The Ninth Symphony
There is a remarkable scene in the film "Immortal Beloved" in which Beethoven lies immersed in a watery mirror of the heavens, as the melody of his Ode to Joy resounds in his mind. It is an extraordinarily powerful image of union with the cosmos. Perhaps this is what Beethoven actually "saw" in conjunction with this music; we shall never know because the only description of what Beethoven "saw" is found in the music itself. What we can say for certain is that the Ninth Symphony - just like the many other examples of "nine-ness" found in sacred human expression - unfolds as an incredible journey which is finally rewarded by an unspeakable glory. This Prize at the end of the Quest has been described in many ways; I see something different in conjunction with this sublime symphony...
Falling from astounding celestial heights, sunlight rains upon a lonely oasis in the arid wastes of the interstellar desert. And falling with the light are enormous celestial mountains, battering the fragile oasis with world-ripping fury. Fiery continents collide and explode, heaving miles into the sky, ever churning, crumbling, and colliding again as they bound eternally upon a vast cauldron of whirling, boiling rock. Vast seas shake and seethe, belching out a vaporous exhaust which rolls inexorably into a globe-enshrouding smog; a blazing turbulence whips it into thundering island reservoirs in the sky. The islands founder on towering shards of stone, and break open to release a gouging, scouring torrent. Oceans fall, fire blows, continents flow.
In this paroxysm of creation we witness the Wrath of Chaos, as he cleaves and tears enormous wounds into the flesh of the lonely oasis. Such is the way the Earth was fashioned. And to this implacable tumult, something silently other comes. Something as strange and unexpected - as foreign - as a brilliant crimson gown in a green, primordial forest...
Nine and The Trinity
As discussed in my essay Song of the Hummingbird Muses, our identical words for the root of a tree and the root of a number, in fact mean the same thing. A root is that which connects a growing thing to that from which it grows. As a tree grows from the earth, 9 grows from 3. The square root of 9 is 3 (3 x 3 = 9). The root of nine is the Trinity.
The Trinity is vastly old, and yet still difficult concept. As I mentioned in my essay Celestial Apparition, there are 3 dimensions of space (length, width, and height), and 3 dimensions of time (past, present, and future). This is, perhaps, part of the meaning. The Trinity is the fundamental unit of perpetuating life: Mother, Father, and Child. It may be that this is another component of the influence this archetype has upon us. Perhaps the most cogent illustration of the Trinity is found in the complementary polarities of existence (one-many, up-down, rest-motion, light-dark, push- pull, etc...) that become a mysterious unity within the dance of the living cosmos. Male is one form of phenomena, and female is a second form of phenomena; in union they are together a third form of phenomena. But, paradoxically, that third phenomena - Life - is in fact a unity, of which male and female are merely component halves. Stated simply: The universe is the Two that become Three, that is truly only One.
Nine, is a very common number in the sacred stories of humanity, and it always appears in the same guise. Fortunately, that guise has very little to do with nebulous contemplations of the Trinity. We shall see that the significance of 9 rests in its proximity to something greater...
The Nine and The Quest
In ancient Egypt (land of the Nine Gods), their name for 9 was "Mountain of the Sun." The hieroglyphic symbol for 9 was also a component of the glyph for both "sunrise" (new sun), and "new moon." In fact, many languages within the Indo-European complex derive their word for "new" (Latin, nova) from the Sanskrit word nava, which means nine. In sacred stories from across Eurasia, nine is very often the guide which leads us to the edge of something new...
The Aztecs, in accord with all central American belief, constructed temples of 9 stories to match the 9 heavens. To ascend the mountain-like 9-step pyramid was to imitate the 9-step crossing of the sun; it was a symbolic rehearsal of the 9-stage journey into the afterlife wherein one finds eternal rest.
In the philosophy of ancient China, there were 9 heavens above, and 9 springs in the land of the dead. In emulation of this cosmic order, there were 9 steps that lead to the imperial throne, and 9 gates that insulated it from the exterior world. We see another reflection of this "guiding nine" in the Chinese classic, Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching, which has 81 chapters (9 x 9 = 81).
That he might drink from the infinite depths of Mimir's well, Odin (Ruler of the Nine Worlds in Norse mythology), sacrificed an eye to achieve knowledge of all things past, present, and future; ever after one empty socket looked inwards, while the remaining eye looked out. Odin then hung for 9 days on the world-tree Yggdrasil, learning the secrets of the runes, until finally beckoned by the Prophetess into the Wisdom of Eternity.
Christ hung upon the Holy Rood (another World-Tree) for 3 hours; in his aspect as one third of the Godhead we may say that the Trinity entire hung upon that world-axis for 9 hours (3 X 3 = 9). "And at the ninth hour Jesus cried in a loud voice, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"(Mark 15:34) This then is a final expression of humanity made by a man standing at the horizon: behind him is the temporal world of suffering and strife, forever limited by fear and desire; before him is the Holy Spirit (imagined as feminine in many early Christian traditions) beckoning him into limitless one- ness with the Kingdom of God.
Demeter (Greek Goddess of the bounty of nature, and She who wears the 9 stalks of wheat) was the Sister of all-powerful Zeus, and the Mother of Persephone. Demeter adored Her young daughter, but did not know that Zeus had promised Persephone to their brother, Hades - Lord of the Underworld. When Persephone disappeared from Mount Olympus, Demeter searched the earth for 9 days, before learning of the abduction of Her daughter. In anger and sorrow She withdrew Her regenerative grace from the world; the crops, forests, and grasslands soon withered. Demeter was inconsolable, and so eventually a deal was made: each year Persephone - the Daughter of Nature - must dwell in darkness with Hades for 3 months. There, while the earth sleeps a barren winter sleep, Persephone will remain until ushered by Demeter Herself back into the world of life, brought forth as the Living Seasons: 3 X 3 months = 9 months.
The Greeks summarized the pursuits of human intellect - our arts and sciences - with the Nine Muses: Thalia (comedy), Clio (history), Calliope (epic poetry), Terpsichore (dance), Melpomene (tragedy), Erato (love poetry), Eutere (music), Polyhymnia (sacred hymns), and Urania (astronomy). These 9 sisters were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory); they represented the living incarnation of all knowledge. By proper action and contemplation, the adept would communicate with each muse in turn, each time ascending another level or sphere of existence. From the dim and opaque depths of the human realm, successive raptures would summon the spirit to ascend into ever higher planes of being until, from the vantage of Urania's starry vault, one basks in the transparent incandescence of Unbounded Knowledge.
Dante was 9 years old when he first beheld the terrifying spiritual glory of divine grace. Her name was Beatrice, and he writes of her in La Vita Nuova (The New Life): "...at the beginning of her ninth year she appeared to me...clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson[.] At that instant, I say truly that the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with such violence...and trembling, said these words: 'Behold a God stronger than I, who coming shall rule over me'" Many years later (long after Beatrice Portinare had died at the age of 24), Dante's muse appeared to him again and lead him on an extraordinary spiritual journey through the nine rings of hell, and the nine spheres of paradise. And from that 9th sphere, Dante, with lovely Beatrice at his side, witnessed the empyrean beauty and perfection of The Infinite.
(There is a heavenly counterpart to this beautiful, archetypal image of decent and ascent: Venus (Goddess of Love and Life), in Her celestial incarnation as the Evening Star, each night follows Apollo's solar chariot (the Sun) into the underworld darkness wherein he will find regeneration and prepare anew to smite the darkness with his blazing spears of light. And Venus, as the Morning Star, will be there to guide him again into being as his luminous consciousness approaches the horizon...)
The Trojan war waged for 9 years. After the final victory of the Greeks, Odysseus, a vigorous but unwilling participant in the battle, attempted to find his way home; his journey took 9 years. Now a soldier, like a child, is always subject to the will of another, and to make the essential transition into proper and complete life, the boy must break from parental authority and exercise his own will as a man. This is the objective of Odysseus' journey. And just as we have seen in the examples above, Odysseus' transformation was mediated by The Feminine. In his travels he encountered 3 nymphs (and we shall soon see why a trinity of Goddesses is always a nine), each one a representing a different aspect of the Goddess of Many Names:
Circe (an incarnation of Aphrodite) is the seductress and temptress; the irresistible invitation to abandon the innocent games of youth. The erotic dimension is the first motive impulse to the Ritual of Life. She guides Odysseus on a harrowing trek into the underworld and back again, followed by a celestial journey to the God of the Sun. This image (one of the most common in mythology), we may say, is like a journey from consciousness into the unconscious, and then returning again - somehow more awake; it is a voyage to the primeval depths of the unknown mystery whence all life comes, and an aspiration for the illuminated knowledge that lies only at the summit beyond the far side of darkness. To a soldier of Odysseus' time (and all too often in our time as well, it seems), women were nothing more than the spoils of war. Circe introduces Odysseus to a grander view of the world in which woman must be recognized as equal partners in the eternal dance.
Calypso (an incarnation of Hera) is the wife and mother, the call to productive responsibility. The second motive impulse in the Ritual of Life is the will to achievement. Calypso is that force in the feminine which compels an aspiration to power and authority that is sublimated in the service of life. She is the imperative for which stable and prosperous societies are erected, so that new life is nurtured and protected. Calypso represents the terrifying knowledge that, contrary to boyhood fantasies, there is only power in the service of Life, and power in the service of death. There is no third way.
Nausicaa (an incarnation of Athena) is the enchanting virgin daughter, the beautiful miracle of the Ritual of Life. She is the reminder that the Wheel of Life churns ever onward, and that as new life comes into being, so, too, must old life go out of being. Athena is also the matron saint of heroes; so, paradoxically, Nausicaa is also the Prize for which those little boys fight - whether they know it or not.
In this symbolic reappearance of the 3 goddesses from The Iliad, we may say that The Odyssey represents a kind of redemption for man. In The Iliad, we encounter - in the soldiers' contemptuous disregard for women - the misogyny of frightened boys. Paris humiliates the life- bestowing mystery that is the Goddess, but we can see him for the boyish puppet he is. Odysseus and The Odyssey represents that next bewildering step into true manhood, after all the sticks and stones are thrown. The Goddess' essential action is existence; it is man who must act and be found worthy of that which transcends action.
What is common to all these references to "nine-ness" is a recognition that 9 is the last number, the threshold. In the sacred stories briefly described above, we have seen that it is 9 that brings us through the limited dimension of existence to a point of new departure into the unlimited. To step beyond this boundary of the 9 single-digit numbers is to ascend into the higher realm of infinite repetitions and reiterations of the principles and relations established in The Nine. The Greeks called 9 "The Horizon." Nine is the end of the quest, the expectation of transition and transformation from one phase to another - the expectation of The Prize. The Chinese use the same word for both "nine" and "gift." There are some interesting reasons why our sacred stories identify the beckoning gift-bearer as feminine.
Of course, the first step from 9 into the boundless ocean of spirally-cycling number is 10. Nine is the last number with its own distinct identity; 10 is a composite number, for it is properly considered one collection of tens, just as 20 is 2 collections of tens. Ten is a return to unity because it is one cycle of number. Virtually every form of numerical notation in the world has distinct symbols for each successive accumulation of 10. In the west, these accumulating "hierarchy of tens" are called orders of magnitude (10, 100, 1000, etc...). From ancient Sumer (the birthplace of writing 5000 years ago) to Egypt, Greece and Rome, India, China and Japan, and right into the modern world, we have chosen to count with our fingers. We are able to ascertain very large numbers very quickly because we count by tens.
This may seem rather obvious and banal, but there was a time in the development of man when there was only many. The realization that we could quantify the world in a precise and therefore meaningful way - that we could count things - was almost certainly the inspiration that lead to the invention of writing. (We can easily see that the first surpluses enjoyed by the early city-states made possible a new human endeavor: commerce; and trade and exchange requires accounting.) That a meaningful and intelligible model of the world could be constructed with something as ethereal as number was a source of awe among wise men in those ancient times (and still is among physicists and mathematicians). Many schools opened to pass on the mysterious secrets of quantity; the foremost of these ancient schools was that of Pythagoras.
The Pythagoreans called ten - the first step into the empyrean cosmos of infinity - the "Perfect Number." From this "holiest of numbers" they constructed a mandala-like glyph known as the Sacred Tetraktys, which was the foundation of all Pythagorean philosophy. It is a triangular symbol which consists of 10 dots assembled in 4 rows: a bottom row of 4, a row of 3, a row of 2, and a crowning summit of 1.
They related the 4 rows to the dimensions of geometry: zero dimensions is a point, a 1- dimensional line is bounded by 2 points, a 2-dimensional plane is bounded by at least 3 points - a triangle, and a 3-dimensional volume is bounded by at least 4 points - a tetrahedron. And in this geometric model they saw a reflection of nature itself, growing in 4 distinct stages from a point-like seed. They established the close geometric relation of the Tetraktys to the 5 (and only 5) regular polyhedra. The 4 numbers of the Tetraktys - 1, 2, 3, and 4 - are the only numbers required to generate the ratios which determine the musical scale: the fractional lengths 1/2, 1/4, 3/4, and 2/3, sound as the octave, double octave, perfect fourth, and perfect fifth - the fundamental notes of the diatonic scale.
Pythagoras believed that sound, and specifically the geometrical nature of musical sound, was fundamental in the creation of the universe. In this philosophy there is a resonant frequency which is in harmony with the very structure of space and time, vibrating through creation as the "Music of the Spheres." In India this sound is known as Aum; in China it is called Kung. Pythagoras called this first note of creation "A", and set a value of 432 for it (more than 2 millennia later, sophisticated mechanical measurements established the frequency of middle A only slightly higher at 440 vibrations per second). There is, perhaps, even a counterpart to this notion in modern physics: the cosmos comes into being with a Big Bang.
The Pythagoreans even explored philosophical associations between the Tetraktys and the Four Elements. In the Tetraktys, as "the many" ascend towards the infinite One, it becomes ever more rarefied; as the elements ascend into the luminous heavens they too become ever less dense: solid earth, fluid water, vaporous wind, and ethereal fire. Esoteric traditions, to this day, encourage the contemplation of this divine triangle.
We see in this simple graphic another representation what the Egyptians called "The Mountain of the Sun." This upward-pointing triangle is an image of the World-Mountain. Like the abdomen of a pregnant woman, it represents a swelling fecundity of the earth, inside of which is inscrutably hidden the inviolable Mystery of Life. This is the still and silent home of the Goddess of Eternity, around which the bustling universe revolves.
We can see that the summit of the World-Mountain rests upon the threshold of nine: 4 + 3 + 2 = 9. And in this trinity of numbers (4, 3, and 2) there is an extraordinary celestial dimension...
In the Poetic Edda (the sacred books of Norse mythology - c. 900 A.D.) it is said that 432,000 warriors will engage the Wolf in the battle before Ragnarok - the end of the world. In the Hindu Puranas (c. 400 A.D.), 432, 000 years is the duration of the current cosmic epoch, the Kali Yuga; it is the last and shortest of 4 such epochs which define a specific lifetime (known as the Mahayuga) for the universe: 4,320,000 years. At the end of the Mahayuga, the entire universe will be consumed in a cosmic deluge. The Maya (and the earlier Olmecs), too, reckoned the heavens by cycles of vast duration, and the end of a cycle heralded the end of all things. These cycles were counted by Tun. One Tun equals 360 days. 20 Tun make a Katun, and 20 Katun make a Bactun. And one great round of 6 Bactun consists of 4,320,000 days.
We find other references to this number in the equally eschatological Book of Revelations (c. 100 A.D.). The size of the City of God is described as "12,000 stadia; its length and breadth and height are equal." Now 12,000 x 12,000 x 12,000 = 1,728 billion, which divided by 4 equals 432 billion. Furthermore, we are told that "the number of the name of the beast ...is ." 6 x 6 x 6 = 216, which doubled is 432.
The earliest written reference to 432 is found in a compilation of ancient Babylonian myth and history assembled by a Chaldean priest named Berossos (c. 280 B.C.). He describes a line of 10 kings who ruled the land of Sumer for 432,000 years before the world was destroyed by a terrible flood. Although the earliest reference to flood of which he speaks is found in a small cuniform tablet found in the ruins of the Sumerian city of Nippur (c. 2000 B.C.), we cannot fail to notice an unmistakable similarity to the biblical story of the flood. In Genesis 5 we read that there were 10 antediluvian Patriarchs, forming an unbroken chain of succession, between Adam and Noah, of 1656 years.
The great Rabbi Akeva, and the other men who compiled the Old Testament (c. 300 B.C.), were of the generations after the Jewish exile to Babylon. They knew those ancient Sumerian stories too, and they employed an interesting mathematic trick to disguise the inspiration they found in them. There is a substantial difference between the Babylonian reckoning of 432,000 years for the Reign of the 10 kings, and the biblical reckoning of 1656 years. But there is a common factor of 72 in each number. So if we divide 1656 by 72, we arrive at the number 23. In 23 years of the Jewish calendar, plus the 5 leap-year days, we find that there are 8400 days, or 1200 weeks. We now re-multiply 1200 weeks by the common factor of 72 to discover the number of 7-day weeks in 1656 years: 86,400 - which is double 43,200.
Perhaps the most enigmatic reference to Celestial 432 is found in the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or in the better known Greek, Cheops), the first and still largest stone structure ever built. The most significant geometrical dimensions of a pyramid are its height and its perimeter. We find here, in the relation of the Great Pyramid's height to its perimeter, an extraordinary ratio: 2pi. This is precisely the same ratio we find between a circle's radius and its circumference; and also a sphere's radius and circumference. So this eternally astonishing monument is the pyramidal analogue to a hemisphere: in both we find that the ratio between height and perimeter is exactly 2 multiplied by the transcendent number pi (3.14...). This image of the World-Mountain, with its many air shafts exactly targeting the traverse of certain mythologically significant stars, with its 4 corners exactly oriented to the cardinal directions, and with its location exactly on 30 degrees N latitude (exactly 1/6 of a complete circle around the earth measured from the point of axial rotation), very clearly demonstrates that it is not merely a model of any hemisphere, but is, in fact, a model of a terrestrial hemisphere. And the scale of this model? The earth is larger than Khufu's Pyramid by a factor of exactly 43,200.
Wherefore art thou 432?
At the dawn of human history, civilization was very much closer to nature than we are now. The ever-present threat of consumption by the surrounding chaos of nature was the most prominent danger known to those early, tentative societies. And then someone discovered an underlying order in the heavens: the relative motions of the moon, the sun, the planets, and the fixed stars, are of regular periodicity. And this eternal celestial order can be known by number. This realization was one of the most significant in human history, for if there is order in the heavens, man can emulate this order on earth. This powerful idea spread like wildfire across Eurasia and meso-America.
In ancient Sumer - the primary mythogenetic zone on earth - this emulation of celestial order found expression in sexigesimal numeration: base 60. A circle (that without beginning or ending) is the archetypal image of the Creator. And just as 6 circles of equal size issue from and exactly circumscribe a 7th circle of equal size in the center, so too are all rounds properly quantified by 6. A single beat of a human heart is the fundamental unit of time, so 60 beats shall make a minute, and 60 minutes shall make an hour (which is 43,200 beats for day, and 43,200 beats for night). The solar year is 6 x 60 days long (plus 5 intercalary days of regeneration); thus the circle of the terrestrial horizon shall be 6 x 60 (360) degrees.
The period of the moon had been known for millennia by the time the first cities appeared. A reckoning of the sun's annual period happened, apparently, only sometime shortly before the emergence of those cities. Knowledge of the planetary periods followed, perhaps, a brief time after that. It is difficult to establish for certain when it became known that the "fixed stars" are not fixed at all. A slight wobble in the earth's axis of rotation causes an effect known as equinoctial precession. Each year the equinoctial background (the stars which appear directly above the rising sun on the first day of spring) shift very slightly; the "fixed" stars precess 1 degree every 72 years. The Zodiacal vault shifts 30 degrees (one full Zodiacal 12th of the sky) every 2160 years, and precesses 360 degrees through the entire Zodiac in a great "Celestial Year" of 25,920 years. (The discovery of equinoctial precession is generally attributed to Hipparchus of Bithynia (c. 2nd century B.C.), but the presence of very specific precessional numbers in both architecture and manuscripts that are known to antedate him render this claim untenable. It may be that this zealously guarded secret of the cosmos was known by Sumerian and Egyptian priests, but then was lost and forgotten in later epochs.)
72 years (and 7 + 2 = 9), 2160 years (and 2 +1 +6 +0 = 9), and 25,920 years (and 2 + 5 + 9 + 2 + 0 = 18, and 1 +8 = 9). And 25,920 divided by the divine Sumerian number 60 is 432 (and 4 + 3 + 2 = 9).
In each day there is a time of sleep and darkness; so too in each month (the new moon), and each year (the winter). We find in the discovery of a Celestial Year (sometimes called the Zodiacal or Platonic year) a mythological extension of the same motif: In every cycle there is a consumptive phase where light disappears into darkness for regeneration and rebirth. As night follows day, eventually even the vast cosmos must sleep. And it is the Goddess of Eternity - the round of time that is always a nine - who beckons him forward, guiding him into the underworld, back to the secret garden that is the genesis of all being...
The Inward Journey
We saw, in the Pythagorean Tetraktys, a graphic representation of the Nine that guides one to the frontier of the Infinite. And in that image, the first step into union with the cosmos is an exterior step. This, then, is an image with a centrifugal inclination, where the objective is out there; the energies of the quest are directed to push into the unknown. But there is another representation of the Tetraktys, one with a centripetal inclination, where the objective is in here; thus, the energies of the quest are directed to pull into the unknown. In this "Chthonic Tetraktys" we see the familiar rows of 4, 3, and 2, arranged - not below, but - around the Ocean of Eternity. And this image is vastly more old than the upstart Pythagorean version.
In this orientation we may easily see the full significance of this beautiful form: it is a yonic triangle surrounding the mystery of the womb; there could not be a more enduring and compelling image of the horizon, beyond which is the unknown Source of Existence and the Mystery of Creation. Here are the Nine who guide us to the Gates of Eternity; here are the Nine who bear The Gift; here are the Nine who Beckon...
There is a french cave at Angles-sur-l'Anglin wherein we find perhaps the earliest representation of this sacred image. There, carved into the very stone of the cave, are 3 Goddesses. These very stylized representations of the Feminine (carved about 15,000 years ago) have only the remotest suggestion of heads and limbs; they are swollen hips and very prominent genital triangles - religious amplifications of the regenerative power of nature incarnate in the Feminine. This three-fold incarnation of the Goddess is the first known image of the spiraling Wheel of Time: She is the past whence life came, the present in which life abounds, and the future in which life returns to the Unknown whence it came. This great Round of Eternity is symbolized by 3 triangles, each of which possess 3 sides (3 x 3 = 9).
The magical allure a woman - within the field of space and time, the here and now - is well known and easily comprehensible. But the allure of the yonic symbol lies not in its resemblance to a woman's triangle; it is, rather, that this simple 3-sided shape is the terrestrial counterpart of a Celestial Form. ALL images of sublime beauty are the inscrutable hieroglyphs of Transcendent Ideas - Ideas of which woman and man are merely the most extraordinary projections. Like a form-embracing gown, such images are but adornment over the unknown body inside. Beauty is the Raiment of the Goddess.
All numbers multiplied by 9 yield numbers whose constituent digits add up to 9. In this curious arithmetical property of 9 we find yet another quiet whisper of The Creator who is Sui Generis - The Self-Creating - the Form who is all forms of the universe. And of course each one of us dwells 9 months in the universe of our mothers before we are summoned to the threshold, brought forth to console an inconsolable pain, and make that first terrifying step into the Adventure of Life...
The Mystery of Being
The 20th Century has experienced a kind of creeping desacralization, and adoration of the Sacred is commonly regarded with suspicion and derision. In stark contrast to the Way of the Goddess, is the pre-eminent philosophy of the modern world: Positivism - the belief that perception is reality and there is no other. In a paleolithic context, we might describe this, not as the tender-hearted ethos of the Shaman, but rather as the hard-hearted ethos of the Hunter.
This very powerful "can-do" ideology has achieved extraordinary things for humanity. The last 100 years has seen unprecedented (even inexplicable) progress in every field of human endeavor: History, Physics, Biology, Medicine, Transportation, Energy, Exploration, Entertainment, Communication, Mathematics, Engineering, etc. We have attained profound incites into the mysteries of nature, and exposed astounding secrets that have troubled mankind for millennia. We are now more secure, more prosperous, more knowledgeable, and more pampered, than at any other epoch in human history. As Paul Simon sang, "These are the times of miracles and wonders." It is precisely so. In fact, the only problem with Positivism is that it is wrong.
Like a child in the womb, we know vanishingly little of the cosmos in which we float. And all that we do know comes to us impeded. If we wish to ascertain the tactile quality of a soft downy kitten, we do not wear oven-mitts to do so. When we wish to ascertain the essential nature of the universe, we are similarly impaired, for between the cosmos and the mind are oven-mitts: our very specific and limited organs of sensory apparatus. Our sense organs gather data from the exterior world, and that data is subsequently processed by the mind into an intelligible, and quite often useful model of the world. But that model of the world is not the world.
Our primary image of the world is naturally a visual image, and in this product of our ocular sense we find our most comprehensive reckoning of our environment. The human eye can discern more than a million distinct colors, and with our innate understanding of the principles of perspective, we can determine the size and proximity of terrestrial objects with respectable accuracy. If we look at a vast expanse of blue, we might say, "Yes, that is what the sky looks like." But the radiation we perceive as visible color is only a minute corpuscle in the middle of a colossal ocean of light. The entire spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation is an awesome vista of energies, ranging from very long-wavelength (low-energy) radio-waves, to very short-wavelength (high-energy) gamma rays. Our eyes are completely oblivious to all but the tiniest fraction of light in the universe.
If we nick a finger, we often lick the drop of blood away. We are all familiar with the viscous, salty taste of blood. Yes, that is what blood tastes like. But a shark's entire body is covered with sensory structures exactly analogous to taste receptors. A shark wears his tongue on the outside, and can taste blood from a distance of 2 miles or more. A shark's model of the world is defined by taste. There is not even the remotest corollary in the human experience that might allow us to comprehend the magnitude or quality of this perception.
If we smell another person, the information we acquire is mostly limited to whether the odor encountered is pleasant or otherwise. Yes, that is what sweat smells like. But there are dog breeds whose olfactory acuity is some millions of times greater than ours. We cannot even guess what untold volumes of biography are revealed by an armpit times 10 million. A dog's model of the world is defined by smell.
If we hear a sound, we are usually able to establish its orientation and proximity with at least some crude precision; our stereophonic auditory sense easily detects slight differentials in wave pressure and time of reception. Furthermore, we can discern a truly astounding variety of waveforms - provided that the frequencies lie between 20 and 20,000 vibrations per second - and even extract very specific meaningful sounds from within a deafening cacophony of meaningless noise. And some sounds can drive a burning sword of rapture into the soul. But a bat sees by sound. The silent flight of a moth is tracked by ultrasonic (far beyond the threshold of human hearing) echolocation with better-than-visual precision. A bat finds, in the impenetrable tangle of modulating wave differentials, a moving "picture" of his dinner. Modern medicine makes extensive use of sonographs, but these "sound pictures" must be translated into "visual pictures" to have any meaning. A bat makes no such translation; its model of the world is defined by sound.
Scorpions can feel the vibrations caused by the footsteps of a tiny insect 3 feet away. There are fish that measure their surroundings by fluctuations in a static electric field. Other creatures orient themselves by a reckoning of the earth's magnetic field. There must certainly be many unknown mechanisms of perception, a vast multitude of Ways of Knowing, each understanding some small truth unknown to all others, each creating their own unique but incomplete models of the world.
We are undeniably the pre-eminent life-form on this planet. And where our organs of sensory apparatus have been found wanting, we have fabricated wondrous machines to augment and extend our reach. But those information-gathering machines must then communicate with us in a comprehensible manner; they must compress and translate data that we are simply not designed to absorb. Natural selection has chosen for us senses and sensory acuities that are appropriate to survival in the jungle; in relation to all that is, the jungle is a very small place indeed. Our model of the world is an artifact of the mind; the world itself is something entirely other. The limitations of our perceptions are great, and the universe is far greater still...
Where the Forest was the Thickest...
The political history of humanity - the history of the Hunters - is punctuated by extraordinary men who seem to have touched the world itself. From the mouths of Shaman-Prophets come words of eternal beauty, but in the hands of Hunter-Politicians such words quickly become instruments of temporal power. And for 99% of human history, those who would not submit to that temporal power were (and still are in some places) sent to the stake...
The mortal conflict of political ideologies that has so traumatized the 20th Century is a recent phenomena. Before the first modern republics emerged 2 centuries ago, ideological conflicts (as opposed to mere thievery) between nations were conflicts between religions. In the collective temperament of a people, spiritual ideas are not merely notions about the origin and proper of reckoning of things; they also provide a profound sense of national legitimacy and identity. And to call the legitimacy of a nation's Idea into question is to call that nation into question. Powerful men are prepared to defend their legitimacy, and in the European tradition we find the most egregious exemplar of this ruthless collectivism.
We do not hear of Buddhist monks who have visions of Christ, or of priests and nuns astounded by apparitions of the Buddha. In many individuals, the collective forms of religious experience are sufficient to assuage spiritual curiosities, and may sometimes even provoke genuine spiritual raptures. But there shall always be men and women for whom the collective, socially authorized forms are not sufficient, those who must seek their own way into the Mystery of Being. Like Gawain and the other knights on their quest for the Holy Grail (the sacred vessel which contains the Blood of Eternal Life - an unmistakable reference to the womb), such men and women "...thought it would be a disgrace to ride forth in a group. But each entered the forest at one point or another, there where he saw it to be the thickest and there was no way or path."
In the Christian era of European history, a personal quest for the Divine was a very dangerous and often fatal endeavor. And so it was necessary to disguise such individual pursuits within the acceptable garments of the collective will. One of these secret spiritual traditions eventually became the conceptual foundation for one of the most successful of all positivist sciences. They were the disciples of "The Great Work": the Alchemists.
The modern view of the Alchemists might be stated: "Stupid, greedy lunatics hoping to turn lead into gold." It is certainly true that among the Alchemists were some deluded profit-seekers, but it is also a fact that in those times the true province of corpulent spiritual corruption was found in the orthodox religions. In any event, our modern view of the Alchemists is misinformed; their objective was not to achieve gold one could spend (aurum vulgi), but to achieve Gold one could know (aurum philosophicum). Theirs was a quest for Spiritual Gold. Alchemy was a meditative discipline: by contemplating the material of creation, and thereby learning the processes by which one form of matter becomes another form of matter, the Alchemists hoped for nothing less than communion with the Form of Forms that is the origin of all matter. And the word matter (like the comparable words matrix and material) is derived from the Latin word mater - Mother.
The Quest for Spiritual Gold - the Philosopher's Stone - was a 4-level process; like the 4- level Sacred Tetraktys, each successive stage brought the initiate to a higher level of understanding. The Alchemists perceived a universe that was, in all aspects, dual (up-down, light-dark, active, passive, limited-unlimited, etc.); thus, the oscillating tendency between all such polarities represents the quintessential Rhythm of Existence - the inhalation and exhalation of the Cosmos itself. And the fundamental polarity of the universe - the Duality of which all manifest forces in opposition are merely projections - is Feminine and Masculine. The task of The Great Work, then, is to find unity in this division, to reconcile the irreconcilable in a Celestial Marriage of the White Queen (the female element, mercury) and the Red King (the male element, sulphur).
The guiding ethos of Alchemy was solve et coagula: purify and integrate. And this philosophy applied to the Alchemist even more than it applied to the contents of his crucible. By understanding the material process by which the Creator fashioned gold from elementary matter (prima materia), the Alchemist believed he might discover an analogous spiritual process. And so, as lead might evolve into gold within the crucible of the Alchemist's furnace, so might the adept evolve from a material to a spiritual being within the crucible of his own burning soul. To obtain the Philosopher's Stone was to transcend perception and achieve perfect knowledge (gnosis) of the infinite cosmos itself.
Level 1 - The Black Stone, Base Matter. The first step was called putrefaction: the reduction of matter to a shapeless, featureless state. Base matter was usually represented as black, but as a symbol of the manifest aspect of the visible, natural world, this primordial incarnation of substance was often represented by the botanical color of the terrestrial illusion - green. Through a series of 9 secret processes, base matter was transmuted into...
Level 2 - The White Stone, Mercury. The second step was called solution: the corruption of matter was removed by series of elaborate purifications, leaving only an essential and universal substance of shimmering fluidity. From a distant and unknown celestial beacon comes a first purifying revelation of light to the abyssal dark of base matter. Through a series of 9 secret processes, mercury was transmuted into...
Level 3 - The Red Stone, Sulphur. The third step was called distillation: as the cosmos emerged from primordial Oceanos, as life emerged from the terrestrial ocean, so too does the earthly element sulphur issue from the aqueous element mercury. (What Alchemists called sulphur - which is, of course, yellow - we now know as mercury sulphide, or red cinnabar.) With the creation of the second component of the elemental duality - the Red Groom for the White Bride - the Alchemist sought to chemically facilitate an elemental courtship through a series of 9 secret processes, until Queen and King were united into the Glory of...
Level 4 - The Philosopher's Stone, Gold. This final step was called sublimation: the realization of perfect Absolute Substance. To achieve gold was not to transmute lead, but to transmute the soul: to complete our incomplete models of the world, to ascend to a luminous celestial plane that is infinitely beyond and infinitely within the world one has known.
Raiment of the Goddess
We see in this image an apparition of the Goddess of Eternity in the great Cathedral of Illusion; fluttering around Her are the nine messengers - each one a whimsical reflection-in-miniature of the Goddess Herself. And hidden within this image we shall find an unexpected visual representation of the Alchemist's Quest...
The green forest is the nature from which we issue, and of which we are prisoners; as the progeny of material nature, we can never be other than material beings. It is nature that has determined for us the very limited extent of our perceptions, and yet it is also nature that has provided the consciousness that might transcend those limitations. And the first step of transcendence comes like a beckoning light in the darkness...or the cascading flow of an eternal river bringing life to the thirsty black soil of the world.
Disappearing below the outer-sleeves of the Goddess' gown, is an undergarment of white worn next to Her body. If black is the abyssal void of nothingness, then white is the first illuminating revelation of possibility. It is the delicate light that first appears in the eastern sky of retreating night, the dreams of a day that has not yet happened. White is the nocturnal luminescence of the sun-reflecting moon, the eternal promise of a great golden light to come. Like a painter's empty canvas, it is the still and silent purity of infinite potential unblemished by unrealized aspirations. The White Goddess is the song of all colors, beckoning the knights of the rainbow into the task of realization...
Over this first layer of white the Goddess wears a sensual gown of deep, dark red. If white is the invitation into The Task, then red is the explosive aspiration of the struggle for life. It is our raging passions and emotions inflamed, the call to dynamic action, and the horrific suffering that is an inevitable consequence of action. Red is the living blood that flows like fuel into the life- consuming engine of nature: flowing from the womb which brings new life into being, and flowing from the sword that returns it to the germinating soil. The Red Lord is the mightiest of the warriors of the rainbow, the will and the power by which The Task might be achieved...
And ornamenting this somber, brooding red is a decorative trim of luminous gold. Gold, the most precious of all metals, will not tarnish, stain, or rust; it is immutable and will not alloy with other metals. This quality of eternal perfection bestows upon gold a sense of immortality; in fact, the Egyptians believed the flesh of the gods was made of gold. The shimmering luster of gold has its celestial counterpart in the blazing radiance of the sun that obliterates the limitations of the night. And like the sunlight, gold is the illuminated knowledge revealed by the evaporating shadows of ignorance.
And the key to the whole image is found in the pattern in the gold - the foliaceous forms of the illusion of nature. Just as carbon - the fundamental element of life - is in one aspect base black charcoal, and in another aspect perfect crystalline diamond, so too are gold and clay one and the same substance. All we see are sorrows, shadows, and limits, but just beyond the threshold of our perceptions is the universe itself: Perfect, Luminous, Infinite. The presence of beauty in the universe is a Divine Beacon, a sign of hope that all this pain and blood serves some greater purpose - The Task - which we are not meant to know. So we need not aspire to perceive the imperceivable, apprehend infinity, nor stare God in the face to ask our infinitesimal questions. We find the Grace of The Goddess when we realize that the beauty of the cosmos is a gift - a gift of gold...
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Some personal notes on Forest Light
This image has been bouncing around in the back of head for several years now, and elements present here can be seen in many of my other images. "Forest Light" began as an attempt to redeem an earlier attempt at a very similar image called "Regeneration," which I designed in 1990. Although this has long been a fan favorite, I always considered this to be a very poor painting; I wanted to know if I could do a better job 9 years later. And, as is usually the case, I found the real motivation and inspiration only in the process of painting the image; something that bothers an artist for nine years inevitably has an unknown psychological dimension.
Gnostic Alchemy emerged in Europe sometime shortly after the Emperor Justinian closed down all the schools of classical learning (pagan worshipers all!), although the tradition may be far older in India and China. And strange as it may sound, the restless shaman of whom I spoke in my essay "The Awakening" is apparently at work here too. I chose the colors and the patterning on the gold because that was the image I had in my head. I discovered the chromatic progression of the Alchemist's spiritual ascension only after I had completed the painting. Coincidence? The parallels are not merely close, they are mirror images of each other. The Alchemical tradition flourished for more than a thousand years only because it resonated in an unknown, quiet corner of the mind; and this empty cavity - the biological inheritance of every man and woman - perhaps serves no other purpose than waiting to be filled by the universal sound of the Grace of God...
The Entrance Foyer
The Goddess Art of Jonathon Earl Bowser