Romas, Romanians, and Romans: A Trip Down a Rabbit Hole that Led to Zamolxis

I spent this morning going down rabbit holes of unexpected learnings. It started by looking at details of the holocaust which made me curious about the “Roma” who were persecuted along side the Jews, some Slavic groups, and people with disabilities. I was initially inspired to explore this due to watching a couple of movies on Netflix yesterday about Hasidic Jews, “Unorthodox” and “One of Us”.

In English, Roma (also known as Romani) are colloquially known as Gypsies. So, at first I was thinking “Okay, so Hilter killed all the nomadic people who were not integrated into society”. Turns out, it was not that simple.

The Romani were an ethnic group that originated from Northern India, therefore have an Indo-European ancestry. Displaced from their original homeland (due to various reasons/theories), they became nomadic, hence Romani have several European “homelands”, one of which is Romania – more on this shortly.

“Did Hilter kill Romani for religious reasons?” I wandered. As it turns out, the simple answer is “No”. Just as the Jews were not killed for their religious beliefs per se, Hilter perceived the ethnicity of Romani to be inferior to native Germans or Ayrans. Hitler supported eugenics to the ninth degree, you could almost say eugenics was Hitler’s religion.

Side note: a lot of world leaders practiced eugenics, including ones in Australia, but Hilter’s genocide programs made his devotion to the ideology much more “effective” than most others who relied more upon sterilisation and other tactics designed to create “utopian” civilisations. In Australia, our eugenics legacy includes the institutionalisation of people mental health issues (and things like being poor could be considered to be a mental health disorder), the incarceration of First Nation people in reserves, and the stolen generation … Australians really have not faced the full impact of our politicians' support of eugenics. 

Interestingly, Romani don’t have a unified religion, rather groups practiced a variety of faiths ranging from Hinduism through to Christianity and Islam. Roma are, however, bound by a common language, Rromanës, albeit there are different dialects. Rromanës is a language derived from Sanskrit and is not to be confused with Romance languages that are derived by Roman (Latin) influences.

Whilst Romani groups are tight knit communities who at one point in time originated from the same location, their uniformity has been subject to adaptation to outside influences and/or pressures. Historical derivatives of “follow our religion or be killed” by both Christian and Islamic leaderships can be speculated as being contributing factors to the loss of Hinduism amongst some Roma.

I decided to explore further, in particular I wanted to know the connection between Romas, Romanians and Romans. I soon discovered I was following a typical misunderstanding; while many Romani live in Romania, despite the linguistic similarity of their names, the two groups have very different histories. For this reason, the Romanian government is actively trying to have the term Roma (which was officially instigated in 1971) replaced by the alternative, Tigan. Romanians say it is an insult to both cultures when they are confused as being one (I can understand this sentiment if I imagine Australians being confused with Austrians – there are no kangaroos in Austria, mate).

Romanians, like many European countries, generally have a low opinion of Romani because they are considered to be antisocial, uneducated, and are associated with begging, stealing, and other criminal activity. Having said that, there is currently a shift away from hatred towards more compassion and understanding being given to this persecuted population who have limited access to education, healthcare, etc. Amnesty International actively assists Roma who are subject to poverty and prejudices.

Unlike the Jews who have global representation and the capacity to speak out about their holocaust experiences, the Romani are not so well represented, therefore, they can still experience a lot of unjust discrimination.

Romani essentially have nothing to do with Romania. Further, given Roma come from India, it’s not surprising that they have no connection to Rome, unless their clan accepted Christianity as their religion, as did happen when Romani were nomadic citizens of Christian nations, like Romania. So, perhaps there is a vague connection there? I needed to investigate further.

Above: Map of European/Asia Minor counties in 1CE. Dacia is highlighted by red outline. Areas shaded in pink are Roman territories. Parts of Dacia (that held valuable gold mines) were taken over by Roman powers c.106CE. Image source: Euratlas

A link between Romania and Romans does exist, so my focus switched to this connection.

Many people have asked questions regarding Romanian’s link to Ancient Rome, and there are an abundance of theories out there so I’m not going to go into too much detail (I enough readers to Google information for themselves if they want more precise information). Putting it briefly, the Romans took control of about 30% of what is current day Romania because they wanted access to their gold mines. The existing population, the Dacians, put up heroic resistance but, alas, the Roman military was too strong. According to Quora responses, most current day Romanians have a shared sense of honour towards both their Dacian and Roman ancestors.

The Dacians have a fascinating history, and as per my norm, I wanted to explore their religious beliefs. Much to my surprise, they were mostly monotheistic. Why was I surprised by this? I guess it’s because I’m so used to being told that most religions before Christianity were polytheistic … and yet my research so often reveals elsewise – that’s a rant for another day. 

The supreme deity of the Dacians was called Zamolxis. 

Zamolxis was Lord of life and death. The Dacians (and their neighbours, the Thracians) believed their souls were immortal and that upon death they’d live on in a blissful afterlife. Death was almost celebrated, as was common in many ancient cults and cultures (the only difference between a cult and culture is the number of people involved, in both instances the terms simply refers to a group of people who have a shared set of values; both cults and cultures can be considered healthy or destructive depending on what values they support).

I’ve long noted that soldiers who are taught the afterlife is better than the physical realm are braver than those who fear death (a classic modern day example being ISIS suicide bombers). In the case of the Dacians, attitudes towards death were exemplified through ceremonial human sacrifices offered to Zamolxis every five years. (Whilst little is known about the Mithras cult which many of the Roman soldiers followed, I suspect giving one’s life in the name of Mithras was a significant component of the belief system – how else could Roman soldiers have been so ruthless? Sorry, I’m getting off track again.)

Some reports say that Zamolxis was a slave to Pythagoras (the Greek mathematician who was born of a virgin), while others say he was Pythagoras’ student. (Modern understandings of terms “slave” and “student” can differ to ancient concepts.)

Plato also had a few interesting things to say about Zamolxis, such as he was a great physician who could heal the body and mind. 

Other tidbits about Zamolxis include details of him studying with Egyptians and Babylonians (Zoroastrian priests to be exact), and his teachings revolve around the theme of light overcoming darkness. Herodotus claims Zamolxis was a real man who taught the Dacians about immortality, then disappeared into a cave for three years. When he came back to the Dacians a second time, some interpreted these events as Zamolxis dying and resurrecting.

On a hunch, I decided to look up when Zamolxis birthday was, and guess what? It is mid winter, ie., 25 December … conversely, April fools day seems to have been a popular time for virgins to become pregnant to prophets, deities, nobles, or the otherwise divine (in ancient times a virgin could simply be a reference to a young woman, an it was young women who had babies)

Ancient records are hard to decipher and/or the author’s tendencies to add personal opinions as fact makes precise information difficult to interpret actual events. Consequently, I am hesitant to claim Zamolxis is an archetype of Jesus; the theological foundations of the ancient world are not that straightforward and I’m not comfortable with contemporary definitions of the idea of archetypes. I’d prefer to reserve judgment and practice ongoing learning.

One final learning about Zamolxis that I’d like to share is that of the legend of the werewolf. According to the stories, the first werewolf was a Zamolxis priest who was dedicated to protecting the Dacian people. Ergo, werewolves are a positive symbol of protection … unless of course you are the enemy of the Dacian … What a classic example of how perspective can change everything!

As a final reflection on my morning of self education, it never ceases to amaze me that following a particular issue can lead to such fascinating paths of discovery and new knowledge. When I first started to investigate who Hilter ordered to be killed in gas chambers, I had no idea the quest would end with learnings about ancient Dacia.

Raw Flesh, St Valentine, Forbidden Marriages, and Great Uncertainty

One of the wonderful things about the develop of technology is that facts can be checked in an instant. Today, February 14, which is known throughout the Westernised world as Valentines Day has presented such an opportunity.

While casually scrolling through Facebook, I came across a post about the Ancient Roman Festival of Lupercalia and it’s links to Christianity and Saint Valentine. The story was extraordinary, so I decided to check out the facts, and as bizarre as some of the antidotes are, the story rings true, well kind of.

Lupercalia

Lupercalia was a she-wolf Roman goddess who nurtured the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf), c.1200s, Louve, Paris

(Source: Public Domain)

Each year on February 15, the Romans partook in a festival that involved animal sacrifice (goat and dog to be precise), dancing, and encouragement of sensual pleasures. Part of the tradition involved two priests running around with sections of the sacrificed animals and slapping the bloody flesh on women. To be hit was an omen of fertility. You could say this was authentic Roman(ce) behaviour.

As the years progressed, and Christianity became the formal religion of Rome (313 CE), the pagan festival lost popularity. In 494 CE it was completely forbidden by Pope Gelasius I. The celebration of St Valentine on February 14 is generally considered to be a Christianised Holy Day designed to take the attention away from the pagan Lupercalia festival. Moreover, the aim was to encourage a more measured, spiritualised version of love. In other words, traditions like poetry and note writing were considered more tasteful than slapping a single women with a hunk of raw flesh. It is times like these I completely agree with Christian values.

How does St Valentine fit into the picture?

Legends says Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (reigned c.268-70) cancelled marriages so as to encourage more men to fight in battle. Apparently, males were hesitant to go out and get killed while trying to kill other men in order for the Emperor to take control of more men, lands, possessions, and everything. Why would men be hesitant? The Emperor decided it was the usual cause of all men’s problems, women. Clearly, it was the wives and girlfriends stopping men from obeying their Emperor. If the men couldn’t get engaged or married then that would surely encourage them to go to war.

If the scenario sounds a bit doggy, then you’re not alone. Concise records (if they ever existed) to confirm these events have not survived. But since when has truth got in the way of a good story?

Popular opinion declares that the Christian priest, Valentine, married couples in secret, thus spoiling Emperor Claudius’ scheme. Subsequently, Valentine was hunted down, put in prison, and killed on February 14. If true, I’m not really sure how to rate it as a romantic gesture, but is it a good example of Christians being martyred for their oppositional behaviour, not their beliefs per se.

Saint Valentine Blessing an Epileptic

(Source: Public Domain)

Several other stories are also in circulation, such as Valentine falling in love with his prison guard’s daughter and sending her a love note signed “Your Valentine”. Christian priests weren’t forbidden to marry back in those days, so it’s not impossible. Still, not to sure where it ranks on the romance score board. Personally I’d be a bit creeped out if I were that prison guard’s daughter. I mean, the guy was on dead row, was it true love or just opportunity?

There are also reports of Valentine miraculously curing a judge’s daughter of blindness. This swayed the law official into converting to Christianity, and resulted in the release of several Christians from prison. (Saints in those days seemed to be much better at performing miracles than more recent eras.)

The Catholic Online website presents a few more theories about Valentine without giving absolute credence to any of them. It does, however, concede that there is a real St Valentine whose feast day is February 14, despite the Church not really knowing who he really is or why they are honouring him.

Juno

Somewhere in the mix of Valentines Day traditions are rumours that Juno Fructifier celebrations took place on February 14. Juno, the chief Goddess of Rome, was celebrated with references to childbirth, and husbands giving wives presents. While this may be accurate, other sources indicate Juno was celebrated on March 1. The dates are close enough to speculate that Juno worship influenced St Valentine’s Day celebrations, albeit, it isn’t a perfect match.

Final Word: Uncertainty

Love is a great thing to celebrate and February 14 is as good a day as any; however, as for the reasons why it has become a tradition, I have a great level of uncertainty about the justifications. Then again, word romance itself refers to imitating the strategies Roman soldiers used to woo women, so maybe the all the legends, stories, and antidotes are appropriate?

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 15 -Industrial Revolution and Female Artists

The industrial revolution brought new challenges to humans. As machines gradually replaced the work once done by village artisans and commercial agricultural methods reduced the need for small farm crops, both genders became displaced. At the same time, middle class men began objecting to not being able to have a say in political matters. In England, in 1780 only 3% of the population were on the electoral roll. Inspired by the French Revolution (1789), men’s suffrage began, however, it was not successful till late in the nineteenth century, and women over thirty were only given voting privileges in 1918. Comparatively, Australia was more advanced with all men having voting rights in the 1850s and women in 1902. 

Alongside occupational and political changes was the phenomenon of more and more people moving from rural areas to the cities. In turn, literacy became an issue, especially if a person wanted a blue collar job. By the end of the nineteenth century, about 60% of the population were literate. Within all the social changes, was the Age of Enlightenment (1715 – 1789), a period marked by a cultural shift from superstitions to rationalisations based on scientific evidence. Thus, feminism emerged.

In the art world, Renaissance standards had given way to Mannerism, Barque, Rocco, and Neoclassicism had started. During this time female artists became more accepted. France led the way, namely through Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) and Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Le Brun was the daughter of a portraitist painter, Louis Vigée. By the time she was in her early teens, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally, however, she got into trouble at one stage for practicing as an artist without a license, and consequently her studio was seized by authorities. Not realising that they had exhibited the work of a woman, the Académie de Saint-Luc, felt obliged to give her a license. 

Le Brun created a name for herself by serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette – The last queen of France before the revolution. She created 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.

In 1787, Le Brun created a social scandal with her painting of Self Portrait with Daughter, Julia.

Le Brun, Self Portrait with Daughter, Julia, 1787

Source: Wikipedia Commons

How could such a seemingly harmless painting create a scandal? Answer: a smile. Le Brun’s rendering of her teeth was perceived as an insult to art’s long standing tradition of not showing teeth in a portrait. One critic claimed: “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée LeBrun] shows her teeth.”

Seemingly unperturbed, Le Brun continued to paint portraits with teeth.

The Le Brun scandal highlights the notion that art history has many unspoken rules. Given that such rules are unspoken, they are difficult to identify.

Rosa Bonheur

Bonheur’s family background may be described as alternative. Her father was a Saint-Simonian Socialist and he believed all wealth should be shared because all people were equal – except personal property – this was mainly directed to hereditary systems such as royalty. He also believed girls were worth as much value as boys and should be raised the same way. They wanted a society based on love, with no war or class distinctions. The Saint-Simonian philosophy also included the belief that a new saviour would come in the form of a woman.

Like Le Brun, Bonheur’s father was a painter and he taught his daughter. Her favourite subject matter were horses and other animals. In order to work in comfort, Bonheur preferred wearing trousers instead of dresses; to do so required getting a permit or else she would be fined.

Enforcing ideals of femininity and beauty through policed dress codes has a long history. For instance, the hiding of women’s faces with veils became vague in Roman times (before Mohammad established Islam). A thousand or so years later, garments of peasant men and women were very similar, however, when witch-hunt mania took hold pockets were taken out of women’s clothing so as they couldn’t carry around their magic potions.




Rosa Bonheur, Landscape with Deer, 1887

Source: New Statesman

PART SIXTEEN: Child Development

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 15 -Industry Revolution and Female Artists

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 14 – Female Academics

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 13 – Melting Pot

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 10 – Personal Declaration of Faith

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 9 – Christianity and Disease

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 13 – Melting Pot

In the mid 1450s, about 30% of the population (mostly males) were literate (it was only around 5-10% who received formal education; some learned to read by other means). This figure was a small increase on previous populations.

The cultivating of new ideas via printed material during the Renaissance birthed a movement called Humanism, an outlook that gave appreciation of what it means to be human based on observations and inquiry, as opposed to looking at religion or theology for answers. Its focus on ancient philosophy centred on human ingenuity and creativity, therefore provided a basis for rejecting the rigidity of scholastic (and Aristotelian) education protocols.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was an older member of the Humanist movement, nonetheless, he made an impact in regards to rejecting Aristotle’s ethics and challenged the Catholic church’s values, like the exchange of payment for the forgiveness of sins in indulgences and the creation of lavish architecture that housed expensive paintings and artefacts. Luther pinned a thesis outlining all his grievances against the Catholic Church to the door of a little church in Germany and in doing so gave rise to the Reformation of the Church. For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church had been the only denomination of Christianity, now slowly at first, many people began rejecting the Pope’s authority. After Lutherism came Church of England, Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and more.

Luther’s impact on the Church was mammoth, he did not, however, push the envelope on gender equality. A Humanist who did speak up for the plights of so-called inferior women was Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546). Elyot challenged the Aristotelian attitude of the feminine in a publication titled: In Defence of Good Women.

Holbein, Portrait of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1532–34

Source: Wikipedia

Within this melting pot of change were alterations to the Bible (for full details see History of Christian Bible Publications with References to Media Codes and Conventions). From the 400s through to the 1500s, the Bible was primarily available was the Latin, the Vulgate. The first English translation is credited to William Tyndale (1494 – 1536). Because English , as language, was still forming Tyndale had to invent some words to express ideas, like scapegoat and passover.

By the time the Kind James version of the Bible was printed in 1611, many aspects of the Bible had changed. For example, Moses lost his horns.

The image of Moses coming down from the Mount Sinai with horns on his head, was immortalised by Michaelangelo’s sculpture that was commissioned for the Tomb of Pope Julius II. For thousands of years, most Christians and Jews believed that speaking to God created this fascinating physical transformation, as per the description in the Vulgate that was written by Jerome (c.345 – 420 CE) in the fourth century. However, when renaissance scholars referenced Hebrew manuscripts, they decided this was a mistranslation. Rather than horns, it was concluded Moses came down from Mount Sinai with radiance (Exodus 34:29). The cause of this apparent error was the that in Hebrew word for “horn” was similar to the word for “radiant”.


Michelangelo, Moses, Tomb, 1505-1545

Source: Wikipedia

With the benefit of hindsight, the bigger picture of occultism emerging while the Christianity was moving the goal posts of Biblical language is an interesting thing to contemplate. The environment was ripe for wanna be gurus to declare their translations were right and all others wrong, however, it was not that simple. The Roman Catholics (as they became known in order to differentiate them from newer denominations) still held a significant seat of power, and through laws and inquisitions, so-called heretical beliefs could result in a person being imprisoned or put to death. Given this reality of the consequences of disagreeing with the Pope, it’s not surprising that if anyone wanted to explore an alternative belief system they had to do so in secret. Occultism’s tentacles stretched out far into realms of Christian mysticism, the Jewish Kabbalah, the Islamic Sufism, Ancient Religions, Alchemy, and more. Were there groups who turned the Christian cross upside down and prayed to Lucifer? Yes, there probably were. Were there groups who venerated Christ as a being of love and prayed for world peace? Yes, there probably were.

There is little doubt cults of all sorts emerged, led by charismatic leaders, who claimed their interpretations of symbolism, or knowledge of the ancients, or whatever angle they chose to take, was more correct than others. We have plenty of examples of such cults from antiquity through to today. The nuances of human nature include a hardwire desire to belong, and cults achieve this very well.

There is also very little doubt in my mind that one of the approaches the Catholic Church used to suppress more splintering of the Church was to label alternative philosophies as evil or heretical, thus occultism became derogatory. In my opinion, the degree to which any of these were truly evil or true, cannot be measured by doctrines alone. As described in part 2: My personal view is that if a cult prescribes any form of abusive, controlling, or trauma-inducing practices (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), then it can rightly be defined as a destructive cult. Alternatively, if a group of people who prescribe to a shared belief system encourage positive behaviours like love, non-judgment, kindness, inclusiveness, and trauma-formed healing practices, then it is a positive cult. Within this definition is the capacity for varying degrees of negative and positive traits within cults.

A casual observation of Christianity between about 1450 and 1650 is that men were more likely to be demonised by the Church for their thoughts and beliefs, whereas women more likely to be accused of being witches.

Allegations of witchcraft basically consisted of someone being accused of being involved with supernatural activities that were not approved of by the Church. Ironically, Church history is full of stories about brave men who fought demons and dragons (like St George). But if a woman used their knowledge of herbs to heal, then they were demonised, especially if there was a tragedy like a death in childbirth. Heck, all a woman had to do was give a look of distain and they could be accused of murder, because, you know, a woman eyesight can tarnish mirrors so it’s only logical that their glance could kill someone (see Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest Gender of Them All?). In order to avoid being accused of giving an evil eye, all women needed to do was stay in a perpetual state of happiness and be content in knowledge that their souls were innately inferior to men. To achieve this aim, aspiring to the impossible perfection of the Virgin Mary was encouraged.

By the end of the 1600s, the percentage of people who were literate had risen to about 47% (still mostly males).

PART THIRTEEN: Female Academics

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 13 – Melting Pot

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 10 – Personal Declaration of Faith

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 9 – Christianity and Disease

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists

The third category, people who explored the potential for Aristotle’s truth without giving defiant allegiance, includes people like Durer, who studied Ancient Greeks with the desire to apply their theories in practical means. His desire to explore mystical symbolism was quite overt, as already mentioned in reference to Melancholia. His representation of Biblical scenes has had profound influence on how the symbolism is interpreted (I touch upon this in Did the Whitehorseman Have a Bow, Bow, or Bow?) Durer is also an often unrecognised pioneer of contemporary iconography, with achievements including the designing of the Times New Roman font which he based upon the mathematical principles of balance and beauty as prescribed by Elucid.

Da Vinci was also driven by a desire to process and conceptualise ancient wisdom, as evidenced in the many sketchbooks he left behind. Further, in his final years, Da Vinci spent hours conversing with the King of France sharing his life time of insights. Michaelangelo also appears to have explored occult wisdom; a small indication of this comes from an entry in one of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks that records a clash the two artists had over how one should interpret Dante’s poetry. In his artworks, Michaelangelo is also reported to have subtly challenged the Church’s refusal to accept scientific knowledge by hiding images of the human brain in some of his works on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, such as Separation of Light from Darkness and The Creation of Adam. Another artist known to be familiar with ancient philosophy, is Raphael, who immortalised the atmosphere of the Renaissance era’s preoccupation with with Ancient Greek in his painting the School of Athens which was commissioned by the Vatican.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11

Source: Wikipedia

In addition to deliberately incorporating “hidden” messages into paintings, some artists simply appropriated ancient themes. For example, in Tintoretto’s Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, we see the depiction of of Ariadne blessing a marriage between Venus and Bacchus.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, 1576-7

Source: Wikipedia

From a contemporary viewpoint, we may believe that Tintoretto was trying to portray an authentic rendition of the ancient stories (note: the Roman’s appropriated Greek stories left, right, and centre – the number of authentic Roman stories is minute once copies of Greek stories that had the character’s names changed to Roman deities have been accounted for). However, when it is understood that Renaissance artists were sometimes simply drawing upon ancient stories for inspiration, not imitation, the significance of storylines alters.

I suspect, Tintoretto did not necessarily give a hoot about the theological significance of ancient symbols. Rather, he was a contemporary man of his era who worked with colloquial interpretations of symbols. In Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, it can be speculated that the average Venetian knew that Bacchus was the God of wine (Dionysus in Greek) and Venus was the Goddess of beauty (Aphrodite in Greek; Plato tells us there are two Aphrodites but that’s besides the point at the moment; see Psychoanalysis and Castration for tongue in cheek interpretation of Venus’ birth). However, the average Venetian did not necessarily understand that Bacchus/Dionysus and Venus/Aphrodite were personifications of spiritual concepts (see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts). Rather, Tintoretto, and his contemporaries, potentially had a very shallow understanding of these deities. As such, in an almost mocking fashion, the God and Goddess were appropriated to suit their own culture; Venus symbolised the beautiful Venetian waters and Bacchus symbolised the Venetian culture of festivity – the their annual masquerade carnivals included a lot of drinking! In other words, the painting is a cartuniture, albeit executed with refined artistic skill to create the illusion of perspective and reality. In other words, the colloquial symbolism of the waters of Venice being married to culture of Venice has been personified by Venice and Bacchus.

The personification of nations and bodies of water has links to figurative speech. For instance, homelands being known as motherlands or fatherlands - the masculinisation or feminisation of territories can vary according to historical contexts. Similarly, bodies of water have a mixed history of being referred to by male and female phrases and/or deities. 

Another example of the personification of groups of people is that of the Hochgurtel Fountain at the Melbourne’s Exhibition Building (1880). The young boys in the sculpture symbolise Melbourne being a young colony.

Tintoretto’s approach to artistic subjects matters, exemplifies human qualities of humour, irony, and repurposing symbols. To appreciate art, one needs more than a serious stiff upper lip.

Psychoanalysts might view paintings like Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne as being representative of so-called universal symbolism that reoccur across time and cultures. Conversely, an occultist might view the representations of deities as being some sort of “proof” of their enduring significance. However, such mindsets do not capture the creative impulse of appropriation, irony, and playfulness. Two quotes from Picasso aptly wrap up the situation. Firstly, Picasso said “Art lies then tries to convince you its telling the truth”, and “Bad artists imitate, the great artists steal”. Thanks Banksy! 

Source: Quote Master

As a final point for consideration on the topic of artists not always creating images with a complete seriousness, Raphael is championed with having painted the face of Heraclitus (centre, foreground figure writing on a piece of paper) to be a likeness to Michaelangelo in The School of Athens. Artists of refined skill and intellectual temperaments can be very witty and sometimes insert secretive elements into their compositions just because they can.

PART THIRTEEN: Melting Pot

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 10 – Personal Declaration of Faith

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 9 – Christianity and Disease

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

When I began my research by pinning notes along my hallway, I did so with an open mind, therefore, it surprised me when I observed that so many of my paths of inquiry lead back to Aristotle. 

Volumes upon volumes could be written about influential men in religion, medicine, politics, and other positions of power being guided or repelled by Aristotle’s so-called wisdom. Like a child who does not want to part with their teddy bear at night, western cultures seem to have clung to that which they have known and is familiar to them for so long. 

The tides began to change when Aristotle’s ideas were disseminated beyond the few during the 1500s. In this era three broad categories of people emerged. One being those who continued to support Aristotle’s authority, others who rejected Aristotle’s authority, and then those who explored the potential for Aristotle’s truth without giving defiant allegiance. The first category includes countless academics who followed traditions they’d been taught in places like at the University of Paris (Side note: the first university that resembles today’s structure was established in Spain by an Islamic woman, Fatima Al-Fihri). The second category includes people like Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton. 

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is most well known for his mathematical skills and his improvements to telescope lenses that enabled him to discover new stars, three moons on Jupiter, the rings on Saturn, and phases that Venus went through. Galileo’s observations supported Copernicus’ theory that the earth rotated around the sun, thereby discrediting Aristotle’s cosmology that claimed the sun and the planets rotated around earth.

From a theological perspective, Aristotle’s cosmology was arguably never meant to be a model of the actual universe. Rather, it was an occult representation of the human being that fell in line with the classical elements. According to Aristotle’s cosmology the earth (the physical body) is the centre, followed by layers of water (life-force or ether), air (soul; can be divided into further layers), fire (spirit or intellect; can be divided into further layers), and celestial fire (aesther or spirit of God). The theology, in its more expanded form, references astrology symbols (see below).

Depiction of Aristotle’s Geocentric Model.

(It’s possible that looking at Aristotle’s model as a human being is what inspired Sömmerring to look for the twelve cranial nerves.)

Source: Achilies and Aritstotle

On many levels, the situation with Galileo is curious. Did he know and understand Aristotle’s model was a theology, not literal? Is that why he put it aside and worked on observing real outer space instead? Or did Galileo, ignorant of Aristotle’s symbolism, just look out into the sky and try to learn more about it because that’s what his passion was? Why did Church leaders insist Aristotle’s model was correct, even when scientific evidence said else wise? Why was maintaining Aristotle’s authority so important to them? Was the Church committed to maintaining Aristotle authority because of its long tradition of doing so through scholastism and works by people like Aquinas that it did not want to loose face? Who in the Church knew that Aristotle’s model was a theology of the human body and who did not? The questioning could go on longer than a Catholic inquisition. However, it was the Church who ran the inquisitions, not the other way around. The bottom line was that the Church disapproved of Galileo’s work and in 1633 he was brought before an inquisition charged with heresy; to spare his life Galileo claimed he didn’t believe his own findings.

René Descartes (1596-1650) demonstrated a sound knowledge of ancient theology in relation to the classical elements: 

… we consider, in particular, the nature of the earth, and of all the bodies that are most generally found upon it, as air, water, fire, the loadstone and other minerals.

Rene Descartes, The Principles of Philosophy, 1644, p.15

Hence, it was with a full understanding of Aristotle’s theories and that of the four elements, Descartes broke away from the commonly held assumptions of earth, water, air, and fire. In doing so he came up with apparently new theories of the body, mind, and soul. Then again, upon closer inspection Descartes theorises of different types of thinking, still resonate with some ancient ideas. Plato tells us that the nature of the soul was the most debated topic among philosophers, so perhaps Descartes was just siding with theologies that differed to the Church’s appropriation of Aristotle?

Descartes famously remarked: “[if] I’m thinking, so I exist”, which isn’t too far removed from Plato’s ideas of man’s nous being a conduit that can connect him to celestial forces.

As previously mentioned, both Galileo’s and Descartes’ works were put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) respected Descartes rejection of Aristotle and embraced Galileo’s focus on mathematics. In addition to the many scientific studies Newton did, he also had an interest in Biblical symbols. Newton took a scientific approach to the Bible and analysed scripture to identify language patterns, allegory systems, and symbols that he believed were known and applied by all prophets:

The Rule I have followed has been to compare the several mystical places of scripture where the same prophetic phrase or type is used, and to fix such a signification to that phrase as agrees best with all the places . . . and, when I had found the necessary significations, to reject all others as the offspring of luxuriant fancy, for no more significations are to be admitted for true ones than can be proved.

Isaac Newton, Royal Society, 2015, p. 524

Examples of the codes Newton worked out were: Sun = King; Moon = groups of common people referred to as wife; Darkening of celestial bodies = doom for political groups; and Dens and rocks in mountains = temples. Where Biblical texts referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Newton claimed it meant Spirit, Water, and Blood. Newton also theorised that somewhere early in Christianity, the writings of prophets had been forged. Specifically, he blamed Arianism and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

In his own lifetime, Newton did not make a grand public display of his learnings about biblical symbolism and his research into the early Church. He did, however, do his best to avoid taking priesthood vows, as was expected of men who completed a Masters degree. It could be conjectured that Newton was fortunate to have been witness to the beginnings of the unraveling of religious and educational entanglement.

.

PART TWELVE: Renaissance Artists

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 10 – Personal Declaration of Faith

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 9 – Christianity and Disease

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 17 – Jung, Freud’s Protege

Freud’s protege, Jung, was a lot more thorough in his research of symbols, their history, and their meaning. At the risk of sounding condescending, I am impressed with how well he understood some symbology, like in the following:

The meaning of the “ministering wind” is probably the same as the procreative pneuma, which streams from the sun-god into the soul and fructifies it. The association of sun and wind frequently occurs in ancient symbolism.

Carl Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious, p.102

In the above quote, Jung’s commentary on air (ministering wind and pneuma) and fire (sun-god) shows an understanding of theologies related to concepts found in the classical elements (see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts). However, his conclusion that this occurred because of a “collective consciousness” is a mystical explanation that overlooks two obvious points. Firstly, as any gardener knows, the sun and the air (or wind) are significance factors (along with water and earth) that effect life on earth, therefore, the ancients’ use of these principles to symbolise esoteric phenomena is not surprising. The fructification of the air by the sun is a natural phenomenon everywhere around the earth. Secondly, besides over looking the indexical level of the symbolism (see The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics), Jung overlooked the fact that Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Christians shared symbols and concepts (hence the similarities. (The writings of Iamblicus demonstrates this point well in regards to Egypt and Greece ideologies). Jung’s marvelling of crossovers between ancient civilisations is a bit like marvelling over the similarities in culture between England, Australia, and America without identifying historical links.

The greatest point on which Jung’s theories can be falsified is on account of symbols being universal. He overlooked symbols’ ability to adapt and be appropriated by skilled artisans, like Tintoretto, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, and many others. He also overlooked artistic traditions (unspoken rules) and the history of art as a series of progressive movements. Arguably, Jung was so focused on trying to work out the mysteries of the so-called occult that he overlooked education and personal experiences as being foundational aspects of man-made symbolism.

It is also possible that Jung, and his supporters, are so indoctrinated into cultures that support Plato’s theory of so-called universality (i.e., the theory of forms) that their “shadow” prevents them from appreciating the infinite capabilities of human creativity. (Jung claimed the Shadow was the unconscious aspect of the ego that could prevent one from seeing the realities before then; in a nut shell, Jung’s theory of the shadow is an appropriation of spiritual concepts found in Ancient Egyptian theology).

Psychoanalysis neglects recognition that creativity is an activity often blended with humour, wit, irony, puns, and various other quaint qualities. The so-called science of psychoanalysis is based on outdated framework of the mind in which creativity is perceived as being a function located in a specific part of the brain, whilst contemporary findings support it is actually a whole brain activity.

Essentially, creativity is a process in which prior knowledge is deconstructed then reconstructed in a new way. In other words, it is a problem solving process. Depending upon the message one wants to convey, the manner in which symbols, words, and gestures are put together will differ. Contemporary neuroscience explanations of creativity is well presented in the Netflix documentary, The Creative Brain.

Photo Source: Nonnaci

Diagram of Jung’s theory of consciousness : all of Jung’s concepts are appropriations of ancient traditions. For example, the terms Anima and Animus are Latin for soul and spirit (Anima = feminine noun and Animus = masculine noun). Therefore, the original Latin meanings are not the same as Jung’s. Similarly, Jung claims the Shadow is the unconscious aspect of the ego, a concept derived but different to the Ancient Egyptian concept of Shuyet, the shadow self.

There is a strong element of irony in the manner in which Jung took concepts, names, and symbols from a variety of ancient traditions and effectively created a new religion.

Jung’s theories are not without worth, however, they need to be viewed in the context in which they were made: a summary and harmonisation of ancient theology. Moreover, his archetypes are stereotypes of symbology created by our patriarchal forefathers.

A genuine archetype, in the ancient Greek sense of the word, is a prototype; a model that can be built upon and diversified. For example, the first bicycle ever invented has similarities to today’s models but there have been many alterations and improvements. From wooden frames with no peddles through to penny-farthings and motorised e-bikes. Most bikes have some similar features in so much as they have two wheels (some have more) and they enable people to move from place to place at a quicker pace than walking. The point is, there is no universal bike, over the years there has been much diversity and improvements. Further, one also needs to question if a bike can be called an “archetype” in the first place. What did a bike evolve from? A carriage? A chariot? The invention of the wheel? A rock rolling down a hill? Or is a bike more like the evolution of horse? That is the way archetypes (prototypes) are supposed to be; they change. Jung’s theory that archetypes don’t change goes against the grain of human nature, namely, the creative spirit. (I explore this concept in The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology.)

Continuing on a theology level, Abrahamic religions present the symbolic image of the first human as being male (Adam) but elsewhere, like the First Nations people of New Zealand, creation stories depict the first human as female (Hineahuone). If there’s an except to the rule, there is no rule.

People are diverse and our species is constantly evolving. If one wants to dip their toe into Darwinism, one could even ask, what were humans before being human?

My research suggests many of our ancestors perceived a dualistic approach to evolution, i.e., as the physical body ascended from “earth” and “water” and our ethereal essence descended from “air” and “fire” substances. That, however, is a simplistic way to describe and harmonise ancient theology. 

To not throw the baby out with the bath water, Jung’s categorisations of archetypes such as ruler, creator, sage, outlaw, explorer, caregiver, and so forth can be of value in certain circumstances. They are relatable, easy to read symbols that have a shared tradition across westernised cultures. They are a language of symbolism that can be used to open up conversations and tease out ideas. The great danger is in taking them to be finite. Moreover, there is the risk that if they are taken as universal truths then they can be used to promote sexism and misogyny, as Jordan Peterson (1962 – ) does.

I do not disagree with everything Peterson says but his conclusions about the meanings of mythological symbolism is a perfect example of how psychoanalytic theories can be detrimental to understanding true history and genders issues. Peterson asserts Jung’s theories of archetypes to be correct and therefore are a means of justifying patriarchal values. I call out some of Peterson’s shallow research practices in No Peterson, Chaos is not a universal feminine trait found across mythology. Even more alarming is Peterson’s mis-telling of myths to support his sexist agenda of promoting the idea that men are naturally supposed to dominate women.

In a YouTube clip in which Peterson is giving a lecture to university students about Egyptian mythology (Jordan Peterson Tells An Old Story About Gods), he states that Osiris ruled Egypt and his partner, Isis, was the Queen of the underworld. He even goes so far as to say Isis is the archetype of a hyena and compares her to the hyenas in Walt Disney’s The Lion King. (FYI, studying ancient theology by watching children’s movies is not an endorsed form of academia.) I suspect, Ancient Egyptians would turn in their graves if they had heard what he was saying. To them, Isis was their much beloved Queen of Heavens and a woman who possessed profound magic and healing powers. She was affiliated with the Pharaoh’s throne, namely because she helped her son, Horus, be a great leader. Conversely, Osiris was Prince of the underworld where he judged the souls of the dead with Anubis, a jackal-headed god who ate the hearts of deceased if they were heavier than a feather.

Throughout the video, Peterson states many eyebrow raising comments which, to my detailed understandings of symbolism through art, indicate a very biased and incomplete view of history and ancient theology. Further, his over emphasis on hierarchies diminishes other life principles, like harmony; at no point does Peterson acknowledge how much the Ancient Egyptians prided themselves on maintaining harmony. While nations rose and fell around them, the Egyptian culture remained stable for about three thousand years. In fact, the Egyptians believed their civilisation was robust and superior to others because they honoured harmony. Peterson’s projection of patriarchal values onto Egyptians symbolism does not reflect what most scholars understand, through the study of hieroglyphs, to be a culture that embraced gender egalitarianism. The further one explores back into the history of Egypt, the more harmony between gender’s can be identified. Conversely, as Egypt became more influenced by other cultures, like Greece, the less gender equality that can be identified (Egypt became Hellenistic following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Alexandria, previously known as Rhakotis or Râ-Kedet).

Peterson’s oversights of theology and history can be further identified by reviewing the writings of Iamblichus of the third century, an Egyptian priest and Neoplatonist. When speaking to a Greek philosopher, Iamblichus explains that the Egyptians understood the Greek’s classical elements, however, where the Greeks arranged the elements of earth, water, air, and fire, into a hierarchy, the Egyptians believed the elements worked in equal proportions, in harmony.

In sum, my assessment of Jungian psychoanalysis is that Jung conducted some thorough research, but he dismissed variables that disproved his hypothesises. Often Jung’s supporters, like Peterson, miss the subtleties of Jung’s research, and in doing so create a situation in which misinformation is shared as being factual. The misinterpretations of Jung’s theories are more alarming than Jung’s theories themselves, ie., Peterson is seen by many to be an authority feature and he has a cult following.

As a final note on psychoanalytic theory, I propose that the “Joseph-Gigolo complex” be brought into formal psychology discussions. It is a condition in which the person believes in the validity of psychoanalytical interpretations of symbolism despite being shown scientific and historical evidence to the contrary. Another key feature of someone, usually a man, with the Joseph Gigolo complex is that they tend to polarise men between the binary qualities of being fundamentally noble and worthy of being selected by God to partner the perfect woman, and father a perfect child, whilst at the same time being entitled to have sex and attention from multiple women at the same time. Men with the Joseph Gigolo complex have misogynistic tendencies; they tend to view women as objects not human beings, ie., they expect females to be like Mary’s or whores. 

Perhaps universities could set aside a few hundred thousand dollars to prove the validity of the Joseph-Gigolo complex. Of course, such research groups would have to be run by women because, as we all know, men can get overly emotional and testostical whenever proof of their gender fitting into a Joseph or gigolo category arise.

(Note: this is a satirical commentary inspired by the social media avatar ManWhoHasItAll.)

PART EIGHTEEN: Summing Up Symbolism

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 16 – Jung, Freud’s Protege

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 15 -Industry Revolution and Female Artists

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 14 – Female Academics

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 13 – Melting Pot

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 10 – Personal Declaration of Faith

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 9 – Christianity and Disease

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

When Constantine legalised Christianity, beliefs pretty much became Romanised. Women were no longer permitted to have leadership roles (like evidence suggests they did in Christianity’s beginnings) and a hierarchical structure like the Roman military emerged., e.g., allegiance to a Pope, Archbishops, Bishops, Deacons, and priests being consolidated; all of these titles were “Father” positions. Amongst the changes, Constantine outlawed male castration, which some priests were doing to help them refrain from sexually immorality (this practice can also be found in other ancients cults that mandated priests had to be eunuchs, such as the Cybele cult).

Other reforms to Christianity brought about by Constantine included the definitive stance on Mary being a Virgin, and discouraging men from marrying (but this was not enforced; that came much later). There was also a lot of debate about the doctrine of the trinity, i.e., whether or not God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were One or if they were three entities. After several decades/centuries of arguing, council meetings organised by Constantine (the Nicaea council) to put an end to the debate. Consequently, it became canonised law that the Trinity as One was the only acceptable Christian belief. From then on, anyone who disagreed was an outcast, moreover, a heretics who would burn in hell (less dramatically, these people were also called Arians). The “us” and “them” mentality of Romanised Christianity was strong.

Outside of the rigid formal Christian structure were monks, friars, brothers, nuns, and mothers. Unlike men, nuns were not permitted to pledge a lifelong commitment to Christ and become “Mothers” until they were over forty. In other words, when they were beyond child rearing age; it was presumed that if a woman was still unmarried at that age then no man wanted her, therefore, they could be Christ’s brides. (Loose connections between Christian covenants and the Roman cult of Vestal Virgins can be made, e.g., higher social status compared to other women.)

Coinciding with the fall of Rome, was the destruction of Alexandria’s library, several pandemics, and other factors. Formal education across Europe dwindled. Throughout the period, often referred to as the Dark Ages (c.476 – 1000CE), education took a back seat. The emergence of the feudal system created a clear divide between the minority who were of noble status, who ruled over the majority, the peasants. Nobility were viewed as having superior status in an almost God-like fashion that is comparable to the Ancient Greek beliefs that people with education deserved to have control over others (as described by Aristotle). The prospect that if everyone was educated, then everyone would be God-like doesn’t appear to have registered being as a possible reality.

In my imagination, a peasant’s life was one of hard labour, every day. Both men and women had to toil the land and work hard just to ensure food supplies were sufficient to stay alive. Education, for both males and females was done at home and/or community setting. Aside from learning a livelihood, learning consisted of things like songs recitals, dancing, herbal remedies, and hearing Bible stories at Sunday church services, albeit the latter were told in Latin and the congregation may have no idea what was being said, but if they were in a Cathedral or their humble village church had pictures on the wall, then their minds could absorb religious iconography like impressions of heaven and hell. Failure to attend Sunday services could result in being imprisoned. There was zero tolerance on missing Church. Even if an emergency arose like cattle giving birth needing assistance, attendance at Church was mandatory; if the cattle and/or foul died then it was considered God’s will.

It is during this period that images of Jesus as a youthful healer waving a wand disappeared. Instead, we start to see a middle aged man with a beard. As shown below, the Byzantine depiction of Jesus was grand and domineering, more like Zeus (or Jupiter) than Apollo.

Byzantine depiction of Jesus, created with mosaics

Source: Wikipedia

Formal education, that was required to become a doctor, statesman, or clergyman was only within the reach of 5% of the population (in regions like modern day Italy it was closer to 10%). From the 5-10% of the population who were educated, most were male. And like in antiquity, education was intertwined with religion.

For most of human history, formal education means to be initiated into some form of theology. It is only in very recent times that attempts have been made to make education non-secular.

Boys who were judged to be too weak, vague, indifferent, or other to be of use in the fields or military, may have been sent to monasteries. Beginning as an altar boy, a priest’s assistant, young males could rise through the ranks of Church-based education/indoctrination. It is also from monasteries that the cliched image of monks meticulously and painstakingly created copies of the Bible with illuminated letters emerges. This practice of being in a semi-meditative state while contemplating the “Word of God” through artistry was a form of education. In some cases, women also copied the bible in covenants. (Stay tuned for a blog dedicated to the history of Bible reproductions.)

Example of handwritten Bible, c.1410

Source: Wikipedia

Some people who entered Christian orders did so of their own free will, while others had other pressures that forced them. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is amongst the category who entered of his own accord. In fact Aquinas’ family were highly alarmed about him joining what they considered to be a cult. They tried, but failed, to convince him to live a “normal life”. (More about Aquinas soon).

From about the Middle Ages onwards, Church education became more formalised through a system called scholasticism (from the Latin schola which means school). It was a dogmatic, rote-based approach in which students were educated under the guidance of their teacher who was presumed to be authority on all matters. In contrast, ancient Greek schools, like Plato’s Academy, included lively debates about topics and learning was published in dialogues to demonstrate various points of view had been explored. It is almost as though a belief had been formed that there was no longer a need to debate issues because the so-called truth of all matters had been settled, primarily by Aristotle. That is to say, almost all teachings were based upon Aristotle’s lecture notes. (See Is Aristotle Overrated? for more details.) Scholastic education dominated from the Middle Ages through to the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance.

Exactly what peasants and people without a formal education believed is difficult to form conjecture about. It could be speculated that much wisdom about nature, the rhythm of the seasons, and pagan superstitions continued. If so, then this knowledge could be viewed as being hidden from official historical records and accounts for yet another aspect of occultism.

PART SEVEN: Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Following Aquinas, Dante Alighieri (1285-1325) is another example of a learned man educated under the influence of Aristotelian ideas. Specifically, he supported Aristotle’s concepts of some men being superior and therefore having divine right to rule:

I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity for which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”.

Dante Alighieri, Monarchy, Book 1, part 3, lines 10-15

Dante’s education history is not well documented. However, it may be presumed he studied at least one scholastic or scholastic-like institution attached to a monastery. He was politically minded and so to hold a political office he had to join a Guild, so he became a pharmacist and joined the pharmacy Guild. Like many men, Dante was also involved with physical battles due to conflict with other powers.

Florence, Dante’s home town, experienced many conflicts relating to politics, religion, and territory. As destiny would have it, Dante finished up on the losing side. Consequently, when he was in his fifties, he was banished and separated from his family. Dante was angry, very angry, especially towards the Church.

Being an intellectual, Dante took pen to paper to express his views through the art of satirical poetry. Dante’s work, like the Divine Comedy, reveals he was well versed in Ancient Greek philosophy. The epic piece contains a myriad of references to characters such as Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hellen of Troy which demonstrate an understanding of the ancient theology behind their namesakes.

Above all, The Divine Comedy, was just that, a comedy. Dante did not use highly sophisticated language to express his views, rather, he wrote in a crude vernacular of Latin, the language of commoners. His aim was to mock the Church’s stance on a number of issues, hence, his books were banned. The fact that the Church later (long after Dante’s death) retracted their objections and embraced him as a golden boy of Christianity is a curious thing.

I am not an expert on Dante, but looking over his work I found one particular verse in The Divine Comedy that struck me as being profound. The line reads: “O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son”.

“O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son,
humble beyond all creatures and more exalted;
predestined turning point of God's intention;
 
Thy merit so ennobled human nature
that its divine Creator did not scorn
to make Himself the creature of His creature.
 
The Love that was rekindled in Thy womb
sends for the warmth of the eternal peace
within whose ray this flower has come to bloom.
 
Here to us, thou art the noon and scope
of Love revealed; and among mortal men,
the living fountain of eternal hope.”

The line is a confusing mixture of symbolic language; “mother” and “daughter” are both described in relation to the “Son”. How could the biblical Mary be both Jesus’ mother and daughter? While pondering this question, I remembered Justin Martyr and his explanation the Jewish custom of using a family structure to represent groups of people (see: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr). Could this really be? If Leah and Rachel were symbolic of synagogue and church … ? Was Mary … a symbol of the Christian church? Not a church in the modern sense of a physical building but a church in the ancient sense of it being a reference to the soul of a congregation or group of people. I needed more evidence to be sure.

Model of Jewish symbolism using family structure: Father = Godhead, Mother = Church or Synagogue, Daughter = congregation or groups of people, And Son = human beings or individuals.

As I have stated many times throughout my blogs, I do not believe in universal symbolism, however, a reoccurring pattern that I have identified across some theologies (namely, Jewish, Ancient Greek, Christian, and Islam) is that Spiritual realms are commonly referred to as masculine (father), and Soul realms are commonly referred to as feminine (mother). This pattern is tied into gendered languages and does not equate to literal men and women - just as a chair, table, key, dog, cat, boat, etc., are not literally male or female in many languages (e.g., Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic) they can be personified in expressive speech as though they are. Thus, Spirit and Soul aspects in theologies are not literally male or female. Therefore, the Virgin Mary, when viewed as a personification of Soul is not literally a woman, rather, her characteristics are human attributes that anyone can have. 

When the Mother of God is understood to be Soul, then it can further be understood why so many Christian theologians (such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Jerome, and Augustine)
referred to Mary as the new Eve. Likewise, Jesus is the new (or last) Adam. Finding 
Jewish sources that confirm the allegorical nature of Adam and Eve as personifications of Spirit and Soul is relatively easy. Hence, seeing as Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, it’s not surprising to see the pattern continued. 

The other shoe dropped when I learned in bygone eras, daughters were referred to as “virgins” because, you know, according to patriarchal values, a female’s sexual activity is more important than anything else. Therefore, Virgin Mary = Daughter Mother. It is a play on symbology = Mother and daughter are one, i.e., the soul of a church that sheaths its members.

When Dante wrote The Divine Comedy he was an outcast and rebel of the Church. Could it be that through the creative mocking of satirical poetry Dante was revealing a symbolic secret? If so, it may explain why the Church, in a corrupted state that wanted to maintain power over the masses deemed his work heretical. Who should one believe? A man who rose the ranks of politics and was educated in theology, and was subsequently outcast and angry? Or an institution that claimed poor people could enter heaven if they paid the Church enough money?

(The Catholic Church of Dante’s era practiced indulgences – if a Christian sinned (murder, rape, thief, etc.) they could give money to the Church which would supposedly reduce time in purgatory. The practice of indulgences was one of the fundamental issues that caused rifts in the Church and led to the Reformation a few centuries after Dante’s lifetime.)

It has taken many hours of reflection and further research for me to make the final assessment. My conclusion, to put it bluntly, the Virgin Mother belongs in the same realm of possibility as Santa Clause, the tooth fairy, and Mary Poppins.

There is outstanding scientific evidence that stipulates a woman’s ova cannot produce a child without a man’s sperm. Conversely, there is outstanding evidence from multiple sources that both the words “virgin” and “mother” have purely symbolic meanings that have been used in religious text before, during, and after the formation of Christianity.

It’s plausible that two thousand years ago, without knowledge of DNA, X and Y chromosomes, and other practical elements of reproduction, some people believed it was possible for a woman to fall pregnant without intercourse. To justify that belief today is not so easy.

This is my opinion. It is up to each and every individual to decide for themselves if they believe the the Virgin Mother is real or if her appearance has been made to be as grand as the Emperor’s new clothes.

When considering the Virgin Mary’s symbolic status, it’s also prudent to consider Jewish traditions. Judaism honours the “mother” both symbolically and literally as carrying the bloodline of their religion. If a woman is a Jew, then all her children will be considered Jews (in an ethnical sense), regardless of personal beliefs and/or their father’s religious status. Conversely, if a Jewish father marries a non-Jewish woman, then none of their children will be considered to be of the Jewish race, although they could still be Jewish by way of religious practice.

Understanding the Jewish perspective of succession being a matriarchal continuum passed down from mother to daughter explains why the symbolism for their spiritual hierarchy was father-mother-daughter-son. Further, the personification of Biblical characters as being symbolic representations of concepts and/or groups people is evidential in the Bible itself. (Isaac Newton’s commentaries on this topic are particularly noteworthy, see Reading the Symbols of the Apocalypse According to Isaac Newton.)

The first Christians were Jews. Therefore, they it’s reasonable to assume they honoured the spiritual lineage of father, mother, daughter, and son = God (father), Virgin Mary (mother-daughter), and Jesus (son). How then did this symbolism get buried beneath other ideas?

Early Christian sects argued between with each other over many things. One such conflict was whether or not gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could become Christians. Those who supported the mandatory requirement emphasised Jewish beliefs and values in the Jesus narrative, while those who believed anyone could be a Christian did not. Thus, over time the significance of Jewish symbolism used by Early Christians subsided. Of note, Greco-Roman influences overlayed the Jewish (see Did Romans Kill Jesus Twice?: The Beardless Versus the Bearded Jesus).

Speculatively, there have always been leaders within the Christian Church who have known and understood the symbolism of the Virgin Mary through a Jewish lens. Dante appears to have been one of those few.

Symbols are complex, therefore the Virgin Mary was not only a reference to a synthesis of mother-daughter being a reference to a group of people, it transcends to the notion of purity and youthfulness. Inferences which I imagine would have felt most fitting to the the founders of the establishing Christian church.

Painting of the Virgin Mother with Child; original dated to the 5th or 6th century, overpainted in the 13th century

Source: Wikipedia

In contemplation of the nuances of the Virgin Mary being the personification of a soul that sheaths Christianity, I am reminded of a time when my son was nearly ten. It was a day in February, an ordinary school day, but we got home in the afternoon he was not his usual cheerful self. Solemnly, he took himself to his bedroom and shut the door. When I went to check on him, I found him sitting on his bed, tears streaming down his face. My immediate thought was that something bad had happened at school, perhaps he’d been bullied. At first he refused to speak and just shock his head in response to my questioning that was along the lines “did you and so and so have a fight?” I then moved into a semi-lecturing mode of the need to express emotions. I told him that I could not help him if I did know what was wrong. I made stabs in the dark about how he might be feeling about his father and I breaking up three months early. He shook his head to all again. I took a deep breath and said “Is it something I have done? If so, please tell me so I can make right.” Amid bursts of sobbing, he let out what was disturbing him:

“I know Santa Claus is not real! Don’t lie to me, I know he’s not real!”

Of all the things my son could have told me, I was not expecting that. I queried if a conversation had come up in the school yard that day which prompted the topic, but my son, once calmer, said that was not the case. For whatever reason, that day, he was ready to confront me. As we talked, my son did an exceptionally good job of articulating exactly how he felt. He told me of the clues he’d picked up on, like conversations he’d over heard and poorly hidden presents he’d spotted under my bed that later appeared as Santa gifts. My son made it overwhelming clear that he was not sad because he knew Santa was not real, he distressed because he didn’t know if he could trust anything I said.

I was caught off guard. My elder daughter had breezed through finding out and accepting there was no Santa Clause. She had a different temperament. She was more dreamy, loved to play make believe. My son, on the other hand, was astute, inquisitive, like an mini-engineer who wanted to know how everything worked. I found myself fumbling as I tried to explain that “everybody” lies to their children about Santa but no harm is meant by it. It was supposed to be fun, a game of sorts, a pretend kind of magic. I told him the lie was done with love, not to hurt him with deception. My son said he did not think it was fun to be lied to. I was in a corner. How could I raise my son to be an honest man if I also taught him it was acceptable to sometimes lie?

I started paying extra close attention to my son and what I said to him from then on. Our relationship had been ruptured. I had to rebuild trust. I succeeded.

The following Christmas, we still went through the tradition of Santa but as my son unwrapped the gifts, he said “Thanks, mum! That’s just what I wanted!” Later the same Christmas Day, he did a better job of pretending Santa was real so as to keep the “magic” alive for his younger cousins. To my surprise, I felt a sense of unease. Without conscious effort, ever so subtly, it dawned on me that I’d indoctrinated my son into the cult of Santa Clause. I tried to convince myself that it was important for children to have the opportunity to have fun, use their imaginations, and believe there were magical beings in the world. To this day, I’m not sure if that’s fitting to contemporary times. I imagine in the past, when the tradition of Santa began (around the fourth century, Turkey), the experience of children waking on Christmas morning to find simple gifts of a handmade nature was quite different to the experience children now have of sacks filled with plastic toys and digital devices.

I was born and raised a Catholic. I was always told the Virgin Mary was a real person. Can I trust anything the Church says if she is not real?

Post edit 9/12/21: The following quote from Vatican News supports the notion that Catholicism has a long tradition of viewing the Virgin Mary as the symbolic “Mother of the Church”.

In 1964 […] Pope Paul VI “declared the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all Christian people, the faithful as well as the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother’ …

Devin Watkins, Vatican News (2018): http://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2018-03/pope-institutes-new-celebration-of-mary–mother-of-church.html

PART NINE: Christianity and Disease

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

When Christianity emerged there were a lot of tensions in the Roman Empire. In previous posts (here, here, and here), I go into detail about Christianity’s development from Greek, Jewish, and other influences so I won’t repeat myself. (It amuses me no end that some people perceive Christianity to have suddenly sprung from nowhere; it’s like thinking flowers naturally appear in vases without consideration given to the environment in which they were grown.) Perhaps, the main point to keep in mind when examining Early Christianity is that its followers did not follow the Gospel stories like most churches do today. Early Christian’s did not have any writings that they followed simply because they wrote the New Testament (see below for timeline). Either that, or they were illiterate. How then did people learn? Answer = stories. Verbal stories.

Timeline of when New Testament writings were created

Source: Image created by Renee Spencer from conventional various sources

Now, the next factor to consider, how does one remember stories they want to pass on to others when they cannot read and write? There are several methods one can use, many of which can be described as mnemonic devices. For instance, Australian Aborigines used features of the landscape as cues. Storytelling could literally be a journey in which one wandered around, with landmarks like old trees, mountains, rivers, and so forth being reminders of what was to come next in the tale. When the English colonised and destroyed the landscape, many stories were lost because the First Nation people did not have their “book” anymore.

Back to the cradle of western civilisation in Europe, it can be hypothesised that prior to the invention of writing, people used the heavens as a mnemonic device for recording stories. Unlike the earth’s features, references in the sky are less likely to be destroyed, hence, the stories could be told and retold for hundreds of years. If correct, it provides a logical premise to explain why so many cultures referred to the Sun as creator and the planet and stars as its offspring (see The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology). There is a rich and dense supply of ancient stories that incorporated both astrological and human characters, e.g., Jupiter is a planet and a God, Venus is a planet and a Goddess, etc. Modern theories of astrology do not accurately capture past beliefs.

Symbols are complex, with layers of references that require consideration (see The Connection between Symbolism and Mental Wellbeing:The Basics ). For example, at the iconic level, a symbol of the Sun means the Sun. At an indexical level, the Sun is a reference to light and warmth. At a symbolic level, the Sun represents a life sustaining object. Using one’s imagination, a Sun could also be a God, or the Son of God, or something else that somehow relates to its iconic and indexical references. To learn what the Sun symbol means, one needs an education. Like trying to interpret Durer, simply looking at symbols does not give all the answers.

In antiquity, the revealing of hidden meanings of symbols took place progressively, in stages of initiation that can be likened to modern education in which children first learn through being told stories, then progress to learning letters, words, sentences, and eventually they can write their own stories. The stories children hear inform and mould their communication style that is carried into adulthood (like an artists building templates that they can reuse again and again; Banksy uses this process in his/her art making). Logically, the more diverse stories a child hears, the more possibilities for interpreting symbolism they will develop (like an artist who is skilled across multiple mediums). However, it is also plausible that a child will fall back on what is most familiar to them, that is, the symbolic language which is used the most frequently in their homes and society. For example, Eastern cultures untouched by WW2 may learn about Nazi association with the Swastika but they are unlikely accept the negative connotations of the symbol on a personal level.

Early Christians were like preteens in later primary school. Collectively, they drew upon symbols that were used by the cultures around them to tell a new story. The story of Jesus Christ in the four canonised Gospels share a lot of the same symbols, however, subtle differences between them can be identified as being congruent with the culture they came from. For example, Matthew’s Gospel was written in Hebrew, whereas Mark, Luke, and John were written in Greek. The different language means Matthew came from slightly different culture (even though all apostles were living in The Roman Empire) and, in turn, the audience he was addressing valued different symbols, hence, the inclusion of the star of Bethlehem, the wise men, and the phrase “kingdom of God” instead of “kingdom of heaven”. All these features tap into Jewish culture in a manner that the Greek versions don’t.

It is also worthy to consider that when the Gospel stories were being repeated by word of mouth, the storytelling would have been slightly different each time. The written product is the result of a perfected version that relayed the most important parts of the Jesus Christ narrative.

Additionally, Early Christians also made artworks that reflected their cultural backgrounds. For example, paintings on the ceiling of Early Christian catacombs followed the design principles of Jewish catacombs:

Ceiling in Early Christian catacomb

Source: Early Christian Art

Ceiling of Jewish catacomb

Source: Times of Israel

Early Christians depicted Jesus with a wand to represent his magical powers. This symbolism could be a link to Moses’ staff (that he raised to magically part waters) or it could be linked to Greek accounts of Hermes and Athena who both waved wands to perform magic. Either way, the depiction of Jesus with a wand presented an easy to read symbol to people living in the first century.

Early Christian depiction of Jesus performing magic with a wand

Source: Biblical Archaeology Society

It’s widely recognised that Early Christians pictured Jesus as a young man, cleanly shaven, with a likeness to the Greek God Apollo.

Early Christian relief carving: Jesus is repeated in all the figures holding a wand.

Source: Biblical Archaeology Society

First and foremost, the first Christians taught each other about Christian faith through verbal storytelling, then through Art, and then writing. The indoctrination process into Christianity was presumably like other modes of education, that is, a person progressively learned what the symbols were and then moved onto more complex or finer points of their meanings – these steps could be taught in a myriad of ways that were either implicit or explicit, and included medications, prayers, rituals, creating pictures in sand, discussions, etc.

To explore how symbols may have been gradually introduced in Early Christianity, let’s look at an anchor. Like many symbols, it’s meaning could be discovered in layers.

Anchor in the the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 2nd Century

Source: Persecution Worldwide

On a simple level, an anchor suggests being secured to a location, like a boat whose anchor is tied to the shore. This metaphor could then be used to infer a Christian needs to “anchor” themselves to Jesus Christ, especially when the seas of life are rough and windy. This interpretation is supported by Hebrews 6:19-20 (below) in which “anchor” is specifically referred to as being “hope”:

This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

The Bible, Hebrews 6:19-20
The comment about Jesus being a High Priest of the order of Melchizedek is curious upon first glance. That is until one learns that Melchizedek is mentioned in Genesis 14:18-19:


Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.

Generally, Melchizedek is an archangel associated with atonement. The symbolism is more complex but I’ll leave it at that for now.

By using symbols to describe spiritual concepts, their meaning moves from being purely intellectual, like simply telling someone they need to have hope in Jesus, to evoking emotional responses – an anchor brings to mind visceral associations of water, boats, and security, which add depth to the concept of “hope”.  

On another level, hidden within the symbolic representation of christian anchors is the suggestion of a cross, thus, hope is juxtaposed with Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Gravestone St. Domitilla catacomb in Rome depicting two fish anchored to the anchor of hope

Source: Early Church History

As per the above two examples of anchors from Christian catacombs, fish were also frequently included. These could be a reference to Jesus being described as a fisherman of men (Matthew 4:19), or it could be speculated that they are a reference to the astrological symbol of Pisces, hence, a reference to time, i.e., the Age of Pisces. The bottom line is that symbols can have multiple meanings.

There were many stories and writings of Jesus Christ circulating in the first two centuries of the common era (see except below). This reality, and the finding of additional gospels in Egypt, 1945, referred to as the Nag Hammadi, leads some to speculate that once Early Christians learned the story of Jesus, they were encouraged (or required) to express their understanding in writing that incorporated learned symbology. (For more details about this theory, see Youtube: Is This Proof That Jesus Christ Never Existed?).

Rejected Gospels and Texts (Written by Hays, 2018)

There were dozens, probably hundreds, of religious texts circulating around at the time the Gospels were written and coming into common usage in the early centuries after the death of Christ. They include The Gospel of Peter , Origins of the World , Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) , Acts of John , Homilies of Truth and The Gospel of Truth . Many were simply written and forgotten. Others were carefully scrutinised by Christian scholars and rejected for one reason or another, in many cases because the doctrines they promoted were regarded as threatening or heretical.

Source: Rejected Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter, and Judqs 

Early Christianity was not a universal system. Two broad groups emerged: those who interpreted Christian symbols to be mostly literal and those who interpreted them entirely symbolically. Those who viewed Christian symbols entirely symbolically were often called Gnostics and after Constantine, they were declared heretics and their bibles apocrypha, i.e., non genuine. That’s not to say that what became mainstream Christianity was based solely on iconic or indexical understandings of symbols. Rather, it just means one set of interpretations became mandated and others became outlawed. As the heretic interpretations of Gnosticism were suppressed, their ideas slipped into a hidden realm of knowledge that later reappeared in the Renaissance era as a component of occultism.

PART 6: Social Considerations

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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

St Mark’s Lion: What does it mean?

Christianity did not evolve in a vacuum. It emerged from a conglomerate of Jewish, Greek, and other influences that impacted its formation. In this blog I’m going to touch upon theological issues that outside influences had on Christianity’s development, but mostly I’m going to keep focus on some of it’s symbolism, namely, St Mark’s winged lion.

Legend has it that Mark, an apostle of Jesus, travelled around the Roman Empire evangelising. Of note, he went to Venice in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt. These two destinations are of interest because Mark apparently travelled to Venice, converted some people to Christianity, then went on to Alexandria where he lived for a few years before being killed by a mob of pagans (at the time they were simply average people who believed in the common religious practices of the day). In 828 Mark’s remains are believed to have been stolen from Alexandria and taken to Venice. It is speculated that Mark’s head is still in Alexandria (the thieves apparently only did a partial job of stilling the 800 year old corpse).

In 2011 I had the privilege of travelling to Venice (happy snaps below) and while I was there, one of the things that struck me was all the depictions of St Mark as a winged lion holding a book.

My knowledge of history and mythology wasn’t as strong back then as it is now, so the best I could do was stare in awe and wonder at the marvellous artworks like the ones below.

As I admired these images, I tried to decode their deeper meaning. There was clearly some symbolic and mystical meaning behind the decision to represent St Mark in this manner but I could not work out what it was. Lion = courage = heart. Wings = angelic = saint. Book = words = word of God. That was pretty much all I could decipher.

Venice left a lasting impression on me, even though we (my kids and I) only stayed there three days. St Mark’s Basilica was so amazing that I shed a tear when admiring the interior with all its paintings, arches, marble, stained glass, gold, and other trimmings. We were there during winter, it was cold, but it was fabulous. Even my son, then nine, felt the urge to be poetic and he coined the phrase ‘the luscious, humble waters of Venice!’

It was extraordinary to be travelling via boat to and from our accommodation. I observed the locals going about their everyday life such as pushing prams, attending to everyday business like grocery shopping, and riding bikes along the side walks – cars are forbidden in Venice but we saw one or two little exceptions, and I mean little exceptions as in little cars – and I was curious as to what it was like be to be born and raised in such a spectacular place. Everything was so different to my sense of normal suburbia but to the Venetian locals my extraordinary experience was their normal. It made me wonder how living in an environment like Venice would impact a person’s mind and behaviour.

But anyway, I’m getting distracted. This isn’t supposed to be a travel blog or reminiscent prose. From the Cathedral to the Doge’s palace, the Medieval and Renaissance artworks depicting St Mark’s signature symbol had me curious. The motif was clearly significant but its deeper meaning alluded me.

Not too long ago, my curiosity was sparked anew when I noticed how similar the symbol for St Mark’s was to Ancient Greek sphinxes.

Image from Ancient Greek vase c.510BCE

The main differences between St Mark’s winged lion and a Greek sphinx is that the latter is usually depicted with a book (but not always) and the former has a feminine head. Still, the similarity between the two symbols is remarkable.

Winged animals can be found in other traditions too, like the in Ancient Babylonian cultures which had female Lamma and male Lamassu.

Lamassu c.21–705 BCE

It’s difficult to speak of sphinxes without considering Ancient Egyptian too. These majestic icons don’t have wings but they do have the body of a lion and the head of a human (usually male).


Great sphinx bearing the names of Amenemhat II (12th Dynasty), Merneptah (19th Dynasty) and Shoshenq I (22nd Dynasty). c.2600BCE

Given the tradition of lion representations throughout the ancient worlds, I am curious as to why the Christians chose to adapt the symbol to their purposes. To explore this further, some insight can be obtained by the identification of each of the four Gospels within the tetramorph that aligns four winged entities with the four evangelists.

In the course of Christianity’s development, the harmonisation of the tetramorph with the four apostles has been disputed. The most common pattern being that proposed by Jerome (c.342-347 – 420CE) who aligned Mark with the lion, Luke with an ox, John with an eagle, and Matthew with a man.

From the Book of Kells, an Illuminated manuscript of the Gospels written in Latin, c. 800CE (Image from Wikipedia)

Justification of the representation of the apostles with animals comes from a few biblical sources, such as Ezekiel 1:10 (Old Testament/Torah) which reads:

As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

King James Version, BibleHub, 2020

References to symbolisms of the animals can also be found in the Book of Revolutions:

Revelation 4:7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.”

King James Version, BibleHub, 2020

And:

Revelation 5:5 “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”

King James Version, BibleHub, 2020

As suggested above, the symbol of a lion in Christianity can be traced back to the Jewish tradition of the Lion of Judah which represents the Israelite tribe of Judah. The reference for this comes from Genesis 49:9:

Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

King James Version*, BibleHub, 2020

The bible references are useful, however, the tetramorph also represents the four classical elements of fire, air, water, and fire. Further, the four elements have a connection to numerous other connotations such as the Sumerian zodiac, seasons of the year, equinoxes and solstice, cardinal directions, and Ancient Greek mythology. I struggle to imagine the Christians not knowing about other applications of the tetramorph and the use of winged animals in other traditions. Or as Origen (c.184 – c.253) pointed out, the Christians are best viewed in the context of their intellect being in accordance with the spiritual theories of their age (Roberts, 1949). However, simply applying the meanings of older symbols to Christian context does not seem appropriate because the nature of Christianity was to form a new religion and move away from older religions, i.e., what we now call paganism. Then again, the classic four elements were also considered serious scientific principles all the way up to at least the fifteenth century, so perhaps the conjecture that Christianity borrowed ‘pagan’ symbols is not the correct paradigm to use.

I should add, that I am uncertain as to when and where exactly the symbol of St Mark as a winged lion holding a book first emerged. Establishing this could help decode why the symbolism was applied.

Russell (1997) presents an interesting assessment of the four elements and their interconnectedness in an article titled The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. He makes the point that different cultures in differing times and locations re-interpreted the four elements in accordance with their prior customs, knowledge and experiences. After reading his paper I began to formulate the analogy that perhaps St Mark’s winged lion symbol needs to be viewed as being like football. Weird I know, just stick with me for a minute I’ll make this work. What I mean is, there are many different types of football, for example soccer, rugby, and Aussie rules. Essentially, there is one main aim in all these variations, that is to kick a ball to score goals. Rules like how many players on each team, scoring protocols, and markings on the field can differ from one variation of football to the next. Further, there can be different leagues within the same genre of sport. Comparatively, the four elements are like ‘football’ in that there are different ways of approaching a central aim which, arguably, is to explain spiritual principles of Life. Different leagues of religion can have different emphasises, rules, and customs. Hence, generalising all ancient symbols as having the same meaning is a bit like generalising and saying that all the rules across football variants are the same. To continue this metaphor a little further, just as each football genre uses a different type of ball, the application of lions and/or winged animals has differing significance in accordance to the belief system which it belongs to. Alternatively, the symbols could be viewed as simply being mascots.

In sum, identifying visual similarities between St Mark’s symbolism as a winged lion with older traditions is relatively easy, so too is tracing sources of lion symbols in Judea-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Zoroastrian traditions. However, all the scattered references don’t fully explain exactly what they all mean. Do the Ancient Greek sphinx have the same significance as lion forms in Ancient Babylon, and in turn, can their meaning be transferred to St Mark? Or does St Mark’s representation align purely with the Jewish symbolism of a lion? Are the Jewish representations of lions completely different to that of Ancient Greek, Babylonia, and Egypt? I’m always cautious about over generalising the meanings of symbols (as indicated in this blog) but at the same time the morphing of symbols from one culture into another is fascinating to contemplate. I will continue to ponder …

* A side interest of mine is to compare Bible entries to see how much they differ from each other, in the case of Genesis 49:9 there are many differences with can completely alter how the passage is interpreted. Below are three examples; the first includes a reference to a lioness and well as a lion and proposes the simile as a question, the second emphasises killing, and the third has no reference to Judah.

New International Version – “You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness–who dares to rouse him?”

Good News Translation – “Judah is like a lion, Killing his victim and returning to his den, Stretching out and lying down. No one dares disturb him.”

Contemporary English Version – “My son, you are a lion ready to eat your victim! You are terribly fierce; no one will bother you.”

Bibliography

Barnard, L. W. (1964). St. Mark and Alexandria. The Harvard Theological Review57(2), 145–150. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1508784

Carolina Sparavigna, A. (2013). Robert Grosseteste and the Four Elements. International Journal of Sciences1(12), 42–45. https://doi.org/10.18483/ijsci.362

Roberts, C. H. (1949). The Christian Book and The Greek Papyri. The Journal of Theological Studies50(199/200), 155–168. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23954151

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Werner, M. (1969). The Four Evangelist Symbols Page in the Book of Durrow. Gesta8(1), 3–17. https://doi.org/10.2307/766670