Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism
by Thomas Inman, M.D. (1874)
Appendix: The Assyrian Grove and other emblems,
by John Newton, M.R.C.S.
Appendix - Page 5
Again, the Greek name for the palm-tree, phoenix, was also the name of that mythical Egyptian bird, sacred to Osiris, and a symbol of the resurrection. With some early Christian writers, Christ was "the Phoenix." The date-palm is figured as a tree of life on an Egyptian sepulchral tablet, older than the Exodus, now preserved in the museum at Berlin. Two arms issue from the top of the tree; one of which presents a tray of dates to the deceased, whilst the other gives him water, "the water of life." The tree of life is represented by a date-palm on some of the earliest Christian mosaics at Rome. Something very like the Assyrian Asherah, or sacred emblem, was sculptured on the great doors of Solomon's temple, by Hiram, the Tyrian (1 Kings vii. 18-21). We read "he carved upon them carvings of cherubims and palm-trees and open flowers, and spread gold upon the cherubims and palm-trees" (1 Kings vi. 82-35). He also erected two phallic pillars in front of the Temple, Jachin and Boaz, = It stands—In strength. No wonder Solomon fell to worship Astarte, Chemosh, and Milcom.
Although to our modern ideas the mystical tree, symbol of life and immortality, seems out of place in Judaism, yet no sooner did the Jews possess a national coinage under the Maccabees than the palm-tree reappears, always with seven branches (like the golden candlestick, Ex. xxv.), as on the shekel represented Plate xvii., Fig. 4. The Assyrian tree has always the same number, and the tufts of foliage (symbolising the entire female tree) which deck the margins of the mystic D—apt emblems of fertility—have also invariably seven branches. This may remind us of the seven visible spheres that move around our earth "in mystic dance," and of Balak's offering, upon seven altars, seven bulls and seven rams (Num. xxiii. 1; Rev. ii. 1) The mystic door is also barred, like the Egyptian sistrum carried by the priestesses of Isis, to represent the inviolable purity and eternal perfection which were associated with the idea of divinity. When Mary, the mother of Jesus, took the place in Christendom of "the great goddess," the dogmas which propounded her immaculate conception and perpetual virginity followed as a matter of course.
Thus, then, we explain the greatest symbol in Eastern worship,—it is the "Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden," which has remained so long a mystery. To Dr. Inman belongs the distinguished merit of having first broken ground in the right direction. In his Ancient Faiths, vol. 1, 1868, he identified the Assyrian "Asherah" with the female "door of life," and pointed out its analogy to the barred sistrum. We have seen that it is really much more complex, being precisely analogous in meaning to the famous crux ansata (Fig. 170), the central mystery of Egyptian worship; to the lingam or lingyoni of India (Fig. 109), the great emblem of Siva-worship; and to the caduceus of Greece and Rome. As represented on the Assyrian sculptures, it is always substantially the same. Probably this stereotyped form was the result of a gradual refinement upon some rude primitive type, perhaps as coarse as that seen by Captain Burton in the African idol-temple.
To exhibit all the strange developments and modifications which this idea has assumed in the religious symbolism of Eastern and Western nations would require a large volume. But the subject is so rich in varied interest that we cannot conclude without taking a glance at it. First, the simple O, barred, is reproduced with a contraction towards the base, as in the Indian "yoni," and the Egyptian sistrum, used in the worship of Isis. Second, within the O was represented the goddess herself, as revealed within her own symbol. This is illustrated in Plate xvii., Fig. 5, where Demeter or Ceres is thus depicted, with her cornucopia, from a bronze coin of Damascus. Thirdly, but much more commonly, the goddess holds in her hands emblems of the male potency in creation, and thus completes the symbol. As in the coin figured Plate xvii., Fig. 8, the goddess, standing within the O, the portico of her temple, holds in her right hand the cross, that most ancient emblem of the male and of life. In the beautiful Greek coin of Sidon next figured, the goddess—evidently Astarte, the moon-goddess, the Queen of Heaven—stands on a ship, the mystic Argha or Ark, holding in one hand a crozier, in the other the cross. (Plate xvii., Fig. 7.)
Under Christianity, the Virgin Mary, who, as Queen of Heaven, stands on the crescent moon, is pictured beneath the mystic doorway, with (the God as) a male child in her arms. See Plate xviii., copied from the woodcut title to the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin, printed at Czenna, in old Prussia, 1492. Like Isis, she is the mother and yet the spouse of God, "clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet" (Rev. xii. 1). The upper half of the picture is very like the Assyrian scenes. On either side is a king, Frederick III. and his son the Emperor Maximilian, at their devotions. The alcove is of roses, an emblem of virginity. The famous medieval "Romaunt de la Rose" turns upon this. Among the many titles given to "the Virgin" in medieval times, we find Santa Maria della Rosa, that flower being consecrated to her. Hence it is often represented in her hand. Dante writes
"Here is the Rose,
Wherein the Word Divine was made incarnate."
In Plate xviii., the Virgin goddess is seated with the God-child in a bower, exactly the shape of the Assyrian, composed of fruits highly significant of sex, as has already been explained. In some Hindoo pictures, the child is naked, having the member erect, and also making the phallic hand, with the right forefinger erected. (Plate xiv., Fig. 14.)
In other conventional forms we have male symbols only within the female O. This is a very numerous class. In the Fig. 3, Plate xvii., we see the fir-tree or pine take the place of the palm-tree, and in Fig. 6, Plate xvii., the cone. On this remarkable medal of Cyprus is a representation of the temple of Venus at Paphos, famous even in the days of Homer. (Odyss. viii. 862.) The worship of that divinity is said to have been imported into Cyprus from the East. The goddess united both sexes in her own person, and was served by castrated priests. We see here, within the innermost sanctum of the temple, a cone as emblem of the male; and the meaning is further pointed by the sun-emblem above, inserted within the crescent moon.
Let us next examine how the cone came to be used as a masculine emblem. If we turn to Figs. 174 and 175, it will be seen that the "glans" was particularly honoured as the head of the phallus; it was also the part dedicated to God by effusion of blood in the rite of circumcision. This "acorn" is conical or dome-shaped, and thus—a part being taken for the whole—the cone or pyramid was used as a conventional symbol of the male creator. Placed on a stem it is frequently represented as worshipped on Assyrian bas reliefs. See Fig. 177. It was also a symbol of fire, the sun, and life; as such it formed a fitting monument for the Egyptian kings. Our word pyramid is from the Greek puramis, itself derived from pur, Jire, and puros, wheat, because pyramid-shaped cakes of wheat and honey were used in the Bacchic Fig. 177. rites. It played an important part in sun-worship. The emperor Heliogabalus (who, as his name implies, had been a priest of Baal, the sun-god, in Syria,) established the Syrian worship at Rome. He himself drove the golden chariot of the sun, drawn by six white horses, through the streets of Rome to a splendid new temple on the Palatine mount, the god being represented by a conical black stone, said to have fallen from heaven; and which the emperor removed from a temple of the sun, at Emesa, in Syria. At a subsequent period, an image of the moon-goddess, or Astarte, was brought by his orders from a celebrated fane at Carthage to Rome, and there solemnly married with licentious rites to the sun-god, amidst general rejoicing.§
§ In Astrology, the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus was considered the most fortunate of all; such as kings and princes should be born under.
A curious parallel to these mystic nuptials of the Assyrian god and goddess may be found in some of the religious ceremonies of the modern Hindoos. Fergusson tells us that "the most extraordinary buildings connected with Hindu temples are the vast pillared colonnades or choultries. By far their most important application is when used as nuptial halls, in which the mystic union of a male and female divinity is celebrated once a year."
Again, in Indian mythology, the pyramid plays an important part. It belongs to Siva, = the sun, = fire, = the phallus, = life. By one complex symbol, very common on ancient Hindoo monuments in China and Thibet, the universe was thus represented. Notice the upward gradation. Earth + water = this globe. The creator-god, whose emblem, flame, mounts upwards, is the author and representative of all life upon it; he is the connecting link, united by the crescent moon with heaven. The arrow- or spear- head inserted within the crescent is an earth emblem of Siva; like the lingam it typified the divine source of life, and also the doctrine that perfect wisdom was to be found only in the combination of the male and female principles in nature. It decorates the roofs of the Buddhist monasteries in Thibet, and like the sacred lotus flower and the linga, both of which became emblems of Buddha, was derived from older faiths. Other interpretations may suggest themselves.
This will enable us to understand the remarkable sculptures of the second or third century, from the Amravati Tope, Plate xix., which present so many points in common with the religious symbols of the Chaldeans. In Fig. 2 we see a congregation of males and females, the sexes being separated, worshipping a linga, or stone conical pillar, on the front of which is sculptured the sacred tree, with branches like flames; three symbols of life in one. It rises from a throne, on the seat of which are placed the two emblems of earth and water. In the other figure, the sacred tree takes the place of the linga, rising above the throne, as if from the trisul or trident, male emblems of Siva. Winged figures, Garudas, attend it above, floating over the heads of the worshippers. An intrusion of the newer faith is also to be recognised, as the feet of Buddha are sculptured before the throne.
In the mysteries of Mithra, the symbols in Fig. 178 were also employed. They represented the elements to which the soul ought to be successively united in passing through the new birth.
We will add but two more emblems, culled from medieval heraldry, Figs. 179 and 180, in both of which the Asherah, the "grove" of Baal-worship, will be at once recognised; the arrow and the cross, symbols of the male creator, taking the place of the mystic palm-tree.
In all these, from the rudest to the most complex, we are thus able to trace a common idea, viz., a feeling after God, as the Life and Light of the Universe, and an attempt to express a common hope in visible forms.