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Symbols, Simple and Compound

March 11, 2012

Broadly speaking, symbols can be divided into two categories or orders: the simple symbol and the compound symbol. A bear is a simple symbol; so is a nightingale, a carnation, an ant, an emerald or a fountain. A compound symbol can be defined as a symbol composed of a collection of simple symbols. Compound symbols are almost exclusively found in art; in literature the whole of a compound symbol is not so often described, though the writer may intend, through the medium of the text, to stimulate the reader’s prior knowledge of the compound symbol he, or she, is referring to. The depictions of deities in painting and sculpture are a rich source of compound images.

In the first illustration below, Mars is shown accoutered for war; he is kitted out in a helmet and cuirass and is equipped with a battleax and a drawn sword. At his feet lie a ram and a scorpion, symbols of the zodiac signs he rules; the artist has helpfully included the astrological glyphs for the signs in his drawing. The astrological sigil for Mars is present also. The object that looks like a comet is in fact a representation of the planet Mars. We may mistake its appearance for a star with a tail either of flame or air; the artist intended to represent a star in motion. Remember that our ancestors thought of the planets as stars – as stars that moved as opposed to the other stars, which were designated fixed. The fixed stars, for all they may rise and set at different seasons of the year, do not alter their mutual relationships – Aldebaran is always at the center of the constellation Taurus and Regulus forever (from a human perspective) eighty degrees away from it in early Leo. The planets, on the other hand, wander (planet comes from a root meaning wanderer) throughout the entire zodiac, generally going forward but occasionally backtracking. Thus, while the Sun and Moon have individual symbolic representations (the crescent for the Moon, for instance), the five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, were represented as in the Mars illustration, by star shapes, often with some hint that the star is in motion. The number three appears in the illustration too. You may be puzzled to find it there. In the first post on this subject, I explained that the symbologist needed to be in possession of a great deal of knowledge, some of it arcane, some of it abstruse in the extreme. In this instance, the symbologist would instantly recognize that Mars ruled the third day of the week, Tuesday, and that this must be the connection. In the illustration, a series of key symbols associated with the god of war – the helmet and cuirass, the drawn sword, Aries, the ram, Scorpio, the scorpion, and the number three – are amalgamated to form a compound image that is unmistakably that of Mars.

The next compound symbol (see above) is that of Mercury. The god is depicted wearing a winged hat, with wings on his back and also wings on his heels. He carries a caduceus. This is a formalized and specialized adaption of the staff wielded in ancient Greece by a herald. It was used rather as we use a white flag to signal a truce. Anyone holding aloft the staff of a herald was automatically vouchsafed entry into the enemy camp. Usually he came bearing a message from one general to another. Mercury is the herald of the gods. More specifically, he is the herald of Jupiter (Greek, Zeus) the king of the gods. Mercury is able to travel to any part of the world and he undertakes his missions speedily, hence the wings. Mercury’s caduceus has two snakes on it. The snake has for centuries and in many lands been a symbol of wisdom and cunning. Even the Bible (Genesis 3:1) tells us, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” Those born under the dominion of Mercury can be either wise or cunning. Pythagoras had one incarnation in which he was acknowledged as the son of Hermes (the Greek Mercury). Pythagoras was known for his wisdom. Ulysses (Greek, Odysseus), another scion of Mercury, metaphorically if not literally, was renowned for his cunning, shrewdness and subtlety of thought. It was Ulysses who came up with the idea of using a wooden horse to penetrate the defenses of Troy. The image represents the qualities of Mercury in symbolic form. This type of image is sometimes called a pictograph.

The third image is that of Saturn. The god is shown in the upper half of the design. He carries a sickle, which performs the same function as a scythe. Saturn is the god of death and the sickle represents his power to cut down human beings just as corn is reaped by the farmer. His calves are bandaged and he supports himself on a stick. The planet Saturn moves slowly and so the god is shown as lame, not able to travel as fast as his fellow planets. On either side of his legs, in roundels, appear the symbols of his zodiac signs, Aquarius, the waterbearer, and Capricorn, the goat. Below him are humans engaged in activities associated with Saturn. In the lower right-hand corner can be made out (click image to enlarge) one man killing another – for, as said, Saturn is the god of death. Again, the whole design is a compound symbol representing the qualities and characteristics of a particular deity.

There is not one compound symbol for every deity; the compound symbols vary from age to age and from culture to culture. The fourth image also depicts Saturn, but here he carries a scythe and is seated in a wheeled vehicle drawn by dragons. Images of the planets generally formed part of a set. The set as a whole would have a certain tone to it. The first image of Saturn is from a set wherein the deity is placed in the upper register and figures enacting Saturn-ruled occupations are found in the lower register. The second image would have shown all the planetary deities in carriages or chariots, to denote that the planets have the power of movement, as discussed above. Each chariot would be pulled by an animal, real or mythological, associated with the planet – a lion for the Sun, for instance. Some sets of planetary compound symbols contain more detail than others, but all the images would have made sense within the parameters the individual artist had chosen to bound himself by. It is often necessary for beginners in the art of symbol interpretation to view all the images in a set in order to reach a full appreciation of the effect the artist was trying to achieve through his art.

The Tarot Trumps, so long as they adhere to the traditional forms, are composite symbols, or pictographs, of exactly this stamp. Some twentieth century Trump designs fall into this category also. Those of B.O.T.A., drawn to the instructions of Paul Foster Case, an adept if ever there was one, are excellent examples of modern Trumps that fulfill all the requirements allowing them to be dubbed pictographs. This is an aspect of symbology that I intend to return to later.

From → tarot

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