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Maid, Mage, Tower
Alexander J. Ford
Because the subject at hand pertains to archetypical ideas about cosmology, and symbols common to them, there must be a certain broadness of scope. William Lethaby defended himself when casting a similarly wide net—pointing out “…the similar needs and desires of men, the necessities imposed by materials, and the physical laws which govern their erection and combination.”
There is no argument here for the continuity of any one, specific tradition, though they will certainly be indicated. That sort of quantifying reductivism; as George Soane said, of ‘weighing sugar against plumbs,’ is a narrowing of scope, and therefore acts against the particular spirit of this inquiry. Material methods are only a single stone in the wall of understanding. Without an architect to supply some Gesamtansicht, a stone is only ever a stone.
Modern readers face a peculiar difficulty in trying to comprehend the man of antiquity—superstitious and ignorant as we like to imagine him. We pride ourselves on the ability to completely isolate some element of the natural world; to rob it of its integration with its surroundings, and once the taxidermist is done with it, we theorize endlessly as to the rational meaning of its motionlessness. The torment of the existentialists—those most modern men—was the inability of the rational faculty to chain the spirit to a petty linguistic configuration. For this reason does Plato remark in his seventh epistle, that “—whenever one sees a man’s written compositions … these are not his most serious works.”
But for the man of antiquity, the eye was a thing which emitted its own rays, sympathetic to the light of the sun. Our inward perception of reality was a result of an interaction between object and individual—not simply a passive action by object, upon individual. To lift aside the veil of industrialization and gain an earnest, historical empathy for the symbol itself, we ought to dispense with the contemporary prejudice that a thing is either physical, or that there is no such thing. We will have to outgrow the view that metaphysics are synonymous with superstition. Nietzsche wrote, of man after industry:
“We modern men, very delicate, very vulnerable, and paying and receiving consideration in a hundred ways, imagine in fact that this sensitive humanity which we represent … is a positive advance, that with this we have gone far beyond the men of the Renaissance. But every age thinks this way, has to think this way. What is certain is that we would not dare to place ourselves in Renaissance circumstances, or even imagine ourselves in them: our nerves could not endure that reality, not to speak of our muscles. This incapacity, however, demonstrates not an advance, but only a different, a more belated constitution, a weaker, more delicate, more vulnerable one, out of which is engendered a morality which is full of consideration.”
To primordial man, careful astronomical measure established that the motion of the sky was circular in nature, and therefore, axially organized. The apparent circumpolar motion of the heavenly sphere—of the stars and planetary bodies—described a universal axis in the form of two qualities: verticality, and centrality. Both taken together established an ancient heirophany, which is exemplified in the architecture of the tower.
Centrality is analogous to the single point of perception. Outward from that perceptive point—the observer, the eye, the mortal mind—the circle of the horizon was traced, which described the base of the implicit dome of the firmament. In this way did man construct his fundamental structural metaphor, the squared circle. The symbolic combination of terrestrial square and celestial circle is the most basic linkage between the internal, human perceptive faculties and the external architecture of the world.
Owing to the circular nature of the sky, and to its motion, it follows first that the pillar of the earth is assimilated to the center of both the celestial planes and the terrestrial plane, like an axle drives the wheels of a chariot. Second, the pillar is understood to support—upon a mundane foundation—the ouranic edifice(s). Third, the pillar constitutes a connection between the realms; what is overhead, and what is underfoot. Therefore the pillar is associated with the cosmic and earthly centers, with the structure or architecture of the cosmos, and with a direct connection between the two; mortal and immortal.
It’s crucial to understand that the sympathetic bond between the lower and higher realms was not only mediated by the human intellect, but was predicated upon it.
The notion that the soul descends from the heavens at birth, and ascends to the heavens at death is common to a great many traditions. The Neoplatonists contended that the model was of considerable antiquity. Porphyry clearly connected the portals through which passage was made to the solstices. Although institutional historians may scratch their chins and tap their ledgers impatiently at much of the Neoplatonic corpus, the solstitial association’s essential features are identifiable with Chaldean traditions. It appears in versions of Akkadian, Babylonian, and Sumerian myths, and can be identified in many Indo-European traditions as well—chief among them the Hellenic, and Nordic. Distilling the writings of Porphyry and Macrobius on the subject, Peter Mark Adams explains:
“Each soul being assigned to one star, the ‘home’ of souls was identified with the dense band of stars that constitute the Milky Way. A second band of stars, the zodiac, is identified by the path of the sun and the planets as they cross the heavens. At each of these points they form the shape of the heavenly X.”
At birth, the soul was thought to emerge from the highest sphere of the fixed stars and descend toward earth. As it fell, it passed through the spheres of influence belonged to each of the planetary bodies. Crossing through the realms of each luminary, the soul was clad in some humane quality, or stripped of divine quality, successively taking on the likeness of a mortal man toward birth. Those ancient, Western epistemologies which are broadly gathered up under the term ‘astrology’ owe their lineage to this structure of rationale. The birth of the mortal soul was, in this sense, the death and transmutation of the immortal soul—or its fall—and vice versa. In death the soul-fire reached upward, stripped of its mortal humanity, or purified by the garnering of lost divinity at each of the seven planetary spheres, emerging at last into the heavens again.
The pillar of the earth is divided into twin aspects; twin pillars; two towers, which pertain to the mystical gates through which passage and transmutation is undertaken by the soul at birth, and death, respectively.
The tower is the mature, architectural formulation of these ancient cosmological principles. Its sibling aspects are expressed in the form of two essential qualities: Esoteric wisdom, and the vivifying feminine. The feminine element belongs to the descending gateway, or pillar—to birth; and the masculine element belongs to the ascending gateway, to death. As Porphyry writes, “natural philosophers named these the Gates of the Sun.”
The feminine gateway; the tree of life, or the descending solstitial pillar, is that along which the soul is incarnate. For the Chaldeans, the goddess Ishtar travels down to the underworld, symbolizing the death of the immortal soul and its subsequent birth into the chthonic plane. Along her way, she is stripped of seven garments, representative of the shedding of her divinity in seven stages, until at last she is admitted in her nakedness—just as the infant is admitted to life.
As agriculture is an intercession by man into the labor of nature; in the renewal of life—or the process of cultivating life—we can understand the entanglement of the maiden’s tower with the sacred garden. The common association between feminine divinity and bovine imagery, and with the horns of the crescent moon, is belonged to this agrarian sympathy. It hardly need be said that the lunar affinity is, at a primeval level, likened to the menstrual cycle. It’s no coincidence that Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven after Gilgamesh for refusing her romantic advances.
Where the feminine tower occurs, so does the paradisiacal garden. Even so early as the Egyptian myths of Setne Khamwas, the prince journeys to the ‘lofty house’ of the priestess Tabubue at Bubastis, which is enclosed by a high wall, and within which the tower is encircled by a sacred garden. Similarly, the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Virgin Mary in hortus conclusus identifies Mary mother of Christ with the tower; Mary of the Column, surrounded by a high wall and the garden of paradise—indicative of perfect fertility in the form of the immaculate conception.
The symbolic garden, within which and over which we tend to find looming the symbolic tower, is to agriculture what architecture is to construction. In other words, as gardening was so often a deeply esoteric form of agriculture, architecture was a deeply esoteric form of building. Of course, the word paradise comes down to us from an Avestan tongue, ‘pairidaeza,’ which translates most nearly to garden, park, or enclosure. In the arcane garden we see curated an heirophany of perfect vivificare, emblematic of the divine feminine. The immaculate conception, far from unique to the Judeo-Christian doctrine, is no more than a supernatural birth—to be understood in tandem with the supernatural death eventually represented by the alchemist at work in his tower—who transfigures himself; or the saint who does not die but rather ascends to heaven right off his feet.
In a lecture delivered at the Rathaus in Zurich, 1869, Gottfreid Semper theorized that the Chaldean planetary tower-temple originated as a pragmatic, military structure. Eventually, he contends, it grew to express the “extreme principle of gradual domination; the royal castle and its Belus temple towering over everything.” However, Semper’s suggestion neglects the fact that the tower was not a symbol peculiar to the Chaldean cosmology. What we see in Semper’s tower as a fortification, is hardly limited to a political metaphor, but rather, the Belus temple is adapted in the feminine gate as a prison or a womb; a place of confinement and transformation. While imprisonment is of course raveled with both the maid and the magus towers, Eliade is able to shed some light on the feminine line of thought, writing:
“Very early on we are confronted with the notion that ores ‘grow’ in the belly of the earth after the manner of embryos. … Miner and metalworker intervene in the unfolding of the subterranean embryology: they accelerate the rhythm of the growth of ores, they collaborate in the work of Nature and assist it to give birth more rapidly.”
In Herodotus we find an account of the following Chaldean ritual, perhaps now more clarified, which occurs between a maiden in the tower-temple, and the god Belus—and which he likens to yet other similar rituals:
“On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in this place, nor is the chamber occupied at nights by anyone but a single woman, who, as the Chaldeans, the priests of this god affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land. … They also declare—but for my part I do not credit—that the god comes down in person into this chamber and sleeps upon the couch. This is like the story told by the Egyptians in the city of Thebes, where a woman always passes the night in the temple of the Theban Jupiter (Amon-Ra). In each case the woman is said to be debarred all intercourse with men. It is also like the custom in Lykia, where the priestess who delivers the oracles, during the time that she is so employed … is shut up in the temple every night.”
Some aspect of the late-medieval hennin’s form may belong to the tower symbol’s Hermetic resurgence. Worn on the top of the head, with the young woman’s hair tied to a light lappet and wound up into the conical volume—the excess of which was pulled through a small opening at the tip and left to flow freely—the hennin remains synonymous with the archetypal maid. Similar associations between sorcery and conical headdresses are replete for both men and women throughout the Indo-European traditions. Bronze-Age ‘schifferstadt-type’ golden crowns are perhaps the most illustrious example of far-antiquity; each being lavishly decorated with calendrical markers that denote an intricate, celestial function. Herodotus tells us that the Scythians were well-known for such pointed headwear, and names one Scythian tribe tigrakhauda, or ‘people with pointed hats.’ Examples have been found even among the Scythian mummies of the Tarim Basin, in Western China.
The Hermetic maiden exemplifies outward struggle. She shows the chevalier neither what he is, nor what he will become, but rather, intones in his heart only that he must become. The nature of chivalry is not the pursuit of her, but an understanding that she forms the object of right pursuit. She demands of him an affirmation of life. It’s in this sense that Evola refers to the women of the grail-cycle as possessing the vivifying sacrum.
The grail-seeking knight cannot act in order that he win the maiden’s favor; in other words, for his own vanity. In doing so, he succeeds or fails by her word, and therefore her word will always be ‘no.’ He must act in order to preserve her, sacrificially, for his own sense of duty. To defend that sacred place, he must make himself strong, and his sense of self becomes tied to the quality of his charge. In doing so, he succeeds or fails by his own hand, and his hand will, in such a case, always be firm. Thus Evola described power as feminine by nature.
The pillar of ascension represents the journey back upward to the stellar sphere of divinity. It is the ego-death. The chevalier who achieves symbolic ascension undergoes a transmutation of soul—a doffing of humanity, and a donning of divinity. Symbolic ascension in all of its forms is meant to evoke the re-assimilation of the spirit to the divine, through death, and thus, the achievement of divine wisdom.
Fire is the key to understanding the tower of the magus. Of the alchemist, and the smith, Eliade writes: “It is with fire that he controls the passage of matter from one state to another.” This is a crucial, metaphysical component of the funerary pyre, and of the notion of begetting the soul to the afterlife by way of a pillar aflame. As a matter of fact, the word empyrean itself—that which pertains to the highest heaven; which is sublime, exalted, or heavenly—is derived from the ancient Greek word for fire, ‘πυρός.’ Empyrean therefore literally means ‘that which is purely made of fire.’
According to the pre-Socratic cosmology of Heraclitus, the nature of water is to flow back to the ocean; the nature of stone is to fall back to the earth; and fire likewise reaches upward, toward the celestial flames of heaven.
Fire is the agent of change—the thing which allows the feeble hands of men to grasp and work with the connate tools of nature, by which all alchemical processes are conducted, and through which all materials are given to transmutation. The so-called flame of the enlightened saints emerges from this same line of reasoning. The head, wreathed in flame; the solar discs of both crown and halo; indicates the journey undertaken by the master who has experienced reconstitution with the demiurge, and therefore, possesses esoteric knowledge.
As the potter and the smith ‘collaborate in the work of Nature,’ assisting and accelerating it; manipulating it through understanding and mastery of the laws which govern it, so too does the alchemist intervene in, and manipulate the process of death. Where the potter’s medium is clay, and the forgemaster’s medium is metal, the medium of the mage’s royal art is his own spirit. All are essentially telluric.
Through understanding the death-pillar and symbolic fire to be indicative of both physical and metaphysical transmutation, we are able to properly approach the Hermetic Athanor. The Athanor is an object that remains shrouded in some mystery. Of it several things are certain: That it was a furnace, that it was exclusively an alchemical tool used to transmute materials, and that it was characterized by its slow, dependable, uniform burning, which needed little management once lit. The Athanor is typically depicted—across the entire Hermetic corpus—in a manner which is strictly architectural: It always takes the form of a tower, possessed of flame, and attended by the laboring mystic.
We find the allegory of Vortigern’s tower and the boy Merlin in the Historia Brittonum. The King Vortigern, having fled into Wales to escape the conquering Saxons, set about constructing himself a fortress. Part of the royal edifice was to be a tower, although, three times the masons set out to work, only to awaken the next morning and find all of their tools and materials had vanished, and that the masonry had collapsed. Vortigern’s council advised him to seek out a child of immaculate conception, to sacrifice him, and to sprinkle his blood on the foundation stones in order to secure the tower’s construction. The king’s men scoured the country and eventually discovered the child Merlin—whose mother had conceived him without a father. They brought him to Vortigern to be sacrificed, but Merlin was clever and questioned Vortigern as to his motives. He instead revealed to the king that an underground cavern was the true culprit undermining the tower’s foundations. Slumbering around a pool within that cavern were two dragons; one white, the other red. According to Merlin’s prophecy the white dragon represented the Saxons while the red dragon represented the Welsh. Then the wyrms awoke, and warred before the king, resulting in the white dragon eventually being defeated and chased away.
Concealed within Merlin’s political prophecy—that of the Saxons’ imminent defeat by the Welsh—there is an alchemical lesson. The dragons represent the fire of the furnace that rages in the bowels of the Athanor, or beneath the tower. The twin wyrms each represent the two rudimentary elements present at the outset of the magnum opus: Sulphur, the red element, and mercury, the white element. Red sulphur is assimilated to the inner-fire of man; and with the sun. Mercury, or ‘liquid silver’ is the converse, lunar element. In the Hermetic tradition, the completion of the Great Work is typically signified by an hermaphroditic figure—the Rebis—which symbolizes the successful re-creation of the bipartite, divine soul. As the spirit before the fall is both male and female, the alchemist who achieves the transmutation of his self; who successfully passes the Platonic serpent before the gateway of his own ego-death; is envisioned as both male and female, at once.
The Hermetic wizard exemplifies inward struggle. He is a psychopomp of a sort; who leads the chevalier to the other-world; the great master to whom one apprentices, and in whom one glimpses the absolute height of all human labor. Like Mithras, seated between the solstices, the magus is a man of the medium—a turmer; a bridge, at the near end of which lay the earthly, and the mundane; the logical word; the petty ecstasy of intellect. At the far end lay the heavenly, and the ouranic; the reverent silence; the divine ecstasy of wisdom.