Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 0 – Prologue

I have a very dear male friend whom I consider to be aware and sensitive to injustices in society. We often engage in discussions about social issues like patriarchy and other controversial topics. On one occasion, he decided to play the devil’s advocate and suggested that history was male dominated because that was the natural order of things. I then pounced into teacher mode and tried to demonstrate that male dominated leadership was not an inherent trait to humans: “But that’s not the way things were in the Egyptian Old Kingdom” I said, and promptly made sure he was aware that the Old Kingdom was less patriarchal than the New Kingdom.

“But where’s the proof?” he asked.

“What do mean?” I replied.

“Well they had Pharaohs, the Valley of Kings, and a male God-head (Ra), where were all the women?”

“Oh” I said. “You don’t about the power the Pharaoh wive’s had, the women who were Pharaoh’s themselves. And, yes, they had a Valley of Queens, and the Egyptian’s worshipped Isis far more than Ra. Oh, and let’s not forget Ma’at – she was the Goddess of order that all the male Pharaoh’s aspired to be like.”

“They had a Valley of the Queens?”

“Yes”

“Okay then, so who were the female Pharaohs?”

“There were quite a few, like Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and some others that I can’t recall off the top of my head. And there was Cleopatra, of course.”

“What? Cleopatra was a Pharaoh?”

“Yes. You didn’t know that?”

My friend shock his head, so I continued.

“Cleopatra was forced to marry her brother, so she had him killed and ruled on her own. She then had a son with Julius Caesar which created tensions with the Roman Empire who feared she’d overtake them, so they tried to kill her but she committed suicide first. But before that she had three children with another Roman official, Mark Anthony. One of their children became a powerful Queen of Africa.” I said all this with an eye roll and rude condescending tone, forgetting that not everyone knows historical details like I do.

The conversation changed direction at that point, so I stopped short of explaining the time Cleopatra dissolved a pearl earring, worth a small fortune, into a glass of vinegar then drank the concoction to prove to the men around her how powerful and wealthy she was; Tiepolo’s depiction of this moment in The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743-1744, is a treasured artwork at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is through Art I have learned history.

A picture tells a thousand words, yet, like Picasso says “Art lies, then tries to convince you it is telling the truth.” Tiepolo’s painting exemplifies this point. He used the finest technical skills of rendering and perspective and the story he is telling really did occur, but Cleopatra would not have been dressed in a tight corset like the one in his painting. Corsets hadn’t been invented in Cleopatra’s day. Tiepolo has done what most artists and media producers do, he superimposed values and symbolic imagery from his own era onto the past. By depicting the image of queen that was familiar to his eighteenth century audience he was increasing the likelihood that they could relate to his masterpiece.

The Banquet of Cleopatra

Giambattista Tiepolo The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743-1744

Source: National Gallery of Victoria

“But what about our brains being different?” my friend asked.

“The brains of males and females are no different to that of other organs like our heart, lungs, and kidneys.” I stated with confidence, quoting one of my favourite researchers, Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain. “Our brains are moulded in accordance with our experiences more than sex differences.”

My friend was not fully convinced, I could tell from the expression on his face that his mind was filled with ideas of what so-called masculine and feminine traits were in accordance with his life experiences. I went on:

“I get it. I have raised both a son and a daughter and they both demonstrated stereotypical behaviours of their gender from a very young age. But I also know that until we have a society in which gender stereotypes are not placed upon children from birth, we won’t really understand how genuine differences between genders is dependent upon physical differences and what is socially imposed.” I then mentioned that at the supermarket a few weeks prior, I had picked up two baby bottles that were on quick sale for $1.20 each. I have no need for the baby bottles but I bought them, perhaps out of intuition that I would need as proof them one day. Both bottles are identical in functionality, however, one is pink with flowers and one blue with trucks. Both were advertised as being for newborns 0-6 months old. It is through items like these, with culturally derived symbolisms of gender, that we consciously and unconsciously teach our child about their gender identity.

I then used another example, inspired by Rippon’s research: “Take maths for example. Regardless of gender (by this stage we’d also discussed and agreed that people could not be confined to binary genders) advanced maths is difficult. Up until early to mid high school, both boys and girls do well with numbers, but once it gets hard a lot want to give up (one of my best friends is a maths teacher and we have discussed this to on a few occasions). Now imagine, if you’ve been raised as a girl and told all your life that boys are better at maths than you, then, mathematics gets difficult you are more likely to give it up. But if you’re a boy whose been raised to believe you have some innate ability to do advanced maths, then you are more likely to tackle the challenges. Now, if you were to study the brains of adults then you may find the areas used most for mathematics is more active in males than females, but that is not because of their gender, its is because how their brains have been trained.”

“Yep, I get it.” My friend said (it was one of those discussions in which there was never any real disagreement in the first place but we were both enjoying going through the paces of exploring perspectives). We both agreed that gender traits were learned, not generic, and pondered on whether what was best for the human race as a whole.

While we were talking, my friend shared that while he was growing up, he felt like feminist messages left him feeling ashamed to a man, at least on some levels. He said he had heard and absorbed so many negative messages about male dominance that he’d gotten the impression his gender was horrible. “Welcome to the club” I replied, and remarked that women had been given that message about their gender for thousands of years. We both agreed that the situation was not fair on anyone. We both wished that no person, of any gender, had to feel like they were better or worst than others. Personally, I believe the solution is education.

Taking a profound philosophical stance, my friend then said: “I think maybe the scales do need to tip in favour of women, at least for a while, until things even out and no person, of any gender, needs to feel ashamed of who they are.”

In the following series about occult symbolism, I have taken the liberty of using my friend’s philosophy and I have unashamedly focused on herstory more than history.

I’m not sure which came first, my love of art, my love of psychology, or my love of trying to interpret symbols. For as long as I can remember, I have also had a fascination in supernatural phenomena without committing to any dogma. I’ve kept an open mind to various theories, beliefs, and practices. In many respects, the research I am about to present is the accumulation of over twenty years of teaching Art, during which time I have learned more about symbolism from every student I have every taught than anything I’ve ever read in books or on the internet. However, it all started really coming together around the same time as the Covid pandemic began.

I had a rough start to 2020 with financial problems and no job security. I also wanted to study a Diploma of Psychology (I’d completed my Masters in Mental Health a few years prior but my thirst for understanding the human mind had not been quenched). I understand that for many people, Covid and lockdowns have been a distressing experience, however, for me, they enabled the possibility of doing the study that I had wanted to do and would not have been possible if it were not for the lockdowns.

As I set up my home learning space, I realised that I needed to make the environment as conducive to learning as possible. I was fortunate to be renting a house that had a long hallway, so I decided to make the most of this by using the space to put up study aids. What can I say? I’m a teacher, putting learning aids on the wall is what we do.

I had two primary aims, one, I wanted to develop an appreciation of psychology history, not just the newest and greatest theories. Two, I wanted to test a theory I’d learned in a teaching professional development several years before hand; that being that the development of human beings as a collective, mirrors that of a child. For example, prehistoric people drew like toddlers, in antiquity their skills were like that of primary school, and from about the Gothic period onwards, artworks begin resembling teenage capabilities. The same theory can be applied to the evolution of language, mathematical skills, and other subjects. Below are photos of what my hallway looked like.

The starting point for my timeline were images of artworks from each era, mainly western, because that is what I have been required to teach for most of my career. I then wrote notes about key features of each epoch, movement, discoveries, and religion, and stuck them in their respective places. When I was sitting at my desk watching online lectures, I had a separate note pad that I could jot down the names of important figures that were mentioned, like Neisser, the father of cognitive psychology, Skinner, who founded behaviouralism, and Spearman, who developed the classical test theory. I’d later do more research to find out who they were in more depth, specifically, what their influences were, and added notes about them too.

Part of the art appreciation process is to examine artist’s influences, so doing the same to scientists seemed natural. By the end of they year, I’d spent a small fortune on stationary and my notes had extended beyond the hallway into other rooms of the house. A example of what I learned through this process was that Samuel Sömmerring (1755 – 1830) did not just make the discoveries of twelve cranial nerves (like we were taught in neuroscience), his investigation into the nervous system also lead him to the belief that the brain’s ventricles were the organ of the soul (he dedicated his paper to one of his best friends, Immanuel Kant). Disappointingly, I could not find a copy of this paper online that had been translated from German into English.

Reading between the lines of Sömmerring’s influences, it’s obvious he hand an interest in occult topics. This lead me to wonder if his occult research alerted him to there being twelve cranial nerves, hence, he did not discover them by chance, rather, he’d gone looking for evidence to support information he’d come across in some mystical format. Twelve cranial nerves, twelve zodiac signs, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, twelve months of the year, twelve hours in a day … could it be that we’ve misunderstood our ancestors science as being mythology? I keep an open to that being a possibility, as I suspect Sömmerring did too.

If I were to write a list of all great scientists who have made significant contributions to contemporary understanding of life, the universe, and everything, and then subdivide this into two groups, one being for scientists who had an fascination with the occult and the other who did not, to put it mildly, the first list would be exceptionally longer than the latter.

During 2020 I apologised for the seemingly crazy display of study notes throughout my house to the small handful of guests who were allowed to visit. But no one thought I was crazy, most thought it was a good idea. I loved it. When I was having “break time” I’d wander up and down my hall looking at the spaces between the notes, trying to work out how they all linked. Much to my surprise, a lot of the flows of influence came from antiquity, specifically Greece, and specifically, Aristotle. When I first saw this, I thought I must wrong. So I did more research, and it turns out that there others who have seen this pattern but they didn’t piece things together exactly the same way as I was.

Experiments using eye movement monitoring technology suggests that people who are trained in the visual arts look at images differently to those who have no training. Essentially, artists don't just look at objects, their eyes dart back and forth assessing the spaces between the artworks. I hypothesis that if artists do this often enough, we begin to do it constantly, like a habit, in all life situations. Therefore, when I say I wandered up and down my hallway pondering on the spaces, I mean it metaphorically and literally. 

Well before any such tests were conducted, the artist Joseph Kosuth developed a whole approach to art based on this idea of looking between spaces. Kosuth is considered to be a master of postmodernism with pieces like One and Three Chairs, 1965, an artwork consisting of a photograph of a chair, the actual chair, and a dictionary definition of a chair. He was not trying to met standardised expectations of beauty in art, rather, he was interested in the conversation that could be had about presenting a chair in three different forms as an artwork. Kosuth believed that was where "art" really was, in the spaces between what viewers saw in front of them. The “thing” between artwork objects can be summarised as being a conversation; Kosuth suggested that the true essence of art is the ideas that images provoke, not the objects themselves. He continued down further down this line as his work matured.

As a young person, I could not stand abstract or conceptual art, I wanted to see pictures that made sense to me, pictures that I could instantly related to. However, as I have matured, the concept behind artworks has become more important to me that classical standards of beauty. When I teach higher levels of secondary art, I love teaching about people like Kosuth. As it slowly dawns on them the significance of what such people were saying, it's like an invisible veil is lifted. To me, watching how art can change people is absolutely beautiful.

I no longer live in a house with a long hall, but that hallway is now etched inside my mind. It is like a room that I can go into and mentally place more postit notes when I discover something new about history. The following blogs are pretty much a summary of that hallway.

One final thing I’d like to mention before I share my hallway journey, is that in February 2020, I had an epiphany. I could dress up the experience and tell it like it was some mystical experience but that would not give it justice. Basically, what happened was, I realised I’d been living with cognitive dissonance; I was holding onto two beliefs that I thought to be true even though they contradicted each other. On one hand, through my appreciation of surrealist art and my training in art therapy, I was under the impression that psychoanalytic theory had merit, that the mind did have pre-set symbols inside it, but at the same time, my experiences as a teacher and therapist had shown me that the human mind is infinity creative, albeit, what it could make was dependent upon the skills a person had (see Reflections on learning how to hold a pencil inspired by Quilty’s work with Syrian refugee children). In that moment of my epiphany, I let go of many preconceived ideas and embraced the notion that people were infinity creative, end of story.

I formulated a metaphor to help me remember this new wisdom that went like this: the human brain is like an art studio. It comes equiped with basic equipment like colour, tone, balance, contrast, texture, movement, pattern, etc. In other words, the elements and principles of art (if you’ve forgotten what your art teacher taught you, look “here” for a quick revision). The elements and principles of art can also be considered the elements and principles of life (two-dimensional life predominantly relies on the visual arts, if you want to consider three-dimensional life you need to add music, poetry, dance, drama, and the elements and principles of other art forms). As a child develops, they learn to use these elements and principles. In my art therapy experiences, I had noted insights into how clients worked was dependent upon their art education that stemmed back to their primary years, for example, how they drew faces or if they had an interest in manga. The differences were subtle but I’ve worked in enough schools to be able to pick up on some of these clues. Conversely, while I could pick educational trends in clients work, I also noted from my teaching experience that no matter how precisely I gave instructions on how to create an artwork, every child created something different, something unique. Metaphorically, there are many different types of trees, but no two leaves on a tree are ever identical.

I contemplated my art studio theory further. Perhaps differences between people’s brain is due to some people, metaphorically, preferring to mix colours with chalk pastels but others liked rendering with pencils? Perhaps neuroplasticity is like if a person’s pencils are broken then they are forced to use chalk pastels instead? Even though everyone’s “art studio” comes equipped with the basic equipment, some variations were possible, as is the case with people who have colour blindness or trichromats (people with extra cones in their retina that results in seeing colours more vividly). I also considered the symptomatology of psychosis being like a creative mind in overdrive; that is the mind creating images that extend beyond the edges of a canvas. Perception is the mind’s canvas. Perception has two sides, one being what is real and the other being what one imagines. In a neuro-typical brain they are present and in someone experiencing a psychosis the boundaries of what is real and what is imagined are blurred; it is as though two sides of the mind’s “perception canvas” are operating as one, hence, symptoms of hallucinatory sounds, visions, smell, and other sensory cues, feel like they are real.

None of my contemplation about the brain being like an art studio provided an easy answer for curing mental health conditions, but if researchers aren’t using the right paradigm then the solutions may never be found. A lot of psychology paradigms assume the brain works like a computer. I suspect this may be accurate for some functions, however, it has limitations. Modern art studios typically have a computer to perform some tasks, hence, the mind’s studio could have some computer-like functions for elements of perception but these need to be viewed in conjunction with overachieving understanding of creative activities.

In my art therapy training, I learned that a healthy mind was a mind had multiple synaptic networks across different regions, likewise, MRIs indicate that when a person is engaged in a creative activity, their whole brain is active. Creativity was not just defined as Art. The creative process could be applied to cooking, writing an essay, and a myriad of other human activities. The inference is clear, to have mental wellbeing, is to be creative. Creativity is life, in each and every moment, humans are constantly creating, nothing is ever an exact replication, unless it is computer generated. Humans are not machines.

Throughout my psychology training, I held this new found wisdom in the forefront of my mind. As each topic was covered, and findings presented, I tested it against my hypothesis. Time and time again, it appeared to be true, moreover, it seemed provable. For example, there is no part of the brain assigned to numbers, as provable by cultures like the Munduruku and Pirahã in Amazonia who do not have names for numbers. They do not count objects with digits in the same way as westerners, instead, they rely upon the elements and principles of scale and proportion, e.g., few, some, or more. Similarly, different cultures name colours differently, albeit, a pattern can be found in how this generally evolves, and much to my fascination, the differences in naming colours across cultures can be identified in brainwaves. (This short documentary introduces the phenomenon well: The Surprising Pattern Behind the Names of Colors Around the World). The names we give colours literal affects how our internal art studio operates; it’s like the brain creates stencils that it can use over and over again in its creative process (kind of like how Banksy reuses stencils to create different artworks; all artists have their schemas that they fall back on.)

My life has been greatly enriched by viewing my mind and the minds of my fellow human beings, as being like a creative art studio. It is through this paradigm that my research is best understood.

PART ONE: Introduction

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