A seasonal, avant-garde periodical
Architectural Symbolism of the Scepter
Alexander J. Ford
Students of archaic architecture and her traditional symbols will no doubt have encountered the notion of the “microcosm.” For most, it’s enough to point out that the temple, in all its forms, is always intended to be emblematic of the world. Scholars assert again and again, that any and all temples are quite obviously models of the universe. But never-you-mind to ask why, or to ask after the rational origin of that analogy. Man after industry contents himself to explain away those things, which he calls “religious,” as irrational or superstitious. Beneath the feet of all traditional symbolic systems, he is sure, lay nothing. They are absurd images attached arbitrarily to primitive concepts. Of Porphyry’s description of the original Mithraic microcosm; the cave of Zoroaster, Thomas Maurice explains that,
“... the Mithraic caverns represented the world. According to Eubulus, Zoroaster first of all, among the neighboring mountains of Persia, consecrated a natural cell, adorned with flowers and watered with fountains, in honour of Mithra, the father of the universe. For he thought the cavern an emblem of the world fabricated by Mithra; and in this cave were many geographical symbols arranged with the most perfect symmetry and at certain distances, which shadowed out the elements and climates of the world.”
As for the question of which specific line of thinking it was, that led men of all cultures to envision the temple as formally, and conceptually analogous to the world—the answer lies in man’s capacity to measure, and thus, the answer lies in the body. Further refinement of his propensity for measurement is responsible for man’s civilized tendency away from conducting religious rites in wild nature, and toward the design of his own spaces; toward the temple.
Because we are men, the universe appears to us in terms of man. What it is we see, that is, what we can grasp through comparison, or can measure by computation—those two quarreling twins of all mentality—is necessarily constrained in terms of how we see. Therefore, the universe possesses a fundamentally anthropomorphic quality, because it is man who regards it and passes judgement upon it. Said another way, the hammer sees only a world of things to be struck. There is for mankind a certain commonality of perspective that belies the existence of ‘low-energy states’ in those symbolic analogies, which occur to cultures isolated from one another geographically and temporally.
A controversial book concerning Neolithic religion, by Lewis-Williams and Pearce, advanced a materialistic hypothesis in attempt to account for some such commonalities. In their survey of primitive shamanistic practices the world-over, the authors determined several typical experiences supplied by altered states of mind in ritual settings. The general idea, though still contentious, is that human beings share roughly the same hardware, or bodily capacities—for example the entoptic nerve in the eye—which physically lends itself to specific types of hallucination. Those typical forms are then held in some degree of commonality by all whose eyes depend on such a structure. Regardless of the veracity of their particular claims, there is a general ‘anthropic’ character to the argument. As I have said elsewhere, ‘to measure one thing is to express it in terms of something else.’
Intuiting the universe as we do, in the form a claim made in the language of ourselves, man of prehistory instinctively ascribed to it the same volition which existed within himself. This is the substance of Mencken’s realization that an elementary function of self-awareness is the connection between “causation and volition.”
In the same way that man reads geometry from the structure of the external universe, so it was understood by all sages that the human body was formed as a complex analogy to the world. To measure the world then, is to encapsulate its aspects in a manful terminology. From that point the argument can be formulated that man is, himself, the teleological substance of creation. However, the fundamental relation forged between object and measure is separate. That argument, that first sophistry, is only some primeval fashion of orthodoxy. It’s of no concern to us.
Nevertheless, man of antiquity thus saw that the natural world expressed the logical rules which govern it, by virtue of its form. He saw too, that his body contained within itself certain proportions, made evident through the relation of parts to the whole. With his mind so-tuned to analogy as it is; analogy is the very essence of understanding; what could he do but apply himself as a measuring partition to the whole of the world around him? The schools of sacred geometry are thus devoted to the study of the body-cosmic analogy. The birth of the temple then in-turn positioned the architect not just as a pupil of the cosmic rules, but as a practitioner of them.
In order for the temple to properly serve as a model of the natural world, then, it follows that the same system of rules (or some intelligible portion of them) ought to determine the form, and the major relationships of the microcosm. It will serve for a moment to make a brief point on the nature of human intuition, as it was known to the ancients. The conscious mind was viewed as a pairing of two opposed but complimentary perceptual modes; physical and metaphysical. Plato recognized that the mind; the episteme, comprised these two modes, and named them gnostike and praktike. Boethius echoed that system, describing philosophy as a woman whose raiment was embroidered with the theta and the pi; the theory and the practice. The point for Plato in dividing epistemology into these two wells, was to distinguish between what is known, and what is understood. That is to say—to demonstrate the difference between those things which can be shown quantifiably, and those which must be experienced qualitatively.
The quantifiable aspect of the psyche is the lower mode; the rational or material functions—it is scientific. Its concern is counting, measuring, compiling, and computation. Mathematics is its elementary language. The intelligent algorithm is its ultimate hubris. Modern man, having a poor grasp on the higher mode, has convinced himself that this lower, alone, exists. From here stems his corruptible capacity.
The qualifiable aspect of the psyche is the higher mode; the relational, or phenomenal functions—it is poetic. Its concern is likening, comparison, intuition, and understanding. Symbolism is its elementary language. The bureaucratic priest is its ultimate hubris. Man of prior degenerate yugas, having comparatively primitive systems of the lower type, convinced himself that the higher, alone, existed. That was the source of his own corruptible capacity.
We can see in terms of the dualistic episteme, that through the lower mode a geometer uncovers a cosmic rule and acquires some knowledge. But through the higher mode; by employing the cosmic rules in concert with one another toward the construction of the temple, the architect rises to collaborate in the work of the gods. The temple is a model of the rules-in-use, and it’s for this reason, that the temple achieves the microcosmic quality. More than the study and measure of natural space, architecture is man’s engagement in the educated production of it. Experience of the temple thus invites a man to understand the world, through observation, contemplation, and action.
To say it another way: Reading the book has never been the same as understanding it. Understanding is the domain of analogy. Prehistoric man analogized one thing to another with complete abandon and required at all times an arcane, and individualized pairing of the one and the other. The temple, however, provides one half of the analogy in the canon; in the tradition. The initiate must acquire the other himself. In the temple, the quest for understanding is transmuted and formalized into a bloodline to which the initiate belongs.
Scepter, and Wand
Egyptian geometers were able to determine perfect right angles through the use of a twelve-unit cord, according to a rather straightforward process. First the magnitude of a single unit was decided. Next, thirteen knots were tied along the cord so as to partition the length into twelve equal units. The geometer would then fix two foci (rods) at the points following the third, and following the seventh units. With the cord divided then, into lengths of three, four, and five, the leftmost (three) and rightmost (five) segments were rotated around the foci until they intersected at a point in space. The result is aways a proportional triangle—which later came to be given the name of the Greek geometer Pythagoras—as well as a perfect right angle about the first focus.
Though not specifically related to the subject at-hand, the zodiacal importance of the number twelve, and the kheiromantic relevance of the same celestial number represented in the fingers, suggests a deeply-rooted relationship between the symbolism of the hand—that is, its use in divination—and the holy tools of the architect.
The very beginning of the construction process for any sacred structure was the alignment, measurement, and configuration of its foundations. Orienting the foundations was so important, that the Egyptian architects ritualized the process and gave to it the name “the stretching of the cord.”
Alignment to the major, heavenly axis was determined through the use of a sighting rod and careful observation of circumpolar stars. By staking out two lines from the sighting rod, toward the rising and setting of one such star (or several), the astronomer delineated an angle on-site. Bisecting that angle yielded a line of perfect accord to the axis of rotation of the great wheel; true north. From here followed on the major and minor axes of the structure.
The harpedonaptai drew out their cords next, knotted in equal parts to ten units of the structure; ten royal cubits per portion (seven palms of four digits each), and plotted the four corners of the temple. Then according to the staked cords, the foundation trenches were dug. The Pharaoh laid the cornerstones of the temple, and votive deposits were likewise made at the appropriate locations within the foundations. According to the ancient sources the Pharaoh personally took part in the stretching of the cord. Tradition holds that he did so together with the goddess Seshat—holding in his hand one rod, and she the other. With golden hammers they staked out the microcosm.
All systems of measure, no matter how complex or primitive—and therefrom all systems of proportion—depend upon the designation of a unit. The unity is literally the establishment of the ‘one’ unit of measure, and with a set notion of what one entails, then are determined the subsequent valuations. The nature of two is defined in terms of one. Without a sense of what one unit is, it cannot be said that there are two of that thing, or three, and so on.
For early architects the establishment of the unit was an act that permeated the entire structure of the temple, and defined its proportions. Providing the unit is a divining act. As a matter of fact, this line of rationale is very likely the source of the turn of phrase ‘divining,’ as a magical ascertainment. It’s well-known, for example, that the intercolumniation was the constraining unit for the Doric temple’s proportional systems in archaic Greece.
Setting out the unit should be understood as the first cause, which determines and effects the architectural construction. Symbolically, the suppliance of the royal cubit for the construction of the temple therefore is analogous to the cause-without-cause, predicating all of creation. Whereas the geometrical calculations that are conducted by making use of the unit are derived, or perhaps more appropriately determined—in the sense of term-making—given the unit as an axiom, the unity itself is a thing which is conjured up as the case from nothing. It’s not computable. The unit is given, by its nature, from the king according to his intention for the temple, in the same way that creation is set into its motions according to the impetus of the godhead.
For this reason do many myths the world over describe the creation of the mundane world in terms of a body part of the divine. The divine body supplies the primum movens for the world (an act which has a necessarily sexual dimension as well), and so too does the human body provide the cubit for the temple, to be made in the manner of the world.
Surveyors and architects have, since the farthest reaches of antiquity, carried in-hand rods of measure. Egyptian and Akkadian cubit rods are among the oldest that survive. Together with the cubit rod, the stake and the knotted cord (which are the true origin of the symbolic rod and ring) constitute the most ancient tools of measurement, and represent the most archaic form of the geometric mysteries. If one studies the iconography of the goddess Seshat, with whom the Pharaoh collaborated the temple foundation rituals, one will find that she carries with her a staff of measure, and at its base is set the shen; the rod-and-ring emblem.
The exact nature of the scepter is revealed to be a symbol of the divine will, in the form of the measuring rod. Wielding the scepter represents the king’s sovereignty, for the specific reason that it demonstrates his possession of the divine capacity, or right, to rule. The king’s divine right is analogous to the action of the godhead, which provides the prime movement for all of creation—the first cause. It’s not by chance that the English word ‘rule,’ which comes down to us from a distant Proto-Indo-European root, contains the triplicate meanings of measurement, of judgement, and of reign.
Turns of phrase like “the rule of law” grow up from the very same analogical root, and even today, we continue to refer to the law itself as having a body, or corpus.
With the scepter, then, serving in a rational way to symbolize sovereignty, unity, and rule, we can at last begin to form a proper understanding of the deeply held and archaic origins of the magic wand, as a symbol for divine creativity. Encapsulated in the wand are all the abilities of transmutation, transfiguration, and transposition; in a word: Creation. It becomes self-evident that both the scepter and the wand as symbols—of the divine provenance of the king, and of the magical arts, respectively—are descendants of the rod of rule. Both owe the Hermetic flowering of their emblematic legacy to the same mysterious architectural seed.