Wiccan Rede * Spring 1985 by Morgana Sythove
Throughout the Craft rituals and festivals, symbolism is used prolifically. This is hardly surprising since symbolism forms a deep rooted foundation in our lives and affects many aspects of our thoughts, feelings and deeds. In all societies and cultures symbols have been and are still being used. They form a link with our past and create a possibility to gain a deeper insight into the nature of existence.
Symbols are not objects in the material sense although material forms representing the intangible concept can be created. The tangible forms are in effect the external symbols of our subconsciousness. As we all know a concrete form is more easily comprehended than an abstract form although this does not mean to say that the concrete representation is less powerful in conveying a particular message. The power of a symbol lies in our ability to interpret the concept behind the symbol. Symbols are in themselves universal although local interpretation may influence this universality and distort the true archetypal meaning. Whilst symbols can form a framework of reference and can particularly enhance group work it is of vital importance that we use our own insight in interpreting the messages symbols can offer us. For this reason it is interesting to hear how symbols were interpreted by ancient peoples but ultimately we must form our own ideas and experiences of symbols.
The ‘symbolic’ experience is concerned with our emotional life, our dreamlife and our need to express ourselves. In our somewhat intellectually orientated, Western society, symbols have become rather empty and superficial. Although symbols are often used many of us are unaware of their true significance; and they have sometimes become clouded in superstition. For example walking under a ladder is thought to be unlucky, but few people seem to know why: we are in fact breaking the ancient symbol of the triangle! Symbols should not be confused with signs of warning, but the triangle as a symbol has a much wider meaning. Symbols can lead us to the archetypal world as described by C.G. Jung. This archetypal world according to Jung is not the personal conscious but a “deeper layer I call the collective unconscious. I have chosen the term ‘collective’ because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals. It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in everyone of us”. In magical thinking it is precisely this deeper layer which we attempt to reach and to utilise. The collective unconscious is not a collection of repressed thoughts and experiences but a storehouse of innate wisdom which can be used by every individual. Symbols, and the archetypes they lead to, express an essential part of existence and although a symbol can be complex it is nevertheless concerned with the essence of things.
In Craft ritual we are also concerned with the essence and natural harmony. A link is created between the personal and the impersonal (i.e. this deeper layer) and the higher realities or the spiritual worlds. The key as a symbolic image, to illustrate the world of symbolism, is used to unlock the doors to these other levels of reality. The ritual is the key and the guardians of that key are the participants of the ritual. J.C. Cooper writes on the occult aspects of initiation ceremonies: “The use of symbols was essential in leading the initiate from the limited regions of the rational mind and the world of senses to that which exists beyond them, the unlimited, infinite, ‘super’-natural world”. At this time of the year we are concerned with the season of Spring, in particular the festival celebrating the Vernal Equinox (March 21/22). In the Christian Church it is of course Easter, which is celebrated in Spring. One of the seasonal symbols is the egg and there are many spring customs which involve the use of the egg, including Easter Eggs, rolling eggs, hiding and seeking eggs, etc. As I said earlier the world of symbols should really be explored by the individual person, although some background knowledge can certainly help to orientate oneself. In a number of creation myths the world came forth from the egg, for example the Egyptian God Ptah emerged from an egg that came out from the mouth of Amun-Knepth, the true and perfect serpent. The serpent had yellow scales and was a symbol of the solar powers. In a creation myth from Japan it is a bull who breaks the shell of an egg and then animates the contents with his breath. In the Kalevala, the Finnish heroic epic, we read how Ilmater the Creatrix of the Universe, the Daughter of Nature, grew weary of her celestial home and descended down to the sea. For seven centuries she floated upon the waters unable to find a resting place. Then a duck hovered over the water, also unable to find a place to build a nest. Ilmater however raised her knee and the duck was able to find a footing and build a nest. Seven eggs the duck laid, and she brooded over them for three days. Ilmater felt a scorching heat on her knee and rolled the eggs into the ocean where they were shattered. From the yolk grew the sun, from the white, the moon; and from the upper half of the shell came the vault of heaven, from the lower half sprang the earth.
Bachofen writes, in ‘Myth, Religion and Mother Right’: “In religion the egg is a symbol of the material source of all things, of the beginning of creation. The material source of all things, which brings forth all life from out of itself, comprises both the bright and dark side of nature. The Orphic primordial egg is half white and half black or red – and it may be remembered that Typhon, the destructive power, is represented as red. And these colours flow into one another as unremittingly as life and death, day and night, becoming and passing away. They do not exist merely in proximity but also within one another. Death is the precondition of life, and only in the same measure as destruction proceeds can the creative power be effective. In every moment becoming and passing away operate side by side. The life of every earthly organism is the product of a twofold force, creative and destructive.”
In the Orphic mysteries time (Chronos) created the silver egg of the cosmos. From this egg burst Phanes – Dionysus, or the ‘Glittering One’. Larousse: “Chaos (which came from Chronos) was surrounded by night, which formed the enveloping cover under which, by the creative action of Ether, cosmic matter was slowly organised. This finally assumed the shape of an egg of which Night formed the shell. In the centre of this gigantic egg, which lower section was the Earth, was born the first being, Phanes, the Light. It was Phanes, who by unison with Night, created Heaven and Earth.” In the Orphic primordial egg it is division which sets creation into motion. As a result of the splitting there is polarity – night and day, black and white. The egg in effect contained both male and female potential. In some versions of the Orphic creation Phanes is bisexual. He is also depicted with cloven hoofs showing him as Pan. Other Orphic motifs (found for example on alabaster bowls) include the serpent, another symbol closely connected with the egg, for example in the figure of the serpent Ouroboros, the serpent who bites its own tail. The Ouroboros, like the egg, forms a sphere or circular shape – the symbol of original perfection, i.e. before the division or splitting of creation. Neumann: “Circle, sphere and round are all aspects of the self-contained, which is without beginning and end; in its preworldly perfection it is prior to any process, eternal, for in its roundness there is no before and no after, no time; and there is no above and no below, no space., All this can only come with the coming of the light of consciousness, which is not yet present; now all is under sway of the unmanifest godhead, whose symbol is therefore the circle. The round is the egg, the Philosophical World Egg, the nucleus of the beginning and the germ from which, as humanity teaches everywhere, the world arises. It is also the perfect state in which opposites are united – the perfect beginning because the opposites have not yet flown apart and the world has not yet begun. The perfect end because in it the opposites have come together again in a synthesis and the world is once more at rest.” As a symbol of creation, the egg is also a symbol of resurrection, rebirth and fertility. The resurgence of life round about the Spring Equinox, is named after Ostara, the Teutonic goddess of Spring. Her sacred animal the hare traditionally lays the Easter Egg. The hare, as is well known, is a prolific animal and symbolises fertility. The Easter Egg is often painted red, red symbolising life in this case and not the destructive forces of Typhon as with the Orphic egg. In the Ukraine the traditional Easter Egg is called the ‘pysanky’ and again red is very dominant. The pysanky is made by covering the egg with a pattern of wax, leaving this pattern white when the egg is dyed yellow. Then an additional wax pattern is applied, and the egg dyed orange. Etcetera – a red and black dye completing the series. The wax is removed by putting the egg on a towel in an oven at 250°. Decorations and symbols are fairly traditional, as is shown below.
In the Druidic mysteries, so Robert Graves writes, “eggs were coloured scarlet in the Sun’s honour.” He also writes that “the ‘glain’, or ‘red egg of the sea serpent’ which figured in the Druidic mysteries may be identified with the Orphic World Egg.” A great deal more information is to be found concerning the egg as a symbol and it is hoped that the above will inspire further exploration. As I said earlier the world of symbols is an intuitive world. One cannot learn the definition of a symbol in an intellectual way – a symbol should be lived and felt. Meditation on a particular symbol can be helpful but symbols can be more concretely experienced if they become an intrinsic part of your personal conscious. The seasonal festivals and the tuning in to the seasonal cycle can be used to create a positive link in this symbolic approach. At first the external symbols are an extension of the ‘collective unconscious’ (of which we are all a part, as we have seen) but later it is possible to link up with the archetypal levels of reality without the concrete forms. In this sense concrete symbols (for example a pysanky at a Spring Festival) can help us to focus on the symbolic reality it represents and thereby enrich our (spi)ritual insight.
- Neumann: Origins and History of Consciousness.
- Neumann: The Great Mother.
- J.C. Cooper: Symbolism – the Universal language.
- C.G. Jung: Four archetypes (Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster).
- The Mysteries – papers from the Eranos Yearbooks.
- New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.
- J.J. Bachofen: Myth, Religion and Mother Right.
- M. Esther Harding: Psychic Energy.
- R. Graves: The White Goddess.