A Guide to The Structure of Spiritual Emblems
There is a secret language we all recognize, but few are fluent in- the language of symbols. Symbols surround us in myriad forms and form an inextricable part of our daily lives, yet unlike our spoken languages, schooling in symbolism is left to the individual initiative. Even in religious teaching, symbols are presented as emblems of belonging, mere historical artifacts one wears to identify with one’s faith.
Many of the symbols we take for granted today as static signs of religious or secular life were created long ago, representations of the movements of earth and heaven, symbols of the seasons, and representations of cosmic and earthly deities. Over time, they have acquired layers of increasingly complex meaning, and this evolution of meaning tells us much about how we developed our ideas about the nature of life and the universe.
Signs used in modern magick and Western religious traditions share a common ancestry that dates before the creation of writing. These symbols are powerful because they are archetypal- even cultures that do not share language share an innate understanding of symbols. In this article we’ll explore the evolution of symbolism by examining the basic elements that make up more complex symbolism. The symbols of western magic, astrology, and alchemy are based on a common symbolic ‘alphabet,’ composites created from smaller symbols.
Knowing how to recognize these smaller units will allow you to decipher many of the larger symbols whenever you encounter them. Knowing the secret system behind these symbols can provide an incredible amount of insight into even the most inscrutable signs.
The basic building blocks of symbolism
The Circle is the most common and universal signs, found in all cultures. It is the symbol of the sun in its limitless or boundless aspect. It has no beginning or end, and no divisions, making it the perfect symbol of completeness, eternity, and the soul:
The circle is also the symbol of boundary and enclosure, of completion, and returning cycles. The circle symbolism most familiar to us is that of the wedding ring which encircles the finger associated in ancient times with the heart. The wedding ring symbolizes not just a pledge of eternal love, but the enclosure of the heart- a pledge of fidelity.
The circle reflected represents the dyad, the introduction of duality, and represents creation and manifestation. The symbol of the dyad is known as the ‘vesica pisces,’ or fish bladder, because it appears as a fish. The equal armed solar cross is another universal symbol, which can be found in every culture with a knowledge of the passage of time. It is the first truly theological emblem, marking not only the points of the solar calendar, but the juxtaposition of the realm of the material with the realm of the divine.
The cross is in this case actuality two separate signs-
First, a vertical axis, representing man, the body, and our upright posture, which is unique in the animal kingdom. The vertical line symbolizes the path from earth to heaven and the realm of spirit, symbolizing the dual nature of man, who embodies the spiritual and the temporal. The vertical axis equates directly to the human spine and to the tree of life, as well as to the axis mundi, the great pole around which the constellations of the zodiac revolve. These seemingly disparate ideas share a common idea- they link the earth and heavens. Thus is the concept of the connection between earth and heaven established- and also the divinity of man, who alone is built on this axis.
The horizontal axis, represents the path from birth to death, beginning to end, and linear time. This axis represents life on earth as a binary, linear process- life to death, beginning to end, and the dual nature of human existence evidenced by our symmetrical shapes: left and right, male and female, good and evil. These ancient concepts are embodied even in our language- our good, “righteous” side, and our dark, “sinister” side. (sinister having the original meaning “of the left hand”)
Both axis are also representations of the sexual nature of man, the vertical line representing the solar phallus, and the horizontal, the receptive, female earthly nature. Many early solar temples (such as Stonehenge) are not only solar calendars, but representations of the earth awaiting fertilization from the masculine energies of the sun. (The appearance of the rays of the solstice on these ancient solar altars represents the copulation of the gods) The cross, then, is the symbol of humanity- when the two axis are combined in a cross shape, they represent the cube of space, the four elements, and the binding together in man of matter and spirit. (The old geometrical puzzle of ‘squaring the circle’ is a hidden reference to the continual difficulty of reconciling spiritual and material concerns.)
A cross within a circle forms a solar cross or a horoscope wheel, both symbols of spirit and matter. A horizontal bar within a circle is the alchemical symbol for salt, pure material existence in its most exalted state. The equal-armed cross is often disguised in religious art as a four petaled flower, a cube, or a scepter. Examples of this cross in it’s simplest meaning will be found in primitive swastikas and sunwheels; the more complex spiritual meanings in the symbols of alchemy, the Templars’ equal armed cross, and the symbol of the crucifix. Because of the inherent nature of this symbol as representational of both the sun and the divine in man, the cross is commonly associated with redemptive solar deities. (Read more about the Dying God archetype here)
The Tau cross is a later variation, with a horizontal bar balanced atop a vertical bar, creating a “Tau,” or “T” shape. With its exaggerated vertical axis, the tau cross is associated with sacrifice of the lower, base nature, and emphasizes the earth/heaven connection. Some examples of the Tau cross are the cross of Attis, the egyptian Ankh (surmounted by a loop or circle), and the Norse Irminsul.
The arc found in more complex symbols, especially planetary symbols, represents ascension or striving. The arch has been a traditional element of architecture and often figures in commemorative monuments of triumph and achievement. The sigils of the planet Saturn and Jupiter, for example, combine identical symbols with very different results, using the arc in conjunction with the cross. In the sigil of Jupiter, the arc of aspiration rises above the struggle of matter and spirit, and symbolizes bounty, triumph, expansion, and success. Saturn’s sigil places the cross above the arc- ascension subverted by the material struggle, and a symbol of Saturn’s power to limit and confine:
The crescent represents the powers of the moon- reflective and receptive. (An example of this symbol taken to its highest symbolic meaning would be the Holy Grail) A reversed crescent often represents emptiness and illusion.
The triangle is one of the most easily recognized religious symbols in the West, most commonly associated with the Christian trinity or Freemasonry. The triangle is the simplest geometric shape, and also the first purely theological symbol. To the ancient Pythagoreans, the triangle was, as the first complete polygon, the womb of number and the essence of stability. Triangles stand in for the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and spirit, as well as the earlier primordial trinity of Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
The upward moving triangle is sometimes called the blade (the chalice and blade figure ceremonially in many ritual magic operations). It is a symbol of aspiration or rising up, male force, and fire. It is purely phallic in origin. The triangle represents aspiration, rising force, and the male principal.
The downward pointing triangle is sometimes referred to as the chalice. It is the symbol of water (as it flows downward), the grace of heaven, and the womb. it is one of the most ancient symbols of female divinity, as a representation of the genitalia of the goddess.
When combined, the triangles of fire and water form a potent symbol of balance and divine union. In western tradition, it is called the Seal of Solomon, and the symbols for air and earth are derived from the reconciliation of water and fire in this symbol. The hexagram has an identical meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism as well, where it also represents the divine union, or perfect balance of male and female energies. Kabbalistically, it is the sign of resurrection and completeness- in Hebrew tradition, it is called perfect. Occasionally, this conjunction forms a diamond or lozenge shape.