Friday, July 3, 2009

Sacred Symbols

Symbols, whether sacred or secular, pervade human culture and are frequently found in the arts. They are keys that open the door to higher consciousness, codes that winnow the kernel from the chaff, seeds that contain hidden knowledge. A symbol is like a tree with branches extending in many directions or like a neuron with dendrites spreading out. When a musical chord is played, pitches vibrate and produce a cluster of resonating overtones. The listener hears a multiplicity of sounds that have grown from only a few notes. A symbol has a basic duality, objectivity and subjectivity; simultaneously, it functions as both object and subject. Our minds experience a symbol in both roles. This paradox can be described in another way. When looking at nature, the artist sees many forms as if they were reflected in a mirror. Moving into the imaginative realm, the artist changes focus and becomes aware that actually a single form is reflected in many mirrors.

Perhaps all symbols are sacred in the sense that they connect us with a level of reality beyond our ordinary five senses. They have more than a literal level of meaning. A symbol can be sacred for one religion but not for another; it can be sacred for several religions although not understood as such by a particular group. The cross is a sacred symbol for Christians, who might not realize its sacredness for Native Americans. Something is sacred if it can link us to what we consider to be spiritual. For many, especially indigenous people, all creation is spiritual because it contains a divine spark, some aspect of divinity. And so for these people the distinction sacred and secular does not exist. All is sacred and all secular.

Those with a different set of religious beliefs might answer that the distinction is real and very important to maintain. Otherwise, pantheism would arise, the idea that the deity is in very thing, in all creation. This idea of pantheism seems be a basic principle of goddess religion and so is often challenged by patriarchal religions which separate the creator from the created.

Traditionally, the goddess has many images linked to her: cave, moon, stone, serpent, bird, fish, and tree; spiral, meander, and labyrinth; wild animals such as lion, bull, bison, stag, goat, and horse; rituals of fertility; and journey of the soul to another dimension. Whether the image is presented visually, in words, or sounds-it is sacred and assists seekers on their paths of enlightenment.

Each historical goddess has many of these characteristics and often several different ones. Isis, the greatest goddess of Egypt, was worshipped for over 3000 years. Her attributes are the tree of life, cow, serpent, pig, bird, underworld, Sirius, words of power, and great mother goddess of the universe.

According to the twentieth century scholar Marija Gimbutas, author of The Living Goddesses, the serpent crown refers back to the Neolithic snake goddess, who wore such a crown. These snake crowns symbolize wisdom and wealth. Struggling with a huge white snake will gain the seeker a crown. Wearing the crown, the initiate knows all, is able to find hidden treasures, and can communicate with animals.

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