At the heart of symbolism

Introduction to symbolism

  • The mighty pyramids of stone
  • That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
  • When nearer seen, and better known,
  • Are but gigantic flights of stairs.
  • (Longfellow, “The ladder of Saint Augustine”)

The pyramid example

Symbols are deep representations of human beings taking the appearance of stories or drawings (“yantra” or “mandala”) or gestures (“mudra”) or sounds (“mantra”). As fruit of all cultures and all times, they reflect a reality of a superior order based on a representation of an inferior order. It is not the drawing which makes the symbol, it is the symbol which enhances the drawing. Along these lines, symbols do not express, but suggest. They transcend the diversity of the existential or outer world to reach the universality, the unity of the essential or inner world. Beyond the physical and psychical life, they give access to spiritual life.

Tikal temple shaped as a pyramidIn order to better understand the richness of the symbol, let us consider, as an example, the pyramid. It commonly represents the famous tomb of Kings and Queens of ancient Egypt. The pyramid also recalls the mound covering the bodies of the dead. As a mound, it looks like a hill or a mountain as well as an island emerging from the sea. Climbed, effectively or symbolically, it uses to be reminiscent of ladders or stairways (of Amerindian pyramids), symbols of ascension. Its steep slope suggests that it should be climbed in one direction only, upwards, the reason why will become clear later.

Starting usually from a quadrangular foundation symbolizing the terrestrial basis, the edges and sides of the pyramid converge towards a unique point, the summit. This point symbolizes the Principle or primordial Unity, from which the manifestation of our surrounding world is radiating. To be reborn to the Principle we all come from makes up the real sense of this ascension. An ascension which brings the individual from its human or sensitive state back to a supra-individual or supra-sensitive state, from the manifested world to the undifferentiated Principle, from the terrestrial to the celestial world, from the scattered cosmic vision to the unitary or metaphysical vision. This is the deep sense revealed by the pyramid.

Symbols reflect a reality of a superior order based on a representation of an inferior order. It is not the drawing, the shape, the gesture or the sound which makes the symbol, it is the symbol which enhances them.

This edifice is a symbol of the spiritual development of the human being or, more precisely, of its envelopment as the return to the Principle is considered here. The different steps of the pyramid symbolize the various stages of spirituality to be achieved. Reaching the top consists in reassembling in a unique point the directions scattered at the four corners of our life. It is a matter of re-integration of the being into the Being. This reintegration process conveys the human being from an individual and specific state to a supra-individual and universal state, which is common to all of us. Putting the finishing touches to this ascent means realizing the perfect integration of human and divine worlds and really becoming the “Universal Man”. Having reached this stage of spirituality, the being is not able, in principle, to go back to its previous state of individual and to go down the pyramid steps.

Before becoming tombs for royal remains, the pyramids, especially Egyptian ones, probably constituted ritual places where the Pharaoh was initiated to Mysteries. The initiation consisted in a symbolic death of the current state of being and a re-birth into a higher order one; it occurred in all likelihood within the chambers fit up inside the construction. Consequently, the passage from a symbolic to a properly physical tomb must have corresponded to a degeneration of the initiation art.

The presence of these chambers meant that the pyramid could be climbed not only according to the external steps, but also from the inner room. As a symbol of the cave or cosmic world where every individual is living, the chamber was used as a heart for a spiritual journey of the initiate in order to reach the summit where the being communicates with the Spirit. In this case, the ascension did not occur on the external slope, but alongside the vertical axis linking the being to the top of the edifice. This direct way gave access to what the Ancients called the “Great Mysteries” or the rebirth of the human being as spiritual Being (for more details, see the Great Pyramid).

Many other pyramid aspects may be mentioned, but they would only confirm its deep meaning.

The pyramid and the cosmic cave may be symbolized by two reverse triangles, the first containing the second. The pyramid represented by the triangle pointing upwards evokes the supra-cosmic world and its Principle situated at the summit. The cosmic cave is assimilated to the triangle pointing downwards and symbolizes the manifestation of the Principle here below. The supra-cosmic or inner world contains the cosmic or outer world for it includes everything as the Whole.

Various pyramid symbolsThe reverse nature of both triangles provides a typical analogy proper to the alchemists. According to the “Emerald Table”, what is up or above the water surface (supra-cosmic world) is reverse reflected below the water surface or down in this world (cosmic world). The superior becomes inferior, the inner is transformed into the outer and the universal is changed into the individual and so on. Finally, the human being only perceives a reverse reflection of the reality to which he will have barely access when going through the water surface.

When both triangles are distinct instead of fitting each other, the triangle pointing upwards or to Heaven symbolizes fire or the igneous principle while the one pointing downwards or to Earth represents water or the humid principle. They both refer to basic alchemy principles.

When triangles intersect, they portray Solomon's seal fulfilling the perfect union between Heaven and Earth, between the divine and the human realized within the “Universal Man”.

Recalling simply this example shows that a unique symbol may be understood in different ways according to the point of view chosen. A symbol can not have a single meaning, otherwise it would risk to be reduced to a simple piece of information.

The various interpretations of a symbol do not contradict each other. On the contrary, they complement each other as they give different shifts of emphasis of a unique metaphysical or supernatural reality, lying beyond the physical or natural world. A symbol is a synthetic representation of a whole range of Ideas accessible to everybody according to their abilities and comprehension level.

The symbol constitutes a meditation object towards the supra-individual or supra-sensitive world. A world beyond words, expressiveness. According to this, the symbol is the language of silence, of inexpressibility, which is common to all cultures, to all times. It helps us to move towards the common truth to all manifestations of the Principle, only accessible through initiation. Print of the descent of the spiritual influence, the initiation is source of revelation of the only real initiatory secret, the incommunicable belonging to the nocturnal world in contrast with communication belonging to the diurnal world.

The different articles try, in accordance with the possibilities of the terrestrial world, to move slightly towards the universality of the celestial world. As symbols have no borders, these texts are dealing with aspects concerning ancient traditions as well as themes relevant to the so-called modern world. Moreover, the symbols taken into account refer to each other because they are never isolated, but always closely related.

As an expression of gratitude to René Guénon who opened the spirit of so many readers, this site is dedicated to all beings in quest of their own identity.