THE BODY AS A SACRED MAPAdded: 09 June 2017
The Adam’s apple is actually a protruding piece of thyroid cartilage that develops at puberty, but only in the male. It is so-called because it is said to symbolize the piece of the apple of knowledge that got stuck in Adam’s throat after Eve, encouraged by the serpent, coaxed him into eating the fruit.
The Adam’s apple can be a bit of a pain in the neck for transsexuals, cross-dressers, and female impersonators, since it can be the one giveaway sign that the apparently well-dressed lady is in fact a gentleman. The offending lump can, however, be removed by surgery.
ARM Arms convey the idea of strength and protection. They also stand for safety and justice, as in “the strong arm of the law.”
Some deities have more than the usual two arms. Brahma, for example, is depicted with four arms to show his omnipotence. Shiva, too, shows innumerable arms as a symbol of his action, energy, and accomplishment. This idea-that the arms signify activity-was shared by the Egyptians, and they used the arm to convey this concept in their hieroglyphs.
Blood and its color are inextricably linked, one the symbol of the other, the red standing for life, energy, vitality, and the element of fire and (by association) the Sun: all the attributes of blood too.
For early man, the link between the color and the life-giving properties of blood were so powerful that some burial rituals included the corpse being daubed in red powders and unguents, an example of sympathetic magic in the hope that the red color would be enough to restore the soul to life. An example of this can be found in the ritual burial of a young tribal chieftain at the Paviland Caves in South Wales.
Blood is symbolic of the idea of kinship, and to speak of a “blood line” refers to generations of the same family. The term “blue blood” as a description of the aristocracy came about because the veins of the nobility showed through their pale skin because they were unused to manual labor or exposure to the elements. Menstrual blood, since it comes from that most sacred of places, the womb, is accorded with particular magical power and is symbolic of feminine energy and the Moon. This particular blood was used in rites and ceremonies since it was believed to have the most potently charged magic of any kind of blood. Tantric practices say that a man can become spiritually empowered if he drinks menstrual blood. This is symbolic of him accepting female power in addition to his own male energy. Blood is used as ink in magical rites, to imbue certain words and names with vitality. Ritual spilling of blood, in the form of sacrifice, was believed to propitiate the Gods, and where blood is deliberately spilled on the Earth-as in some of the ancient harvest rituals-it is believed to bring fertility. Similarly, we speak of the spilling of blood during a war as being a sacrifice to the greater good, a noble and courageous act. One of the major symbolic elements of the Christian mass is the sharing of the blood of Christ. The red wine held in the chalice is believed by some Catholics to change into the actual blood of Christ by the act of transubstantiation; for Protestants, it is enough that the wine is symbolic of the holy blood.
As well as giving structure to the body, bones survive for a long time after death, and so are imbued with magical properties. Symbolically, bones carry the essence of the creature that they were once a part of, and there’s a curious but relatively common belief that somehow or other an intact set of bones can be remade into a live body. The human body contains one bone that has particular relevance as a sacred symbol, and its name gives it away. In Latin, sacrum means “sacred,” and the bone of the same name is the large, curved, and heavy one that sits at the base of the spine. This particular bone was sacred for the Greeks, too, who called it the hieros osteon. Hieros means not only “sacred,” but “temple.” Osteon means “bone.” Therefore this sacred bone acts as a temple to other sacred parts of the anatomy, namely the reproductive parts. In Ancient Egypt the bone was sacred to Osiris and as the “seed” bone was the key to resurrection, since it protected the semen.
Because of its size, the bone is one of the very last in the body to rot, along with the skull. For this reason-its longevity-the bone was used as a vessel during religious and magical rites and rituals.
Clearly, the breast is the symbol of motherhood, the female principle, comfort, nourishment, and abundance. It is also a symbol of beauty and of fertility. The breast is the first point of contact for the newborn baby as he suckles his first food, milk, hence the primal nature of the breast as a symbol. The Egyptians believed that the stars of the Milky Way were milk spilling from the breasts of the Moon Goddess, who was the source of all the other stars, too. The right breast is said to represent the Sun, and the left, the Moon.
In Hebrew, the word for “breast” is the same as for “girl” and also “liquid measure.” This indicates the idea of the breast as a symbol of restriction, since any measurement must necessarily be finite.
Chakra is a Sanskrit word, meaning “wheel” or “circle,” and refers in this instance to a series of subtle energy centers that rise up along the length of the spine. The chakras are said to spin, and are envisaged as lotus flowers (another name for them is the “lotus centers”). Each chakra/lotus is a different color and has a different number of petals according to each particular chakra’s meaning and function, in relation not only to the body, but to the mind and spirit too. Meditation and yoga are believed to help balance the chakras, which in turn promotes good health. Any depiction of the chakras contains the symbol of the great serpent Kundalini curled three and a half times at the base of the spine, which relates to the primal creative energy that rises up through healthy chakras when a person is ready to be awakened to such an experience.
Effectively the clitoris is the female equivalent of the penis, reacting to stimulus in the same way by becoming engorged with blood and super sensitive. It is interesting to note that the clitoris is perceived as representing the male element in the woman, in the same way that the foreskin represents the female element in the man. The controversial operation of female circumcision-sometimes called female genital mutilation-is something that has been carried out for centuries, particularly in Egypt and other parts of Africa. The reasons for it have remained unchanged. The operation ranges from the relatively simple removal of the hood of the clitoris to the removal of all external genitalia.
There are numerous reasons reported for this operation. The removal of the clitoris means that the sexual desire of the female will be decreased, and the procedure is thought to promote chastity, as is the stitching up of the vaginal opening. In societies where clitoral circumcision is traditional, then it is considered the “correct” thing to do, and sometimes hygiene is given as the reason. The removal of the clitoris is also performed as a rite of passage, carried out at puberty. Some believe that the sexual satisfaction of the male is increased if the female is circumcised.
For cultures where clitoral circumcision is not the norm, the practice is viewed as symbolic of the subjugation of women, who, it is presumed, are treated as second-class citizens by having the capability for sexual arousal removed.
Before it was common for people to be able to read and write, the way to receive information was aurally. Therefore, the ear is symbolic of knowledge and also of memory.
However, the shape of the ear as well as its function give clues about other aspects of its symbolic significance. It is shaped like a spiral or a whirled shell, a shape not dissimilar to that of the vulva; therefore, the ear is also a symbol of birth. This analogy is carried a step further in depictions of the Virgin Mary receiving the message of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, through her ear. This idea-that she could receive the Spirit in the same way that she could hear a sound-also promulgates the idea of the Virgin Birth.
Piercing the ears is an ancient practice that is still carried out all over the world, and these piercings have often been used to carry a secret code. For example, the Bible speaks of a pierced ear as being a sign of servitude or subjugation. However, wealthy Romans would pierce their ears so that their earrings could provide one more indicator of their wealth. Sailors pierced both their ears in the belief that this would give them better eyesight.
The symbolism of the eye occurs in so many places and in so many different forms that its pervasiveness symbolizes the All Seeing Eye itself. The eye is closely associated with the idea of light and of the spirit, and is often called the “mirror of the soul.” When a person dies one of the first things that is done is that the eyes are closed, a timeless gesture that signifies the departure of the essence of life. Generally, the right eye is considered to be the eye of the Sun, the left, that of the Moon. The eye represents the “god within,” for example as the “third eye” whose position is designated by the small dot called the bindhu above and between the actual eyes. The Buddha is always depicted with this third eye. Here, the eye signifies the higher self, the part of man’s consciousness that is ego-free and can guide and direct him. Whereas the eyes are organs of outward vision, this “eye of wisdom” directs its view internally as the “eye of dharma” or the “eye of the heart.”
As an occult symbol, the unlid-ded eye has its origins as the symbol of the Egyptian Goddess of Truth, Ma’at, whose name was synonymous with the verb “to see;” therefore the concepts of truth and vision were closely aligned. The same eye symbol appears as the Eye of Horus, or Udjat. This stylized eye, with a brow above and featuring a curlique underneath, represents the omnipresent vision of the Sun God Horus, and is a prominent symbol within the Western magical tradition where it represents, among other things, secret or occult wisdom. This eye was painted on the sides of Egyptian funerary caskets in the hope that it would enable the corpse to see its way through the journey to the Afterlife.
The All Seeing Eye, the eye within a triangle with rays emanating from the lower lid, is used not only in Freemasonry (where it stands for the “Great Architect of the Universe,” for external vision, and also for inner vision and spiritual watchfulness) but in Christian symbolism too.
The eye symbol is used as a charm, painted on the sides of humble fishing boats, in order to protect the boat from the evil eye and to somehow confer this inanimate object with the power of sight of its own, a notion which follows exactly the same reasoning behind the practice of the Egyptians painting eyes on the coffins of their dead. Belief in the evil eye is ancient, referred to in Babylonian texts dating back to 3000 years before Christ. This is the idea that some people can curse an object (or a person) simply by the act of looking, as though the eye itself can direct a malevolent thought. It is a mark of the profound belief in the concept of the evil eye that there are so very many charms said to protect against it.
The foot is a symbol of strength, stability, and resolve (after all, we need them to support the rest of our body), and of our connection with the Earth-again, the reasons for this are obvious. When we say that someone has his feet firmly upon the ground, we mean that the person is down-to-earth, sensible, and practical.
The feet have always been used as a way to measure something; the old Imperial measurement of a “foot” was based on its average length, 12 inches. Pacing out any distance helps us to measure something, and in the same way that we might work out the dimensions of more prosaic things, both Buddha and Vishnu measured out the Universe: the Buddha by taking seven steps in each direction and Vishnu by taking just three strides, across Earth and the Heavens.
The Footprint of the Buddha-or Buddhapada-is a popular symbol for Buddhists, showing the soles of the Buddha’s feet imprinted with other items of symbolic importance, such as the eight auspicious objects. The Buddha Footprint is used as a symbol to indicate the places he visited during his life on Earth.
In the yogic tradition, it is considered the height of rudeness to point the soles of the feet in the direction of the guru or even at his image.
In China, the practice of foot binding was popular for a thousand years. At the age of six or even earlier, girls’ feet were wrapped tightly in bandages so that the bones would break. The muscles atrophied, and the feet stayed tiny; a three-inch foot was considered perfection, and was called the “gold lotus.” No one is entirely sure how this custom started. It may have been in an attempt to emulate a concubine who danced in silk-wrapped feet. Bound feet became a symbol of wealth and power, since only the rich could afford to keep a woman who was unable to walk. The custom died out after it was banned in 1911 by the government of the Republic of China.
The process of removing the foreskin, called circumcision, could be considered to be an act of mutilation, although evidence of it goes back to the Stone Age. However, for many, this operation is considered to be correct practice and in the best interests of the man or boy concerned.
There are various explanations for circumcision. Aside from any particular religious or spiritual ideas, it is believed that the removal of the foreskin is a hygienic practice, and may prevent sexually transmitted diseases and genital cancers. Evidence for these claims is not, however, conclusive. To apply a more symbolic meaning rather than a practical reason, then, for some the cutting away of the foreskin is a statement of detachment from the sexual and material self and signifies a cutting away of God’s bond with matter, in the same way that a baby’s umbilical cord is cut. There is also a sacrificial element to circumcision: to propitiate the Gods with the removal of a part of the body which is, after all, essential to the survival and continuation of the human species.
Circumcision may be best known as a Jewish practice, but it is also carried out by other people, such as the Dogon and the Bambara in Africa. These tribes believe that the foreskin embodies the material form of the female soul in the man, and this anomaly is rectified by its removal, thereby restoring full masculinity to the man. In the Jewish faith, the foreskin is removed as a sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. It is obligatory, according to religious law, for all Jewish males to be circumcised, unless it could put their life at risk. Carried out on the eighth day after birth, January 1 is known as the Feast of the Circumcision in the Roman Catholic religious calendar since this is the day on which Christ would have had the procedure. As a holy relic, the foreskin of Christ is a potent symbol. Remarkably, as many as 18 “Holy Prepuces” appeared around Europe in the Middle Ages.
Hair, the crown of the head, has always been believed to hold an essence or life-force that is inextricably attached to, and a part of, its owner, even when the owner is separated from the hair. Therefore a strand of hair is an essential ingredient in magical spells to gain power over someone. This ancient belief actually has solid roots; a small clump of hair can tell an analyst which vitamins and minerals the person needs. It is still considered bad luck and potentially dangerous to let hair fall into the wrong hands.
To have unruly hair is to indicate a separation from conventional society, a sign of someone who flouts the rules, whose ideas are different from the norm and whose long hair is a symbol of freedom from the constraints of society. This is not a recent symptom of societal changes but predates the time when people wore flowers in their hair in the 1960s and 70s. Traditionally, witches and wizards had unruly and disheveled hair and lived apart from their neighbors, as did the hermit, whose long robe and tangled hair are an archetypal uniform. The “mad professor” who teeters between genius and insanity is given away by his hair, which stands on end. In Greek and Hindu mythology, the Gods and Goddesses who have the wildest, most disheveled hair are the ones who are the most dangerous or who have demonic qualities. Medusa, for example, whose head was a mass of writing snakes is a fine example of a continual bad hair day.
Our hair is a symbol of our individuality, and to make someone cut or shave his hair is to wield power over that person. If a man joins the army or is imprisoned, the taming of his hair is one of the first things to take place. Here, the cutting of the hair implies uniformity and discipline. Similarly, in Roman times one of the signs of slavery was short hair. Gaul remained independent so its people retained their flowing locks and were known as the Gallia Commata (“Hairy Gauls”). A ritual shaving of the hair indicates purity and a fresh start, and it’s an almost unconscious ritual to cut one’s hair at life-changing moments.
Because long, flowing hair is a sign of virility, power, and the material world, a shorn or shaven head is a sign of worldly renunciation. Religious ascetics often follow the tradition of shaving the hair. The tonsure of the monk or priest is a sign of spiritual devotion. This ritual shaving is not restricted to men; some nuns and particularly orthodox Jewish women shave their heads as a symbol of the rejection of worldly and sensual matters. St. Paul recommended that women cover their hair when inside churches since spirits were meant to be attracted to loose, uncovered hair. Hairstyles can tell us a lot about people, particularly in traditional societies. In India, to wear the hair in two plaits is the sign of an unmarried woman. Conversely, in Russia, a single plait was a sign of virginity, whereas a pair of braids was the hairstyle of the wife.
Word origins frequently give clues as to the nature of objects and ideas. The Latin word for hand is manus, which carries the same root as the word, among others, “manifestation;” a clear indication that to be “manifest” is to be held in the hand or created by the hand.
The hand is possibly one of the most accessible and expressive parts of the human body. We shake hands as a sign of greeting; we can use our hands to make signs and symbols, to gesticulate and to communicate. In the Kabbalah, the left hand of God signifies justice, and his right hand, mercy. Blessings and benedictions are given with the right hand. To give someone your hand is to imply trust, for example when we speak of giving someone’s hand in marriage. When we meet someone we shake each other’s right hand; this is a sign of friendship and trust and also shows that neither person is wielding a sword.
This right-left symbolism of the hand occurs several times. The right hand is associated with cleanliness and the left, with dirt, and in some countries to offer something with the left hand is seen as an insult.
Hands, as an extension of the will and of the intention, carry a great power. In the practice of “laying on of hands,” they are used as agents of healing energies.
The silent eloquence of hand gestures and signals can speak volumes. The “V for Victory” sign, palm forward, index and middle fingers extended, is recognized all over the world, and the pejorative version of the same sign, palm turned around, is also universally understood. There’s an apocryphal story about the origins of this particular signal. During the Hundred Years War, the bow and arrow were the major offensive weapons. The English were famous for their skill in handling the longbow, and if they were captured, the French chopped off the index and middle fingers that were used to pull back the bowstring. Therefore, the gesture, as a signal of taunting defiance, was born.
The meanings of certain hand gestures can alter according to where in the world they are made. A good case in point is the mano fico or “sign of the fig,” made by thrusting the thumb between the middle and index fingers of the curled hands. The “fico” may have been a good-luck charm for both the Ancient Romans and for latter-day Brazilians, but elsewhere in the world the gesture is not only insulting but also threatening. The mano cornuta, or “horned hand,” also has a dual meaning. The index and little fingers are straight, whilst the thumb curls around the other two fingers. This signal is also called the “goat’s horns” and while it may be an ancient sign used to ward off the evil eye by emulating the horns of the devil, others see it as a mark of allegiance with evil forces. If the sign is made behind someone’s head, surreptitiously, then this indicates that the person’s partner is cheating on them; it refers to the horns of the goat, an animal that has a particularly lascivious reputation. The Japanese beckoning cat or Maneki Neko uses a welcoming gesture that is recognizable everywhere, whether made by feline or human. The palm is at shoulder height and facing outwards. There’s another beckoning sign that uses the index finger, curling repeatedly in a hook-like gesture as though to reel something in. This gesture asks the person to come close.
The sign of benediction or blessing is universal, too. Here, the index and middle fingers are extended whilst the others curl into the palm. This signal is first registered in use by the Romans, who used it as a sign to gain attention or to indicate that the user was going to speak, a more elaborate version of the “hand up” signal used by schoolchildren who want to answer a question in the classroom. This ancient hand gesture is used to bless holy water, wine, bread, or other items; its use transcends religious boundaries and is used by the Pope as well as those of a more pagan persuasion, such as Druids and Wiccans.
The clenched fist is a symbol of power, of unity. It’s a sign of victory and defiance, and power is held closely in the hand.
The crossed fingers signal is a universal sign of hope or of good luck, generally used when some wish is expressed aloud. The signal has one of two meanings. First, the cross is a protective gesture that averts the evil eye. Second, any bad luck is “trapped” in the cross shape. However, if someone tells a lie, he might surreptitiously make this gesture, making sure that it cannot be seen, to avert any bad luck involved in the telling of the lie.
The “thumbs up” signal has come to mean approval, whereas the “thumbs down” sign means the opposite. Although the gestures are regularly used by makers of epic gladiatorial movies to signify decisions over the life or death of a gladiator, their origins are indeterminate, and may actually date back to a time when the thumb print was used to seal documents.
The Sanskrit word mudra is derived from the verb mud, meaning “to please,” with the inference being that the Gods are the ones that are being pleased. It also means “seal,” “sign,” or “mark.” Mudras are hand signals, but with a more sacred nature than the secular gestures described above. They have spiritual meanings not only because of their intention, but because each part of the hand and the fingers is dedicated to a deity. Mudras are used in yoga and dance as well as in religious pictures and statuary. Images of the Buddha, for example, generally show his hands in the silently eloquent gestures that are rich in meaning.
When used in yogic practices, mudras not only help to focus the mind on abstract ideas and the intention behind the pose or asana, but experts say that the movements themselves have a direct connection to the nervous system and can help with breath control, etc.
Each of the fingers itself carries several different symbolic meanings. They are dedicated to each of the five elements: the thumb is space, the index finger is air, the third finger represents fire, the fourth water, and the little finger Earth. Some universally accepted gestures have their origins in these sacred signs. For example, the Chin Mudra is effectively the same as the “OK” sign, symbolic of approval, or “all is well.” Here, the tips of the index finger and the thumb close in a circle. The other three fingers are straight. Because in Hindu belief the thumb represents the universal spirit and the index finger represents the individual spirit, the circle made when the fingers touch is symbolic of the self that meets the universe, making a circle of completion or wholeness.
Another mudra that is known universally is the Anjali Mudra or the Namaskara Mudra. Again, Westerners will recognize this as the gesture of prayer, both hands together at chest level. The touching palms represent the connection of spirit and matter. The gesture also seals and contains energy. Often accompanied by a bow, the word namaskara, or namaste, means “I bow to you.”
The head and the heart operate in tandem as the logical and the emotional aspects of the body as a sacred map. The head is symbolic of the intellect, the mind, wisdom, reasoned thought, and of a ruling power or the “top” of something-for example, the Head of State.
The head and the face are the most easily identifiable parts of the body, and so were considered to be a great trophy in more war-like times. The head, removed from the body, means instant annihilation. For a warrior to return with the actual head of his enemy meant that he also somehow acquired the potency of that enemy; the head was a status symbol of war and would sometimes be preserved in oil so that there would be no doubt as to both the identity of its owner and the certainty that he was dead. In the same way, the head of an animal is considered to be the most valuable trophy of the hunter, a gross display of man’s dominion over the animal kingdom, and the more savage the animal the more kudos is accorded its killer.
However, in myth, not all decapitated heads were rendered lifeless. This is in accord with the ancient notion that the head contains the real seat of the soul, the essence of the person and of life itself. It follows, then, that these disembodied heads carried great wisdom and therefore could act as oracles. In the Celtic tale of Bran the Blessed, Bran is decapitated but his head continues to be able to talk lucidly, and tells his people that he needs to be buried at the White Hill in London; so long as the head remains there then Britain will be protected from invasion. The White Hill is now called Tower Hill.
Physically, the heart is responsible for keeping the blood flowing around the body at a regular pace. Symbolically, it has come to represent so much more than this simple pump-like action. In the same way that the head represents the wisdom born of knowledge and learning, the heart contains the wisdom of feeling and empathy. The heart is symbolic of compassion, love, and charity.
The heart symbolizes the very center of the being, both physical and spiritual, and has been twinned with the soul since time immemorial-even before the Egyptian “heart-soul” was weighed by Ma’at, the Goddess of Truth. As the last organ left in the mummy, the ideal heart was meant to be as light as a feather-Ma’at wore the ostrich feather that has equally balanced fronds as a symbol of justice. The heart should not be weighed down by misdeeds or untruths.
This idea of the heart containing the “home” of God is symbolized by the Kabbalistic image of the inverted heart that contains the letters of the Tetragrammaton, the secret name of God.
In Islam, the heart is symbolic of the inner life of a person, of meditation and contemplation. Called the Qalb, in the Sufi Islamic sect the heart represents not only God’s mercy but is believed also to contain the essence of God, controlling the physical organs of the body as well as the thought processes.
If we look at the shape of the heart, it’s rather like an inverted triangle, and indeed, this is a simplified heart symbol. The heart is also sometimes represented as a chalice or, in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as a vase; in all these instances we see the heart as a receptacle. The heart shape is also similar to the shape of the female pubic mound or the yoni; the cuneiform symbol for woman is heart shaped and is likely to be based on the same body part.
The heart became associated with love relatively recently, in the Middle Ages, and today the stylized heart symbol is synonymous with both the word “love” and the concept, and is most prevalent around the time of St. Valentine’s Day on February 14.
The Greek word for “veil.” In the secret symbolism of the sacred body the hymen refers to the membrane that stretches across the vulva before it is pierced, traditionally, the first time that the female has penetrative sex, with the result that her virginity, or maidenhead, is no more. This physical veil is rent, symbolically, at the wedding when the bride lifts the veil that is part of her bridal attire. The cutting of the cake, too, by the newly-weds is also a symbol of this physical act.
In the Greek Pantheon, Hymenaeus was the God of Weddings. He was also a deity of both youth and song, and gives his name to the “hymn,” which actually started out as a specific wedding song rather than the generalized religious song that it has come to mean today.
As the pillars that support the rest of the body, the legs are symbols of strength and stability. Further, because they enable us to get from place to place, effectively removing barriers, they are symbols of communication and of locomotion. When we say that something “has legs” we mean that it is full of potential, and will endure. The symbol for both the Isle of Man and Sicily, the triskelion of three conjoined legs (also called a Trie Cassyn) is of ancient origin. The symbol appears on fifth-century BC coins from Asia Minor, and appears in connection with the Isle of Man from the thirteenth century onwards. It also appears some three hundred years earlier on coins, minted in honour of the Nordic King Analuf, who governed both the Isle of Man and Dublin. Like other triskele forms, these three Manx legs are a solar symbol and, significantly, must always appear to be “running” in a clockwise direction since the reverse is considered a malevolent symbol.
Leonardo’s picture of the perfectly proportioned Vitruvian Man shows the navel as being in the exact center of the picture, and indeed the navel-as the omphalos-represents not only the center of the human body but also the center of the Universe. These navel symbols are to be found in various places all around the world, usually in the form of large stones with a domed top, with one of the most famous being at Delphi, center of the worship of Apollo. In India the navel takes the form of the lingam. The navel is the point of contact between the mother and the unborn child and so has sacred significance as the place where spirit and matter meet.
In yogic practice the navel corresponds to the very center of transformational energy and is a point of concentration and meditation, hence the phrase “navel gazing” to mean someone who is lost in thought.
The nipple has conflicting symbolism; it is an erogenous zone and a sign of sexual arousal but also of motherhood. In some countries the sight of an erect nipple under clothes is considered to be offensive, and in Japan special plasters are stuck over them so that they don’t show.
Piercing the nipples, among some tribes, was a sign of strength and virility. In Central America nipples were pierced as a rite of passage, from puberty to manhood. Piercing the nipples as a fashion statement is nothing new: there was a trend for it in the late nineteenth century, and chains would sometimes be stretched between the nipples.
The nose is a symbol of intuition; to be able to “sniff something out” or to speak of something that “smells wrong” indicates use of the predictive faculties. Additionally, scents and perfumes are extremely evocative and carry information that can be analyzed only by the nose. This information goes beyond the bounds of language and straight to the part of the brain that stores memories-the oldest and most primitive part.
The nose is also the organ that takes in oxygen and then expels it, and because breathing is a sacred spiritual act, the nose is similarly seen as imbued with spiritual properties.
Several tribes that rely on hunting for survival, including the Yakut in Siberia and the Tungus in the Altai regions, believe that the nose or snout of an animal contains its spirit, because the nose is the instrument of the breath and breath and spirit are closely associated. Therefore the snout would be set aside as a totem, used as a charm to protect homes and possessions.
The phallus is a symbol of male energy and creativity, and as an extrapolation of the idea of man as being made in the image of God, it’s also the symbol of the life-giving principles of the male deity. The phallus is a symbol of resurrection and new life, given the different states of the penis being “asleep” or “awake.”
The phallus is symbolized in many forms, most of them obvious although not necessarily erotic. The phallus is essential to life. Trees, towers, standing stones-all have their phallic connotations as symbols of strength, support, and also as the foundation of life and the Universe, and the phallus is sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life. The omphalos also has phallic connotations although strictly speaking this is a symbol of the navel as the center of the world.
In Ancient Rome, jewelry representing the phallus was believed to give protection against the evil eye. And in Greece, the God Priapus is depicted with an oversized phallus as a mark of his power and virility, giving us the word “priapic.”
Semen is symbolic of the seed of potential, not just of new life but also of new ideas and innovations. The Roman physician Galen said that semen actually originated in the brain, and this notion was generally accepted until the Middle Ages. Because semen contains the very essence of male power and of life itself, it is a potent ingredient in some magical spells. Aleister Crowley, for example, was fond of using his ejaculatory fluid to “charge” certain aspects of his magic(k)al endeavors. Even today, certain practitioners of folk magic will harvest semen-perhaps storing it in the freezer until needed-in the hopes that it will imbue a spell or charm with virile potency.
As the outside layer of the body and its largest single organ, the skin is symbolic of protection. We use the terms “thick skinned” or “thin skinned” to mean someone who is either completely insensitive or over-sensitive.
For a shaman, wearing the skin or pelt of an animal will help him absorb the power of the animal itself. It also implies dominance over the animal that had to be hunted in order to get the skin in the first place. Skins of sacred animals are often made into bags to contain certain magical items.
In humans, in less enlightened times than now, differences in skin color resulted in gross misunderstandings and prejudice. Fair skin was regarded as a symbol of wealth since the owner was presumed not to have to subject himself to manual labor; conversely, a dark skin carried the opposite meaning.
Mind, body, and soul: the essential trinity that describes what we are. The soul, though, is a difficult thing to quantify; does it exist outside the physical body, and if so, in what form? The belief in a “ghost” that leaves the body at the moment of its physical death is a concept that transcends religious and cultural belief and is closely linked with the breath as the essence of life. The Latin word animus, the Greek anemos, and the Sanskrit aniti all mean “breath” or “air,” and refer to the soul, literally, as an animating factor.
That the soul is immortal is also a deeply rooted idea, but there are many different beliefs about it. The soul can somehow be recycled (reincarnation), or else becomes part of a collective “oneness” that is a part of the Godhead. Some believe that there is a Heaven or a Hell that the soul is sent to, depending on its actions during its earthly existence. Others believe that the disembodied soul can somehow haunt the places that it has known while locked into the corporeal body, occupying a sort of parallel universe. Some cultures explain these different aspects of the soul by assuming that each person has several different sorts of spirit; a good example is the Buryat belief. The Buryats are an ethnic Mongolian people who believe that one soul goes to Heaven or Hell, one remains on Earth as a mischievous spirit, and a third reincarnates in another body.
Birds and winged creatures such as moths or butterflies are believed to contain the soul of a dead person, the wings here symbolizing the idea of transcendence.
Throughout history people have tried to identify the seat of the soul within the body. Once, people believed that it was lodged in the heart. The seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes placed it squarely in the pineal gland, the small gland in the brain that, among other functions, produces melatonin. In yogic practice and metaphysical belief the pineal gland is associated with the third eye, a mysterious inner eye that can somehow be awakened, resulting in telepathic communication. That the soul can somehow be bought or sold is an idea that is so old that it is impossible to determine where it first came from. Catholic missionaries used to amass collections of souls that had been “saved.” If the soul is sold to the Devil, on the other hand, the person loses his shadow and his reflection, both aspects that are linked to the concept of the soul or spirit. To be described as having no soul means that the person is less than human, bereft of passion, emotions, or a conscience.
The backbone of the human body, the spinal column is symbolic of the World Axis and also of the World Tree. In Tantric belief systems, the column of energy that rises up the spinal column through the chakras, symbolized by the great serpent Kundalini, carries the same symbolism as the staff of Asclepius.
The spinal column symbolizes strength, hard work, and moral fiber. The spine also represents the ladder that ascends to the Heavens and back down again.
At the most practical level, sweat is symbolic of hard work. But on a spiritual level, sweat is imbued with the spirit of its owner and so is considered to be a magical substance, and can be used in spells as an energy charge.
The saunas of Northern Europe may have health benefits, but they were originally used as a way to enrich the spirit by ritual purification. The sweat lodge rituals of Native American tribes, too, are carried out as part of a greater ceremony that involves fasting and chanting. Heated rocks in the center of the lodge (which is crammed with as many naked or scantily-clad people as space will allow) have cold water poured over them, generating a considerable amount of steam. The sweat is considered to be an offering to the Sun God.
A good set of teeth is a sign of youth and health, an attractive attribute, and also a status symbol, which many people spend a lot of money to acquire. Conversely, to lose one’s teeth is a sign of old age and decrepitude.
Symbolically, it’s said that a smile that shows the teeth originates in the baring of the teeth to warn off a potential enemy. Certainly, to show the teeth in such a way that the lips are curled back is a threatening gesture.
When the milk teeth of children fall out in order to make way for the permanent teeth, these little teeth are “bought” by the fairies in order to assuage the child for the loss. The actual milk tooth itself carried something of the essence of the child and is a potent magical object, which should be hidden lest it fall into the wrong hands. The power of the tooth, which carries the energy of the creature it originally belonged to, is reflected in the teeth that are worn as decoration by warriors. To be “armed to the teeth” means to carry as many weapons as is humanly possible.
The wisdom tooth holds sacred significance. The Irish Druids would perform a spell designed to bring about poetic inspiration by putting the thumb on the wisdom tooth, biting down hard, and then dedicating a song or poem to the Gods. Long teeth, too, are regarded as a sign of wisdom, because older people have longer teeth (due to their gums receding), and it is commonly supposed that with age comes wisdom.
To have “balls,” one of the many slang words for testicles, means to be courageous, strong, audacious, and upfront. The testicles are a symbol of potential generations to come since they contain semen. The Latin word testis means “little witness” and an oath or “testament” (a word that shares the same root) would be sworn on the testicles as acknowledgement of their vital role, i.e., swearing on the lives of one’s (future) children and grandchildren.
The Greek for testicle is orkhis, and orchid flowers are so-named because their shape is similar to that of the organ.
The opposable thumb is one of the crucial body parts that separate man from the rest of the animal kingdom in that it enables us to grasp objects. The thumb is considered to be masculine, and a phallic symbol, and also equates to God; in yogic practice the thumb is associated with the male element of fire.
The thumbs-up symbol, meaning agreement or approval, dates back to the Middle Ages, where two parties reaching an agreement would squeeze their thumbs together; hence the gesture came to be a sign of harmony. Movies about Ancient Rome that use the thumbs-up/thumbs-down gesture to save or end the life of the gladiator, however, are likely to be using the gesture spuriously; there is no evidence to show that this signal was used for such a purpose.
The “rule of thumb” refers to a vague measurement, an estimate. The thumb is roughly an inch long so is a useful tool for guestimation purposes.
There is mystery and ambiguity surrounding the vagina symbol. The word itself comes from the Latin for “sheath” or “scabbard.” It represents a gateway or a cave, a place of hidden knowledge and secret treasures. The vagina gives birth to the child, and yet appears to swallow the penis, a fact which has caused it to be a symbol of both fear and desire among men. The “vagina dentata” is the most terrifying representation of all vagina symbols, the toothed vagina that could potentially bite off the penis. This frightening extra feature belongs to the legendary succubus of the Middle East. The vagina is symbolically represented by the vesica piscis, the sacred gateway through which spirit joins the world of matter, and in essence by the yoni, the Hindu representation of it as the bowl or receptacle from whence springs the male lingam or phallus.
As the sacred place where new life is gestated, and therefore the ultimate symbol of the Mother, the womb carries powerful symbolic meaning and there are many different representations of it.
The womb is a natural place of safety and security, of dependence, and it is seen as deep, silent, and nurturing. It’s a place of contemplation, of spiritual and physical growth, and of potential.
Because the entrance to the womb is cave-like, then the cave in the natural world is also a symbol of the womb, the Earth Mother, and the place where hidden mysteries are kept. Extrapolating further, the temple is the manmade symbol of the womb; no surprise that the Sanskrit word for “temple” is the same as that for “womb.” The Egyptian ankh, the tau cross with the circle on top, could be construed as a womb symbol; it is not only the same shape but also carries connotations of the cycle of life and rebirth. Both the labyrinth and the spiral, too, can be interpreted as secret signs of the womb.
Although the yoni is effectively a symbol of the vagina, there’s a subtle difference in the inference. Vagina comes from a Latin word meaning “sheath,” i.e. the receptacle for the penis, whereas yoni is a Sanskrit word meaning “divine passage” or “sacred temple.” The child was considered as being born from a yoni of stars, the passage of stars that are effectively the constellations that are in the sky at the time of birth. In Hindu temples, the lingam/yoni is an important symbol of the harmonic balance between the male and female energies.