Birth day – Death day

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The idea of birthdays is a profound thing, especially if you do not believe in reincarnation. We celebrate our birth and the births of others annually, as if in a strange way we are reborn each year. Renewed with a new year of life. Birthdays are often taken to be a celebration of life, and if this is the case why do we not celebrate death. Is it not true that we are closer to the grave each year. The idea of celebrating death in western cultures is frowned upon. Death is not a particular subject people wish to discuss, it conjures up terror, a mystery and a faith of some kind. We celebrate life without any thought given to death, we receive gifts – as we are given the gift of life. We these gifts material and metaphysical are only to be taken away. 

I find it amusing that funerals are a celebration of the dead for the living. At the same time they are a celebration of a complete life having been lived. Graveyards are the same, they are built by the living for the living as a way of celebrating the dead. 

In Glasgow there is a large graveyard that sites on a hill overlooking part of the city, its known as the necropolis – Latin for city of the dead. If you ever get the chance to see it it is definitely worth a look. The site is covered in very large tombstones with glamorous monuments piercing the sky in a grandiose style. As if to declare look at how important I am how wealthy I am. And yet, they are dead. You can see there large names engraved on marble, there elegant statues and crypts and yet they crumble. They have long been forgotten, no flowers have been found here. What use has wealth for the dead. Glasgow’s necropolis is not only a beautiful place to visit but a philosophical adventure, were you learn about what death means to our past culture. 

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Fore thought

I woke up this morning and started singing Happy Birthday, and then I thought well why should we have a birthday instead of a death day. We do its called a funeral but we don’t sing ‘sad death day, sad death day, sad death day dear granny, sad death day to you’. Perhaps this just highlights the absurdity of birthdays or questions why funerals be sad and birthdays be happy, why birth over death. 

The Dove: a symbol of peace or paganism?

The dove in Christianity is often thought to symbolise hope and peace.

‘And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluck off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.’ Genesis 8:11

As in Genesis, when Noah sends a dove to search for land, when it returns with an olive leaf it has a deep symbolic meaning attached to it. The dove is believed to symbolise a hope of a promised land, but it could easily symbolise catastrophe and death by the flood. That in essence baptises the world, riding it of its sins. The olive leaf in the doves beak is symbolic of the riches of ancient civilisation. Today we don’t think much of olives as a sign of divine prosperity but to the Ancient Greeks it was ambrosia, the food of the gods. With it one could extract olive oil to light lamps, to cook with, and importantly to eat. It also has numerous medical benefits. At one time if someone cut down a olive tree in ancient Greece they would be sentenced to death, hence the valuable importance of this amazing plant. They named the home of their gods Mount Olympus, which means mountain of olives. And their Olympic games were the champion athletes would be crowned with laurel from an olive branch.

Athlete being awarded olive laurels as a reward

The dove brings back a sign of divine prosperity to Noah, but  they also represent the holy spirit. As in so many passages in the bible of doves descending. Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, John 1:32 and Mathew 3:16. The dove is symbolic of the descent of the holy spirit and has close connections with mother goddesses throughout ancient mythology.

Ishtar – Goddess of war, death and love

Ishtar the Mesopotamian goddess of war, death and love was constantly followed by a set of doves. Ishtar in essence became a template for other mother goddesses, such as Venus, Aphrodite and Fortuna, who were all often depicted with a dove. The Mother Mary is no exception to this, as the holy spirit, is Christianity’s way of personifying the mother earth goddess without being explicit. Hence why doves can be seen with Mary, especially during the Annunciation, were Mary is being told about her pregnancy.  As a result turtle doves, the white feathers symbolise purity as white was considered to be a divine colour of unobtainable perfection.

The Annunciation

The Bible not only contains passages of descending doves and olive leafs, it contains bloody sacrifices. Leviticus 1:14, 14:30 and Luke 2:24. The sacrifice has to be a burnt offering, and it must be aflame upon the alter. Who says the Bible isn’t pagan? The importance of these passages is that the burnt offering must be set alight. And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off its head, and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be drained out on the side of the altar.

This is why a dove is depicted with flames or with a burning light. Fire represents the holy spirit, much like the burning bush. For more interesting on the ritual go here http://www.bible-history.com/isbe/D/DOVE/. For a Christian website its surprising informed.

The dove being also a common symbol used to depict freedom, and a caged dove imprisonment. This is a common theme in films and can be seen in Burton’s Sleepy hollow. The caged bird represents determinism, while the free bird represents free will, the two diametrically opposed philosophies. Fate verses free will. Interestingly enough doves were considered wild birds and were only caged as pets and more commonly caged for sacrificial use. The dove being symbolic of the spirit.

The fiery spirit of the dove may have allusions to the phoenix, a bird born out of flames once it has perished to ash, symbolising rebirth and the immortality of spirit.

T. S. Elliot depicts the doves dynamic symbolism in this short poem. Here I will leave you to ponder what the dove means to you.

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

The Sign of Silence

As children often make noise, an adult will often tell us in a hushed tone ‘shhhhh’, placing their index finger to their mouth. This hand gesture is a sign of silence. But its origins have an obscurity to them. This gesture can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, with this hieroglyph meaning children or child.

Hieroglyphic Symbol for Child

This gesture of the hand raised to the mouth may indicate a hungry child, or the desire for the child to be fed. Either way this sign was incorporated into a symbol of Horus, who as a child was known to the ancient Greeks as Harpocrates, the child Horus. 

Horus was often used to depict time, and is heavenly connected with the sun. In the fifth Egyptian dynasty, Ra the solar deity merged with Horus to create Re-Horakhty, the sun of the two horizons.

 

Horizon, the word can be broken down to mean Horus – eye – sun. Horus loses this eye to his evil uncle set. Horus’s eye is symbol of the Sun. Horus is the god of Upper Egypt were the sun will rise, but Horus loses his eye (the sun) to Set who is ruler of Lower Egypt, were the sun sets. Hence the SET-ting sun. Our word for hour is a direct descendent from the word Horus, in Greek it began as ‘Hora’, and eventually became hour in English. As Horus who is a falcon would fly over the sky, as he is a sky god, like the sun he would cross over the sky from horizon to horizon. 

The index finger which in palmistry is known as the Jupiter finger, which is located between his father Saturn (middle finger) and his symbolic mother Venus (thumb) to represent the son/sun of these two figures. As Horus is the child of Osiris and Isis, and is a symbolic representation of the sun. 

The ancient Greeks saw this hand gesture differently, they interpreted as a gesture of silence and secrecy. The reason for this is uncertain, they may have misinterpreted this hand gesture as a way of stopping our lips from moving, or as a potential plug for the mouth. Either way they adopted a new understanding of the hand sign.

The Greeks invented the god Harpocrates due to their understanding of the Egyptians culture. Harpocrates was still connected with the Sun, this is most likely were the phrase ‘Silence is Golden’. Golden like the sun. And as children are often mischievous like Harpocrates they must remain silent like the sun to appease their parents. 

Harpocrates developed wings and become Harpocratic Eros, which in turn become Cupid. Cupid is linked specifically with being a child, and the connection with wings suggests the influence of Horus’s falcon wings, that spanned the sky. representing the young morning sun. 

 

 

Lady Luck and her Wheel of Fortune

Lady luck is is a phrase we use without much thought. She is often used with gambling, and decides the fate of those who are willing to risk their money for a fortune. It is incredible to think that so many of the gods from the ancients have disappeared  but for some reason lady luck has prevailed.

To understand its place in modern society we must cast our net of understanding back to the ancient Greeks. Moira is the personification of fate and she is made up of three sisters, collectively known as moirai. Clotho, were we get the word cloth from, spins the thread of life. The thread symbolises the fragile nature of our existence and what small part we play in the universe. As Clotho spins the thread Lachesis measures the length, decides before hand what our destiny is and how long our life is. Atropos would cut the thread, she would decided on the manner of a person death and what time it would come at. Her Roman equivalent is Morta, meaning Death.

The sickle that is used in portrayals of death during the middle ages is used to depict the harvesting of souls, and to cut their ‘thread’ of life.

Another Greek goddess that governed human affairs is Tyche. Her name essentially means ‘luck’, but her role is not always that of good she is equally bad as well. Nothing is left to chance everything is left to luck, and in this case Tyche. The Greeks and the Romans at the time were not particularly in favour of things occurring without side of someone’s or some-things control. The idea of chaos was a worrying thought, especially in stoic philosophy. We must remember that the world of the ancients was conceptually an entirely different place, they found it difficult to imagine a universe not governed by the gods, while for us in the 21st century the idea is commonplace. So the personification of fate seems to have had a very strong beginning, with numerous cults of Tyches springing up in the 4th Century. She retained a position that more of the traditional gods had declined in popularity.

The Moirai sisters became the three fates in Roman mythology, and Tyche became Fortuna.

Interestingly the coin flip we so often  use to make a distinction more than likely originates from the Romans, as their coins had Fortuna on the ‘Tails’ side and an emperors ‘Head’ on the other. The origin of the phrase heads or tails most likely refers to the top and bottom of an animal. In reference to coins the head is at the front, the desirable side and the tail of an animal or of someone’s coat is at the less desirable side. So we have a duality good and bad, and the coin flip is a perfect way for fortuna to decide for you.

Fortuna is often depicted with a wheel. As she spins the wheel ones fate changes, as we are symbolically tied to the wheel.

The four main stages of the wheel have different names. On the left the figure is regnabo (I shall reign), and on top of the wheel is regno (I reign).  On the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the at the bottom, the most unfortunate of all, sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom). The wheel is a popular symbol within world mythology, we have the wheel of Karma, which also turns deciding our fortune, and the solar wheel of Norse mythology which gives us the turning changes of the seasons and our fortunes.

During the Middle ages Rota Fortuna, the wheel of fortune was a very popular concept. One of my favourite depictions of it is in Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. He depicts Fortuna and personifies Philosophy, all in all its a great read. It was a standard text in Medieval Universities and incorporated a lot of ideas from Plato and Aristotle. A famous poem from the 13th century depicts the cruel fate which Fortuna has decided form him in ‘O Fortuna’. Carl Orff used the poem in a piece of classical music, which has become so popular and so deeply ingrained into pop culture that it has become instantly recognisable.

Interestingly enough a Catherine wheel was used during the middle ages as a form of torture.The wheel of fortune being the last place were they seal their fate, or for that matter select it.

I am reminded of the role and importance that the wheel has played in technology. Not only does it symbolise one of the greatest and earliest of inventions, its use has played a crucial role in technology. The most notable example in history is the Spinning Jenny, invented in 1764 and kick started the industrial revolution in Britain. As a result the luddites rebelled again the success and replacement of manual labour with machines. The Spinning Jenny was quiet literally a wheel of fortune, it gave profits to the company’s owners and bad luck to the workers who were laid off. The wheel – technology – brings fortune to some and bad luck to others. There is a price to pay with this kind of progress. The Omega man (1971), a film adaptation of Robert Matheson’s ‘I am Legend’. It is set in a post apocalyptic city, in which a prophet rightly named Matthius, blames technology for the worlds disasters, calling the protagonist, a scientist played by Charlton Heston, ‘a user of the wheel’.The film deals with the misuse of technology and how it can be used to do good and bad.

Lady luck has in recent years has been featured in films, novels and in comic strips.She has remained popular and has managed to transform herself throughout time to adapt herself to our own culture. I imagine on of the reasons why she remains so popular is due the fact that everybody questions fate, when good or bad fortune strikes us. Lady luck personifies perhaps one of the greatest and oldest questions in philosophy: Do we have fate or do we have free will? Is everything a result of chance or of order. I’ll let you flip a coin on that one.

Christian Hand signs

We often find in iconography and in stained glass windows in churches, of saints and Jesus using certain hand gestures. There is two in particular that are used a lot.

Both of these have a particular meaning within Christianity, The hand gesture on the right is used for benediction, which translates from Latin to mean ‘speak well’. This is used at the end of church service as a prayer and blessing. I am sure you will have this this hand gesture used to make the symbol of the cross in church services. Pointing up – ‘In the name of the father’ – now pointing down – ‘The son’ – the hand now sweeps from left to right – ‘and the holy spirit, amen’. This hand gesture is known as the hand of Benediction. Unfortunately this is also a disability, in which the index finger and the middle finger are unable to move due to damage of the median nerve.

I would like to draw your attention to the the use of the fingers in the hand of Benediction.In Palmistry the hand is mapped out with each finger assigned a particular planet. In order to understand the symbolic references of the fingers used we need to take into account what the fingers mean.

As we can see in this diagram, the thumb is known as Venus, the index finger – Jupiter, The middle finger – Saturn, the ring finger – Apollo, the little finger – mercury. We can use our understanding of the Roman Gods to understand why Christians use this particular hand gesture. I suppose the irony here is that we are using paganism to explain Christianity, this interpretation is correct if this hand map is older than when Christianity started using the sign of Benediction. Notice the fingers used for this hand gesture, and notice the hand that is being used. The right hand, it is always the right hand. Why? I hear you ask. The ancient Greeks were particularly superstitious of the left hand and generally anything that on the left side. This spread throughout the Roman empire, as the Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks for their culture. The left hand bias came with this. that is why we ‘w-right’, from left to right, when we are correct we are ‘right’. Our sense of liner time is from the left to the right. The right is in the future, it is part of our cultural heritage as a sign of progress. The left is the past, it is backwards and underdeveloped. This is why The right hand is used and why when giving Benediction it is from left to right with the right hand.

If we look at the hand of benediction we find that three digits are pointing up. They are pointing towards heaven, to God and symbolise the divine trinity. The tallest of the three fingers is the middle one – Saturn. If we understand the Roman Mythology is based on Greek mythology, we know that Chronos (Saturn) is the creator of the Titian’s, the old Greek Gods, who is the father of the second generation of Greek gods. Chronos and Gaia gave birth to Zeus (Jupiter), who is the son of Saturn. Aphrodite, (Venus) symbolises the divine feminine, as she is represented by the thumb. Which is lower down on the hand, and is unlike the other four fingers of the hand. By placing all the clues together we understand the hand of benediction like this; The father Saturn (Middle finger) represent the father, his son Jupiter (Index finger) represents the son. and the holy spirit is Venus, which is the divine female. As two becomes three. And the Child the index finger is in between the Father, the tallest/highest finger, and the mother, the lowest finger of the hand. The Father being father sky and the mother (Venus) being mother earth. And in between them both is their son. Jesus, in this case of the hand of benediction.

This hand represents the name of Jesus Christ. In Greek it is spelt ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, written using the English alphabet we get “ΙΗϹΟΥϹ ΧΡΙϹΤΟϹ”. The first letter and the last letter of each word, from left to right is written as ICXC. This known as a christogram, and is the abbreviated form of Jesus Christ. In the picture above we get each letter symbolised by the each finger. Jupiter (index finger) is pointing up, representing I. The middle finger curved to represent C, Apollo and Venus, (the thumb and ring finger) join together to form an X. This could represent the joining of heaven and earth, the meeting of father sky and mother earth. The little finger, mercury, represents another C. In iconography and in numerous paintings, sculptures and windows, Jesus will use this hand gesture, and basically it means his name, Jesus Christ.

Vesica Piscis

Vesica Piscis

The shape of this symbol will be most familiar to most Christians, as it will encapsulate either Jesus or the virgin Mary inside. In Christian Iconography it is termed as a Aureole or Mandorla, when the aura or halo covers an entire figure. An explanation for this is ‘the mandorla tends to be used for particular manifestations of God’s power, such as the Transfiguaration, Ascension, or Second Coming’. Richard Taylor explains in his Book ‘How to Read a Church’. This does not help us in understanding why it is shaped as it is or for that matter its actual pagan history as a sacred sign. Books like Taylor’s are heavily biased in presenting only favourable Christian symbols and deliberately leaving out the pagan origins. I have a lot of beef with How to Read a Church, mainly because it doesn’t do its job properly. Its audience will be largely Christian, but that should not stop the book resulting in wish-washy portrayal of some of the most fascinating symbols that Christianity endorses. It’s almost as bad as Raymond Buckland’s Signs and Symbols. Its one of the worst books you could ever get on symbolism. It explains nothing, nothing!

Vesica piscis is Latin for ‘fish bladder’, or the ‘passage of the fish’. AS part of its shape makes the Christian symbol of the fish. Fish in Greek translates as ‘ichthys’ which is an acronym for Jesus Christ.

Ichthys, the initials for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savoir

The shape of the two overlapping circles to create the almond shape. Taylor explains this as ‘Almonds are also associated with the Virgin Mary, because of their symbolism of divine flavour, the pure white of their blossom, and the womb-like shape of the almond’s nut’. And that ladies and gentlemen is as far as Taylor will go in explaining the pagan and sexual symbolism of this shape. The almond shape represents the vulva, it is a yonic symbol. (yoni is the female equivalent for phallus). The vesica piscis represents the birth passage of Mary and the divine feminine. It is associated with the waxing and the waning moon phases, the moon being a strong feminine element. Its link to the almond is its white blossom is the purity and holiness of this colour.

Virgin Mary in Vesica Piscis

Sacred geometry plays a significant feature here as well. The two circles overlapping can be used to create a hexagram and several equilateral triangles. The triangles have a divine aspect to them already, as they represent the perfection of God, the hexagram also has that sacred element to it, as the seventh space is located within the hexagon of the hexagram. Seven is a divine number. There are many other geometric anomalies that the vesica piscis has that I don’t have space for here.

Hexagram in Vesica Piscis

The link between the Virgin Mary and fish is an interesting one, besides the link between Jesus as a fish. Catholics have been known to eat fish on a Friday, ‘Friday’ comes from Freya/Frigg’s day from Norse mythology. It was common custom to eat fish on Fridays in honour of Freya, who was a Norse goddess of love. Fish are symbolic of the sea, and water is a feminine element. Think of the goddess Venus, who is depicted naked coming out of giant shellfish. Water-nymphs, selkies, mermaids and sirens are all commonly depicted as female water creatures. That have a strong female element to them, particularly a sexual one. They are half-fish and half-human.

The divine female passage that gives birth to life itself is flooded with light, a halo. This light represents the divine female wisdom, and gives the vulva a sense of sacredness and purity. It is also a fountain of youth in a sense, as this is were “water” is deposited (sperm) and comes forth a baby through the fountain, before the child passages through the “fish” the waters must break. Also urine passes out of the vulva, hence why it is a fountain and also a ‘fish bladder’. The ‘fons vitae’ is the fountain of life, or the fountain of youth. often linked to ‘aqua vitiae’, the water of life.

Fons Vitae – Fountain of life

The sexual symbolism behind this reveals that the two come together to produce life, the mystical journey in search of the fountain of youth is often carried out by knights or hero’s in search of its life giving properties. Now we can understand it in a completely different light. The vesica piscis is the passage for youth, and holy waters. I can give two interpretations of the meaning behind what the water is. Either the water is sperm to pregnant the female/fountain, or urine. Urine was a common medical cure among monastic monks during the middle ages. It is still being hailed as a medical cure today.

Medieval Urine Chart

A fascinating link between Christianity, urine therapy and the Vesica Piscis is when Jesus says in Proverbs 5:15, ‘Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well‘. I simply love the next few lines in Proverbs, 5:16-19, when he mentions ‘thy fountain’. I will leave you to ponder the meaning of Proverbs 5:18-19.

Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.

Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.

X Marks the Spot

It is often reported that ‘e’ is the most commonly used letter in the English alphabet. This is true when used for writing, but it is far from being popular as a symbol. ‘X’ or the ‘X mark’ is by far the most used letter in our language, and with it comes several different meanings. To refresh your mind let us consider when it is used. As a child your work would have been ‘marked’ by a teacher sometimes with an x when you got an answer wrong. Large clothes have the sign XL, XXL for the larger person. Pornography uses the letters X in their titles to symbolise that their films are ‘X rated’. In times gone by when illiteracy was common, people who couldn’t write would sign X on a document. According to popular lore, pirates would mark their treasure with an X, hence X marks the spot. In recent time, pop culture has delivered us such terms as Xmas, eX, with eXits. We have the X-men, with X-rays. x means multiplication, a rotated cross, a kiss in a text message. Death or danger is marked with an X. WE have been marked by generation -x. In the past alcohol was marked by its strength by X’s, XXX being the most strongest of beverages. In algebra it means unknown quantity. In Roman numerals it means ten. X has also meant something unknown, a missing person for example. We have eXtraterrestrials,  XX chromosomes for females, XY for males. We have eXopolitics, eXorcisms and exodus.

I think I have made my point, we live in an Xtra-ordinary world. Let us look at some of the numerical uses of the mark X. In Hebrew it is the alphabet, having a numerical value of 1. It is lily the Romans used this to signify 10. Our pronunciation of X -‘ex’. Is linked with the Greek ‘hex’ or ‘hexa’. this means six, in Greek the letters had a numerical value, X (chi) is 600.  X was also written as ‘xi’. Which in Roman numerals means six.

In Latin ‘ex’ is used to mean in or of something. In English the prefix – ex, means the former, out of or from. In my previous blogs I have linked the number six with the word sex, through the use of triangles. If we look at two chevrons, incomplete triangles, one V with an inverted V on the bottom, with both their points touching each other we get a whole new meaning to X. X can mean the female (V) meeting the male (inverted V). The meeting of two humans, face to face. They meet at the X-spot. This is even more symbolic if have a circle with an X inside. X or the cross has been used to denote matter, (masculinity) while the circle means spirit (femininity). X can also be used to interpret the four elements, which are often depicted as triangles. They have combined together, and in the centre we have the spot. The exact point which has the most power. This point would be a place where the fifth element would be located, in-between the four other elements. The quinta essentia, is the element that hermetic philosophers and alchemists would search for, and was often hinted at in symbols throughout alchemical texts. 

In the tarot the tenth card (X) is the wheel of fortune, rota  fortuna. Deals with the changing rhythm of fortune. Often depicted as lady luck, it can also symbolise the wheel of karma, or the solar cross of Norse mythology.

Perhaps this is the best way to described at present what X means, 10 can be read to symbolise 1 (matter, phallus) and 0 (absence/spirit, vulva). The duality of the two combined to create a divine number. The meeting of the male and the female.

The interpretations I have offer here are only scratching the surface of the meaning of X. Its use in culture has increased in recent times, one of the few methods we have to understand its prevalence is to look at its origins and its transformative use throughout time.