They ‘knew’ things, of course, but few of them would have known how to record this knowledge for posterity and Craft remained an oral tradition for hundreds – if not thousands - of years. If we turn to Jung, however, we find that the history of symbolism shows everything can assume some symbolic significance, providing we understand the context in which it is presented.
‘Man, with his symbols - making for propensity, unconsciously transforms objects or forms into symbols (thereby endowing them with a great psychological importance) and expresses them in both his religion and his visual art. The intertwined history of religion and art, reaching back to prehistoric times, is the record that our ancestors have left of the symbols that were meaningful to them.’ [Symbolism in the Visual Arts]
There are four recurring motifs that illustrate the presence and nature of symbolism in the craft of the witch – these are the symbols of the stone, the animal, the circle/spiral and the cross. Each of these has had an enduring psychological significance from the earliest expressions of human consciousness to the most sophisticated forms of 20th-century art, wrote Swiss psychoanalyst Aniela Jaffé. And yet, if we do not hold the key to unlocking this means of communication, then the way will remain closed …
We know from our forays into ancient history that uneven stones – like the black meteoric stones known as baitulia – were early objects of cult worship in ancient Greece and were recorded from the earliest times. Some of those archaic Greek writers recall these stones were invested with divine and animated by it. Once anointed they even worked miracles on behalf of their supplicants and had a highly symbolic meaning for various ancient and primitive societies. In fact, their use may be regarded as a primaeval representation of sculpture – ‘a first attempt to invest the stone with more expressive power than chance and nature could give it’, according to Professor David Freedberg in his remarkably enlightening writing on the subject: The Power of Images.
Many people cannot refrain from picking up stones of a slightly unusual colour or shape and keeping them, without knowing why they do this. It is as if the stones hold a living mystery that fascinates us. Men have collected stones since the beginning of time and have apparently assumed that certain ones were the containers of the life force with all its mystery. In many prehistoric stone-sanctuaries, the ‘deity’ is represented not by a single stone but by a great many unhewn stones, arranged in distinct patterns. The geometrical stone alignments at Carnac in Brittany, the stone circles at Stonehenge and the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney are famous examples. Arrangements of rough natural stones also play a significant part in the highly sophisticated rock gardens of Zen Buddhism: although apparently haphazard, the stones in the Ryoanji temple in Japan are arranged to express a most refined spirituality. Or the stone labyrinths of Scandinavia.
‘Very early in history, men began trying to express what they felt to be the soul or spirit of a rock by working it into a recognisable form. In many cases, the form was a more or less approximation to the human figure – the ancient menhirs with their crude outlines of faces, or the hermae that developed out of boundary stones in ancient Greece, or the many of the stone idols with human features. The animation of the stone must be explained as the projection of a more or less distinct content of the unconscious into the stone.’ [Man and His Symbols]
David Freeberg reminds us that when the Greek traveller, Pausanius visited the well-known site of Pharai in Achaia, where about thirty square stones were worshipped as gods, he reflected that ‘in more ancient times, unworked stones were worshipped by all the Greeks, instead of images of the Gods’. It was Pausanius who provided us with the fullest range of references to these unworked stones (or argoi lithoi as they were called), and the baitulia, those meteoric stones, which fell from heaven – both of them classes of objects unformed by human hand and yet given divine status.
In Europe ‘holy’ stones wrapped in bark and hidden in caves have been found in many places; as a focus of divine power, they were probably kept there by people of the Stone Age. At the present time, some Australian aborigines believe that their dead ancestors continue to exist in stones as virtuous and divine powers, and that if they rub these stones, the power increases (like charging them with electricity) for the benefit of both the living and the dead. Even those of us in modern society still have the urge to possess certain stones. We bring them home and place them around the house or garden as symbols of people or happy times, and imbue them with a sense of person or place. Jung says that this animation of the stone can be explained as the projection of a more or less distinct content of the unconscious into the stone.
Animal images go back to the Ice Age and were discovered on the walls of caves in France and Spain at the end of the 19th-century, but it was not until early in the 20th-century that archaeologists began to realise their extreme importance and to inquire into their meaning. Even today, a strange magic seems to haunt the caves that contain these rock paintings and according to art historian Herbert Kühn, inhabitants of the areas in Africa, Spain, France and Scandinavia where such paintings are found, could not be induced to go near the caves. A kind of religious awe, or perhaps a fear of spirits hovering among the rocks, held them back. Which goes to prove that the caves with the animal paintings have always instinctively felt like what they originally were – religious places. The numen of the place have outlived the centuries and kept the profane away.
These pictures suggest a hunting magic like that still practiced by hunting tribes in Africa. A form of sympathetic magic, which is based on the ‘reality’ of a double represented in the picture. The underlying psychological fact is a strong identification between a living being and its image, which is considered to be the being’s soul. Some of the most interesting figures in the caves are those of semi-humans in animal disguise. In the Trois Freres caves in France, a man wrapped in an animal hide is playing a primitive flute. In the same cave is a dancing human with antlers, a horse’s head and bear’s paws and dominating a grouping of several hundred animals that Jung has described as a ‘bush soul’ (or second soul) that is incarnate in a wild animal or tree, with which an individual has some kind of psychic identity.
In the course of time, these disguises were superseded in many places by animal and/or demon masks and played an important part in the folk arts – such as the magnificently expressive masks of the ancient Japanese Noh drama which is still performed in modern Japan. The symbolic function of the mask is the same as that of the original animal disguise, according to Aniela Jaffé in Symbols in the Visual Arts, and that the animal motif is usually symbolic of man’s primitive and instinctual nature. A large number of myths are concerned with a primal animal, which must be sacrificed in the cause of fertility or even creation. One example of this is the sacrifice of a bull by the Persian sun-god Mithras, from which sprang the earth with all its wealth and fruitfulness.
‘The boundless profusion of animal symbolism in the religion and art of all times does not merely emphasise the importance of the symbol; it shows how vital it is for men to integrate into their lives the symbol’s psychic content – instinct.’ [Man and His Symbols]
The magical symbol of the animal is that which represents its most laudable characteristics and elevates it above all others – like the four beasts of venery: the hart, hare, boar and wolf – which distinguishes them from the ‘five beasts of the chase’ – the buck, does, fox, martin and roe. These images were allegorically used in artworks from the Middle Ages onwards in much the same way as the cave-art in prehistoric times.
Circles and spirals are some of the oldest images to be found in prehistoric rock art in the British Isles. A circle represents evolution as a process of transformation from death to birth, ending and beginning; a circle represents eternity and in many customs and spiritual beliefs represents the Divine life-force. The meaning of shapes and symbols meets us when and where we are ready to listen and learn. However, understanding the foundations of what a circle represents may invite investigation to explore the deeper meaning symbolism of the circle in our own life.
Circles, unlike every other shape in our reality, are not linear. There is no corner, edge, or ending to mark where one line ends and another one begins. This is important when looking at the broader symbolic meaning because this holds a lot of interpretations regarding the role that a circle plays in shaping our world. Circles hold and contain energy so that cycles of growth can exist within them. Just like a clock moving through time in a circular motion, we feel a sense that there is a beginning and end to the day; yet, time never begins or ends, it just keeps moving in a circle. Looking at the cosmos, we can see that everything moves in circles, and is shaped in spheres without beginning or end. No naturally occurring straight lines exist in space. Our entire Universe shifts and forms in the shape of a circle.
Spiritually, the circle represents a supernatural motion that keeps things moving continuously. A circle represents the Divine that keeps everything moving through spiritual law and order; on a smaller scale, a circle represents our own individual spiritual force that keeps us evolving. Symbolically, a circle represents the completion of cycles, transition, potential, and a movement that never ends towards self-realization. A circle protects against chaos and unpredictability, and invites an element of ‘trusting the Universe’. It symbolizes the natural order and progression that inspires us to keep going.
The spiral and triple spiral motif is a Neolithic symbol in Europe and the so-called Celtic triple spiral is in fact a pre-Celtic symbol. It is etched into the rock of a stone lozenge near the main entrance of the prehistoric Newgrange monument and carved at least 2,500 years before the Celts reached Ireland but has long since been incorporated into Celtic culture. This triskelion symbol, consisting of three interlocked spirals or three bent human legs, appears in many early cultures, including Mycenaean vessels; on coinage in Lycia, Pamphylia and Pisidia; as well as on the heraldic emblem on warriors’ shields depicted on Greek pottery.
Spirals can be found throughout pre-Columbian art in Latin and Central America. The more than 1,400 petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Las Plazuelas, Guanajuato Mexico, predominantly depict spirals, dot figures and scale models. In Colombia, monkey, frog and lizard-like figures depicted in petroglyphs or as gold offering frequently includes spirals, for example on the palms of hands. In Lower Central America spirals along with circles, wavy lines, crosses and points are universal petroglyphs characters. Spirals can also be found among the Nazca Lines in the coastal desert of Peru, dating from 200 BC to 500 AD; the geoglyphs number in the thousands and depict animals, plants and geometric motifs, including spirals.
We see that when one end of the spiral is reached, it is found to be the beginning of another. Try to follow the thread with the tip of a pencil and you will find that it is almost impossible to keep to an unbroken line. Within Qabalistic teaching, the spiral is the metaphor for magical knowledge because as soon as we think we’ve mastered the subject, we discovered another thread that pulls us deeper into another labyrinth – and out the other side onto another path. Each level of consciousness, each sephirah has its own spiral and the ‘wisdom’ comes when we understand that we could spend an entire lifetime investigating the different levels of Malkuth, for example, and still not come to the end of our studies.
The triskele gained popularity in its use within the Celtic culture from 500BC onwards. This archaic symbol is one of the most convoluted to decipher as symbolists believe it is reflective of many areas of culture from the time. Firstly, the triskele can be thought to represent motion as all three arms are positioned to make it appear as though it was moving outwards from its centre. Movement, or motion, is believed to signify energies, in particular within this symbol the motion of action, cycles, progress, revolution and competition. Secondly, and the more challenging area for symbolists, is the precise significance of the three arms of the triskele. These differences can be dependent on the era, culture, mythology and history, which is why there are so many variations of opinion as to what these three extensions in the triple spiral symbol mean.
Some of these connotations include the obvious: life-death-rebirth, spirit-mind-body, mother-father-child, past-present-future, power-intellect-love and creation-preservation-destruction to name but a few. It’s also been proposed that through the combination of these two areas we gain one meaning of the Celtic triskele. It is also believed to represent the idea of forward motion to reach understanding and to represent the three Celtic worlds; the spiritual, the present and the celestial. Like the ancient Trinity-knot, the number three holds a special symbolism within the triskele.
The ‘cross’ is possibly the most confusing of all Craft symbols, simply because it has become inextricably entwined with our persecutors! Nevertheless, the cross used within esoteric practice is much older, being the four-armed, heraldic, Greek or Minoan cross found in many ancient cultures predating Christianity. It is often interpreted as representing either the four seasons, four winds, four elements, or some other equal aspect of physical nature. Or, quaternity – an image with a four-fold structure, usually square or circular and symmetrical – psychologically it points to the idea of wholeness.
Archaeologist, Arthur Evans refers to the images of the Minoan cross being used in many cultures as the most simple representation of a star and concluded that the ‘geared object’ featured on excavated plaques is a combination of a morning star within the disc of the sun. He also claimed that the smaller object is a symbol for the goddess as the queen of the under-world and as the stars of the night; in combination with the crescent, the cross is then an evening star.
A solar cross, consisting of an equilateral cross inside a circle is frequently found in the symbolism of many prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory. The famous cross pattée is a type of equal-armed heraldic cross with arms that are narrow at the centre and often flared in a curve or straight-line shape, to be broader at the perimeter. The form appears very early in medieval art; as the red cross the Templars wore on their robes as a symbol of martyrdom, since to die in combat was considered a great honour that assured a place in heaven.
The cross-in-a-circle was interpreted as a solar symbol derived from the interpretation of the disc of the Sun as the wheel of the chariot of the Sun god. Karl Wieseler postulated a Gothic rune hvel represented the solar deity by the ‘wheel’ symbol of a cross-in-a-circle, reflected by the Gothic letter hwair. A wealth of symbolism in one, small shape …
When we begin to explore this impenetrable veil of symbolism we discover that very little in the natural, physical or metaphysical world is not matched with its own form of esoteric shorthand. Because of the complexity of magical jargon, a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship will be used instead of its ‘true’ meaning. Symbols allow witches to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences
It is an esoteric concept rather than an actual object and, like all esoteric symbols it represents knowledge, and the more knowledge we have the more of the symbol’s secrets we unlock. The amount of knowledge needed to understand esoteric symbolism, however, can border on staggering for the uninitiated, since the knowledge and science they represent is not taught outside of esoteric circles for a valid reason: because in almost every instance what people have been taught can be the exact opposite of the truth. And symbols and sigils, allegories and metaphors, are used as esoteric concepts because of the amount of encapsulated knowledge they represent which is not easily explainable to the layman.
Published by ignotus press uk : ISBN: 9781803021485Type: Paperback : Pages: 110 : Published: 10 September 2021 : Price £6.85 : Order direct from https://www.feedaread.com/books/Treasure-House-of-Images.aspx