From the very beginning of Aeons — in time and space in our Round and Globe — the Mysteries of Nature . . . were recorded by the pupils of those same now invisible "heavenly men," in geometrical figures and symbols. The keys thereto passed from one generation of "wise men" to the other. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 612
A sea-shell in its pool of living water is an object of exquisite beauty. The hues and shades and mysterious color-changes seem to belong to another world. But we lift the shell from the water, and as it dries in the air the magic colors fade, the surface becomes dulled and the tones of color vanish before our eyes. When dropped again into its pool the shell once more lives in its former beauty. This beauty is apparent only when the shell is in its proper element. There its beauty is alive; removed from its proper element, the shell is drab and spiritless.
So it is with symbols. They are alive only in the element which gave them birth. To discover the true meaning of a symbol we must recover and awaken the consciousness of the ages and men to whom the symbol was given. A symbol will not be correctly interpreted if we put it in a twentieth century setting. The mind of infant humanity was closely tuned to the Soul and the Spirit. Only if we are able to so tune our minds will we return the symbol to its proper and native element.
A few symbols are found among all men. The basic meaning of such a symbol will be found to be the same no matter what age or race has used it. The details of explanation may possibly vary considerably. It is the mind which seeks to "explain" the symbol, and as the mental characteristics of each race differ, so will the symbols acquire a superficial meaning acceptable to the cultural or religious system then flourishing. These local variations of detail must not cause the fundamental meanings to be overlooked.
Our religions, arts, and entire culture are full of the symbols of antiquity. On every hand we find the circle, the triangle, the cross, the zig-zag line, either angular or rounded, the tree, the vine, the rose, lotus or other single blossom. Each of these is a symbol used by men at some time to express certain mysteries of nature.
A symbol has been defined as "a pictorial expression of the action of universal law." The symbol makers did not distinguish between "spiritual law" and "natural law." They knew that the same cosmic laws act throughout nature. A cosmic process is mirrored in human life. Thus each symbol has several explanations basically the same, but depending on whether the symbol is used in connection with the divine, spiritual, or human plane. Addition of detail in an attempt to limit the symbol to a specific thing generally spoils the whole meaning. A wealth of detail may obscure the main point upon which the details hang.
Our minds may become bewildered in the maze of symbology. Symbols are simple, complex, beautiful, grotesque, harmonious, and some may be considered vulgar or obscene. The intuition, nevertheless, finds in these symbols keys to the answers to the questions that all thinking mankind has asked: "Whence come I? Whither am I travelling? and Why?" Did the rising sun, merely by analogy, symbolize the birth of man into human life, and the setting sun the abode of the dead? Or may our ancient brethren be trying to remind us of some occult truths that are forgotten in this generation?
"Whence come you? Whither are you travelling? Why?" The Soul knows the answer to these questions; truly the Soul is the answer. The waters of Lethe are not wholly effective. The Soul knows that it has partially forgotten and that through association of spiritual ideas the knowledge may be regained. Symbols are memory-aids to the Soul. When the Soul awakes and at least partially remembers, the mystic, the poet, the bard, thrills men with songs of the Home they but dimly remember. And when the mind is attuned to the Soul and the Spirit there appears among men a god-man, a Saviour.
A great danger, however, lies in the use of symbols. The mind, operating on the plane of things, in time confuses the symbol with that which is symbolized. Picturesque accretions grow upon and around the symbol. The concrete thing is mistaken for something of value per se. Absurd interpretations give way to no interpretation at all, and the symbol becomes a fetish, an object of blind and senseless veneration.
Now and then the soul of an intuitive man rebels against this symbolatry; a new interpretation is sought of the ageless symbol. If the intuitive soul is spiritually awake the new interpretation will probably be close to the original meaning. But we may rest assured that any labored intellectual analysis involving anthropological and psychological complexities has missed the point of the symbol. The mystic and not the scholar is the true symbologist.
One class of symbols may be called Natural Symbols; these are comparatively few in number, and awaken the same soul-memories in all men. The mind may say that the circle is a picture of the sun and the zig-zag line a picture of waves on the surface of water. The Soul sees in the circle the symbol of the Divinity which is the heart of the sun — the source of all Life and Light and conscious Being on this our earth; and the waves are the Waters of Space, the womb of all manifested things.
Frequently symbols require an explanation, which is usually of local application and limited interest. These mean nothing without the explanation, which is usually arbitrary. Thus the carpenter's square is said to be the symbol of St. Thomas, because he was a carpenter, and the pilgrim's staff and wallet of St. James the Greater, because he was a great traveler. Without the explanation the square and staff might mean anything, or nothing.
Words and phrases are also used as symbols; Jesus is called "the Lamb of God," and again "the way, the truth, and the life." The "baptism by water and baptism by fire" are word-symbols of the lower and higher regeneration. Parables and allegories are also word-symbols, often personifying the various principles and egos of man. The gods and goddesses of the Pagan world are personifications — symbols — of the powers, processes, of the actions and interactions of the invisible Beings that constitute what we loosely call Nature.
The cross has been held a sacred symbol in all ages and among all men. Christians see in it the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ. However, the cross depicted as an instrument of torture bearing the figure of the dying Saviour is not a symbol, but a picture. History shows that this type of crucifix is a comparatively late innovation.
Let us in our minds go back to the days when the Heavenly Men mentioned by H. P. B. were still among us teaching by means of symbols the truths which are too soon forgotten and periodically restated for the benefit of those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. They taught us of the nature of Father Sun and of our relation to It — that from It we come and to It we shall in cyclic time return.
The vertical line dropping from the sun at meridian height to the earth is a perfect symbol of spirit, the link between the divine spark in man and its source. The horizontal line, representing the horizon, the limit of the visible earth, symbolized matter. Spirit descending into matter, the meeting of heaven and earth, the god assuming a body of flesh — these are the things the cross will never let our souls forget. The divine heroes are not unique in their crucifixions and resurrections; every man is a divine incarnation.
The earliest form of the Christian crucifix showed the Saviour clothed in royal robes and crown standing against the cross, with the arms extended at right angle to the body, and along the crossbar of the cross. This is the universal posture of benediction and pictures the resurrected Christ embracing all existence in his limitless love.
The figure of the resurrected and glorified god-man standing in front of the cross is the promise that, just as the Divine Ones have solved the riddle of the worlds of matter and their relation to the All, so shall each of us in the course of the ages, or through initiation, manifest here on earth our Inner Divinity.
So taught the Heavenly Men through the use of symbols.