The Interpretation of Symbolic Forms

(In) the jungles of Guatemala there is a Mayan temple known as the “Temple of the Cross,” at Palenque, where there is a shrine exhibiting for worship a cross that is mythologically associated with a savior figure, names by the Mayans Kukulcan, and by the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl: a name that is translated “Feathered Serpent,” and suggest the mystery of a personage uniting in himself the opposed principles represented in the earthbound serpent and the released free flight of a bird.  Moreover, as the Scriptures related to this figure tell us, he was born of a virgin; died and was resurrected; and is revered as some sort of savior, who will return, as in the Second Coming.  All this adds another, very troublesome, dimension to our problem of interpreting the symbolic form of the cross, since it must now be recognized, not simply or singly as a reference within one tradition to one historical event, but as a sign symbolically recognized in other traditions as well, and in significant association, moreover, with a number of related symbolic themes. 

The figure of the Feathered Serpent linked with the Cross, for example, immediately suggests our own biblical Eden/Calvary continuity.  Furthermore, on top of the Mayan cross there is a bird sitting, the quetzal bird, and at the base there is a curious mask, a kind of death mask.  Now a number of paintings of the Crucifixion from late medieval times and the early Renaissance period show the Holy Ghost above, in the form of a dove, and beneath the foot of the cross, a skull.  The name of the hill of the Crucifixions, as we all know, was in Aramaic, Golgotha, and in Latin, Calvary, both of which words mean “skull.”  We do not know what interpretation the Mayans gave to their death mask; but in medieval Christian legend, the skull out of which the cross appeared to have grown, as a tree from its seed, was said to be Adam’s: so that when the blood of crucified Savior fell upon it from his pierced hands and feet, the First Man was, so to say, retroactively baptized, and with him the whole human race.  Had there been no Tree of the Fall, there would have been no Tree of Redemption – no Holy Rood, as the Cross was called in the Middle Ages. 

Cont’d … The answer, therefore to our question as to why the crucifixion of Jesus holds for Christians such importance implies a complex of essential associations that are not historical at all, but mythological.  For, in fact, there was never any garden of Eden or serpent who could talk, nor solitary pre-Pithecanthropoid “First Man” or dreamlike “Mother Eve” conjured from his rib.  Mythology is not history, although myths like that of Eden have been frequently misread as such and although mythological interpretations have been joined to events that may well have been factual, like the crucifixion of Jesus.  TMD 191

   One of the most effective ways to rediscover in any myth or legend the spiritual “tenor” of its symbolic “vehicles” is to compare it, across the reaches of space, or of time, with homologous forms from other, even greatly differing traditions.  The underlying core then is readily unshelled from its local, historically conditioned provincial inflections, applications, or tendentious secondary interpretations, and a shared psychological, or spiritual, ground is opened, transcending the conditions of space and time, and of history.   TMD 201

Mythological symbols come from the psyche and speak to the psyche; they do not spring from or refer to historical events.  They are not to be read as newspaper reports of things that, once upon a time, actually happened. 

Religious symbols

In the Vatican there is a twelve-foot-high bronze pine cone that was formerly in the Roman Field of Mars.  What is it that is important in a pine cone?  What is important is the seed and not the cone.  And so, in each of us, what is important is the seed of consciousness which is to be released – the new Adam, the one reborn after the death of the old.  TMTT 200

   In the Vatican there is a great picture by Pintoricchio of the goddess Isis on a throne instructing two disciples.  One of them is Hermes, and the other is Moses.  These are the two ways of reading symbolic forms – Hermes being the Hermetic, symbolic way; Moses, the literal, prosaic, historical way.  There are two aspects to the form, and you take the one you want.  TMTT 202