Some Ancient Symbols

Lady Pamela Grey


IT IS Sabatier, the French mystic, who observes "A myth is created when a lofty truth is made perceptible to our intelligence in a garb of apparent reality." I link with this saying the words of a village child, uttered in my hearing: "When anything wonderful happens in the sky, you must catch the sight of it in a bowl of water — then you can see it."

In each of these sayings you have the idea of a reflection, of something infinitely great being interpreted and made available to the infinitely less, and here I want to write of the moral teaching that is reflected in folklore; and though it may be to touch only the fringe of so great a subject, to tell something of the truth that is imaged in symbol and sign.

In The Wisdom of the Ancients, Bacon lifts a corner of the veil that hides the moral verities figured in classical legend. These stories for years were looked on as just pretty tales, and, indeed, at one time were deprecated on the ground of being not Christian authority. We know how Mr. Pecksniff alluded to the Sirens: "Pagan — I regret to say." This was the period when a schoolboy would receive a flogging for not knowing the exact date of the Flood, or of the creation of the world. The march of science was certainly disconcerting to these followers of dogmatic religion. They were confronted with a serious situation when it was found that the geological formation of the earth confounded their restricted conclusions. We remember how they met the difficulty. This is one of the good laughs on record. They said the fossils had been hidden purposely by the Almighty in exactly those particular strata of rock to put to proof the belief of the faithful!

YET even in those days there were some who collected Folklore, so the mystical legends were told and retold — culled and bound into ever-fresh chaplets and posies, being the undying flowers of the human mind.

I remember Mr. Edmund Gosse telling the story of a man who chanced to stay at an inn where the sitting-room was adorned by a glass case in which was a stuffed woodcock. "What bird is that?" asked the traveler. He was perplexed, for the thing bore less evidence of the skill of the taxidermist than of his industry. The innkeeper, something of a sportsman who had himself shot the bird, came readily forward. "Ah! that's my woodcock, Sir," he said, and was about to tell the whole story, but the traveler waved a weary hand. "It may be your woodcock," he said; "it isn't God's woodcock."

THE moral idea at the back of all religions (which is the life that inspires and animates), when it leaves the woods and open marshes of Folklore, and gets put into chapel and church, becomes no longer God's revelation of the divine in man so much as a thing stuffed out of with man's idea of what he thinks is God's teaching. It becomes deadened by dogma and cramped by creeds, and is as inert and lifeless as the innkeeper's wood-cock on its tussock of glue and grass.

"Who will show me God — the living God?" exclaims the Psalmist. "O, when shall I come and appear before God?" And a later poet sings:

Often the western wind has sung to me,
There have been voices in the reeds and meres,
And whispering leaves have told me, God, of Thee,
And I heard not: O, open Thou mine ears.

And another declares, in homelier fashion :

The whole earth's filled with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

What is it that enlightens those who do see beyond the blackberries? What is it that opens the ears of those who can hear?

IT IS from within ourselves the teaching must come — intuition. The ancient Druids taught that the First Cause, the Most High, the Incommunicable Name, had two habitations — the Outer Universe, and the Human Heart.

Further, they taught that the Outer Universe is, in substance, eternal and imperishable, but subject to successive cycles of dissolution and renewal. They believed the eternity of the human soul was attained through a succession of states of new experiences, in each stage of the way attaining to fuller capacity for joy, until its consummation with the Divine.

The ancient writers held a great belief in dreams. "God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night" is a phrase familiar to readers of the Scriptures; and the research of present-day investigators in the realm of the supernormal faculties of man agrees here in some measure. Take the field of hypnosis, for instance; it has revealed a definite enlargement of what may be called the "day-consciousness." Probably in everyone there are inner faculties that might be developed, and this greatly to the good; but this expansion of the inner powers should be wisely directed. Development should be understood to be the establishing of a condition of individual harmony. It is often ignorantly sought by exploring the commoner courses of spiritualism, which is often a waste of time and sometimes highly dangerous.

Moreover, it throws into disrepute and casts into ridicule what is a fine ideal and an interesting field of research. Development should be along the lines of the ancient teaching that man is a triune being — body, soul, and spirit; a soul, animated by the spirit, expressed in bodily form. It is to this threefold strand that the phrase alludes in the Bible where we read, "Be thou whole" — that is to say, attain the wholeness of complete poise, the perfect balance that arises if these three expressions of existence hold proportionate sway.

THIS IS the idea behind the teaching of what is vaguely spoken of as "The Holy Trinity." The Trinity is within ourselves; or to put it in another way, our human nature reflects this truth, which, were it not so reflected, would be too lofty for us even to know of it. This is the Trinity we should try to understand; and our "worship" should be directed to keeping it sound and whole. A sound mind in a clean body, fit channels for the indwelling of the truth. Few, in this life (or in the one life, as we know it), attain to this poise. They are masters of life who do so, the teachers of the race. But there are many intermediate stages of development in man's pilgrimage, each and all conducive towards well-being, and making for a fairer chance of being of some service while we are here. It is well even if those who are the watchers can so much as say: "The wayfarer has not come yet at his destination, but his feet are on the road."

My desire is for the Lord,
All my running shall be towards Him;
This is my most excellent path.

I will try to set down some of the many symbols which figure the riddle of man's existence upon earth. Ancient things, these: as old as the stones and the hills. Eloquently they bear silent witness to the age-old traffic of the centuries. Defaced they are, and fragmentary. Some are so worn by the passage of the years that their signs are obliterated. In others, the message has come to be used as trivial ornament. Nevertheless, where-ever they are found, and no matter how deeply Time has scarred them, they tell their story to those who will hear.


LET US look at some of the ancient symbols that tell of Man's pilgrimage and prefigure his development and destiny. Long ago, when there were no books, a sign conveyed a volume of meaning and the wise men who were the priests, recorded their own knowledge and taught the people by means of these signs. Man was seen by them as the pilgrim of the universe. They taught that he had pre-existed this short span, and that he would survive the death of the body, and that he could, if he willed so, attain immortality.

Further, they taught that his lot in this present phase of existence was, in all its features, the consequence of his previous living, and that the tribulations of the soul while on the material plane might, if he made them so, be greatly to his advantage. just as the Holy Scriptures teach, using the image of a fiery furnace that refines the gold, so these ordeals prepare and make fit the soul for its ultimate union with the Divine. This is the supreme object of all discipline and doctrine, and it is the meaning of that figure in the Book of Revelation, "the marriage of the Spirit and the Bride."

The Fathers of the early Christian Church knew the esoteric meaning of the Gnostic wisdom, and they incorporated many symbols of Egyptian origin in their teaching during the early days of the Christian Church. This has always been the way of the teachers. Take for instance St. John the Baptist. He did not invent baptism. St. John baptized people because he knew water traditionally represented spirit, and that it was understood by the crowd who listened to him to symbolize a cleaning of the material senses, a preparation for renewal of life. The idea of the lily of the Holy Virgin, which is the lotus of the Eastern tribes, the image of the Lamb, the Dove, Sacred Fire — all these are figures of truth, emblems having their origin in the early religious teaching of ancient times, and like jewels, they are securely set in the fabric of our Later Church, where they still give out the light of the realities for which they stand.

CHRIST continually taught the people by the use of illustrations entirely familiar to common life; water, light, grain, tares, yeast, a coin, harvest-fields, thorns, flocks, a feast, a vineyard, stewardship, a child. These subjects He lifted from the way common to all feet, using them as figures of truth, making their outer form show forth an inner meaning. Yet He knew that even with His power of exposition only some would understand. And this, not because they were wilfully obtuse, but because only some were ready for it. He said, " He that hath ears, let him hear" (unfortunately, clergymen never put the accent on the right word in this, so that His; words are reduced to a platitude), for He knew that only such souls whose development was sufficiently advanced would be able to understand.

This is why He never censured. He had nothing but patience for those who did not understand through undevelopment, because He knew their feet were on the way: what drew His rebuke and aroused His condemnation was spiritual obliquity. Hypocrisy and cupidity, sins of the soul, the acts of those who knew better than they acted, deliberately degrading the noble in life to base uses for mean ends — these He exposed and upbraided in direct contrast to His attitude towards the bodily — what may be called the more honest — sins.

We have spoken of these who are on the way. This point of development is figured by the soles of two human feet. This is the emblem of devotion, of discipleship, the treading of the path. Masonic emblems are of great antiquity, and refer to this pilgrimage of the soul.

"Whence do you come?"
"From the East."
"Whither are you wending?"
"To the West."
"What is your inducement?"
"To find that which is lost."
"Where do you hope to find it?"
"In the centre."

IN ESOTERIC literature the East stands for birth, the West for death: "that which is lost" stands for the soul in exile, the incarnation of spirit in matter. The reply to "Where do you hope to find it?" stands for the human heart, the only tribunal that counts, the only seat of judgment, our own conscience. May it awake! 'Then "Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion," says the Bible, "for great is the Holy One in the midst of thee."

T.E. Brown, the Manx poet, has some lines called "Indwelling" that touch at this point.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self, he says.
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf
And say, 'This is not dead—
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very 'thou'
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, 'This is enow,
Unto itself, 'tis better let it be.
It is so small and full,
There is no room for Me!

What a riot of apparent conflict in these two images, the wayfarer and the pilgrim's feet, and yet a journey only to be accomplished through "indwelling," though more than staying at home! Is this sensible? Yes, because an actual pilgrimage is the external image of the journey of the soul. "While I rest, my soul advances," says Sir Thomas Browne. It is, indeed, of an earthly journey of which we write, but one in which we wear out no shoe-leather. This is why the soles of the feet, as shown in the emblem, are depicted bare. And Sir Thomas Browne's prayer holds good, for if once the orientation of the will through spiritual conflict be rightly established, then progress may be made in sleep.

If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the Flower of Peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy Fortress and thine Ease.

THE SCALLOP is the emblem of the pilgrim; and this is so, because in days when china and glass were unknown, pewter too costly, and earthenware too heavy and brittle for wayfaring, a scallopshell made the traveller's cup.

I have spoken of the design of the two soles of human feet which figured "discipleship" — a following of the path. Now to bring these two emblems in juxtaposition, the bare feet and the scallop-shell, is useful here, because we illustrate by so doing the truth that everything upon the material plane has its spiritual counterpart; that it exists only, and is manifested here only, by reason of its spiritual counterpart. just as the outer bark of the tree is one expression of the hidden sap within, which in its turn derives its being from the spiritual plane. "As above. so below," Archdeacon Wilberforce would say, when he wanted to illustrate that this earthly life as we know it is the reflection of the spiritual life. Often a clumsy image, a distorted reflection, it is true: it is for us to make the likeness more perfect; for behind everything actual there exists something real.

There are some types so old they have become almost obliterated, or have come to serve as trivial ornament, divorced in the minds that set them where we find them now, from their original content.

THE KEY pattern is the chief of these; though the Egg and Dart design tells a part of the same story. You find the Key pattern on the windowstraps in railway carriages, along mantelpieces, bordering carpets, in the upholstery of music halls, and on embroidered hems. This concentrated design holds a world of meaning. To understand it we must return to what we were telling of the ancient teaching. Man was believed to exist through a series of earthly lives and deaths, and these were divided by periods of rest in Paradise. It was taught that during these periods of rest, the soul learnt retrospectively the true values of its immediate past.

That is to say, it could clearly see and rightly estimate the use of sincerity and uprightness, and the folly of falsehood and sin. It realized also the privilege of incarnation, as being the precious means of speeding its ultimate good. During these periods of vision a soul would deliberately choose and undertake to "see through" those very trials and ordeals it would later, blinded by the flesh, shrink and stiffer front. This is a fine idea; it restores justice to God and gives free-will to man, and provides a key to the riddle of existence. It shows the waters of Lethe of the Grecian mythology, to figure existence in the flesh when we must forget our past, but also the rest in Paradise; for to remember the one would cruelly burden us, and to recall the other would lessen the virtue in our endurance of the present trial.

Once I said impatiently to my teacher, "But why don't we remember our past lives? Is it really for our good that the facts and acts of our past Iives should be shrouded in oblivion?" And he answered me with another question. "When you drink wine," he said, "you do not think it would be better, do you, if the pips and skins and stalks were left in?" And this is so. Just as in the wine we have the juice of the vintage, so in ourselves do we hold the essence of the past; it is in our instinctive tendencies; in the "intuition" we have alluded to, that in some amounts to a sense of mystical communion, or to some inner knowledge that directs; it is in our conscience; even in "those obstinate questionings that will not be stilled," we have an outcome of our Fast; and according to the wisdom of Divine ruling it is not only in our interest that we should forget the past, but to our comfort that this should be so.

NOW LET us see how the Key pattern deals with all this. It is composed of eight lines — five short ones and three longer. We must take it to pieces and rebuild it again in order to understand the epitome it presents of the procession of man's fate. It is a Design of Infinite Progression. It is thus broken to show that the spirit does not incarnate in fulness of being once, but, as the present school of Anthroposophists teach, the years of infancy and childhood prepare the body for the descent of the ego, when maturity, is reached and the full submerging of spirit in matter is completed. Here then is the tale told in these few lines, a pattern apparently without end and without beginning.

Wearily monotonous, you say? It is not for us to judge.

WITHOUT commencement, and with what conclusion? We cannot tell. To me there seems a noble reticence in this old design; a fitting acknowledgment of our inadequacy to so much as spell our beginning, or even to suggest an end. The ancient teaching from which it originates provides this key to the riddle, and with it a philosophy which throws at least some light upon the apparent injustice and inequalities of man's existence here on earth.

It may be seen on the window-strap in your railway compartment, and is not wholly out of place there, for it tells of the greater journey within.

Homeward he travels. All roads lead to God. Long is the way, but all reach home at last.

The Master Mason — August 1926