The Theosophical Forum – October 1946


The Greek Fret and its analogue, the scroll or wave design, are worldwide in distribution, being found in Greece, Egypt, India, China, Scandinavia and North and South America. Its distribution alone would lead one to suppose a symbolic meaning attached to it of sufficient importance to explain its wide use; but the explanations commonly offered, are of too obvious and slight a character for serious consideration. According to one theory the fret was first copied from basketry patterns, according to another the scroll was copied from the volutes formed by wind-blown grass in desert sand, and so became symbolic of the whirlwind.

The culture of the American Indian throws much illumination on the thought and philosophy of ancient civilizations, and since the fret is still used with purpose and understanding by the Indians of the Southwest, it seems worth while to see what clues to the symbolism of the fret and wave design we may find.

There is many a correspondence between the myths of ancient Greece, and those of the American Indian; and although we may regret the vanished civilization of Greece with its poetic imagery, there are thousands of Indians in the Southwest, who still look to the Sun-father and the Earth-mother with reverence and respect, as the source of all life. To the Hopi and Navajo, space is filled with hierarchy upon hierarchy of gods, who, they believe form the very structure of the universe. There are gods above and gods below, and every operation of Nature is, for them, caused by spiritual beings of greater or lesser degree of evolution — beings whom we, lacking the terminology of the Indians, class under one term as gods.

This mingling of the Above and the Below, of the Sky-father and the Earth-mother, and of the Waters-above with the Waters-below is well illustrated in a dance of the Hopi and Pima Indians, in which the fingers are linked in a peculiar manner, forming a fret as in Fig. 1. This is represented graphically in Fig 2 which is the common form of the Greek fret.

Some aspect of the rotation of the Above and the Below about a central vortex, seems to have been the idea behind the use of the fret so frequently seen on Indian pottery; for although there is great variation in the design, the symbolism of the intermingling of spirit and matter through involution and evolution is always implied.


There is expressed in this ancient symbol, a universal truth or law regarding the higher and lower nature of man, as well as the nature and creation of the earth. Indeed it may well apply to all coming-into-life, for every living thing is dual, having both a higher and a lower nature, or, we might say, is formed of two elements, one spiritual and one physical.

Take, for example, the scientific explanation regarding the formation of a rain storm. Each storm center is the result of a warm tropical wind meeting a cold arctic wind and forming a great whirl of winds rushing towards the center where the air pressure is least. Within the turmoil of the storm cloud, positively and negatively electrified droplets combine again and again until of a sufficient size to fall to earth as rain. That the Indians understand something of this phenomenon is shown by their use of the fret design to symbolize clouds and rain. The Greek physician Hippocrates, 460-377 B.C., (called the Father of Medicine) mentions the formation of a storm cloud in such a way as to show a knowledge of the warm and cold front origin of storms.

So general is the application of the philosophy contained in the fret that one is reminded of the Yang and Yin symbol of the Chinese; in which the light and dark segments of the circle show spirit and matter in relation, one to the other. The Yang or spirit and the Yin or matter are often called the All-father and the All-mother.

Fig. 3 shows the basic fret common to both Greece and America; in this the upper and lower lines are not joined in the center of the vortex; the spirit does not descend into matter, i.e., the body, but overshadows it, vitalizes it and this is well illustrated in this symbol.

 Fig. 4 is the same fret, but with the lines joined, thus destroying much of the symbolism, reducing it to a decorative pattern. Fig. 5 is drawn from an old Hopi food-bowl, and shows the two arms of the fret opened or separated. Fig. 6 is a portion of a cloud pattern derived from the fret, which was often used on water jars as a prayer for clouds and rain.

It is a general belief among the Indians of the Southwest that mankind has lived in, and finally emerged from a series of great caves or worlds, through an opening, which they believe all beings still use in entering and leaving this world.

The Navajo, in weaving their famous rugs symbolize this place of emergence by leaving some hidden part of the rug unfinished. The Hopi are accustomed to leave the encircling painted band about the rim of their pottery broken — the lines not joined, in other words. The bowl, being made of clay or earth, represented Mother-earth; the rim, circular in shape, represented the horizon, and the contents (food or water) the gifts of earth; and so these children of nature left an opening symbolic of the sacred place of emergence through which they believed all life ascends and descends, or enters and leaves our earth.

A Theosophist expresses the same idea when he says that everything passes from plane to plane, and from globe to globe, through a Laya center or dissolving point. Moreover, both Homer and Plato speak of the earth as a dark cave, with an opening through which not only men but the gods come and go.

The illustration Fig. 7 is taken from a Hopi pot found at Homolubi, Arizona, by Fewkes, and in this case shows the break in the line joined with a fret as though suggesting that entrance and exit is made through a labyrinth or maze. Here again if the lines of the fret had been joined, passage through the maze or fret would be impossible, and the symbolic place of emergence would be closed — a thought too fearful to consider, in the mind of the old-time Hopi for they believed a connection existed between a pictured image and the reality.

The volute scroll or wave pattern is shown in its basic form in Fig. 8; note its similarity to the rectangular fret, with the two lines indicating evolution and involution, and which in this case also are not joined in the center. This symbol is often arranged in a series of four in which the upper line of one unit becomes the lower line of the following. Fig. 9 is typical of a great variety of wave patterns derived from the scroll.

Fig. 10 is from one of Mme. Blavatsky's letters to Mr. Sinnett in which she explains the involution and evolution of spirit and matter in the Brahma Loka Tala planes or worlds. The dotted line of evolution moves from the center to the outside; the black line of involution from the outside towards the center, shows the descent of spirit, and the ascent of matter, to build our world of form and consciousness.

As to whether the ancient Greeks attached similar ideas to these symbols as the Indians of America, we have of course no direct evidence; but a comparison of the creation myths of the two peoples strongly suggests a similarity of concept throughout.

According to a creation myth of the Southern California Indians there was at first nothing. There was only an Above and a Below — Father-sky and Mother-earth, though both were of a different nature than at present; the Sky came down to his Sister the Earth and brought light to her, and the earth and all the life on it came into being.

The Zuni creation myth as recorded by Cushing contains the following: . . . "With his substance of flesh outdrawn from the surface of his person; the Sun-father formed the seed-stuff of twain worlds, impregnating therewith the great waters, and lo! in the heat of his light these waters of the sea grew green and scums rose upon them, waxing wide and weighty until, behold" they became the "Four-fold Containing Mother-earth" and the "All-covering Father-sky'." Through the mingling together of these two upon the great earth waters all terrestrial life was conceived.

According to the early Greek myths, Ouranos, the personification of the celestial spaces of the starry deep, married Gaia or the primordial earth, and from their union came the Titans, world builders, and the progenitors of the human race.

The Sky-father and Earth-mother of the Indians; and Ouranos and Gaia of the Greek mythology are so close in concept and idea as to seem identical.

Now if we turn to Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy by Dr. de Purucker (p. 79) we shall find a literal translation of the second verse of Genesis which is as follows, " "And the earth became" or "grew into ethereality. . . ." "And darkness upon the face of the ethers. And the Ruahh (the spirit-soul) of the Gods (of Elohim) (fluttered, hovered) brooding'."

Dr. de Purucker continues, "You see the same thought here that you see in practically all the ancient teachings; the figure or symbol of the cosmic soul brooding over the waters of space, preparing the world-egg: that of the cosmic egg and the divine bird laying the cosmic egg."

Theosophy states that the great symbols and myths were given mankind by Spiritual Teachers and that these glyphs formed part of a mystery language which explained the origin and destiny of man and the earth on which he lives.

Here is the clue which shows that true myths and symbols are not the invention of primitive minds groping in the dark for some explanation of things, but contains keys to Laws -of Nature of which science is not yet aware.

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