The Principle and its manifestation
The World Egg, symbol of the Principle source of the manifestation, is common to many traditions. Particularly, in the Egyptian and Celtic traditions, a serpent surrounding the egg provides, as we will see, a representation of the double spiral.
The serpent rings symbolize the overall cycles of the universal manifestation. Each cycle reflect a state of manifestation or one of its modes. The end of any cycle coincides with the beginning of the following. It means that the death of a cycle always coincides with the birth of a new one. Therefore, the changes in manifestation states may be measured alongside a vertical axis, which crosses each ring or cycle in its centre where all aspects belonging to the associated state are in perfect equilibrium, in perfect harmony. This axis, called World Axis, symbolizes the direction of the manifestation of the Being or Primordial Unity.
All manifestation states or cycles come from the undifferentiated Principle and return to it after their full development. Consequently, they look as on the left diagram, where each cycle is generated and absorbed within the principle point standing at the centre of a (dashed) sphere. Indeed, the Primordial Unity contains, in principle, everything and cannot become something different from itself because it would imply a duality of the Whole.
According to this picture, two reverse movements occur. The cycles may either expand from the “inner” principle point to the “outer” surface of the sphere or contract from the “outer” surface to the “inner” centre, back to the principle point. In fact, both movements reflect two aspects of a unique force related to the Being:
- The metaphysical point of view or the way out from non-manifested to manifested world, which corresponds to an embodiment of the Spirit.
- The cosmological vision or the way back from manifested to non-manifested world, which expresses the spiritualization of the body.
This alternate movement of death of a world and re-birth of another one, expressed in general terms, corresponds to the “condensation-dissipation” process of the Taoist tradition or the “coagulation-dissolvation” operations proper to the Hermetic tradition.
At the individual level, such a force can be compared to both phases of either breathing (expiration-inspiration) or heartbeat (diastole-systole). Within the cosmic world, development-envelopment and evolution-involution are pairs having the same meaning. Indeed, the macrocosm and the microcosm are reflecting each other and all what is in the universe can be found in the human being according to a suitable analogy. However, the unique force refers essentially to the World Egg symbolism, which concerns the macrocosm or cosmic world, and will be named cosmic force in the remaining text.
Polarization of the cosmic force
Now, in different traditional forms, the way out into the manifestation world usually operates through the terrestrial influence or attraction and the way back to the undifferentiated Principle under the celestial influence or attraction. So, the World Egg is often split into two halves representing what the Chinese tradition names Heaven and Earth. Therefore, both reverse cosmic force streams may be symbolized by a unique serpent surrounding the egg, called amphisbaena, with a head at both ends, which are twisted in opposite directions. The two heads correspond to the celestial and terrestrial poles of the cosmic force.
As Heaven is usually associated with light (yang) and Earth to darkness (yin), the two hemispheres of the egg can be distinguished through their white and black colours. Cut alongside their border line, both halves may be laid down on their flat surface, next to each other, only linked by their cyclic winding. Then, the two hemispheres provide the image of a double spiral, which reflects the alternate rhythm of manifestation composed of two phases. A descending movement from Heaven to Earth or from a death of the Spirit to a bodily birth; an ascending movement from Earth to Heaven or from a symbolic body death to a spiritual rebirth. The two points around which the double spiral rolls up are evidently the two poles. See the diagram below.
The double spiral provides the image of a unique cosmic force acting in opposite directions in both hemispheres. That is in close relationship with both rotation directions of the swastika, showing the same revolution seen from the celestial or terrestrial pole. As the combined celestial and terrestrial influences work in opposite directions, every “dissipative” or “dissolvation” operation at one pole is coupled with a “condensation” or “coagulation” operation at the other pole in order to maintain an overall balance. 1
The double influence of Heaven and Earth is nothing but the complement between yin and yang, respectively associated with the descending and ascending phases. It is easy to see that, within the yin-yang symbol, the double spiral corresponds to the outline of the border between clear and dark regions. Moreover, the black point in the white part and the white point in the dark area represent the two poles.
Double spiral and yin-yang symbol
The alternating rhythm of yin and yang, descending and ascending phases, way out and way in can hardly be better expressed than in the yin-yang symbol. The order of both phases depends on the state taken into account as a starting point.
Starting from a non-manifested state and moving towards manifestation means that yin will come first; yang will follow as a return in direction of non-manifestation. That explains why the pole within the dark area of the symbol is represented by a white spot.
Conversely, when moving from a manifested state towards non-manifestation, yang should prevail and yin will be associated with a further move towards another manifested state as shown by the dark pole within the white area.
Consequently, in the descending phase, which is yin, yang is present and in the ascending phase, which is yang, yin cannot be omitted. Even when distinguished, both descending and ascending phases are operating together. There is no yin without yang and no yang without yin. Therefore, the ten thousand beings, symbolizing the universal manifestation, are modified through yin and yang, from their appearance in the manifested world to their return to the non-manifested world.
Separation of cosmic force streams
When both reverse streams of the cosmic force are not only distinguished as in the amphisbaena, but also separated, they may be portrayed as two serpents twining in opposite directions around a common axis as in the representation of the Caduceus.
The legend says that Hermes (Mercury in Latin) saw two serpents fighting each other (image of the original chaos) and separated them (splitting of opposites) with a stick (axis alongside which the chaos will be ordered and become the cosmos). Then, both serpents wound themselves around the stick in opposite directions (balance of two opposite forces working symmetrically in relation to the World Axis). The Caduceus is an attribute characterizing the two functions of Hermes: a messenger of God associated with the descending phase and also a psychopompos, transporting humans from a state of being to another, through an ascending phase.
As medicine emblem, the Caduceus refers to both cosmic force aspects represented by the two serpents, which are connected to descending and ascending phases. For instance, the Hermetic medicine is based on “coagulation” and “dissolvation” operations. In Chinese medicine, “condensation” and “dissipation” are related to yin and yang forces and play similar roles.
When represented by a single serpent wrapped around Esculape's stick as shown on the besides picture, the emblem refers essentially to the ascending phase, which brings human beings to higher states. That points out why, in ancient times, medicine was a concern of sacerdotal art and not of temporal order.
The double operation of “coagulation-dissolvation” corresponds exactly to the so-called key power of the Christian tradition. A double power as it contains the capacity to “bind” and “unbind”, equivalent to “coagulate” and “dissolve”. This power belongs to two keys referring to different orders. A golden key belonging to the spiritual authority and a silver key related to the temporal order. Both keys have, each in their respective domain, the double power to “bind” and “unbind, “but in different proportions. Indeed, the “binding” power prevails in the temporal domain and the “unbinding” in the spiritual sphere, so that the two keys are yin and yang towards each other. Therefore, in the most common representation, both double spirals, associated with the two keys, are crossed instead of being parallel and recall the swastika.
This is in close relationship with the symbolism of Janus (from “janua”, which means gate), the double face Roman god of initiation. Here, the silver key (or sceptre) and the golden key have each the double power to open and close the gates giving access respectively to “little mysteries” and “great mysteries”:
- The “little mysteries” consist in a psychic re-generation producing a centred individual. As he is still belonging to the temporal order, this initiation may only be associated with the horizontal double spiral.
- The “great mysteries” give access to the spiritual world or domain of supra-individual possibilities. As no return to the human state occurs, this initiation may only be linked to the vertical double spiral.
“Opening” or “binding” corresponds to a yin movement, “closing” or “unbinding” to a yang move. Indeed, after having opened the gate giving access to a cycle and accomplished it, the human being is re-born into a new cycle without any way back to the former one. So, the gate has to be closed be him.
In Hindu tradition, both streams of the cosmic force are represented by the “Brahma-danda” or Brahman's staff, composed of two helixes wrinkled in opposite directions alongside a vertical axis symbolizing, as usual, the World Axis. Both helixes meet on the axis at seven lotus or nods, which have to be untied to reach the full Knowledge.
The key power corresponds, in the u tradition, to the double power of the vajra. As a symbol of lightning, it possesses two opposite, or better complementing, power aspects: “generation” and “destruction”: generation of a new cycle or life; destruction of a former one or death. In its most common representation, both heads end up in three flames: the one in the middle corresponding to the axis extremity and both side ones to both cosmic streams. When handed vertically as a sacerdotal attribute, it represents the World Axis connecting Heaven and Earth or the “Middle Path”. When tilted on one side or the other, it depicts the right and left tantric ways, the devotion to the Goddess and the union of beings, and forms a swastika.
A similar signification may be found in Greek mythology with Poseidon's trident as well as in the Nordic tradition regarding Thor's hammer.
- René Guénon:
- “The Great Triad”, South Asia Books Publisher;
- Particularly, chapter 5 devoted to the double spiral and chapter 7 dealing with orientation questions.
1 back The double spiral highlights the deep interdependence between both rotating directions of the swastika. Consequently, the attribution of a malefic, damned or satanic character to the counter-clockwise angled swastika and a benefic or divine feature to the clockwise angled one proceeds from a dualistic view which does not make sense. To be convinced, we only need to mention the openwork design of the swastika inserted into a wall to realize that it is necessarily perceived as clockwise on one side of the wall and counter-clockwise on the other. Or else, let us just admire the above paving pattern of Amiens cathedral.