“A symbol really lives only when it is the best and highest expression for something divined but not yet known to the observer. It then compels their unconscious participation and has a life-giving and life-enhancing effect.” – Carl Jung.
In the extraordinary richness and complexity of symbol systems such as the Tarot and Alchemy, we are allowed to see the historical fullness of human creativity. The fascination of these symbol systems is that they resonate with fundamental aspects of our own nature. A symbol system is nothing less than a symbolic map of reality. All great symbol systems attempt to reflect paradoxical truths about the ultimate reality in terms far removed from mundane language. They communicate through metaphor. Alchemy and the Tarot are the symbol systems whose metaphors resonate most succinctly for me.
One of the paradoxical truths that symbol systems address is dualism. Dualism, in philosophy is the theory that in any domain of reality there are two independent underlying principles. Example: dark/light, male/female, thing/nothing, life/death, fear/desire. Alchemy in particular addresses dualism with the allegory of ascendance from a base metal to a noble metal through applications of tests which bring into harmony the dualistic aspects of existence. Being a metalsmith for over 30 years I find the allegory inherent in Alchemy to have profound personal resonance.
I first became aware of alchemical texts when researching the coloration of gold for my undergraduate thesis in Metals at the University of Northern Illinois. In subsequent studies I discovered that Alchemy possessed a rich history. In medieval Europe, Alchemy was a path to spiritual enlightenment through the direct experience of unity in opposite principles rather than blind faith. A powerful medieval church demanded blind faith from the citizenry therefore; alchemy was shrouded in pseudo-science to protect the practitioners from persecution. Equally, alchemical symbols where deliberately cryptic to test the resolve and motivation of the seeker. Alchemy as a practice had itself become dualistic by the late sixteenth century with two distinct views; one was as a natural philosophy which sought to understand God through the great revelations of nature. The second view was more pragmatic, emphasizing Alchemy’s commercial utility.
Several recent scholastic articles have sighted alchemical texts as the historical forerunners to the modern sciences of Chemistry, Metallurgy, and Pharmaceuticals and I have noted these in the bibliography. I have found through my research and through practicing the fine craft of metalsmithing that this duality in the historical nature of alchemy may again be unified. The practical application of information and insight into the revelations of nature become one practice. I have also come to see my fine arts education in the allegory presented by Alchemy. The deliberately cryptic language used in artistic critique has continually tested my resolve and motivation leading me to deeper understandings of my choices in materials, techniques and methodologies. Critique is the application of tests meant to strip away what is base while retaining “prima materia”. Where the practice of Alchemy has provided for me the platform for my investigation it is the history and imagery of the Tarot that has provided the richest soil for creativity.
One way of looking at the Tarot is that it is an attempt to represent the factors which make up human personalities. This attempt pre-dates efforts by modern psychology by more than 500 years and was recognized by Carl Jung in his writings on the collective unconscious and Archetypical imagery. The vitality of a symbol depends on the conscious attitude with which it is received. In themselves the images are meaningless; they acquire “highly potent powers” with meaning only when we grant it to them, by opening our minds to their influence. As this paradox demonstrates, the symbol functions as a psychic mirror in which we perceive our human energies reflected, and, by recognizing their significance, take personal ownership. Once begun, this “projective / reflective” internal dialogue will proceed on a labyrinthine progress which Jung called “individuation”. The Major Arcana of the Tarot is a symbolic map of that labyrinthine progress in the human psyche. Again here is another paradox; for each individual is traveling their own unique path through life yet, the universality is that all paths share one map. The power the Tarot cards hold as archetypal symbols is found in what Jung referred to as “synchronicity” – the occurrence of a meaningful yet acausally related event which might take place during a reading.
The Tarot cards are in effect two decks in one: the 22 card Major Arcana, which have been credited to Arab and Egyptian origin, and the minor arcana, which is the precursor to our modern deck of playing cards, are thought to have origins in India. The Hindu god Vishnu is traditionally shown with four arms holding the disc (pentacle) power of preservation or karma yoga, the lotus (cup) power of love or bhakti yoga, the club (wand) power of wisdom or gnana yoga, and the conch (sword) power of inner realization or raja yoga. Thus the four suits are allegories of the soul’s journey along four parallel paths toward spiritual enlightenment. While I have primarily focused on the imagery in the major arcana for inspiration in my work, the information provided by the minor arcana is also inescapably present.
The third aspect of my research has been to investigate the cross cultural and the millennium long associations of traditional jewelry materials as principle components of symbolism and metaphor. The symbolism of body adornment arose very early in human evolution as evidenced by the recent discoveries of 75,000 year old shell beads from the Blombos cave on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. Alison Brooks, an anthropology professor at George Washington University is quoted in the Associated Press sighting the beads as “an unequivocal argument that people are employing symbols to signify who they are.” Lead researcher for the discovery of the beads, Christopher Henshilwood (University of Bergen, Norway) has said “Beads are a serious matter in traditional societies, providing identification by gender, age, social class, and ethnic group.” These beads in particular indicate evidence for the early origin of modern human behavior and the ability to use language since it would have been essential for “sharing and transmitting the symbolic meaning of the beads…within and beyond the group.”
The prevailing prejudice for most of the 20th century has insisted that symbols in body ornamentation are simply manifestations of the culture generating them at best and mere vanity at worst, but this one-sided view is both misguided and outdated. I submit that it is through the genome of our species that we inherit the archetypal predisposition of our most primitive ancestors, and it is on these basic, universal, and persistently active themes that individual cultures work out their set of variations and transmit them from one generation to the next. This transmission is conducted through myth, art and religion, with body adornment being the fundamental core, incorporating all three. Hence the worldwide occurrence of rites of passage and the body adornment which accompanies them becomes the means through which the past is reincarnated in the present and handed to the future. This paradigm offers a basis of understanding when confronted with cultures separated by expanses of time and geography, all ascribing the same symbolic meanings to precious metals and gemstones.
Cross-culturally metals have been given the associated symbolism of the elements; water = silver, fire = gold, air = tin, earth = lead. Then also planetary symbolism; Sun – gold, Moon – silver, Mercury – mercury, Venus – copper, Mars – iron, Jupiter – tin, Saturn – lead, which led to astrological symbolism. The same holds true for gemstones and to list the many associations in this paper would be cumbersome and detract from my thesis. I will offer the findings of my research pertaining to the gemstones with symbolic association to the Tarot since I have utilized some of these stones in the pieces to convey their metaphors.
#0 the Fool – Agate; #1 the Magician (shaman) – quartz crystal or in Native American tradition a tourmaline; #2 the High Priestess – pearl;
#3 the Empress – emerald for the Earth and sapphire for the astrological sign of Tarsus which rules this card and is ruled by Venus; #4 the Emperor – ruby; #5 the Hierophant – topaz; #6 the Lovers – diamonds; #7 the Chariot – twined crystals; #8 Strength – sapphire; #9 the Hermit – blue tourmaline; #10 the Spiral (Wheel of Fortune) sardonyx; #11 Justice – carnelian; #12 the Hanged Man – Beryl; #13 Death – amber; #14 Temperance – amethyst; #15 the Devil – lodestone, square black stone; #16 the Tower – obsidian, lava; #17 the Star – Aquamarine, a stone exhibiting chatoyancy in a star pattern; # 18 the Moon – moonstone; #19 the Sun – tiger’s-eye; #20 Judgement – fossil; #21 the World – opal.
I have attempted to materialize my understanding of these symbol systems through the tradition of jewelry making as ornament and personal identifier. The word ornament originates from ‘ornare; to out fit, equip or adorn, as in military or temple equipment’. Ornament is the fundamental conveyance of beauty and functionality in that it points beyond itself to a greater reality. Ornament functions on an intimate level as it inserts itself between the private or personal and the public or communal space. My work for this collection was directly informed by the space between the opposite principals identified by dualism. The ornament operates as a metaphoric device to prepare the body and to communicate. It draws the attention of the viewer to itself and then redirects that attention toward the greater context in which the ornament performs. The Modernist movement in fine art insisted that “art” have transcendent meaning independent of its context. As ornament, jewelry is radically contingent on and consummates its purpose through context, and ritual, gaining meaning through the “performance” of wear.
My attempts to materialize my understanding of these symbol systems has manifested as a series of two finger rings. The symbolic association of the ring is with the circle as it represents continuity, eternity, reincarnation, the spheres of the sun and moon and thereby the universe. Rings are also symbolic of binding and knots which is why they are still an accepted symbol of marriage today. The form the two-fingered rings took revealed an infinity symbol in several instances. The first investigations of the two fingered ring form were inspired by concepts of jewelry as a defensive weapon, hip – hop fashion and principals from Palmistry. Palmistry is another source of understanding for dualistic paradoxes and their universality in human existence. The human hand is a supreme evolutionary achievement which has made civilization possible. All forms of tool usage, material manipulation, social interactions, business transactions, weights, measures and calculations are all based on the human hand and its ten fingers. With 90 per cent of every human population being right-handed, it follows that the left / right dualistic symbolism associated with this is universal. The symbolic associations of each finger are the most relevant to my work. The first finger has been equated with wisdom, intellectual knowledge and anger. The second finger has, as Pliny sighted in his Natural History, been the digit to express anger and sexual frustration. Since the Egyptian era the third finger has been believed to have a vein that led straight to the heart and thus that finger signifies harmony, community and marital commitment. The pinky finger is symbolic of childhood and imagination. The opposable thumb which separated early hominids from apes is the signifier of the human will.
As my research led me to the property of symbols this project grew so that each ring, it’s placement on the hand and the gemstones used in its creation, refers and responds to multiple aspects of imagery in the Tarot and Alchemy. These rings function in relation to the Tarot and Alchemy much in the same way as a rosary functions in relationship to Catholicism. The metaphoric device is an ornament to be worn as a constant reminder of the principle of inner awareness and transformation that the individual is attempting.
Equally, the metaphoric device is deliberately cryptic to be evident only to the wearer or other practitioners of that symbol system.
Like the symbol systems that informed them the rings themselves are meaningless, they acquire “highly potent powers” with meaning only when we grant it to them, by opening our minds to their influence.
Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind, Author: Anthony Stevens, Published 1999, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey
The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Author: Pamela H. Smith, Published 1994, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey
The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Edited by H. Read, M. Fordham and G. Adler, Published 1978, Routledge, London
The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, Author: George Fredrick Kunz, Reprint 1977, Dover Press, New York
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic, Published 1988, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul Minnesota
The Lover’s Tarot, Author: Jane Lyle, Published 1992, St. Martin’s Press, Card Illustrations by Oliver Burston based on the Rider-Waite imagery
A Natural History of Love, Author: Diane Ackerman, Published 1994,
Random House, New York
Merchants & Marvels: Commerce, science and Art in Early Modern Europe, Edited by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, Published 2002
Routledge, New York & London
Metalsmith: Jewelry, Design, Metals Arts Magazine, Society of North American Goldsmith, Editor; Suzanne Ramljak, Multiple articles from 2000 – 2004 issues
The Secret Language of Symbols, Author: David Fontana, Published 1994, Chronicle Books, San-Francisco
The Tarot, Author: Mouni Sadhu, Published 1973, Wilshire Book Company, North Hollywood, California