In my previous article on the crescent, I went into detail about its history, and its virtually pan-cultural historic association with feminine power. Now I turn to a variation on the crescent that is as common and old as its simpler sister, and discuss the double crescent.
We’ve established that the crescent and creation were synonymous on a visual level, across many cultures. And while the symbolic uses of the double crescent are many, and their examples fine, we should get out of the way first the most obvious, prehistoric, and likely root of the complicated journey this symbol has taken. Class, can anyone tell me what this quick drawing looks like? Be childish, dig back.
If you guessed ‘breasts’ or ‘ass’ you have an impressive imagination, considering they would be rather lopsided. You might enjoy Cubism. But the ancient world is full of clever logograms for the double bump and rounded rump symbol, many of them forgotten. One of them more remembered in name than story, the ‘twins’ have since prehistoric times have been associated with the goddess. Gemini, Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, the twins are a story so old we don’t know where it got its start. Often they were represented only by their rounded hats, sometimes with little stars at the tips. They were probably actual people in oral stories long before writing. Here’s a Spartan stelae of the twins that may well be a visual pun:
Enough said – if the crescent is a creative symbol, the double crescent leaves no remote questions – from between the rounded parts of the mother is newborn life, from her breasts life is nourished.
Now that we’ve looked beneath the skirt, the development of the symbol in adornment is pretty straightforward. And that process is appropriation of a recognized image and the assignment of new meanings. In modern times, we treat each historic symbol differently according to its traditional meaning, and this is the direct effect of transliteration that the move to writing has produced. A translated word is presented alongside its meaning, as though equal, a curious paradox that has had curious, lasting effects on modern thinking, and is also prone to error (mistranslation) and the impression of culture-wide separation. Consider as an example English speaking martial arts students learning to respond to “lao hu” each time they take the posture called tiger, as though the word has a separate meaning. To the keen eye we can see that assigned meanings can borrow some of their strength from pre-literal, visual symbols.
In Mohenjo Daro, the impressive city of the lost Indus Valley civilization, we have our first glimpse of a symbol that is already well established. Possibly an image of creation, we have a tree of life sprouting at its base two horned creatures that form a double crescent. The serpentine creatures at the base of a tree is an image that can be found from the farthest reaches of Asia to the edge of Europe.
Sixteen hundred years later we find the characters of a prehistoric story endure, and the goddess of creation is depicted on the Parsi cup above with wide hips, full breasts, twisted snakes for legs, and wings. Two beasts forming a double crescent sprout from the top of the compound image.
Two thousand years later the mark persists. In a gold ornament from the Persian Empire at its height, we find a simplified combination of the double crescent at the base, a regular crescent, two marks and a lotus like flower. This formulation bears its mark in cultures on either side of the Indus, collectively known as the triratna. This Sanskrit word means ‘three gems’ and has many interpretations. The Egyptian piece features the child of Isis, the resurrection of Horus, seated on a pillar (symbol of the Earth) surrounded by lotus flowers, a similar sentiment to the feminine power of creation.
The representations of Scylla are telling of the Greek sense of creation. Typical of the depictions of Titans, or the gods before the gods, she is an anguipede with serpentine tails for legs. In the first example, we can see the formal symbol of creation with just her head. At each end of her legs, lion heads branch, flower and fruit, a piece that assigns her a creator goddess role. In the later example, we see a sophisticated depiction of what she becomes under the civilized Olympians, now defeated her story became that of a girl turned into a sea monster. Still the emblems of her old role remain, with lions at her feet, a snake wrapped around her, even as she is about to hurl a boulder. The old gods necessarily become tyrants and causes of trouble, so that new state beliefs can prevail. Today, Scylla remains with us as a thoroughly modern monster: the Starbucks logo.
All of the above examples are variations on the same symbol. Characteristic of the 1st Century CE we see in the same region Greek and Indian cultures mixing with the array of those that came before, and the triratna developing in several directions. Each successive culture that conquers the area recognizes, adopts and modifies the image. The Greeks may have introduced their Pythagorean ideas of the number three, believed sacred as it takes two to make a third, which leads to the literal three gems instead of the probable origin of the large circle and two dots of other early triratnas: the earth, sun and moon. The mother goddess in neolithic times, as a sidenote, was often drawn as a triangle with a circle on top, predecessor to the ankh and the cross. Also compare the forking ends on the Uttar Pradesh and Tilia Tepe examples with Scylla above.
Heading east the changing symbol is formalized into Buddhism as the Triple Gem, with a new interpretation of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Yet the symbol retains the graphic lines of the double crescent.
And it is interesting to note that despite the reinterpretation, and further layers of ‘secret’ meanings introduced in Medieval times, the symbol (especially when worn upside down), can clearly be seen to resemble female body parts. The triratna is essentially the mother goddess symbol of Asia.
To the west, the double crescent was absorbed into the new religion of the Byzantine Empire, where Christianity was slowly formalizing in a region still fond of its goddess culture. In the earliest known illustrated gospels, the crescent and double crescent are presented as arching over the index tables, sprouting as though alive. Christianity takes part of its roots from the Egyptian religion of Isis (“I am the blood, the resurrection and the life”) and the Christ concept is in some way indebted to the story of her son, a virgin birth, a resurrection of her husband Horus (the son is the father).
In the stories of Buddha, Harpocrates (son of Isis) and Jesus in both the Bible and the Koran, the savior stories developed in the first centuries of our era are all born of a woman clinging to a tree. (Ok, in the Christian story it’s a barn.) That woman is the mother goddess, and the tree is the Tree of Life, evolutions of a story that predates written history.
In the north we find the raw intersection of the solar cross, the four directions, and the double crescent as their people come into closer ties with Byzantine culture. In these examples, the crescents are often ‘birthing’ a cross.
As the cross begins to appear as a Christian emblem in the 3rd Century, among the earliest examples we have are the Anchor Crosses and the Khachkars of Armenia. Here we have our symbol of the creator goddess in its last days, as the tree and the double crescent; also compare the three circles to the triratna symbols of old.
In the anchor we have a visual equivelant in diachronic onamasiology, or a polysemic orthograph, in other words the classic anchor also looks just like several other symbols in one. In this case, we have the ankh or sign of Venus atop a double crescent with forking ends, and just as often a snake-like rope wraps around its ‘tree’. As a stick figure drawing, this is a convincing likeness of our creation mother of the sea, known as Scylla to the late Greeks. In this we have just another example, like Isis, the triratna and the cross, of a change in gender that masculinized symbols of feminine power at the start of the first millenium.
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As a reward for reading this far, I invite you to consider the mysterious resurfacing of the double crescent about five hundred years later:
The adoption of the symbol is a bit of a mystery. Obviously, the cordiform leaf shape is the closest natural match, abundant anywhere. But how it turned red and came to represent the human heart is unclear. There are many theories, but historians don’t seem to know for sure. A trace of it turns up in a Byzantine mosaic, and on the Danish coat of Arms, both from the 12th Century. The Danes insist they are leaves, but curiously enough, they are red. As a symbol of the human heart it appears suddenly in the Middle Ages (1300s) as a Christian mystic symbol without much of a formal introduction, though sources indicate repeatedly that it was a ‘personal emblem’ that was widely revered in private homes. There is some confusion as to whether it belonged to Mary or Jesus until the monasteries began writing theology for it.
In the next century, as the Renaissance warms up, it appears as one of the four ‘French’ suits that we are familiar with in our standard deck of playing cards. And there’s our clue: in the Renaissance scholars were beginning to suspect that history had been significantly rewritten, and roughly at that. By a combination of reverse engineering, occult tradition and folk lore, they set to work gradually introducing their ideas of Classical philosophy, science, and the rest. The Tarot cards were an excellent tool for teaching an alternative history, carefully designed with mundane status quo images that are easy to explain, concealed as an amusing game, yet containing double meanings which could be used to teach of civilizations that had been hidden away. The first Tarot decks were refined works of art made for children of noble families, who were receiving the most sophisticated education available. One of the Tarot suits, Cups, a symbol for virtue and heart, became the suit that we know as hearts today. And in Alchemical traditions of the time, one of the ways philosophy had survived at least conceptually, we regularly see the image of a reunion between male and female, sun and moon. Psychologists have insisted this refers to an internal process, but could it reveal a more literal purpose, of restoring sacredness to the female gender, of a worldly balance and equality? Was the heart symbol a brilliant graphic design by a Middle Ages artist who sought to restore an old balance, or were they simply bringing back to the light a secret, sacred symbol preserved by common people?
In the next and final part of this article, I will bring you Tridents! Brought to you by the number 3 and the letters M and W.