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