Symbols I

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading John Crowley’s Aegypt (now called The Solitudes). Even after many moves where piles of books had to be sold or given away, the books in this series have always stayed with me.

They are so full, you see. Full of symbols, full of twists and turns, full of arcane references. Real historical personages from the Renaissance like Hermetic philosopher and mathematician John Dee and cosmologist and occultist Giordano Bruno appear alongside William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I as well as Crowley’s fictional characters.

In this first book in the tetralogy, one important group of symbols is the signs of the zodiac, particularly in relation to Christianity and the falling away of paganism. In a conversation with the main character, Pierce, someone describes the precession of the equinoxes:

“Astronomically speaking pretty soon, a coupled hundred years or so–the sun will begin to rise in the sign of Aquarius. Thus the end of the Piscean Age, that started two-thousand-odd years ago, and the beginning of the Age of Aquarius.”

Two thousand years ago, the Piscean age, the world shifts from B.C. to A.D. Jesus. And Jesus was a fish.

Oh. “Oh,” said Pierce.

“Always precedes, you see,” Earl said dreamily. “Precedes. Before Pisces was Aries the ram, and before that Taurus the bull, and so on.”

Moses had ram’s horns, who overthrew the golden bull-calf. And then comes Jesus the fish, two thousand years on, new heaven and new earth, and shepherd Pan flees from the mountainsides. And now the world watched and waited for the man with the water jug. (1)

Now, Rudolf Steiner had a lot to say about astrology, and Christianity, and the evolution of human civilization and consciousness and how they are all related. He believed that certain civilizations represent the pinnacle or exemplum of each age, and that these civilizations also represent the stages of human consciousness, both on a macro level of human evolution, and on the micro level of individual development through life (this is partly why the stories of certain cultures are included in the curricula for specific ages in Waldorf methods):

The advance of civilizations is also connected with the progression of the sun from one constellation to the other….

At the time when the sun rose in the constellation of Cancer the ancient Vedic culture of the Indians, the culture of the Rishis reached its highest point. The Rishis, those still half-divine beings, were the teachers of men….

The second cultural epoch is named the constellation of the Twins. At that time the dual nature of the world was understood, the opposing forces of the world, Ormuzd and Ahriman, Good and Evil. Thus the Persians also speak of the Twins.

The third cultural epoch is that of the Sumerians in Asia Minor and of the Egyptians. The constellation of the Bull corresponds to this epoch. This is why in Asia the Bull was venerated and in Egypt, Apis….

The fourth culture is that of the Ram, or Lamb; Christ stands in the sign of the Ram, or Lamb; hence he calls himself the Lamb of God.

As fifth culture the external materialistic civilization follows, in the constellation of the Fishes. This developed principally from the 12th century onwards and reached its climax about the year 1800.

In the constellation of the Water-Man in the future, the new Christianity will be proclaimed. ‘Water-Man’ is also the one who will bring it, he who has already been here: John the Baptist. (2)

So, what are we to do with all this? Are these merely coincidences, or artifacts of the human desire to make sense of the world? Or are these symbols representations of some deeper meaning, some illimitable truth? There are so many symbols in Christianity: the cross, the fishes, the lamb. Do we simply pick the one that fits our current system, or is the fish truly the “right” one for what Jesus represents cosmically?

And what can we make of the Age of Aquarius, the Water-bearer? Does he already appear in one of our greatest books?

Jesus sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” (3)

I think I’ll do a few more posts on symbols…gives me a chance to plunder more awesome online medieval art!

(1) John Crowley, Aegypt, Bantam Books, 1987.
(2) Rudolf Steiner, Foundations of Esotericism, Lecture 8, Berlin, October 3, 190
(3) Mark 14:12-15



Filed under art, Books, Deep Thoughts, Religion, Symbols

10 responses to “Symbols I

  1. This is so interesting. You’ve definitely given me so much to think about here. I’ve written and erased so many sentences from this comment. I might as well say that I probably don’t understand enough about astrology to make any kind of intelligent comment regarding the questions you raised. 😉 I love the medieval art though.

  2. Eve

    Is this the first book in the series, or whatever it is? I looked at Amazon but am too lazy to figure it out; I want you to hold my hand and tell me, “Yes, order this one; but order that one as well.” Or whatnot. OK? Please, and thank you.

    I’ve been doing some reading on archetypal astrology and psychology. There are many eminent psychologists and psychiatrists who believe in and practice astrology as a helpful science and art; Jung actually found empirical evidence that astrological charts were as accurate for predicting personality as bona fide scientific tests of personality or temperament.

    This is an interesting post, as I’ve done quite a bit of reading in the subject myself (enough that I can look at a person’s natal chart and conjure up some oohs and aaahs).

    I love what you wrote about Aquarius, the water-bearer. Beautiful.

  3. Dawn: It’s a complex subject! I’m inspired to write more posts on symbolism, and of course there are tons of Christian symbols to work with.

    Eve: The Solitudes is the first in the Aegypt cycle. Next comes Love & Sleep, then Daemonomania, then Endless Things, which I have not yet read.

  4. But then one looks at all this from the perspective of a single Hindu kalpa (billions of years!)

    I did do a fair bit of astrology myself at one point and also found it interestingly relevant – but blind empirical testing (I don’t know where Jung got his data from) hasn’t been so robust. Similarly with MBTI (also based on Jung’s symbols) – a great beginning point for careers counselling but with very poor validity as an actual predictor of success on a given path.

    However, as a devout post-modernist, I’ve got no problems whatsoever with the use of astrology for sense-making in one’s daily life – it certainly makes as much sense as most empirical social research, the tendency of which is to reduce people to equally meaningless identikit stereotypes. At least ‘properly’ calculated natal charts allow for complete individualism and dynamic development. Sorry, I could go on and on.

    Do you know Frances Yates’ book of Giordano Bruno?

  5. morning! Don’t have a lot of time but just wanted to let you know I enjoy reading these posts and really appreciate that you are sharing this info! Thanks mucho!

  6. URD: Probably these things are symbols for other things that repeat over and over throughout the yugas and kalpas! Though some would say that Jesus was pretty singular. I would agree that things like astrology can be a good foundation for self-reflection, but not necessarily something to predict the future exactly. I’m not willing to give up the idea of free will.

    I haven’t read Dame Yates but Crowley does mention her in his books. I’ll have to look it up.

  7. I’m in town, and I wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying reading your posts … especially this one, off line. Pondering this as I look out on the water tonight.

  8. Eve

    Ah, I see URD is up there wondering where Jung got his empirical data for (if I read correctly) his research into astrology. I have that somewhere fairly handy, because I have the Collected Works and I’m pretty sure it’s in there.

    Heni, I just received the “The Solitudes” in the mail today, so am going to read it soon. Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. Nana

    This is a thought provoking post. But I’m curious about one thing. The epochs you referred to went from Cancer to Gemini to Taurus to Aries to Pisces and to a future Aquarius. This appears to be a backward progression as modern astrologists consider Aries the Ram to be the first sign of the Zodiac. Thus, it would be more appropriate to move from Aries to Taurus to Gemini to Cancer, then Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn and finally to Aquarius and Pisces. Hmmmm.

    Natal charts can be very informative, especially for those of us who believe we have chosen when to be born.

    A good discussion would reflect on those born on the cusp. Is life more confusing for these folks? Do they tend to be more indecisive? Hmmmm.

  10. Nana: That’s a good question. The progression of the epochs is based on the precession of the equinoxes, so it is “backwards” from the normal progression of the signs because of the way the equinox slips back.

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