The wheel, from the Centre to the circle
The Cosmic wheel
The Cosmic wheel, symbol of the manifested world, is generally depicted by a circle moving around its centre. However, this representation changes when we pass from 2 to 3 dimensions. The circle turning around its centre is transformed into a sphere revolving around its axis. When the sphere carries out its revolution, two of its points remain fixed. They are the two intersection points of the sphere with the axis, the two poles. The development of the manifestation can then be depicted by a spiral spreading on the surface of the sphere between the two poles. Or more precisely, a double spiral composed of a spiral unrolling from one pole and a spiral rolling around the other pole. This double spiral corresponds to a movement of expansion from one of the poles and contraction towards the other pole.
The whorls of the double spiral represent the succession of the manifestation cycles. The opposite points of a cycle find their balance in the middle of the diameter joining them, i.e. on the pole axis. In other words, the pole axis connects all cycle centres. These cycles are totally identified to their centres at the poles. As the latter are located on a vertical axis, they are subjected to a hierarchical relationship leading to describe them as celestial and terrestrial poles. These poles are respectively related to the spiritual and human development of the being, here below. Then, the sphere breaks up into two celestial and terrestrial hemispheres and the terrestrial pole looks like the reflection of the celestial pole compared to the centre of the sphere. This point is only an image of the single Pole, the primeval Unit, the non manifested Principle at the source of the manifestation of the World.
It follows that the best image of the celestial and terrestrial hemispheres and pole axis is made of both wheels and axle of the “Cosmic chariot” accompanying gods and prophets during their voyage. Then, the movements of both wheels correspond to the unrolling and rolling-up of the double spiral around the poles. Let us notice by passing that the projection of the image of both wheels connected by an axle on a plane perpendicular to its axis brings us back to the representation of the Cosmic wheel in 2 dimensions.
The medicine wheel
The Indians of the North American plains regard the acquisition of wisdom as the essential goal of life and the power of “medicine” and rites as the best way to reach it. They carry out for this purpose a set of concentric circular forms made of stones, measuring approximately 30 meters in diameter and equipped with 4 (or 28 1) spokes.
The wheel generally comprises three circles reflecting the three orders of manifestation, at macrocosm (Cosmic world) as well as microcosm (individual world) level:
- A small central circle representing Heaven or spirit;
- A circle associated with the intermediate world, Atmosphere or soul/psyche;
- A large circle symbolizing Earth or body.
Heaven is the domain of Wakan-Tanka (the Great Sacred or the Great Spirit) who is at the Centre of everything. He operates through the shaman who serves as intercessor between Him and men. Men's Earth is characterized by the four compass directions.
The four compass directions delimit the four seasons. The compass points symbolize space and the seasons symbolize time. Two other vertical directions (above and below the wheel) connect Heaven and the inmost depths of the Earth. Each zone of the wheel is associated with a specific colour, a totemic animal, a quality etc. The wheel represents at the same time the Cosmic World and the stages of the journey that each individual must undertake to reach the full realization of the being.
The medicine wheel helps the individual to draw within himself and in his surroundings the necessary strength to restore the balance between the bodily, psychic and spiritual components of the being (delimited by the three circles) and re-establish the harmony between the being and the Cosmos.
The Celtic rowel
The Celtic rowel generally comprises 6 or 8 spokes and has practically crossed the Western Middle Ages. These two forms, especially the second, can also be found in the East and, particularly, in Assyria, India and Tibet.
- The 6-spoked rowel corresponds to the horizontal projection of the three-dimensional cross with 3 branches. This wheel gave the chrisme, a monogram of Christ, by transforming its spokes into I and X or P. It symbolizes also the lily flower bearing 6 petals;
- The 8-spoked rowel represents the directions of the compass and intermediate points. It depicts the lotus, the Eastern symbolic flower 2, and the Anterior to Heaven arrangement of the Chinese trigrams.
All these representations establish a link between the motionless Centre and the periphery in full development. They make the rowel a symbol of the World. The Centre symbolizes the immutable Principle activating from the inside all external, peripheral or manifested things. Moreover, as the centre is located halfway between opposite points of the circle, it influences the external world in a balanced way. It symbolizes the place where antagonisms find a unified state after their return to the Centre.
The zodiacal wheel
The wheel of the Zodiac or the signs comprises 12 spokes of course; it is made in the image of the “wheel of time” stressing the months of the year, the hours of day or night. First of all, it constitutes the envelope of the Cosmos and appears as the organiser of the laws ruling it. Moreover, it is crossed by two gates located at the solstices and clearly visible on the portal of Romanesque churches or Gothic cathedrals. Thus, the left opening of the royal portal of the cathedral of Chartres contains ten signs of the Zodiac, represented in alternation with seasonal activities, among which the Capricorn sign associated with the winter solstice and Cancer in relation to the summer solstice. The other two signs (Pisces and Gemini linked to the equinoxes) appear in the right opening.
The Zodiac found its complete development in the representations of the signs and seasonal activities depicted in the stained glass windows of the cathedral of Chartres.
The gates correspond to the entry and exit of the cosmic cave. The poor mortal has to become fully human at the entry and fully spiritual at the exit. The first, associated with the summer solstice and Cancer sign, marks the beginning of the descending phase of the sun towards darkness; the second, in connection with the winter solstice and Capricorn sign, opens up the ascending phase from darkness towards full light, the spiritual Light.
The ascending and descending phases of the zodiacal wheel naturally brings it closer to the wheel of Fortune.
The wheel of Fortune
The wheel concept spontaneously evokes the continual changes that all manifested beings and things are subjected to. Therefore, the idea of the “wheel of life” or “wheel of Fortune”. The latter was, in ancient times, an attribute of the Roman goddess Fortuna (Greek Tyche) and often appeared as a motif in Western art.
In Burne-Jones's painting, for instance, the goddess, blind to the fate of the chained afflicted, sempiternally activates a wheel. Following the example of the “zodiacal wheel”, the wheel of Fortune has 12 spokes to emphasize the impact of time. Conversely to the “zodiacal wheel” however, it is represented on a vertical plane in order to underline even more the ups and downs in life. No one can escape its movement, not even the beings bearing the royal attributes.
The ups and downs symbolize the antagonisms met by the beings during their life; they are commonly represented by two opposite points of the circle. The only way to overcome the tensions generated by the opposites is to progress along the spokes towards the centre of the circle, the only motionless point where antagonisms find their balance before being absorbed into the primeval Unity, the primordial Principle.
The wheel of the Law
The link between the Principle and its manifestation is highlighted by the radii connecting the centre to the circle. In the Indian tradition, the whole takes the appearance of a wheel (“chakra” in Sanskrit) called wheel of the Law (“dharmachakra” in Sanskrit). It is the Law (“dharma” in Sanskrit), in the widest sense of the word, which governs all things of the manifested and non manifested World. In a broad sense, it is the expression of the Principle which rules the World Order.
The wheel of the Law is generally represented as an 8, 16 or 24 spoked wheel.
- The 8 or 16 directions radiating from the centre represent the compass and intermediate points; they depict the development of the manifestation.
- The 24 directions of the central motif of the Indian flag describe the relations between the hours of night and day, darkness and light, the non manifested and manifested. They give to the wheel of the Law its full meaning.
As the spokes can be travelled in both directions, the same Law applies when the manifestation is returning to the Principle. To leave the agitation of the manifested world (“samsâra”) to rejoin the quietness of the Centre (“nirvâna”) constitutes the ultimate stage of the realization of the being.
The wheel is a symbol of the World manifestation in continual change in comparison to the Centre, the motionless Principle, the primeval Unity. This manifestation takes different aspects related to the symbolism attached to the number of spokes. However, all that is coming from the Centre can never be detached, for it would be separated from the Unity which produced it. The manifested must necessarily go back to the Centre. The journeys there and back are One.
- René Guénon:
- “Symbols of Sacred Science”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2004;
- In particular, chapters VIII on “The idea of the Centre in ancient traditions” and XL on “The dome and the wheel”.
- “The Great Triad”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001;
- Notably, chapters V on “The double spiral”, XXIII on “The cosmic wheel” and XXV on “The city of willows”.
- Black Elk:
- “The sacred pipe - Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux”. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988;
- Particularly, chapter V on “the sun dance”.
1 back The number 28 corresponds to the lunar cycle composed of two phases, the waxing and waning moon, life and death.
2 back Let us note that the Western symbolic flower, the rose, is illustrated by a variable number of petals and can cover distinct significances. On the link between the rose and the wheel, see the windrose and the rose windows of cathedrals.