The main thrust of this article is to discuss the origins of the symbols found in a range of metalworking patterns that have been continuously employed in Ethiopian crosses, so you can enjoy the complexity they display. Ethiopian crosses are possibly the most interesting crosses on earth, because each one looks completely different, of the finest examples no two are made the same, by tradition. This is a rare rule in ornament, and there is an interesting story in African art history behind it.
As head pieces for processional staves, pendant necklaces, and hand-carried objects, the Ethiopian cross is distinguished for its stylistic variety and complexity, and also for its unique ability to escape being locked into an isomorphic form. Through tradition the precedent of variation has been preserved, allowing artisans to take liberty with the shapes and patterns of their choosing. Creative license with the cross is more rare in modern formulations of Christianity, where the symbol, particularly the Roman cross, has a standardized form.
Historians are unable to agree when the the cross was adopted as the primary emblem of Christianity. It is generally thought to be no earlier than 200 AD, becoming widespread in the 3rd century. The use of a cruciform for religious, talismanic, and decorative uses dates to neolithic times. The stellar cross – a simple plus sign, the solar cross – a circle sectioned by an equilateral cross, which is also used as a symbol of the earth, and the swastika – the rotating cross or spiral, are early forms found in nearly all ancient cultures. This includes cultures likely to not have communicated, and draws attention to the features of balance, symmetry, and the effect of diffraction creating rays around any light source, when you squint your eyes, as inspiring mysteries and sources of graphic inspiration common to human perception. One of the marked interests in Ethiopian designs is the combined use of all these ancient forms.
Note: all images without captions are Ethiopian.
In Coptic Egypt, the ankh or crux ansata (Latin, “cross with a handle”) was still in active use, found etched into any of the mounds of stone temples old and new, perhaps for of its usefulness as the graphic symbol of life itself. The ankh symbol is linked with a range of earth and fertility goddesses from a variety of cultures, and its use as our modern symbol for the female survives to this day, along with its use in science for identifying the planet Venus in astronomy.
The symbol can be found in neighboring cultures that shared economic ties. One example being Herod the Great, like many local lords of the time a self-styled philosopher king after Alexander (and unfairly confused with his more evil son Herod Antipas), was known as the builder of a temple for every religion, though we don’t have a complete list of which ones. He used the ankh as part of his personal seal in coinage, dying four years before “A.D.” begins, and shared interest in the bitumen trade (raw oil seepage useful for waterproofing and embalming) with the Cleopatras of Ptolemaic Egypt.
The ankh is sometimes described as a cosmic tree of life, like a pillar which supports the sun. This bears out well in the earliest imagery found in Christian manuscripts, where ankh style crosses are shown flowering, sprouting, drawn as a living thing.
Coptic Egypt, Codex Glazier, Acts of the Apostles, 4th Century
In former times, a glyph related to the ankh was a kind of knot, which has specific fertility associations, and happens to resemble the configuration of a woman’s reproductive organs – the womb, ovaries and vagina. It also happens to look a bit like a rope person, and more practically, is likely depicting a kind of tampon. Its name, Tyet or Tet, called the Blood of Isis, is frequently found in red materials, a reference to menstruation, and like the ankh, standing for well being and life. The ankh is also described as the pillar that holds up the sun, drawn as seen when it sets. The sun rests on a T form, the horizontal line for the horizon, the vertical line its reflection in the sea, and always points towards the viewer no matter how you move. The related Phoenician symbol of the earth goddess drew this phenomenon as a circle resting on an inverted triangle. Many of the Ethiopian crosses also have as a central motif a shape resembling a woman’s sex.
A little language-object background helps to explore the relationship between the simple and complex versions of this symbol. Writing is a kind of drawing, used to link to meaning, verbalized sound, and image. Ancient people like moderns had great fun with visual puns, and symbols that had multiple meanings. Both Greeks and Egyptians were champions at it, and often found mystical significance in the patterns formed by usage. In the Greek alphabet the letter chi, written X, has a matching phonetic sound to ankh, –kh. This meant the sound of the two symbols matched their visual compatibility. With ankh (kh) and tet (t), you have two glyphs that both look like each other, and sound like the respective Greek letters Chi (x) and Tau (+). So the word cross takes the same sound as this old word for life, which is -kh, and also describes the way it is drawn, though it is no longer first symbol most would used when asked to draw life. The cross has for a large part of the world, become a signifier of a specific religion, and its branches, while in symbolism represents a specific crucifixion story. But in the Ethiopian cross, we can argue it is also still drawn in a way that also asserts life itself as one possible meaning.
Knotwork is a key element appearing in the earliest Christian uses of the cross. Crosses used in key patterns for architectural decor were already staples in ancient culture. The intertwining of the caduceus snakes are prehistoric and point to life, creative power and health, knotting together being the way snakes are found coupling. These old creative associations can be traced far beyond the cultural regions in discussion. But the development of knot-work fields as a motif appears as an innovation of this syncretic time period, one that quickly spread to a number of cultures. Some argue for an origination in the knotwork animal motifs of the northern horse tribes of the Steppes, it is a regular Byzantine feature, and Armenian crosses, some of our earliest formal examples in the new context, are heavily invested in the use of it.
Knotwork also remains the central motif in the religious artwork of Islam, rooted in a close proximity of time and place, and in some cases was the only permitted form of representation besides writing. Throughout Europe, the Celtic and Germanic cultures adopted it intensively, and its proliferation reveals how quickly communication was made. One reason for the fast adoption in Europe may be that Herod the Great’s personal army consisted of Anatolian Celts, with broad trade connections; in the centuries that follow, the use of knotwork, spread to the reaches of the far northern cultures through Viking networks, visually merging neolithic spiral art that still survived there with the new universal literary religion.
Crosses as elaborated trees of life, foliated or filled with knot-work are not only the first such illustrations in Christian books, but found in the earliest sculpted versions as well:
A Compound Talisman
Ethiopic crosses are emblematic trees whose branches touch on many meanings. The incorporation of solar discs radiate in broad variety, interspersed with stars of David, tree birds, all varieties of this type of cross point to an intentional talismanic concentration of multiple symbols.
Incorporated into many of these crosses are essential graphic elements that, like the cross itself, point backwards in time to pre-history, and underline the role as a broad symbol of life itself. The cross is sometimes growing from a significant point, the peak of a holy mountain. This is usually symbolized with a three-stepped pyramid, a base motif also found in many cultures. Other times, a simple trident serves as the base, a symbol of creation found in very different cultures far to the north, and the east. This abstracts the frequent presence of ‘twinning’ elements, symmetrical serpentine forms representing life force, that belong together in a class that includes caduceus, cherubs holding a wreath or curtain, the torc, and horns and antlers. In simplified form, like the trident, this twinning is found within the Om symbol, and the triratna (three jewels), equally ancient symbols of creative power and life force, and all cognates of the tree of life, the ankh, and breasts. We also find the early cross combined with images of the arch and pillars, doorway symbols of fertility culture and creative force, while the pillars are yet another symmetrical presentation of the ever-present twinning, branching, division and symmetry.
So we find in the Ethiopian record of the cross, the survival of a wide range of symbols for creative power, from earth goddesses, to the sun, to sprouting plants, regularly compounded into concentrated, syncretized forms. The use of the knot-work can be easily understood in this context, as representing the entangled similarities of primary, multicultural symbols for life, woven into union.
Survival as a Symbol of Life
A very interesting distinction about the Ethiopian cross can be made, that sets it apart from the rest of the modern Christian world: the cross is an object of worship in itself, and has texts devoted to it that did not survive elsewhere, considering it a symbol in its own way alive, and able to bestow the power of life and healing. In the world beyond Ethiopia, the cross lost all of its feminine, life-giving associations long ago, becoming something we are more likely to find familiar today, a memorial symbol of an execution, and a grave marker, referring to new life for a single historic personage in the distant past, rather that a broad conceptual emblem. For most of the Christian world today, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion story, but is no longer seen as a force of life in itself as frequently.
As an ancient literary empire closely linked to trade, and a historic part of the Egyptian sphere, Ethiopia’s connection to the Mediterranean dates to Solomonic times during its height, preparing a home for the arrival of converts to Christianity during much later Coptic times. This would form a bloc that was deep enough into the African continent to avoid the coming torches of the Roman Empire. Rapid changes in climate had a strong role in this, and reduced their ancient trade position by surrounding the country with desertification. This helped the Ethiopians rebuff the Arabic conquest, which had spread east along the Silk Road and west by the North African coast, gradually causing the disappearance of many other cultures and languages. As its ancient power quietly started to nod off, Ethiopia was effectively cut off from the later debates, mergers and conflicts that developed in the Christian world, sweeping changes would bury much evidence of this symbol’s highly syncretic character.
Preserved then in the many Ethiopian languages (there are more than 7 with both Semitic and Nile rooted flavors) are rituals, emblems and books that still provide glimpses into what the first distillations of Christianity from Coptic Egypt would have looked, survivors in remote cliff-top monasteries, some only approachable by climbing rope.
Despite the removal and this symbol’s character, Ethiopia did not escape any better the demotion of the goddess and the feminine in general that clearly defines the more recent religions – especially in the essential removal of women as people of leadership, which was never particularly universal, but suffered greater losses before what gains have been made in modern times. But in some way, the cross there has retained a mothering, feminine presence, as a living symbol, in terms of the interwoven, multicultural history it displays.
As surviving symbols of a reverence for life, you could imagine there is just a hint of what was once more widely felt to be an essentially feminine concept of power. And it makes sense that their individual patterns vary and change, each unique like a living thing, formed as though from a tangle of roots and branches. Perhaps by preserving the lore as a living symbol, they have yet to collapse into uniformity, limited to a specific story, being overcome by text.
But the change in symbols, of female to male, from a sense of the renewal of creation, to a symbol of suffering and death, should also serve as a warning of the dangers that a monopoly on belief poses to human cultures. The loss of power for half of the people, to serve the power of another, and the past reshaped to delay, disable and divide people, is the mark of empire. It is an immense privilege, using modern eyes, to be able to choose our beliefs, and pass up any that do not promote the belonging and creative potential of all individuals. The returning of women into the fold of secular and spiritual leadership, in all aspects of society, is the restoration of some of what has been lost; the achievement of true balance and equity however would be a modern accomplishment without comparison, something new on this earth. Restoring (or simply rediscovering) a reverence for life seems like a fitting step forward. While there are losses we can lament in the past, beyond the necessity of a spiritual reverence for all living things, whatever chances we have for survival as a whole now depends on a major departure from days before science, when mystery and fear could be easily used to control the understanding people had of their world, and of their options.
The Ethiopian memory of the cross as a vital, living thing has something for anyone that can read the symbol, and while tied to place and time the tradition of depicting each one as distinct gives them individuality as well – as each person forms their own matrix of experiences and roots, each their own manifestation of life, both the fruit of the tree and the seed of what grows next. We can all benefit from our woven nature, and find some direction by avoiding the erasure of becoming just another isomorphic expression of symbol and myth.