Alchemical symbols

Why You Need to Know About Symbols and Archetypes


Why you need to know about symbols and archetypes
sym•bol sĭm′bəl
Noun A thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.
(Oxford Lexico)
ar•che•type är′kĭ-tīp″
: the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies : prototype
(Mirriam Webster)

If it’s true that a picture tells  a thousand words, then it’s certainly true for symbols, archetypes and their depictions.
Not only can they tell a thousand words, but they can also communicate ideas that words fail to express altogether, no matter how well chosen and strung together.
I have chosen to dedicate a whole section of my blog to this subject and I decided to write this introductory article with one basic question in mind: why are symbols and archetypes important?
Images of power, laden with encoded meanings and bridging the psychic and material dimensions, they are a central influence to the human mind, thought and behaviour.
Such images are symbols and archetypes. I use these two words with a degree of interchangeability because the point is that both are vehicles for connecting and/or expressing what cannot be said.
Rather than operating at the level where ordinary ideas can be understood, they operate at the same level where art, dreams and mystical experiences happen, deep inside our minds.
At that level, it really doesn’t matter what you call them.

Hidden transcendental messages

The ancestral wisdom that has reached us down the ages, is overwhelmingly encoded in visual art and myth.
The message of a work of art in general, is often hidden, either on purpose or by necessity, since the word is not a good medium to express certain ideas.
To connect directly with an image doesn’t just mean to have a deeper connection with a painting in an art gallery, but also to qualify for access to the vast repository of ancestral symbolism handed down the ages.

The Egyptian winged scarab. Representing the self begotten, a symbol of the ultimate divinity that comes into being of itself. The same meaning is sometimes represented with the “cosmic egg”.

The meanings hidden within the sacred art of ancient civilizations, including transcendental symbols, such as the world tree, the vajra, the klein bottle (which is not ancient but still delivers a visual-only insight) or the Mexican ollin or swastika are only available through the visual medium.
What is encoded in a hieroglyph or a tarot card?
Why are most depictions of ancient gods either anthropomorphic (human-like) or therianthropic (half human and half animal)?
Some believe, that rather like in our Judaeo-Christian tradition, earlier cultures projected onto the transcendental, the forces they experienced in ordinary life, to the point of imagining a god that is suspiciously similar to an Assyrian king.
On the contrary, I believe that they perceived those deities as abstract forces first and then used the imagery that would represent them the most on a symbolic level.
Therianthropic figures are very important in a lot of ancient art, from that of the palaeolithic, to that of ancient Mexico, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and many others.
To me, to find these as powerful symbols in the art of these post hunter-gatherer cultures, is evidence that they were holding on to the sensibilities of their hunter gatherer ancestors, who were and still are amazing observers of the natural world.
I have visited indigenous peoples in Colombia and Namibia, including the San bushmen whose culture is considered to be 100,000 years old.
The spirits of nature that are central to their world view, become tangible in the form of archetypes.

The stupa, representation of the buddha energy, orderly, stacked, coarser at the bottom and finer at the top. It was worshipped as a manifestation of buddhahood long before effigies of the Buddha became a thing.

Each animal and natural phenomenon exists in the spirit world as a single archetype. The spirit of the eland, that of the jaguar, that of wind and so on.
They show respect and pay tribute to these spirits so that they may sustain them in the physical world. The relationship between them and the natural spirit/archetypes lives in ritual, in art and in the oral traditions.
In the stories of the San, whenever there’s mischief involved, a spring hare is always nearby.
In Latin America, the jaguar is always the wise hunter, coming to earth from its abode in the spirit world.
In ancient Egypt, the baboon was synonymous with contemplation and was one of the two earthly manifestations of Thoth, the Egyptian god of all wisdom and knowledge.

Visual thinking

The subject of symbols and archetypes isn’t just important to connect with the ancient wisdom, in fact they are even more important as the catalysts of visual thought and the ability to see patterns, systems and processes that are hidden from view.
In leadership and project management, having a “vision” is the main ingredient of a successful enterprise.
Spiritual gurus talk about “opening one’s eyes” and “waking up” to what is staring us in the face.
So what are these visions that are staring us in the face that we should be waking up to?
Growing up in Sicily, from an early age I had a subliminal encouragement to think visually, since Sicilian culture is especially rich in proverbs and it generally prefers figurative language to rigid matter-of-fact language.
It much prefers to leave things unsaid, adding a bit of poetry and crypticness whenever possible and to spell things out completely can be considered coarse.
My dad especially, was a great proponent of this style of communication and any time he had something important to say to me, he’d simply recite a proverb or make a metaphor and just leave it there.
By leaving me hanging like that, with nothing other than a solemnly painted image, I either had to try and see it, with all its nuances, or give up trying to understand him every time he said something important.
Over the years, a certain internal process began to take place when a thought was born in my head. The ingredients of what would eventually become a thought, would start to arrange themselves into a pattern. Once the pattern was completed, it would manifest itself as a unified and self contained thought-image.

The Ollin and the Swastika. Symbols for process of manifested existence from opposite ends of the ancient world.

As an adult, I began to look at the world with more receptive eyes and to see things as factors that came together into a pattern or resembled an archetype. I solidified this way of thinking when I began to run my own business, so that I could run it with a well thought out system rather than changing the strategy depending on how I got out of bed that morning.
As you can imagine, this kind of thinking spends most of the energy in visualization, so then verbalising it can be a struggle.
On top of that, the image/pattern is often fleeting and as you try to find the best words to verbalise it, the image can disappear. I’ve been there many times.
As I reflect on how I was raised on a diet of abstract communication, I remember how, over the years, I gradually accumulated an inner vocabulary of symbolic imagery.
That way I developed the (sometimes infuriating to others)  habit of explaining a complex pattern or system by way of metaphor.
Why does an invisible pattern match pretty much exactly with a mundane image, I couldn’t possibly say.
What I do know, is that the sages of the ancient world were well aware of this and they summarised it into an old tenet which also made its way into the Lord’s Prayer: as above so below.

Verbal thinking

Serpents and Double serpents. Compare burial stone from San Augustin in Colombia with the Hermes staff; the third eye serpent in Egyptian art, aura of serpents in Indian art. The serpent represents the life and creative energy, polarised when double.

By pure coincidence, even as I was planning to write this article, I learned something unexpected.
A few days ago, I was having a conversation with my dear friend Leanne, who told me she’d seen a discussion thread on Reddit that had captured her imagination.
The post was on one of her favourite Reddit columns: Showerthoughts.
The thread was titled: “What is Thought Without Language?”. To be honest I would have looked right past that thread, but my friend was utterly convinced that the question was raising a very valid point, but alas it was going right over my head.
I argued that language is irrelevant to thought and is primarily a way to express oneself. Come to think of it, language isn’t even the only form of communication that there is, it just happens to be the means of communication that us humans are used to.
Again, my friend totally saw where the author of the post was coming from and she said, “surely everybody thinks in words”.
There’s when I had a eureka moment: a lot of people must be verbal thinkers.
Subsequently, I tried to go back to that discussion thread on Reddit to see what kind of percentage split there was between verbal and non-verbal thinkers.
The post was completely buried since a few days had passed, so I began to dig around to find it and that’s when I got an almighty surprise.
Can we think without words” was a question that was asked an infinite number of times on the internet and obviously something that people have been pondering for a very long time.
To add to my great surprise, most contributors to these discussion threads were verbal-only thinkers and were all trying to imagine what thinking would be like without words. Somebody was asking: what about those who think only in language and have a poor vocabulary? Great point, I thought.
It continues to amaze me how, since I became a writer, random bits of very useful insight seem to find their way to me just at the right moment.

Verbal thinking vs visual thinking

Visual thinking in my opinion has many benefits and only one drawback.
On the one hand it makes one’s verbal fluidity a bit hit and miss, but on the other, thoughts
can contain a much larger amount of information and insights.
Can you imagine how much meaning your text messages would lose if you didn’t have emojis?
Images and patterns tend to be more reliable because words are a minefield at the best of times.
Visual thought can get you on the same wavelength as the authors of petroglyphs, tarots, myths and ancestral religious imagery which often express something way too deep and slippery to be communicated with words.

Important examples

One of the pieces of ancestral mystical thought I couldn’t resist bringing you is the alchemical Magnum Opus: the transformation of lead into gold.
The point is not the gold itself, it’s a metaphor to acquire a different form of wealth: the wealth of the soul.
The idea is: your archetypal image begins as lead: dull, cheap and poisonous.
In the course of many lifetimes, through a series of processes which involve a lot of effort and sacrifice, you will put to bed your “lead” way of life and you are reborn as gold, a step that is symbolised with the rising of the phoenix.
Like the Buddhists say: “without mud, there is no lotus”.
Likewise alchemists knew that the human heart begins its journey by going black. All the lies that one ends up telling, all the jealousy, all the hedonism, the cowardice, the selfishness, laziness and weakness, all blacken the heart.
However there is a divine nature within each human heart, so somewhere along the way, this heart will tire of all the BS and will begin to drop it.
In the end, an act of courage and sacrifice to love will spell the end for the old heart and it will be reborn in the majesty of fire as a phoenix.
Of course, much is lost in describing it in such a matter of fact way.

Another couple of examples I want to make, involve the tarot.
The tarot is fascinating. It’s like a western version of the I-Ching, but with imagery rather than numbers.
They are laden with layers of meaning, around the relationship between the individual, their inner world, their choices and the natural.
Let’s take for example the tower card. In the image we see a lightning bolt destroying a tower as the rich men who were inside come tumbling down. To emphasise the point, a crown that stood on top of the tower is toppled.
Straight away we see themes of achievement vulnerable to impermanence, of pride, of heedlessness, of attachment and painful loss, a losing bet on the horse of false power, even though it seemed to be a winner.
A tower is a symbol for anything that is man-made, takes a lot of effort to build and gives you an impressive view when you’re at the top. A reputation, a money empire, a dynasty, are all different examples of towers.
The basic idea is that towers topple under the lightning bolt of impermanence. The taller you build them; the bigger will be the inevitable loss.
Impermanence is a good thing as without it there can be no transformation. Transformation is evolution and is a necessary consequence of the flowing nature of the universe.
It’s so inevitable that it’s better to get used to the idea and live it as an asset rather than a threat.
So, as Bruce Lee said: be water my friend, because it flows and as such it doesn’t care about impermanence, it enjoys its own adventure of flow without need to build towers to feel important.
On the contrary, can somebody be toppled from a tower if her feet are firmly on the ground?
What loss can someone with nothing to lose endure?
Can you focus on building towers and notice the little treasures in life?
What is the lot of a creature for whom impermanence and loss are unavoidable?
So, is it wrong to build towers? Towers are great and it does sound like a lot of fun to build one.
But perhaps don’t build them as if they’re going to last forever, as external achievements are perishable.
The tower tarot also includes a message of heedlessness. Those men could well have been pictured as moving on of their own accord, had they been more aware of impermanence and sought enjoyment from simpler things, but they got too attached to their tower and as a result, shared its fate.

Another example is the chariot tarot card.
To me, the chariot represents the power (pictured as a vehicle) that the universe will lend to an individual who has learned to use his inner gifts and wants to use them.
In the picture we see a charioteer: you.
Most of the symbols on the actual chariot are symbols of divinity. Particularly in this version the chariot is drawn by two sphynxes rather than horses or oxen. These sphynxes are polar opposites and are unbridled. What does it all mean?
To drive forward, the chariot requires the coming together of the polarised divine energy. The heart with the brain, the masculine with the feminine, assertiveness with gentleness, spontaneity with calculation, faith with a plan and so on and so forth.
The divine sphynxes, can’t be coerced and won’t be bridled. They are a symbol of Horus, who in turn is a symbol of spiritual self realization.

You must be a pretty great guy for them to be persuaded to take you where you want to go, for that you must use all of the best human qualities that you possess, such as that star you’ve got on your head and all that magical armour you’re wearing.
However, be very wary of trying to be clever. For you can learn the way and the chariot will take you but where?
You still need to choose the route and the destination.
Will you choose wisely? Or will you head for trouble? Will it be a journey that you will regret? Be careful what you wish for.
In Star Wars, the chariot is the force. The Sith have learnt to use is as well as the Jedi. Their training is just as good as the Jedi’s. What sets them apart is not their competence or their training, but their choices. Those choices have defined who they are and ultimately, where they are heading.
All this and more is all coming out of an image, a single depiction of an archetypal energy.
So the charioteer is able to call upon the help of the divine, but if he’s trying to be clever, the divinity will help him to hang himself with his own rope.
As the energy of enterprise, the chariot is a vehicle that can help a person to fulfil a dream project but at the same time, it can help them make an almighty mess, if their heart and ideas aren’t in the right place.

Insight into one’s own life

Symbols and archetypes are also important, because they help you to recognise what patterns apply to your life, so you can make your choices accordingly.
When those hidden patterns are revealed, it’s a lot easier to understand where one is going.
So if for example your life is following a pattern of a dog chasing its tail, you’ll want to know, because you probably don’t want that.
If the archetype that’s building up is the train crash that’s about to happen, you need to know, because you don’t want to find out when the crash has already happened, but beforehand, so you can do a heroic jump out of the train window.
Every project lived deliberately, including life, needs a vision into which to realise.
So whether you want your story to be that of a humble acorn that flowers into a mighty oak, a cog inside a mechanism or a hummingbird that lives day by day, it is the cultivation of that vision that allows a lifetime of action to be deliberate.
Of course, it’s your own choice whether to live deliberately or accidentally and it’s a separate discussion.
Personally, when I look at the duality of man and the world, I see mainly a setup to make choices and the responsibility for those choices follows you around regardless.
So, to live deliberately and take responsibility, to stay away from the victim’s mentality that always blames “the other”, are all part of one single life philosophy.

Interesting books on symbols and archetypes 

I guess my article would not be complete without leaving you some form of further reading.
I don’t believe that books are there to teach you how to live, but reading is nice.
Here’s just a handful of titles that I found incredibly inspiring and most importantly, readable, since I couldn’t bring myself to recommend to you books that I was too bored to read myself.

The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts
by Susan Brind Morrow

American author Susan Brind Morrow is not just a scholar, but a very interesting person with a very interesting life.
I read both this book and the autobiographical The Names of Things, that tells the story of the incredible journeys of discovery of her youth.
The Dawning Moon of the Mind is primarily a translation of the Pyramid Texts, but it gives all the necessary background on the marvellously poetic mystical philosophy and symbolism of ancient Egypt.

Burning water: Thought and religion in ancient Mexico
by Laurette Séjourné

Thought and Religion of ancient Mexico are as interesting to me, if not more so, than all other traditions.
Yet, to love this subject, means to put up with a frustrating lack of good books on the subject.
Whereas you can fill a whole bookcase with masterpieces written on the wisdom of India, it really is a struggle to find books on the ancient philosophies of the Americas, even if you speak Spanish.
A happy accident whilst I was in Rome got me acquainted with the work of Laurette Sejourne, in particular with Burning Water.
The book is perfect and credible as a compendium of the main religious symbolism of ancient Mexico and the cultural and social context in which it existed.

The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious
C.G. Jung

If you wanted to answer the question: “what are the most deep seated ideas that influence human thought and behaviour?” you’d do well to study the work of a modern giant in the understanding of what makes humans tick: Carl Gustav Jung.
Unlike the other works that I have suggested, The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious is examining the human mind from our own perspective: western culture and it delves deeply into the archetypes that influence us today.

The Symbolism Of The Tarot
P.D. Ouspensky

Since we mentioned the Tarot earlier, I decided to add a wildcard in the form of The Symbolism Of The Tarot by P.D. Ouspensky.
Ouspensky was the main disciple of one of the greatest mystics of the modern era: G.I. Gurdjieff.
There are many guides to the interpretation of tarot out there and if you come by a set, it’ll probably come with one anyway, but if you’re on the lookout for a guide to the tarot, you may as well get his.

Image Attribution

“16 The Tower” by n0cturbulous is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“7 The Chariot” by n0cturbulous is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“Golden Mask of Psusennes I” by Tjflex2 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Caduceus” by Eva the Weaver is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
en:Rpba, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“File:Egyptian winged scarab beetle.jpg” by Ca.garcia.s is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Alchemical symbols Credit: Background vector created by freepik –

The stupa, representation of the buddha energy, orderly, stacked, coarser at the bottom and finer at the top. It was worshipped as a manifestation of buddhahood long before effigies of the Buddha became a thing.
CREDIT: Federico Zanetti

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