SACRED GEOMETRY AND PLACES OF PILGRIMAGEAdded: 09 June 2017
Whatever you want to call it, of all of the many secret signs and sacred symbols this is perhaps one of the most exciting, occurring in the natural world in the most unexpected of places. If you clench your hand, tucking the index finger into the base of your thumb and wrapping the thumb in tight, you create the golden section. The spiral shapes of shells and ammonite fossils, and the seed heads of sunflowers all obey its mathematical rules. Stylized patterns of unfurling fronds of the tree fern in Maori art are another example. The series of numbers called the Fibonacci sequence provides a sort of instruction manual for the construction of this never-ending spiral shape.
Despite being named after the Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato, there is plenty of evidence that these shapes-said to encompass the four classic elements of earth, air, fire, water, together with the elusive fifth element-had been discovered at least a thousand years before his time. In fact, the first three shapes were identified by Pythagoras. Plato described his discovery in 360 BC. Because they are related to the elements, the Platonic solids are said to encompass everything within the known Universe. These shapes are regular polyhedrons. That’s to say, they are multi-sided, three-dimensional figures whose points or corners all touch the sides of an orb. There are literally millions of irregular polyhedrons, but only five regular ones. Each of the elements is represented by the solid object to which it relates.
Earth is the twelve-edged cube or hexahedron, fitting as a symbol for the solidity of the Earth as a planet as well as a concept. Fire is a six-edged tetrahedron, its pyramid shape appropriately flame-like. Air is a twelve-edged octahedron. Water is a thirty-edged isocahedron.
The fifth element-ether or aether-was identified as such by Aristotle, although it was commonly accepted in the East much earlier. Although Aristotle did not identify the element with the fifth Platonic solid, the thirty-edged dodecahedron, Plato had commented that God used the shape to arrange all the constellations in Heaven.
The Platonic solids may not at first appear to be particularly secret or sacred. However, their discovery was of profound importance in our understanding of how the Universe works, and the beauty of their regular geometric forms is a great influence on sacred geometry and architecture.
PLACES OF PILGRIMAGE
Inevitably, the buildings that most noticeably follow the principles of sacred geometry tend to be places of worship or tombs, but this isn’t always the case, as we’ll see when we look, for example, at the hogan and the yurt. Sometimes natural features of the landscape are encompassed as an inherent part of a building, like the church that originally dominated Glastonbury Tor. The use of high places to site temples or other places of worship gives an added value to the manmade structure, not only by making it more prominent in the landscape, but because of the shared symbolism of the altar, the holy building and the mountain itself, that all signify man’s attempt to reach the divine.
Like other Buddhist structures, the Borobudur follows the form of the mandala (which is itself a diagram of the cosmos) with each of the faces of the square base facing the cardinal directions head on. Seven square terraces surmount the platform at the base-each being successively smaller than the last-so that the building assumes a stepped shape. On the last of the square platforms are three raised circular levels each set with circular stupas numbering 72 in total, and the whole is surmounted by a single, central stupa that appears to skewer the rest of the building into the ground. Each of the 72 stupas contains a statue of the Buddha, although it can only be seen with some difficulty through the latticework. This filigree stonework serves to illuminate the closeness of the worlds of spirit and matter.
Each square side of the temple has a stone staircase leading to the circular levels, symbolizing the Earth (the square levels) meeting the Heavens (the circular layers). When viewed from above, the building forms a perfect mandala structure. Even when painted on a flat surface, the mandala provides a compelling aid to meditation; the temple at Borobudur is a living representation of this cosmic map, and pilgrims, moving about the sacred structure, are reminded that their physical lives run parallel to the spiritual tenets of their faith.
One of the most impressive and mysterious of all the cathedrals in France, Chartres is in the Gothic style and was built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. However, its site is much more ancient-the ground underneath Chartres is an ancient pre-Christian pagan mound, with a grotto, called the “Pregnant Virgin.” A Roman temple replaced the Druid temple that was built on the earlier site. Chartres remains an important focus for the specific worship of Mary.
Legend, myth, and mystery stick fast to Chartres. Relatively unchanged since it was completed in the early thirteenth century, there are suggestions that the Knights Templar brought the lost languages, such as the Language of the Birds, and the treasures of Solomon, and secreted them inside the cathedral. It is even rumored that the Ark of the Covenant itself is hidden in the crypt of Chartres. Notably, there are no burial places within the cathedral. Many of these secrets could arguably be held to be an inherent part of the actual material and construction of Chartres, since the early masons were party to the arcanum of sacred geometry and construction methods that inspired the fraternity of Freemasons in the first place. These secrets exist in many dimensions, and include the use of sound, shape, and color, as well as material form.
As there are nine “gates” to Chartres, nine knights were leg-endarily involved in its design. These were the knights who excavated Solomon’s temple in the eleventh century and who returned with its secrets in the first place. In an uncanny echo of the “Pregnant Virgin” grotto that the cathedral stands on, Chartres boasts possession of a veil, the Sancta Camisia, said to be the one actually worn by Mary when she gave birth to Christ. This veil, given by Charlemagne in 876, was initially housed in an earlier, wooden church that stood on the site, which was destroyed by fire. The Sancta Camisia was thankfully saved, and the main body of Chartres, as it stands today, was completed in just 26 years, between 1194 and 1220.
Of the many unique features of Chartres, two of the most talked about are the rose window and the labyrinth, also called the “Road to Jerusalem.” Situated on the floor of the nave and effectively functioning as a barrier to the sacred space at the altar, if the western wall of the cathedral were folded down to the labyrinth, the rose window would match its space exactly.
There is one path to the center of the labyrinth, and the center itself is a six-petaled flower that could conceal a Star of David, the two convergent triangles that say “as above, so below.” Pilgrims in modern times are more likely to walk the eleven circuits that measure exactly 666 feet to the center, but formerly the journey was taken on the knees, symbolic of the journey to the Holy Land.
The myths surrounding Glastonbury Tor are made even more mysterious because there are so few precise facts known about it. Not only do these myths populate the tor with Druids, Wiccans, fairies, and other spirits, but King Arthur is also meant to be buried there, as well as the Celtic Gods of the Underworld. It seems that the possibilities of this magical place are as colorful, entrancing, and exotic as the imaginations of the pilgrims that go there.
What is known, however, is that this imposing conical hill (which is what tor means) forms an awe-inspiring silhouette against the sky. Viewed from above, the mound resembles a vulva, so has become a natural icon of feminine forces. The land surrounding the tor was once watery fenland, and so the tor itself would have been an island, a good, easily defended vantage point for the Celts who lived there. Adding to the myth, the area was referred to as Ynys yr Afalon, leading one to suppose that this must have been the Avalon of legend, the “Isle of Apples.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of this hill is the spiral path that twists its way around from the bottom to the top of the tor. This path forms seven terraces. There are several explanations for these terraces. Overlooking the mystique of the place for the moment, theories have suggested that they may have had an agricultural use for growing crops, that they were made by grazing animals, or that they were defensive ramparts.
However, the most obvious explanation-given the position and appearance of the tor, and that it was an obvious place of pilgrimage-is that the spiral path served the same purpose as the steps or paths associated with other natural or man-made sacred places that also have seven levels of ascent. People still climb the spiral path of the tor, not only as a physical journey but also as a spiritual one. The seven levels correspond to the seven planets known to ancient man, and with whom the Deities were inextricably linked; it’s for the same reason, for example, why the Ziggurat also has seven levels. In some parts of Wales, it’s still the custom to walk to the top of the nearest high place around the time of the Lughnasad festival at the beginning of August.
The existing tower on the top of the tor serves as a bitter punctuation to this sacred landscape. Once there was a fifth-century fort in the same position; this was replaced by a medieval church, St. Michaels, which remained there until 1275 when it was destroyed by an earthquake (on September 11, the same day of the year that the Twin Towers were destroyed in New York). The church that was rebuilt some 80 years later lasted until the Dissolution of the Monasteries; after that the tower was used as a place of execution, and the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey was hanged there. All that remains of the tower today is a haunting, roofless ruin.
There are few places in the British Isles-or arguably, anywhere else in the World-that have the mystical charisma of Glastonbury. This is a place steeped in legend, reputedly the focus of the Arthurian tales, and believed by many to be a place where the seen and unseen worlds meet. Dr. John Dee, the renowned magician, seer, and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, was fascinated by the place, and he is reputed to have been the first person to propose that a representation of the celestial Zodiac occupies the sacred land in and around the town.
Several hundred years later, a woman called Katharine Maltwood elaborated on the idea. Born in 1878, Katharine was an artist and scholar, whose marriage to a wealthy advertising manager, John Maltwood, enabled her to devote her life to art, sculpture, and most of all to her overriding interest in antiquarian matters. In particular, she was intrigued by the story of the purported visit of Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, and by the Arthurian tales. While living in Somerset she made the discovery that would make her famous among future generations of seekers after the esoteric and the marvelous. In 1929, Katharine claimed that the outlines of the characters of the astrological Zodiac were traceable in various earthworks in a ten-mile radius around Glastonbury town, publishing these discoveries in her book, The High History of the Holy Grail. Using large-scale Ordnance Survey maps, the shape of Leo the Lion was the first that she noticed. Such was her fascination with the quest that in the 1930s she commissioned aerial photographs-at what must have been very great expense for that time-to be taken of the entire area. Her discoveries caused a sensation that was to be overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Today the idea of the Glastonbury Zodiac is treated as fact by some, but others see it purely as a flight of fancy, the product of a vivid imagination and people’s desire to associate an even greater meaning and mystery to a place that is already crammed full of the amazing and the fantastical.
GREEN MAN MAZE
There can be few finer examples of a magical symbol hidden in the landscape than the Green Man Maze at Penpont House near Brecon in Wales. Although the term “Green Man” was not coined until the late 1930s, the name perfectly epitomizes the notion of a spirit of nature, living in among the leaves from which he is made. The maze is hidden in a wild and magical part of the countryside, and what’s even more surprising is that it was constructed as recently as 2000 as a celebration not only of the Millennium but also of the 40th birthday of the landowner, who, with his wife and family, also helped build the maze. That the Green Man can only be viewed in full from above-the viewpoint of the Gods-makes it even more intriguing.
The maze was designed by David Eveleigh, specifically in accordance with the principles of sacred geometry. He used dowsing methods to align the Green Man with the points on the horizon of the solstice Sun; the design incorporates the ancient Sun wheel symbol, as well as a pentagram overlaid on an Elven star to give the proportions and structure that form the basis of the design. At the very center of the maze is the root of an upturned tree, a symbol that had significance not only for the Celts but is also mentioned in the Upanishads.
This is the traditional dwelling of the Navajo people of the south-western US. Constructed of timber and earth, the hogan seeks to replicate the home that the coyote and beaver Gods made for the first man and woman. These people did not operate with the Western demarcation between secular and sacred space, and the hogan itself is a replica of the cosmos, as straight-forward an example of sacred architecture as we are likely to find.
The doorway of this circular, single-roomed house faces east, welcoming the morning Sun and receiving the blessings of its rays. This eastern entrance is also favored by certain tunnel-nesting birds, and by wild bees. The hogan has a central hearth. The southern half of the room represents the male element, while the north half belongs to the female. This male-female union is also symbolized in the physical construction of the hogan. The first stage in its building sees a forked, female log placed toward the north, with a straight male log pointing towards the south, resting in the cleft. These logs demonstrate a strong union between the husband and wife, and make an obvious fertility symbol, as well as providing a solid foundation for their home. A third forked log is placed toward the west, balancing the entrance. The rest of the building is constructed from stacked logs and other materials. Gemstones are secreted among the logs, and the whole might be covered in mud or earth against the elements.
Like any sacred building, the hogan is consecrated before use. This involves chanting from an ancient song called “The Blessingway” that describes the making of the original hogan. A clockwise pilgrimage around the building honors the path of the Sun.
For Muslims, Mecca symbolizes the actual point on Earth where the vertical axis of Heaven (and space), and the horizontal axis of human existence (and time) intersect. One of the most famous of all holy cities, a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once during their lifetime is an essential part of the spiritual life of any Muslim. This journey is so significant that it forms the fifth of the five symbolic Pillars of Wisdom, the foundations of the faith. The main focal point of this journey is the Great Mosque, which was built to surround the Ka’aba that stands in the center. This is a large cube-shaped building, built by the prophet Abraham after his wife Hagar found water in the desert at the Well of Zamzam. This well, revealed by an angel, saved their son Ishmael from dying of thirst, and inspired Abraham to build the Ka’aba in the first place. Muslims hold that the Ka’aba mirrors a heavenly house, and that it sits on the site of the first house built by the first man, Adam. It is expressly forbidden for people of other faiths to enter Mecca; the first Western woman to do so was Lady Evelyn Cobbold, who wholeheartedly embraced the faith and performed the hajj in 1933 when she was 66. The explorer and scholar Sir Richard Burton had entered the Ka’aba itself in the nineteenth century; aware that the penalty of his discovery would be death, he resorted to subterfuge, disguising himself as a Sufi to gain access.
The origins of the word Ka’aba are the same as for “cube,” and the dimensions of this granite building are imposing; it is nearly 14 meters high, with sides of 11 meters and nearly 13 meters. The four corners of the Ka’aba point roughly to the four points of the compass, and the building is the focal point for prayer. Wherever they may be in the world, the devout pray towards the Ka’aba, and have special compasses to help align themselves correctly. In the eastern corner of the building is the sacred “black stone,” generally accepted to be the remnant of a meteorite and possibly the original reason for the sanctity of the place. Prior to the coming of Mohammed, this stone was the focal point for worship of the Goddess, Al’Lut. The Goddess had seven Priestesses, and pilgrims circled the holy stone-which resembled the vulva-seven times in honor of the seven known planets of the Ancient world.
We examine the use of the medicine wheel as a graphic device that is a mandala-like focus for meditation in Part One. The original medicine wheel, however, is constructed as a living part of the landscape although, like the stone circles that are in many ways their larger European counterpart, the reasons lying behind their design and construction remain something of a mystery.
The largest of these stone wheels, sometimes called the American Stonehenge, is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel at Medicine Mountain. Situated at an elevation of 9640 feet, it’s an impressive sight, and the plain it lies on is a sacred place in its own right; for hundreds of years ceremonies marking rites of passage were held there by diverse peoples, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Shoshone.
Made from half-buried rocks laid out in the shape of a giant wagon wheel, it has 28 spokes emanating from a hollow-centered central cairn that is about three feet tall. Each spoke is 36 feet long, and the whole is 245 feet in circumference. Surrounding this central wheel are six smaller cairns, each with an open side, giving it a C-shaped appearance from above. Like Stonehenge, certain points on the wheel align to the Sun, the Moon and the planets; specifically, the central cairn and another one on the outside of the rim perform exactly the same function as the heel stone of Stonehenge on the day of the summer solstice. It is likely that each of the 28 spokes represents the days of the lunar cycle. Other lines in the medicine wheel describe earthly demarcations for celestial bodies, including Sirius, Rigel (a star within the Orion constellation), and Aldebaran. The age of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is indeterminate. The wheel shares the meaning of the circle as a symbol of eternity with no beginning or end, showing the endlessness of the passing of time.
A large, upright standing stone, our ancestors obviously spent a great deal of time and effort to find and quarry the stones, shape their tapered tops, drag them into position, and make them stand upright. But why? Unless they are part of a group of stones, such as a stone circle, there is no consensus of opinion as to what menhirs actually signified. The word menhir comes from two Breton words, meaning “long stone.” They are most often seen in Western Europe but appear as far afield as Asia and Africa, too. Theories about their function-or symbolic meaning-include, in no particular order:
Part of a calendrical system
Sites of sacrifice
Until recently, we were not even absolutely sure as to their age. It was believed that they belonged to the Bronze Age (c.3000 BC) but recent evidence suggests that they may be much older.
Any tall, narrow object can serve the function of marking time by means of the shadow, popularly represented as the gnomon that stands firmly in the center of the sundial. It’s possible that the menhir may have served this function as well as being a symbol of fertility; there’s an obvious phallic nature to these mighty stones.
As with many ancient artefacts, the early Christians had a deep-rooted suspicion of menhirs, and many of them were toppled. Others were explained away as being put there by demonic forces; the Rudston monolith in Yorkshire is one such example. Standing at 26 feet high, the stone weighs at least 80 tons and is believed to be as deep as it is high. The stone stands right next to the tiny village church and local legend says that the Devil threw the stone at the church but narrowly missed it because of his poor marksmanship; a conflicting tale says that God threw it, punishing some people who were desecrating the churchyard.
Rudston itself means “cross stone” (rud stan), and the stone was apparently “Christianized” at one point with the addition of a Cross perched on its top.
The Pampa Colarada desert near Nazca, high up on a plateau between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, is one of the driest places in the world. Scattered over a vast area of 200 square miles are more than a hundred massive animal shapes. These shapes are so huge that they are fully visible only by the Gods, or via a means of transport that the people who created them two thousand years ago could never have dreamed of: a helicopter or airplane.
It has rarely rained in the Nazca valley during the last 10,000 years, and the shapes that were created by arduously scraping away the topsoil-in much the same way that the similar shapes were made in Britain and elsewhere-are protected from vehicles or foot-prints. Some of the lines are more than five miles long, requiring an amazing feat of concentration by their constructors to get the form right without ever being able to see the final result. Their work was also carried out achieved in dusty, arid conditions. The shapes include geometric patterns, as well as human figures, a serpent, flowers, a lizard, a spider, and several varieties of bird, including the great warrior God Huitzilopochtli in the form of a hummingbird.
No one knows specifically why these drawings were made. Theories include their use as some sort of calendrical system, or even as landmarks for visiting UFOs. Arguably the most logical suggestion is that the shapes were made to communicate with the Gods, to please them as they looked down to Earth.
Situated in the north east of Ireland, Newgrange is a huge construction dating back at least 5000 years. As a sacred space, it emulates the idea of the cave as a secret place of ritual, the womb of the Earth, a place of death and rebirth.
From the outside, Newgrange is an imposing sight. It comprises a mound of earth surrounded by a stone wall, encircled by numerous standing stones and almost a hundred roughly worked stones laid end to end. The edifice is eleven meters high and almost ninety meters across. Mounds like this were later thought to be the homes of the numinous beings that inhabited the place: earth spirits, fairies, and creatures from the Otherworld.
In front of the entrance to Newgrange is a large stone, beautifully engraved with spiral motifs. These shapes would have been chipped into the stone with flint tools, and the precision achieved is remarkable. The spiral symbol is associated with the passage of time and the cycle of the soul through death to rebirth, often depicted as a labyrinth. There is nothing labyrinthine, however, about the innermost part of Newgrange. A long, narrow passageway ends in the main room, a vaulted space with three flat-roofed chambers. Seen as though in an X-Ray from above, the passageway and the three chambers form a cross shape. The main “hall” has a roof that’s been constructed artfully by stacking stepped stones so that it resembles the basic shape of a bee skep. One of Newgrange’s secrets was discovered as recently as 1972. In the roof over the entranceway is a hole that allows a shaft of light to fall onto the triple spiral pattern more than eighteen meters away inside the chamber. This happens just once a year, at the winter solstice. Other megalithic monuments are believed to have an astronomical connection, but this feature of the roof at Newgrange plainly proves the point.
Literally meaning the “Temple to All Gods” in Ancient Greek, the Pantheon was conceived around AD 50, at a time when the old deities had not been usurped by Christianity. It was intended as part of Augustus Caesar’s plan to rebuild the city in his own image and was erected in honor of the Gods and Goddesses that had assisted in his rise to power. The temple was not completed, however, until the following century by the Emperor Hadrian.
The features of the Pantheon which give clues to its having been constructed following the principles of sacred geometry are the rectangular porch with a triangular pediment sitting squarely on top, the circular shape of the main temple area, the domed roof representing the Vault of Heaven, the proportions of the building, and the symbols inlaid into the floor. These are among the basic units of measurement that Pythagoras calculated as being part of the harmony of the cosmos and, as such, were believed to have been devised by the Creator. This celestial harmony is reflected in the Pantheon. The measurements of the building are also calculated according to Pythagoras’ rules of sacred geometry. The main temple is 44 meters in diameter and 44 meters from floor to ceiling. The dome of the Pantheon is a particularly magnificent piece of engineering. The internal volume of the main temple is 1520 square meters and has no reinforcing support. It was only 1500 years later that the size of its dome was exceeded, marginally, by that of the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Because it is a symbol of the Vault of Heaven, the dome was a particularly popular piece of design for sacred buildings, and cities vied with one another in a sort of architectural one-upmanship to find new ways of building bigger and better ones.
The dome of the Pantheon is open to the skies, and this opening is called the oculus, or “great eye,” symbolic of the Sun, and is nine meters wide. The ceiling has graduated ribs that are not only a structural feature designed to lighten the load, but also represent the major planetary Gods of Rome: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn. Part of the design of the Pantheon-in its original conception as a temple to honor all Gods-was the installation of apses, or niches, which contained the shrines of these deities. However, with the coming of Christianity the Pantheon was adapted to the new faith, the shrines were removed, and the building was renamed the Church of Santa Maria Rotunda. These apses now contain the tombs of Italian kings, as well as that of the Renaissance artist Raphael.
At its most basic, the upward-pointing triangle represents the fire that is the meaning of the word “pyramid” in Greek. The pyramid itself is an incredibly strong construction, both symbolically and practically, with the solid base of the square supporting the four triangles that meet at the peak or axis of the pyramid. The shape is as impregnable and daunting as it looks.
The Pyramids themselves have become a symbol of Egypt, and together with the sphinx, capture the essence of that country more completely than any modern advertising logo could ever do.
There have been countless books written about the Pyramids, and the symbolism of the shape is not to be confused with any claims of “pyra-midology.” Essentially, the pyramid represents the axis mountain of the world. This mountain is said to have risen from the waters of creation and represents existence itself. Furthermore, the cavern-like aspect of the Pyramids, in which the bodies of the pharaohs were interred with elaborate rites, represents the natural cave to which early man was attracted, not only as a womb-like place of refuge but also as a place where religious rites could take place in secrecy. The sloped shape of the exterior of the Pyramids is echoed in their internal passages, which also slope steeply; these angles help the souls of the interred pharaohs ascend to Heaven. We still have a primal belief that the closer man is to the sky, the nearer he is to Heaven and to the Creator. The shape of a pyramid provides a way for man to achieve this goal. Stepped pyramids culminate in a flat platform where the world of spirit meets the world of matter, the construction acting as a reminder of the convergence of the material and the ethereal. The Ancient Egyptians further demonstrated this idea by another symbol, an inverted pyramid balanced on top of an upright one, also known as the “creation sign”; the upper symbol represents inspiration pouring down from the Heavens (the chalice-shape as a sign for water is an obvious clue), whereas the base pyramid shows aspiration, a striving for the perfection of Heaven. This symbol itself represents the same concept as the Star of David: “as above, so below.”
This small chapel, also called the Collegiate College of St. Matthew, is set in the sleepy rural hamlet of Roslin some seven miles south of Edinburgh. It is the subject of intense scrutiny, attracting worldwide curiosity as a result of Dan Brown’s blockbusting novel and the ensuing film of The Da Vinci Code. In the book, Brown posits that the Holy Grail itself was hidden in the chapel, and that the bloodline of a child born to Christ and Mary Magdalene can be traced directly back to the building.
The crazed excitement and conspiracy theories surrounding Rosslyn mean that fact has become increasingly hard to separate from fiction. Unsubstantiated rumors of the esoteric articles secreted in the chapel include the Ark of the Covenant, the original Stone of Destiny, and even the Holy Grail itself. The mystical charisma of Rosslyn is so powerful, however, that it needs no media frenzy to exacerbate its importance.
The chapel was commissioned by Sir William Sinclair (or St. Clair) in 1446. It seems as though the chapel was the start of a much larger Catholic church, and, like other grand ecclesiastical buildings, was seen as a way for Sir William to accumulate future credits in Heaven to atone for his transgressions on Earth. It is also rumored that Sinclair’s interest in arcana was because he was none other than Christian Rosenkreuz, founder of the Rosicrucian Order.
This small chapel is smothered in elaborate and accomplished stone carvings. These include angels and demons, roses, stars, elephants, pyramids, serpents, plants that were not available in Britain at the time the chapel was built, and many depictions of the Green Man. There are other carvings that retain their secrets despite centuries of investigation and conjecture, along with dozens of Masons’ marks as testimony to the anonymous craftsmen that worked on the building.
The 213 stone cubes that seem to represent Chladni Patterns-the shapes made when fine powder laid on a taut surface is subjected to certain frequencies-is explained in Part 7. Among the other features of the chapel, the “Apprentice Pillar” is particularly notable. While the Master Mason was abroad, investigating designs for the pillar, the legend goes that his apprentice dreamed that he himself had carved it. His vision was of such power that he set to work. Upon his return, the Master Mason was so jealous of the ornate pillar that he killed the hapless apprentice with a blow to the head; both characters, and the grieving mother of the apprentice, have been immortalized in stone. This myth seems to have originated in the eighteenth century, and bears some resemblance to the story of Hiram Abiff that lies at the heart of Freemasonry.
At the base of the pillar are eight dragons, from whose mouths emerge vine tendrils that spiral up the pillar. This is said to be a representation of the World Tree. At the top of the pillar is a Latin inscription that translates as:
“Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all.” There is a plethora of Green Man carvings in the chapel-110 in all-peering out stonily from all directions. The Green Man is an ancient idea of a spirit of nature, found in a similar form all over the world. It is an unusually pagan image to appear so prominently in a Christian place of worship. These carvings appear youthful when they appear in the eastern side of the chapel, gradually ageing as they move west with the course of the Sun and the passage of time.
Despite generations of research, it seems that the mysteries of Rosslyn will remain unsolved. Perhaps the biggest conundrum is the juxtaposition of so many seemingly pagan images in the context of a Christian place of worship; perhaps the designers of Rosslyn were wise enough to realize that integration is the surest path to wisdom and understanding. Today however, the trustees of Rosslyn have a less esoteric problem to solve-how to cater for the recent and dramatic increase in visitors, from 30,000 a year in 2000 to 120,000 in 2006. All these people, crammed into what has been described as a “stone story-book,” in a room measuring just 69 by 35 feet.
Some natural features of the landscape represent mythological creatures or suggest the shapes of animals or birds; others are man-made, and the efforts taken to construct such monuments are a reminder to us of just how important certain images were to the people who designed them.
One of these manmade structures is the Serpent Mound in the north-eastern US. (The symbolism of the serpent is examined elsewhere in this book.) The mound was built some 2000 years ago by Native Americans, either the Hopewell or Adena people. The earthwork is built of yellow clay and stones, and takes the form of a 382-meter-long snake, its tail end curled into a spiral, and with what appears to be an egg in its mouth. Although it’s impossible to say precisely why the mound was constructed, the primal importance of the serpent as a magical symbol is well documented. It was one of the most important animal symbols not only for Native Americans but for the Celts, Hindus, Assyrians, and others. It has been argued that this serpent represented a particular deity; because the serpent was a symbol of the powers of the Earth it would make sense to construct it in such a way that the deities up in the Heavens would be able to see it. The creature lies at the edge of a promontory and burnt stones in the center of the “egg” suggest that fires were once lit there. This fire would have been visible for miles around and possibly signified that the snake-the numen of the place-was “awake” and protecting her people. The egg is a symbol of fertility and rebirth, and the spiral at the other end of the tail suggests the coiled power of the energy of the Earth.
The most impressive single stone circle of all is arguably Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. The scale of Stonehenge is vast; when it first comes into view its impact, set against the gently rolling backdrop of Salisbury Plain, is breathtaking. Constructed between 3000 and 2100 BC, the standing stones of this megalithic monument were quarried from the bluestone that is found only in the Preseli mountains in Wales, some 385 kilometers away.
Stonehenge is an evocative place and remains a primary focus for neo-pagan groups, especially at the time of the summer solstice when the “heel” stone of the circle aligns with the rising Sun cresting over the horizon. Pagan worship at Stonehenge resumed again after hundreds of years in 1905, performed by the Ancient Order of Druids that was founded in the nineteenth century. For years the site of peaceful pagan worship and a month-long rock festival, in 1985 the infamous incident known as the “Battle of the Beanfield” occurred. New Age travelers converging on the site at the time of the solstice for the free festival were prevented from doing so by the police, some of whom were dressed in riot gear. The incident resulted in smashed cars and caravans, and a great deal of violence toward the travelers.
Access to Stonehenge, especially at the time of the solstice, is now carefully controlled. The stones, however, stand as a powerful symbol of the freedom to choose not only one’s Gods, but also the way in which they are to be worshipped.
The word “synagogue” means “assembly,” and its décor adapts to the circumstances and surroundings of the country and environment in which it is situated.
Prior to the synagogue, hereditary priests, known as kohens, officiated in the rites, and the worshippers stayed outside the main body of the temple, making their burnt offerings to God. The rabbis who subsequently officiated at the synagogues were part of a democratic movement; a marked difference between the temple and the synagogue is that, whereas God was believed to reside in the temple, the synagogue is an unconsecrated building. The emphasis of the synagogue is on education, and the study of the Talmud (the Jewish laws and legends) is given priority. Despite this secular angle, however, the synagogue retains its status as a sacred building.
The main focal point in any synagogue is the ark, a box which contains the scrolls of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that God gave to Moses. Although the ark may be highly decorated, it is distinctly not an object of veneration, and is only important inasmuch as it contains the Word of God. The ark is set into a wall that faces the direction of the original Temple in Jerusalem. This symbolizes the fact that although the physical Temple no longer exists, the idea of it remains close, a reminder of the sense of exile. Prayers are often directed toward the coming of the Messiah, which is believed to coincide with the rebuilding of the Temple for the third time.
God is not portrayed figuratively anywhere in the synagogue, a feature shared by Islamic places of worship. Unlike Christian churches, which have highly decorated windows and paintings depicting scenes from the Gospels, the designs and patterns in the synagogue are more abstract and indeterminate.
YURTS AND TIPIS
As the simplest magical symbols often encapsulate the most concentrated meanings, so our most basic dwelling places can often say just as much as the largest or most imposing cathedrals or temples.
The yurt is the portable dwelling belonging originally to the nomad peoples of Central Asia, although the popularity of the structure has extended way beyond this area. The yurt is circular, its walls built from a trelliswork of sticks that concertina together so that they can be transported. Traditionally, the “walls” are made from felt or other fabrics. The dome-shaped roof, or shangrak, is also made from wooden lattice and although the rest of the yurt will be replaced over the years, the shangrak is something of an heirloom, passed down from generation to generation.
The roof has a central hole that enables smoke to escape from the centrally positioned hearth. The smoke from the fire, ascending through this hole, is symbolic of the Axis Mundi. The smoke carries the prayers and wishes of the yurt-dwellers-as well as offerings of food-directly to the Gods.
The tipi is a similarly portable, circular construction that imitated the greater cosmos, although the ground space is more egg-shaped than circular. Three poles, tied together, make a tripod; these three foundation posts represents man, woman, and the Great Spirit. Next, a number of poles are woven together and supported by the junction of the foundation poles. The number of poles depends on the circumference of the tipi. Finally, the whole is covered with a semi-circular piece of cloth, made in such a way that smoke flaps can be positioned, using two separate poles, according to the direction of the wind to allow smoke to escape from the central hearth. This central pillar of smoke has the same symbolic meaning as that of the yurt.