover the sacred Ark of the Covenant. Medieval and Renaissance Europe used gold liberally in churches, shrines, and palaces, as did the Aztec, Mayan, Indian, and Chinese royalty and priesthood. Gold is the ultimate symbol of the perfection reached by the alchemist – who removes in countless stages the myriad of impurities that make up lead, and allows for its transformation and refinement into the king of metals.
In the body, the Sun is the heart, symbolically the single most important organ. The heart is the central pumping station of the blood, the essence of life. All survival and health depend on its regular and consistent motion. Long regarded as the seat of courage, the heart was torn from the chest of enemies and eaten by ancient warriors, that they might increase their own strength by ingesting the essence of worthy opponents. Colloquially we speak of a person “with heart” to describe the motivation and self-discipline necessary to pursue a course of success in life. The heart denotes sincerity, the appreciation of the essence of the self in action. It is also the symbolic seat of love, the motivating force that sustains the world through generation.
Among the parts of the Soul in the Qabalah, the Sun is one of six of the ten Sephiroth that compose the intellect, known as the Ruach. Here again, the Sun acts as an intercessor between the higher levels of the soul (the Self, Life Force, and Intuition) and its lowest aspect (the Animal Soul of Nature). The Intellect weighs and analyses, decides on the appropriate response to stimulation from above and below. It acts as the mediator between “heaven” and “earth.”
On the level of spiritual experience, the Sun is a symbol of the magical virtue of Devotion to the Great Work, the path by which an aspirant may reach the heights of spiritual potential. The stage of initiation represented by Tiphareth, the sphere of the Sun, is known as the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. This may loosely be understood as the point at which the upward motion of the soul is met with a profound response from the higher reaches of Divinity. A direct interaction occurs in the consciousness of the aspirant that allows for an understanding of one’s continuing mission, the reality of one’s faith in the quest, and the nature of the tasks and obligations under which one is to continue. Such an interaction is a perfect expression of the symbol set we began exploring with the Circle.
In order to balance this Solar meditation, let us now turn to the Moon. She is represented by various glyphs in the astrological alphabet because of the several stages of her passage during the twenty-eight days of the lunar cycle from New to Full Moon. However the Crescent is the Moon’s standard astrological symbol.
The Moon is the unconscious self. It represents the hidden parts of the psyche from which spring moods, emotions, dreams, and intuition. The depths of the soul are the very realm of images. The unconscious mind is the wellspring of magic and witchcraft – in which the hidden forces of nature are brought into operation by direct appeal from the hidden forces of the self. (On a practical level, to access such deeper levels of consciousness, the rational intellect must be enlisted to help strategise a means to bypass itself.) The Moon is the symbol of universality, the collective unconscious, the pleroma, wherein the individual self is united with the universal life stream.
The Moon traditionally represents the Goddess, the complement of the solar male deity. In Egypt, she is Isis, the Enchantress. Isis is a complex deity who is identified as the mate of both Ra and Osiris, Lord of the Underworld. She is variously known as the daughter and mistress of Ra, and wife and sister of Osiris. (Osiris may be considered the nocturnal aspect of Ra – the Sun god beneath the horizon, Lord of the realm of death. Symbols, as the reader may have noticed, tend to run together. Their fluidity and tendency toward transmutation are among their lessons.)
The Moon is further identified with goddesses such as Persephone, whose tenure in the Underworld is balanced by her time on earth. Diana, the beautiful virgin goddess of the hunt, is another lunar archetype, as is Mary, Athene, Vesta, Kuan Yin, Astarte, Inanna, and Kali. The symbols of the Moon and Venus run in close parallel (as do those of the Sun and Mars), so one can easily include Hathor, Venus, and Aphrodite, as well as darker feminine archetypes such as Lilith, Ereshkigal, Hecate, and Ashtoreth.
Like the phases of the Moon, the Female archetype is intimately associated with time and the rhythms of life – from the tidal patterns of the ocean to the menstrual cycle. The natural threefold aspect of the feminine archetype is traditionally associated with menstruation: the virginal youth, wife and mother, and crone. Many calendars are lunar-based, among them the Jewish and Muslim calendars in use today.
The Moon is a symbol of fecundity in her identification with the Woman, the ark of life sailing through the seas of time. Moon cycles also regulate planting and harvesting, and thus she is identified with nourishment and sustenance.
On a physical level, the Moon reflects the light of the Sun at night. It is described as a “dead” planet, that is, one without a measurable active core. While these facts are aspects of the feminine archetype, particularly that of the Hag or Crone phase and the dark side of the witch power, there is a great deal more to consider. The Moon is the nocturnal complement of the Sun. How she illuminates the night may be of less immediate importance than the fact that she does. Walking through the countryside by the light of the Moon, it matters little whether the light that guides us is reflected or intrinsic.
On the Tree of Life, the Moon is Yesod, the Foundation, the ninth Sephira. Yesod is also located on the Middle Pillar, directly below Tiphareth, and directly above the physical world of Malkuth, the tenth Sephira.Yesod completes the geometric symmetry of the preceding Sephiroth, while Malkuth hangs like a pendant from the Tree.
Yesod is the world of images and ideas (angels) just prior to their incarnation in the matter and form of Malkuth. The Moon is of the Formative World, Yetzirah, the realm of causes behind the veil of physical life, the astral plane whose vibratory undulations inform the world of substance.
Yesod is the number nine, the number of months of pregnancy. Reducible to three, nine is the first square of an odd number. (Three is “the first and proper joining together of unities,” that is, it is the extension from Point, to Line, to Plane, self-contained in and of itself.) Nine was called “Ocean” or “Horizon” by the Pythagoreans because it is the height of numbers: to go further to ten is only a return to one. Nine is the natural limit of number.
The Moon’s metal is silver, the other traditional coin of the realm, defender of value, medium of exchange, and symbol of the beauty of the mineral world – shining and luminous, of pure composition.
In the body, the Moon is the genitals, the organs of generation, and the sensual, instinctive, insistent fire of those passions on which lives and kingdoms are both built and destroyed. An unruly world of excess which may be channelled through initiation to become the engine of manifestation and great power.
On the level of spiritual experience, the Moon is associated with the magical virtue of Independence. How interesting that after discussing her universality and identity with the unconscious mind – as well as the characterisation of the Moon as “the reflection” of the Sun – she would be identified with Independence. Perhaps the lesson here is that as Yesod is the Foundation, the Work can only take place within the individual. We must learn to separate the many strands of inherited and environmental tendencies in order to uncover our true and unique natures.
While we have explored several aspects of these two important symbols, we have only touched the surface. It would be possible to write volumes on the archetypal symbolism of the Sun and Moon. By looking at the teachings implicit in the Circle and Crescent, we have entered a world, nay a universe, of magic, astrology, mythology, religion, morality, psychology, astronomy, biology, physics, and history. Most importantly, we have glimpsed a path by which men and women may achieve the ultimate goals of our lives – spiritual attainment, universal consciousness, oneness with God, and the accomplishment of the Great Work.
Pedestrians may still safely cross the street in obedience to lights flashing with signs of upraised hands or stick figures in motion. Let us conduct our own ascent to the cosmic reaches of Eternity through the sacred symbols of Initiation.
James Wasserman is a lifelong student of esotericism. His writings include The Mystery Traditions: Secret Symbols and Sacred Art; Aleister Crowley and the Practice of the Magical Diary; An Illustrated History of the Knights Templar; Secret Societies: Illuminati, Freemasons, and the French Revolution; and The Secrets of Masonic Washington: Signs, Symbols, and Ceremonies at the Origin of America's Capital. His Chronicle Books edition of The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day features the full-color Papyrus of Ani with integrated English translation. The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven has thus far been published in six languages. His controversial The Slaves Shall Serve: Meditations on Liberty defines political freedom as a spiritual value. James and his wife Nancy launched The Weiser Concise Guides, a series of books on basic occultism. You can find him online at Studio 31, Inc.
or James Wasserman Books
. He lives in New York City with his wife Nancy.
Symbols & Psyche