Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/The Migration of Symbols II


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SYMBOLS may differ in aspect and yet be connected with one another by a more or less direct affiliation. This thought leads us to examine the causes which may change the forms of symbolical representations. There is first a tendency to reduce or simplify the figure, in order to confine it to a smaller space or to diminish the labor of the artist—especially when the figure is complicated and frequently used. In all the systems of writing in which the characters began as hieroglyphics, we have only to scratch the letter to find the hieroglyphic symbol. Thus our vowel A was originally the head of an ox, and that in its turn represented the whole animal, according to the popular rule that in symbols and sacrifices a part may stand for the whole. So, likewise, in the signs of the zodiac, the lion is simply represented by his tail. At other times, again, additions and embellishments are dictated by aesthetic considerations. That was the case with most of the symbols adopted by Greece, whose art, so strongly original, never adopted foreign types without impressing profound and felicitous modifications upon them.

The caduceus did not always present the classical form of two serpents symmetrically entwined around a winged rod. On the oldest monuments it is a stick the knotty head of which forks into two branches that curve round till they recross one another, then diverge and approach again, so as to form a figure 8 placed at the end of a rod and open at the top. The poems of Homer disclose to us an epoch still more remote, when a simple flowering rod with three leaves was attributed to Mercury. In seeking an explanation of these transformations, we suppose that the first in date was probably due to the influence of the Phoenicians, who left on their steles, especially in Libya, the representation of numerous caduceuses formed of a circle placed upon a stick and surmounted by a crescent. It is open to discussion whether the second modification—which was justified after the event by the legend of Mercury throwing down his rod between two fighting serpents—reveals a symbolic intent, or is due, as most of the learned think, to a fancy of Greek art. But, in either case, the innovation made it possible for the caduceus to be preserved in modern symbolism to represent the two ever-present attributes of Mercury—Industry and Commerce. In like manner it has been perpetuated in India, where it was introduced by the Greeks, till our time; and M. Guimet observed numerous examples of it among the votive offerings in some of the Vishnuite temples. Nothing is lost in symbolism that is worthy to live and can be transformed.

Symbols are also subject to the law of the struggle for existence. It was artistic perfection that secured the longevity of the thunderbolt—another figure which was long believed to be of Hellenic origin-Nearly all peoples have represented the fire from the sky by an arm, sometimes also by a bird of strong and rapid flight. It was symbolized among the Chaldeans by a trident. Cylinders going back to the most ancient ages of Chaldean art exhibit a water-jet gushing from a trident which is held by the god of the sky or of the storm. The Assyrian artist who first, on the bas-reliefs of Nimroud or Malthai, doubled the trident or transformed it into a trifid fascicle, docile to the refinements and elegancies of classic art, by that means secured for the ancient Mesopotamian symbol the advantage over all the other representations of thunder with which it could compete. The Greeks, like the other Indo-European nations, seem to have represented the storm-fire under the features of a bird of prey. When they received the Asiatic figure of the thunderbolt, they put it in the eagle's claws and made of it the scepter of Zeus, explaining the combination, after their habit, by the story of the eagle bringing thunder to Zeus when he was preparing for the war against the Titans. Latin Italy transmitted the thunderbolt to Gaul, where, in the last centuries of paganism, it alternated, on the Gallo-Roman monuments, with the two-headed hammer. It is also found on amulets of Germany, Scandinavia, and Brittany. In the East it penetrated to India, following Alexander, where it is found competing with other symbols having the same significance. Siva, who succeeded Zeus on the coins of the Indo-Scythian kings, after the light of Grecian civilization was extinguished in the Northeast and in India, holds in his hand sometimes the thunderbolt and sometimes the trident; and while the latter remains exclusively the arm of the god in the later imagery of the Hindoo sects, the thunderbolt found its way to the Buddhists, who carried it with their symbolism to China and Japan. It is still met under the form of the dordj, a little bronze instrument in the shape of a double fascicle of six or eight arrows, which, held between the thumb and forefinger, is used by the lamas and bonzes in blessing the faithful and exorcising demons.

By the side of the improvements due to the aspirations of artists must be placed the deformations produced by the ignorance or unskillfulness of copyists. Sometimes a new type springs from these deteriorations to succeed the old one in somewhat the same manner as in the dissolving views, where the outlines of two pictures succeeding one another are confounded into an indistinct image which is neither one nor the other. The ansate cross of the Egyptians seems thus to have engendered certain types of the Ephesian Diana, with veiled face, arms half opened, and body inclosed in a sheath; as also the sacred triangle of the Semites, frequently surmounted by a disk and two horizontal bars, inspired in the Greeks, according to Francois Lenormant, representations of Harmony or of Aphrodite under the form of a cone crowned with a tiara and supplied with two rudimentary arms. As a counterpart to these metamorphoses changing a linear symbol into a representation of the human figure, may be cited some images sculptured on the paddles of the New-Irelanders, which were exhibited at the meeting of the British Association in 1872. There was revealed in them a series of deformations gradually changing a human face into a crescent couchant on the point of an arrow. Except for the presence of the intermediate forms, no one would have inferred the relationship of the extreme terms.

When the symbol is composed of several images grouped together, there is no reason why it should not keep its physiognomy as a whole, although one or more of its constituent elements may be modified, the better to answer to the religious traditions, the national preferences, and the geographical peculiarities of a new medium. Thus the lily, as M. de Gubernatis remarks in his Mythologie des Plantes, has taken the place of the lotus in the symbolic combinations borrowed by the West from the East. One of the most characteristic examples of these local variations with persistence of the type is presented to us by the figured representations of the sacred trees, in which we believe we can recognize the tree of life which is mentioned in both the Semitic and the Aryan traditions. From the most remote antiquity, the Chaldeans gave it the appearance of the date-palm, sometimes attended by a vine or an asclepiad similar to the plant that yields the soma of the Hindoos. The Assyrians made of it a wholly conventional tree, in which palm-leaves were associated with a cone-fruit, and the horns of the wild goat formed a kind of capital to the trunk. The Phœnicians exaggerated the artificial character of the representation by grafting the flowers of the lotus upon it. The Greeks introduced it into their ornamentation under the abbreviated form of the palm-leaf or acanthus. The Persians adopted it with the conventional physiognomy which the Assyrians had impressed upon it, and it was thus carried to India, where the Buddhists substituted for it the sacred fig-tree of Buddha. On the other side, the Persians bequeathed it to the Arabs, who, stripping it of its religious signification, retained it as an ornament in the decoration of their jewels and cloths. Finally, reaching Europe in the middle ages, with cloths of Oriental origin, it was reproduced among the sculptures of some churches, where it represented sometimes the tree of the cross, sometimes, by a curious coincidence, the tree of life of the biblical traditions. In all these variations of the same theme, the plant constitutes only a part of the symbol. That is completed and characterized by the presence of two personages confronting one another—genii, demons, wild or fanciful animals, monsters half beast and half man, between which the sacred tree raises its stem or spreads its branches. Nothing more is needed to establish the affiliations of this complex image which brings into connection, through many thousand years, the Chaldean cylinders and the medallions of the Javanese pagodas, the Greek capitals of the Didymeon and the Christian tympans of Calvados and Gloucestershire.

A frequent cause of alteration, to which sufficient attention has not yet been given in the study of symbols, is the attraction which some figures exercise upon others. We can almost announce under the form of a law that when two symbols express the same idea or near ideas they manifest a tendency to combine so as to engender an intermediate type. For want of understanding that a symbol can thus be connected with several figures very different in origin and aspect, many archœologists have lost their time in disputing upon the origin of an image or of a sign which each of the parties had reason to connect with a distinct antecedent—like the knights in the legend who broke lances over the color of a shield of which one saw one side of one color and the other the reverse of another color.

Examples of such real symbolic transmutations are too numerous to be recited here. A simple and salient form of them is given in the wheel, which, possessing the double advantage of having a circular form and of implicating the idea of motion, is one of the most frequent symbols of the sun. When that star was likewise symbolized by an open flower, the effort was often made to fuse the two images. Thus, in the bas-reliefs of Buddhist India we find wheels the spokes of which are replaced by lotus-petals; while in the island of Cyprus there are coins bearing roses the leaves of which are encircled by twisted rays, or arranged in the form of a wheel. The special amulet of the Gauls, the solar rouelle, easily furnished, on the advent of Christianity, the chrisme or monogram of Christ (X and P interlaced) by the simple addition of a loop.[1] In a similar way the chrisme becomes the ansated cross or key of life, through a series of transformations which are found among the inscriptions of the island of Philæ.

It is not even necessary that the symbols thus combined shall originally have possessed the slightest analogy of forms. There are certainly not many traits common to the different images of the sun in the valley of the Nile, where it is represented, according to the districts, as a radiating disk, a hawk, a goat, etc. But the Egyptians not only succeeded in condensing all these figures into the winged globe of their pylons and their cornices, but they also contrived to give the strange amalgamation the features of another solar animal, the flying scarabæus. When the winged globe passed from Egypt into Asia, the Assyrians in turn inclosed in the Egyptian disk the figure of their god Assur, which they represented as a winged genius, and till then the ancient sacred bird of Chaldea, which, according to M. Menant, contributed with the Mesopotamians to form the definite type of their winged disk, was not. Some of the coins of Asia Minor help us to comprehend the different processes by the aid of which the two symbols could thus be combined, if not also the principal stages of the operation by which they produced a third. The sun was often symbolized in Asia Minor by a triscele—that is, a disk around which radiated three legs joined at the thigh; at other times it was represented there, as in Egypt, by animals like the lion, the boar, the eagle, the dragon, and the cock. A coin of Aspendus in Pamphylia shows the cock in the field, by the side of the triscele; other pieces of the same origin show the triscele placed over or joined to the body of the animal without its losing its natural appearance. Finally, in a Lycian coinage, in the British Museum, the two symbols, at first placed together, then joined, are literally fused into one another; the three legs of the triscele are metamorphosed into three cocks' heads, which are grouped in the same way around a center.

Most frequently the symbolical syncretism is conscious and premeditated, whether the matter be one of the union for greater efficacy of the attributes of several divinities into a single talisman, or one of affirming, by the fusion of symbols, the unity of the gods and the identity of cults. Of such character were the talismans called panthei, with which the Gnostics endeavored to condense the divine symbols supplied by the principal religions of their time. Of a higher order of ideas was the symbol adopted by the Brahmanists of the New-Dispensation—the BrahmoSomaj—who presumed to fuse all the existing sects of India into a new religion, founded exclusively on conscience and reason. The pediments of their temples bear a design in which the mystic syllable of the Brahmans, Aum, is interlaced with the Mussulman crescent, the Sivaite trident, and the Christian cross. It also frequently happens that this confusion of symbols is not at all systematic. By virtue of reproducing certain forms, the eye and the hand seem to be assimilated to them to such a degree that they are not able to rid themselves of the obsession when they attack new themes. There is a symbol of this kind, engraved on Phoenician gems or painted on Cypriote vases, which recalls the winged disk of Asia, the sacred tree of the Assyrians, and some of the Greek thunderbolts. One can not turn the leaves of the description of the Buddhist bas-reliefs of Boro Boudour, in the island of Java, published under the direction of the Dutch Government, without being struck, at almost every page of the Atlas, by the appearance of some curious figure which presents at once reminiscences of the Hindoo lotus, the Assyrian horns, the Greek thunderbolt, the Buddhist fig-tree, and the Egyptian globe with the Uræus. Such heteroclite mixtures have, moreover, been customary in Oriental symbolism. Sir George Birdwood, an author among the best versed in the industrial arts of modern India, has recently shown that in the Hindoo art, in which all the details have a symbolical bearing, certain decorative themes are combined and exchanged with the disorder of a dream, without regard to the distinction of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, or of the organic and inorganic worlds.

In most of the examples that I have cited it is easy to discover by what ways the symbol was transmitted from one people to another. Under this relation the migration of symbols rises directly from what may be named the history of commercial relations. Whatever may be the resemblance of form and signification between two symbolical figures, found among peoples of distinct origin, it is proper, before asserting relationship, to determine the probability, or at least the possibility, of international relations that may have served as a vehicle for them. This point fixed, it remains to be determined which has been the borrower and which the lender. Thus, why was it not the Hindoos who communicated the thunderbolt to Mesopotamia, the Phœnicians who received the caduceus from Greece? Here our advantages over preceding generations appear. There was a time when we might indistinctly place in India the origin of the gods, myths, and symbols that are scattered all over the world; another when it would have had a bad air not to give Greece credit for all intellectual and religious creations that had any moral or artistic value. But the investigations of the last half-century have given positive bases for the ancient history of the East; and that in turn permits us to restore to their true plane in the perspective of the ages the principal centers of artistic culture which have reacted upon one another since the beginning of civilization.

There may be differences of opinion as to whether the Ionic capital borrowed its volutes from the horns of the ibex or the half-opened petals of the lotus. There may be discussion as to whether Ionia received it directly from Golgos on the Phoœician vessels, or from Pteria with the caravans of Asia Minor. But no one who has observed its presence on the monuments of Khorsabad and Koyoundjik will refuse to locate in Mesopotamia the point of its departure toward the Ægean Sea. This is only an example of the types and motives the development to importance of which is doubtless due to the autonomous inspirations of Greek genius, but the origins of which are to be sought in Phrygia, Lycia, Phœnicia, and beyond, in the valleys of the Tigris and the Nile. In India, likewise, the most ancient works of sculpture and carving—wherever they do not attest a direct influence of Greek art—associate themselves with the monuments of Persia by the adoption of motives in some way classic in the Persepolitan architecture—like the capitals formed of animals sometimes affronted, sometimes backed; which are, as a plastic signature, in the former case of Assyria, in the second case of Egypt. In fact, when we depart from Greece or India, or even Libya, Etruria, or Gaul, we always come at the end, stage by stage, upon two grand centers of artistic diffusion, partially irreducible to one another—Egypt and Chaldea; but with this difference between them: that about the eighth century before our era, Mesopotamia went to school to the Egyptians, while Egypt never went to school to any one. Now, symbols have not only, as we have shown more than once in the course of this study, followed the same routes as purely decorative themes, but they have also been transmitted in the same fashion, at the same times, and, we might say, in the same proportion. I am far from disputing that there may have been independent and autonomous centers of creation among nearly all peoples. But, besides autochthonous types, we find everywhere the deposits of a strong current whose more or less remote origins lay in the symbolism of the shores of the Euphrates and the Nile. In short, the two orders of importations are so connected that in writing the history of art we write in great part the history of symbols, or at least of their migrations—as is exemplified in the studies of MM. Perrot and Chipiez in the history of ancient art.

A distinction, however, should be observed, in researches relative to symbols, that form is not all. It is the intention that makes the symbol, and by this symbolism is dependent upon psychology, at the same time that its history deserves a place by itself in the general picture of the development of human civilization. A word is to be said from this point of view concerning other migrations; those in which a symbol passes, no longer from one country to another, but, upon the same soil, from one religion to the one that succeeds it. In the most frequent case, it is popular pressure that introduces into the new civilization symbols consecrated by long veneration. Sometimes the innovators themselves use the advantages offered by symbolism to disguise the novelty of their doctrine under ancient forms, and, when necessary, to transform into allies emblems or traditions which they are not able to destroy by a direct attack.. Thus Constantino chose as his standard the Labarum, which could be claimed at once by the worship of Christ and by that of the sun. The same policy was attributed to the first king of Norway. According to an old song of the Shetland Islands, Hakon Adalsteinfostri, compelled to drink to Odin at an official banquet, drew the sign of the cross on his cup, and, when his guests reproached him for it, told them that it was the sign of the hammer of Thor. We know, in fact, that in German and Scandinavian countries the cross of Christ was more than once disguised under the form of a two-headed hammer, and that in more than one inscription in Egypt it put on the appearance of the key of life.

Such symbolical adaptations have been especially frequent in Buddhism, which has never been restrained from adopting the symbols and even the rites of anterior or neighboring religions. In some of its sanctuaries it has gone so far as to carve the ceremonies of the worship which natives of India gave to the sun, fire, and serpents, and connect such rites with its own traditions. The solar wheel thus became the wheel of the law; the sacred tree represented the tree of knowledge under which Sakya-Muni attained perfect illumination; the serpent Naza was transformed into a guardian of the footprints of Vishnu, which were afterward attributed to Buddha. Some years ago the remains of a Buddhist sanctuary were discovered at Bharut, in which the bas-reliefs represented emblems and religious scenes, accompanied by inscribed legends. The news gave great joy to the Anglo-Indian archaeologists. They expected to be given interpretations of Buddhist rites and symbols, formulated by the Buddhists themselves one or two centuries before the Christian era. But a closer examination showed that the shrine was only an ancient temple of the sun, which had been taken possession of by the Buddhists. They were satisfied to put over the pictures of solar worship inscriptions connecting them with their own faith.

It has been said that religions change, but worship continues the same. The assertion in this shape is too absolute; but it is certain that every religion preserves in its rites and symbols survivals from the whole series of previous religions. And this does it no harm. The important thing is, not the leather bottle, but the wine that is poured out of it; not the form, but the thought that animates it and goes beyond it. When Christians and Buddhists respectively concentrate upon their Master the principal attributes of the sun, beginning with the nimbus, the prototype of which goes back to the aureoles engraved upon the Chaldean monuments, they do not suppose themselves to be giving homage to the star of day. They only intend, in reality, to reflect upon the venerated face of their founder the symbol which has from time immemorial formed an image of the celestial glory, and which also, in contemporary cults, specially characterized the highest personification of divinity. We are reminded of the answer which a father in the Church gave to those who accused the Christians of celebrating the day of the sun: "We solemnize this day, not, like the infidels, on account of the sun, but on account of him who made the sun." Constantine went further when he composed a prayer for his legions to recite on Sunday that could satisfy at once, as M. V. Duruy remarks, the worshipers of Mithra, Serapis, the sun, and Christ. Symbolism may ally itself with the most mystic tendencies, but, like mysticism, it is a powerful auxiliary of the religious sentiment against the immobility of dogma and the tyranny of the letter. M. Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu has shown, pertinently to this point, how in Russia the conservative ritualism of the old believers has been able, by means of the symbolical interpretation of texts and ceremonies, to attain liberty of doctrines and, in certain cases, a complete rationalism, without breaking with the traditional forms of Christianity or of the Eastern Church.

There comes a time when religions which make an important factor of the supernatural find themselves in conflict with the progress of knowledge, and especially with a growing belief in a rational order of the universe. Symbolism then offers them a way of safety which they have more than once taken advantage of to keep pace with their times. If we take peoples in an inferior degree of religious development, we find them having fetiches—that is, beings and objects arbitrarily invested with superhuman faculties; then idols, or fetiches carved into resemblance of a man or an animal; but we rarely discover symbols among them, for they imply both the desire to represent the abstract by the concrete and the consciousness that there is no identity between the symbol and the reality for which it stands. When the mind opens to the notion of abstract or invisible gods, it can preserve its veneration for its ancient fetiches, which are thenceforth regarded as representative signs of the divinities. Finally, when we come to conceive a Supreme God, of whom the old divinities are simply ministers or hypostases, the ancient figurative representations may still have a place, provided they are put in relation with the qualities or attributes of the superior being into which the divine world resolves itself. This is an evolution of which traces are observed almost everywhere in ancient polytheism. Dogmas and sacraments can always, on their side, be brought by symbolism into an interpretation harmonious with the progress of knowledge and reason. Such is the task to which are devoted—after Schelling and Hegel in Germany, and Coleridge and Maurice in England—a notable fraction of Protestant theologians, with a success which would doubtless have been greater if the school had not broken with the laws of historical truth by persisting in projecting into the past interpretations inspired by the present.

A religious condition may be conceived in which all cults become purely symbolical. There will be nothing to hinder their preserving with a pious care the rites and traditions of their heritage; only they will make of them particularly symbols of the truths common to all religions, and will consequently be able to treat one another—as we see in the rites of certain churches—as local forms and equally legitimate in the universal religion.

Such a syncretism looks, at first sight, to be very far from us. It would imply that all religions have their share of the truth, but that none possesses it all. This is hardly the language of the larger contemporary churches, if we may judge by those that touch us most nearly. But it must be observed that, in practice, their adepts live among one another as if the divergence in doctrines were reduced to a diversity of symbols. At times we see their chiefs—a thing unheard of in former centuries—co-operating on a footing of equality in works of philanthropy or social peace, as if they recognized that charity and justice afford a common ground for religious activity. Lastly, the attribution of a relative value—or symbolic, which is the same thing—to all cults indistinguishably may serve hereafter as a basis for the normal relations of the state with the churches in the countries which are under the influence of modern law. Let this idea, already anchored in our laws and our customs, be accepted in our consciousness, and for the first time in history the world will be able to enjoy a religious peace, founded not on the unity of forms and formulas, but upon the admission of what, under variety of symbols, is true and fruitful in all religions.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.

  1. M. Gaidoz, in his book on the Gallic God of the Sun and the Symbolism of the Wheel (Le Dieu Gaulois du Soleil et la Symbolisme de la Roue), defines the chrisme as "a wheel with six rays without the circumference, and with a loop on the top of the staff in the middle." It should be added that even in the catacombs the chrisme is sometimes drawn within a circle.