As far as symbols go, the cross also predates Christianity and is found in one form or another in cultures around the world. Magicians have used the cross for centuries to stand for complete balance of all aspects of our psyche. When we’re in perfect balance, forces outside of us—human or otherwise—will have a much more difficult time implanting suggestions into our mind stream or otherwise influencing our energy field.
Animals have been a vital element in the development of mythological systems throughout history, across virtually every culture imaginable. In Western societies of the Middle Ages, in particular, animals represented specific traits and could therefore be utilized as symbols to convey moral and religious lessons in works of art. Animals can represent victims of technology, industrialization, or war. Also, animals sometimes equate with the concept of “purity,” existing in a wild, natural state and therefore utterly free from man’s sins and vices. Some passion plays and other didactic forms of theater utilized animal imagery to represent specific modes of behavior, including human vices.
Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us – The Dews drew quivering and chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity –
Over the past few months, I have been having virtual literature discussions with one of my closest friends, and we recently discussed this poem. I had read through it multiple times prior to our discussion and took many notes. Still, in talking about the nuances of this masterpiece, we discovered more hidden symbolism and meaning. So my goal in this post is to cover some of the themes we discovered in the text. It is by no means exhaustive, and if you have insights you would like to share, please do so in the comments section (available for 14 days after publication of this post).
The obvious theme is that the speaker is describing the afterlife by personifying Death and Immortality. As is implied in the first stanza, many of us hasten through our lives without giving much thought to our impending deaths. But eventually, Death does come for us all. It is also worth noting that Dickinson differentiates between Death and Immortality. One could conclude that dying does not necessarily mean that the soul will unite with the Eternal.
Something that my friend and I discussed was the possibility that the speaker is somehow wedded, either to Immortality or to Death. There are multiple images that support this interpretation. When couples get married, they would often leave together in a Carriage. In the third stanza, there is mention of a Ring and Children. And in the fourth stanza, we learn that she is wearing a Gown, and more importantly, a Tulle, which is a veil.
Now, one could argue that the Tulle might represent the veil between this world and the afterlife. This is also a valid interpretation and worth considering.
Finally, there is one other symbol that we discussed which may be of interest, and that is the biblical Scarlet Woman from Revelation. If you look closely at the sixth stanza, you can find the imagery there. The mention of “Centuries” implies the passing of a millennium, which feels shorter than “the Day.” The Day could be interpreted as the Judgement Day. The “Horses’ Heads” could then be viewed as a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All of these signs are pointing “toward Eternity,” manifested by the Second Coming of Christ. If one accepts this interpretation, then the conclusion of this poem takes on an ominous tone.
Again, these are just thoughts and impressions regarding this poem. I suspect there is even more going on than I am aware of. There are definitely layers of symbolism and hidden meaning in this text. I welcome you to share any thoughts you may have.
I originally read The Upanishads when I was in college. In fact, the old paperback copy I still have was my old college text, complete with highlighting and marginalia. Sadly, the binding is coming undone so I think this may be my last reading of this particular book. But it has served me well. Anyway, it had been many years since I read this, and considering all the material I have read in between, I suspected that this reading would be on a different level than my prior readings.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the text:
The Upanishads are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teachings which form the foundations of Hinduism. They are the most recent part of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, that deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge; other parts of the Vedas deal with mantras, benedictions, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices. Among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions. Of all Vedic literature, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and their central ideas are at the spiritual core of Hinduism.
Much of the text discusses the Self, which is essentially that spark of the Divine that exists within each being.
The Self, whose symbol is OM, is the omniscient Lord. He is not born. He does not die. He is neither cause nor effect. This Ancient One is unborn, imperishable, eternal: though the body be destroyed, he is not killed.
There is a belief held by many on the spiritual path that the goal is to renounce the world and focus only on the spiritual. The Upanishads teach that not only is this incorrect, it is actually detrimental to one’s spiritual growth. Balance is needed, and polarity of any sort leads to darkness.
To darkness are they doomed who devote themselves only to life in the world, and to a greater darkness they who devote themselves only to meditation.
Life in the world alone leads to one result, meditation alone leads to another. So have we heard from the wise.
They who devote themselves both to life in the world and to meditation, by life in the world overcome death and by meditation achieve immortality.
(pp. 27 – 28)
For me, one of the most intriguing passages from this reading was a description of how to realize, or “see,” the Divine presence, God, the Self.
To realize God, first control the outgoing senses and harness the mind. Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire—meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance.
Control your mind so that the Ultimate Reality, the self-luminous Lord, may be revealed. Strive earnestly for eternal bliss.
With the help of the mind and the intellect, keep the senses from attaching themselves to objects of pleasure. They will be purified by the light of the Inner Reality, and that light will be revealed.
I have not even scratched the surface of this book. The wealth of wisdom and insight in this short text is staggering. I highly recommend that any of you who are on the spiritual path read and reread this text.
Thanks for stopping by. May you have a blessed journey.
In the old days, those who were well versed in the practice of the Tao did not try to enlighten the people, but rather to keep them in the state of simplicity. For, why are the people hard to govern? Because they are too clever! Therefore, he who governs his state with cleverness is its malefactor; but he who governs his state without resorting to cleverness is its benefactor. To know these principles is to possess a rule and a measure. To keep the rule and the measure constantly in your mind is what we call Mystical Virtue. Deep and far-reaching is Mystical Virtue! It leads all things to return, till they come back to Great Harmony!
First off, I have to say it feels a little strange to hear someone referring to “the old days” in a text that was written around 400 BC. But what this says to me is that people are always nostalgic about the way things used to be. I think that says something about human nature.
In this passage, Lau Tzu encourages leaders to govern through simplicity and with “Mystical Virtue.” Doing so will return a nation to a state of “Great Harmony.” Clearly, this is advice that many of our modern leaders could benefit from. When I look at the world, it seems to me to be the antithesis of a Great Harmony.
There is really nothing that I can add to this short passage. I hope you found it as insightful as I did. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading.
What is at rest is easy to hold. What manifests no omens is easily forestalled. What is fragile is easily shattered. What is small is easily scattered.
Tackle things before they have appeared. Cultivate peace and order before confusion and disorder have set in.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout. A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth. A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.
He who fusses over anything spoils it. He who grasps anything loses it. The Sage fusses over nothing and therefore spoils nothing. He grips at nothing and therefore loses nothing.
In handling affairs, people often spoil them just at the point of success. With heedfulness in the beginning and patience at the end, nothing will be spoiled.
Therefore, the Sage desires to be desireless, Sets no value on rare goods, Learns to unlearn his learning, And induces the masses to return from where they have overpassed. He only helps all creatures to find their own nature, But does not venture to lead them by the nose.
This passage reminds me of some simple tenets for leading a stress-free and productive life. Start out slow. Focus on the task and don’t worry about the outcome. Don’t procrastinate, but start things early and give yourself plenty of time to do what needs to be done. While these are simple, we so often fail to practice them, and as a result, we create unnecessary stress in our already hectic lives.
I have been making a conscious effort to simplify my life, focusing on single tasks instead of trying to multitask. Taking time for myself. Relaxing. Trusting that things will work out the way they are meant to, and not trying to force the results that I think are the best. As a result of these small changes, I feel happier and calmer, most of the time anyway.
Our world is stressful, and it is easy to get caught up in the turmoil. Lau Tzu teaches us the importance of slowing down and shifting our focus to what is really important. It is old wisdom, but certainly applicable to modern life.
When Nature once in lustful hot undress Conceived gargantuan offspring, then would I Have loved to live near a young giantess, Like a voluptuous cat at a queen’s feet.
To see her body flower with her desire And freely spread out in its dreadful play, Guess if her heart concealed some heavy fire Whose humid smokes would swim upon her eye.
To feel at leisure her stupendous shapes, Crawl on the cliffs of her enormous knees, And, when in summer the unhealthy suns
Have stretched her out across the plains, fatigued, Sleep in the shadows of her breasts at ease Like a small hamlet at a mountain’s base.
(Translation by Karl Shapiro)
I read this poem a couple times and sense a few possible interpretations of what Baudelaire is expressing.
My initial interpretation is that Baudelaire is describing a sexual desire towards, everything. In the original French as well as in Shapiro’s translation, “Nature” is capitalized, emphasizing the importance. The poem could then be seen as describing passion towards all creation, that the entire living Gaia is the object of Baudelaire’s desire. One can imagine hills and meadows transforming into objects of sensuality for Baudelaire, as all of Nature stirs his passion.
Next, I had a sense that Baudelaire was expressing a personal tendency towards being submissive, of desiring a strong and dominating woman. The image of him as a cat at his lover’s feet, or crawling up onto her knees, provides the impression that he enjoys being the subservient plaything of a woman.
And this leads to the final interpretation, which would likely have been Freud’s first, that the giantess symbolizes Baudelaire’s mother. He appears to feel a sense of comfort from the giantess’s breasts not unlike the comfort a young child receives from its mother’s breasts. Additionally, Baudelaire seems to echo the sense of bonding a child experiences from sitting upon a mother’s lap.
I finished reading this book several weeks ago, but I have been busy with work and not able to take time to write about this text. Additionally, the nature of this book and the complexity of the ideas conveyed posed a problem: How could I possibly cover such a deep book in a short blog post? The short answer is, I can’t.
When I read this book, I read it virtually with a close friend who is also a fellow traveler of spiritual paths. We would read a section and have a weekly call to discuss what we had read. This led to some deep conversations which were both enlightening and thought provoking.
Anyway, this book was originally published in 1935 and goes into deep analysis of the symbolism and occult meanings associated with the Jewish Qabalah (or Kabbalah). While the text primarily focuses of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, Ms. Fortune does provide correspondences to other mystical traditions. Because this text is so dense, I will only touch on a few general excerpts and leave the rest open for exploration by those who are moved to read the book themselves.
Since the Qabalah is a highly symbolic structure, Fortune offers some sound advice early in the book for how one should approach the study of Qabalah.
When in doubt as to the explanation of some abstruse point, reference would be made to the sacred glyph, and meditation would unfold what generations of meditation had ensouled therein. It is well known to mystics that if a man meditates upon a symbol around which certain ideas have been associated by past meditation, he will obtain access to those ideas, even if the glyph has never been elucidated to him by those who have received the oral tradition “by mouth to ear.”
Fortune is essentially stating that there is a kind of collective consciousness accessible through symbols, that the insights gained throughout ages by individuals meditating upon the symbol become joined to the symbol on a deeper level. These insights are then available to the seeker who meditates upon the symbol, most likely by the vibrational alignment with past meditators.
Fortune goes on to explain that, in addition to tapping into a collective knowledge, meditation upon Qabalistic symbols allows the mind to comprehend insights that are not available to those who primarily exist within our standard plane of consciousness.
The Qabalist goes to work in a different way. He does not attempt to make the mind rise up on the wings of metaphysics into the rarified air of abstract reality; he formulates a concrete symbol that the eye can see, and lets it represent the abstract reality that no untrained human mind can grasp.
The last quote I want to share concerns what Fortune asserts is the ultimate goal of the occultist and the practitioner of the mystical arts, and this is nothing less than the union with God.
The Spiritual Experience assigned to Kether is said to be Union with God. This is the end and aim of all mystical experience, and if we look for any other goal we are as those who build a house in a world of illusion. Anything that holds him back from the straight path to this goal is felt by the mystic to be a bond that binds, and as such to be broken. All that holds consciousness to form, all desires other than the one desire—these are to him evils, and from the standpoint of his philosophy he is right, and to act otherwise would invalidate his technique.
I feel that this book is a must-read for anyone who is seriously interested in learning about the Qabalah. While there are many more traditional texts by Hebrew scholars such as Gershom Scholem (a personal favorite) that explain the Qabalah from a more Jewish perspective, this book provides a wealth of insight into this rich and complex symbolic mystical tradition.
I recently acquired the Thoth Tarot deck. The Thoth Tarot was designed by Aleister Crowley and the paintings for the cards were done by Lady Frieda Harris. The creation of the deck was completed in 1943, and in 1944, Crowley published The Book of Thoth which is contains in-depth explanations of the symbolism included in each of the tarot cards, as well as the correspondences between the Thoth deck and the kabbalistic Tree of Life.
Crowley begins the book with a basic description of the tarot deck.
The tarot is a pack of seventy-eight cards. There are four suits, as in modern playing cards, which are derived from it. But the Court cards number four instead of three. In addition, there are twenty-two cards called “Trumps”, each of which is a symbolic picture with a title to itself.
At first sight one would suppose this arrangement to be arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah.
Because of its correspondences to the Universe and the Tree of Life, Crowley stresses that the study of the tarot is invaluable in magickal studies and should be started early and practiced regularly.
This fact is to be emphasized, because one must not take the Tree of Life as a dead fixed formula. It is in a sense an eternal pattern of the Universe, just because it is infinitely elastic; and it is to be used as an instrument in one’s researches into Nature and her forces. It is not to be made an excuse for Dogmatism. The Tarot should be learnt as early in life as possible; a fulcrum for memory and a schema for mind. It should be studied constantly, a daily exercise; for it is universally elastic, and grows in proportion to the use intelligently made of it. Thus it becomes a most ingenious and excellent method of appreciating the whole of Existence.
Although there are many levels of correspondences and symbolism associated with the tarot, Crowley emphasizes the correspondence between the twenty-two trump cards and the twenty-two paths which are part of the Tree of Life according to the Holy Qabalah.
Twenty-two is the number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is the number of Paths of the Sepher Yetzirah. These paths are the paths which join the ten numbers on the figure called the Tree of Life.
Why are there twenty-two of them? Because that is the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and one letter goes to each path.
The bulk of the book deals with the symbolism incorporated into each individual card within the Thoth Tarot deck. This information is extremely useful to anyone who wants to use this tarot deck, but is way too detailed to cover in a blog post. I will only say that if you have the Thoth Tarot or are thinking of acquiring the deck, you should also invest in this book.
A final word about this text. It demands a lot of the reader and expects that you have at least a basic understanding of kabbalah, tarot, and ancient mythology. I would not suggest this as a beginner’s guide.