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The Migration of Symbols and their Relation to Beliefs and Customs


Donald A. Mackenzie

Author of Ancient Man in Britain, Myths of Pre-Columbian America, etc

  • Foreward


  1. The Swastika
    • Section I: The Area of Origin
    • Section II: As the Cross of the Cardinal Points
    • Section III: Beliefs Connected with the Cross and the Swastika
  2. The Spiral
    • Section I: Was the Spiral a Symbol or an Art-Motif?
    • Section II: Whirlpools and Whirlwinds
    • Section III: The Celestial Whirlpool Lake
    • Section IV: The Spiral and Birth
    • Section V: The Sacred Circuit
  3. Ear Symbols
  4. Tree Symbols


1. Bride Baby
2. Lapland Swastika
3. Celtic Knot Swastika
4. Tibetan Swastika
5. Buddha Footprints
6. The Winged Disk
7. Mycenaen Conventualized
8. Moslem Swastika
9. Red Indian Finger Posts
10. Azilian Pictographs
11. Egyptian Cardinal Points
12. God Houses
13. Crosses of Seasons
14. Winds Symbol
15. Animals in heraldic opposition.
16. Mexican Symbols of gold.
17. The Maze
18. The Nandyavartaya.
19. Hallstatt spiral swastika
20. Hallstatt fibula spirals
21. Greek fret
22. Japanese bronze Buddha
23. Deer and swastika
24. Goats and swastikas and spirals
25. Cyprian swastikas
26. Japanese symbols
27. Octopus from Mycenae

28. Pre-dynastic Egyptian spiral
29. Egyptian crowns with spirals
30. Azilian symbols
31. Mammoth with heart symbol
32. Chinese stellar swastika
33. Celestial wheels
34. Nile water confining serpent
35. Horus attacks "Great Bear"
36. Maya water-confining serpent.
37. Nile god and four-headed water-confining serpent
38. Maori's drawing of facial tattoo marks
39. Serpent spirals
40. Japanese & Chinese magatama symbols
41. Bull on Scottish sculptured stone
42. Maori "tiki" and Maya toad
43. Japanese magatamas
44. Tree of Life in "sky world"
45. Many breasted Artemis
46. Agave plant of Mexico
47. Assyrian Tree of Life
48. Assyrian Vine Tree of Life
49. Pillar and tree symbols of Egyptian goddess
50. Hathor cow at Simset Hill
51. Tree gives birth to sun
52. Jade and stone symbols
53. Symbols on Carnac cross


1. Swastika Symbols
2. Winged Disc
3. Symbols of Seasons and Cardinal Points
4. Symbols on Trojan Whorl Disc.
5. Chinese Buddha with Swastika Symbols.
6. Scottish Swastika and Ring Symbols
7. Scottish Cross with Spiral.
8. Hygeia and Serpent
9. Star Spangled Deities
10. Artemis on Spotted Antelope.
11. Spirals on Stone
12. Palaeolothic Woman's Dance
13. Solar Magatamas
14. Triskelion Symbols
15. Mayauel of Mexico.
16. Milk-tree Agave plant


In 725 B.C. Polybius (xxxi, 3) tells us of the international games in which Antiochus Epiphanes instituted at Daphne (B.C. 165), as a rival attraction to the Macedonian games of Aemilius Paulus, the Roman pro-consul, he enters into details regarding the picturesque procession of thousands of warriors armed in Roman fashion, and of thousands of Mysians, Cilicians, Thracians, and Galati (Celts), and goes on to say:

The number of images of gods it is impossible to tell completely; for the images of every god or demi- god or hero accepted by mankind were earned there, some gilded, and others adorned with gold-embroidered robes, and the myths belonging to each, according to accepted tradition, were represented by the most costly symbols."1

The method which I have adopted in this volume in dealing with a number of ancient and widely distributed symbols; seems not only to be justified but actually called for by Polybius's explicit statement which connects symbols with myths and with the gods. Consequently, I have not assumed that the swastika, the spiral, etc., were, even to begin with, entirely meaningless, and that they should be regarded, as some incline to regard them, merely as manifestations of the "instinct to decorate" alleged to be a characteristic of" man in his savage state". Instead of accepting so hazardous a view, and indulging in theories regarding "mental processes" (of which so little is really known), and regarding art motifs (as if the ancient peoples had no "luck motifs") I have made search for texts, for myths and for customs which throw light on the problems presented by outstanding designs greatly favoured from an early period by various peoples and over wide areas.

It would appear, when consideration is given to the mental habits of the peoples who favoured certain persisting designs, that we should first endeavour to understand an ancient art before undertaking to analyse it on purely aesthetic grounds that we should begin with the sources of inspiration rather than with the skill displayed in execution. In this connexion, it cannot be overlooked that all the great ancient arts were rooted in religious and magico-religious beliefs. The art movements of ancient Egypt and ancient Babylonia, for instance, were inspired and promoted by the priests, and cannot be understood without reference to the religious systems of those pioneer civilizations. Even battle-scenes had their religious bearing, for victory was given by the gods. The arts of lesser peoples may not, as are those of Egypt and Babylonia, be rendered articulate in varying degrees by surviving texts, but there are many myths and customs which of themselves, or when viewed in the light of comparative evidence, provide data to emphasize that what some call an "art motif" was, after all, really a "luck motif" (a magico-religious symbol), and, further, that we are not justified in insisting on the "Art for Art's sake" theory even when no direct evidence is available to show whether or not the simplest design had originally a meaning. Two short horizontal lines on the forehead of a Chinese tiger in jade were sufficient to indicate) to the ancient Chinese, that the animal was the divinity of the West. If that were not known, the lines in question would, no doubt, be referred to by some as ''ornamental. After all, the Christian cross is a very "simple" design. Yet it means much to Christians.

When we undertake the investigation of the various customs and the associated beliefs of "early man", we find that, as Professor Breasted so finely says in connexion with the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt, "they vaguely disclose to us a vanished world of thought and speech". It is difficult to believe that early man, whose burial customs were expressions of his beliefs regarding human destiny, and whose other customs were similarly invested with meaning, produced art objects and designs which were entirely meaningless to him, especially when we find that he considered it necessary to place them beside, or upon, the dead. It is, further, difficult to believe, in the light of such evidence as is available, that a few" art motifs "were repeated for long centuries, and disseminated over wide areas, simply because early man's aesthetic sense hungered for expression. If the aesthetic sense really made so insistence and inevitable an appeal, why, it may be asked, did it ignore many forms of natural beauty, and remain content instead to draw constant refreshment from an exceedingly limited stock of sterile and arbitrary designs?

Another phase of the problem emerges when we find the same or similar designs in various parts of the world, either archaeological relics of high civilizations, or still existing among "backward peoples". It is frequently asserted in this connection a particular design, which is found to have a definite sigificance in one part of the world, has, or had not necessarily the same meaning in another. But those who argue in this fashion must be reminded that the whole symbols problem cannot be disposed of by urging a hypothesis based on the isolated or partial evidence afforded by a single symbol. It is necessary, where such is possible, that all the available evidence regarding each individual symbol should be collected and examined; that a symbol should be studied in its chronological aspect irrespective of what particular phase of material culture it may be found to be associated with in recent, or comparatively recent, times; and that records should be made of the variations of form it may have been given in a single area, as well as in widely-separated areas. The simplest forms, as we find in some instances, are not necessarily the oldest forms. Crude Christian crosses, for instance, are to be seen incised in some Scottish caves, but they are not, of course, the oldest cross symbols that have survived; nor do they really of themselves afford any indication as to where Christianity had origin.

Another point to be borne in mind, when dealing with the migration of symbols, is that the religious system which a symbol originally represented may have acquired, after importation into a particular area, some degree of " local colour". The Christian cross worn as a talisman by a half-converted African native, does not mean to him all that it means to a cultured European or American theologian. Indeed, the cross may mean much to the native regarding which the American or European theologian knows little or nothing and, perhaps, cares less. Thus the same particular symbol, representing a definite religious system, may in our own day, at once mean the same thing and different things in separate areas. No doubt, in ancient times, an imported clement of culture, represented by a particular symbol, was often aimilarly blended with the elements of a local religious system, with the result that the symbol is found to have acquired a wider Or more complex significance than it possessed in the area of origin. At the same time, the symbol in question may have always retained a degree of its fundamental meaning.

The matter is really one for investigation. No single rule can be applied in connexion with the symbols problem as a whole. Although in some areas a symbol may have acquired new meanings, or vague secondary meanings, certain far-carried symbols, as is shown in this volume, have retained much of their original significance in different parts of the world.

Symbols like the spiral and swastika can be traced either to their periods or areas of origin. The first mentioned is undoubtedly of greatest antiquity. Its introduction and diffusion in Pal~olithic times appears to have been directly due to the magico-religious use of whorled shells. The Greek and Latin word helix, applied to the snail-shell, to coiled wire, to the external part of the ear and to a species of ivy which grows in spiral form, and the Latin word he thelix, which signified "a winding") and was also applied to the "Great Bear" (Ursa major) constellation, emphasize of themselves how complex the inherited and widely-diffused spiral symbolism formerly was. Indeed, the spiral, as the evidence reviewed in this volume serves to indicate, played a prominent and even a fundamental part in certain ancient religious systems. It brought about arbitrary associations. Climbing plants, which grow in spiral form, were connected with whorled shells, with the octopus which curves its tentacles, with the coiling serpent, with whirlwinds, with whirlpools, and with waterspouts. The spiral gusts or whirlwinds were "carriers" of gods and other supernatural beings, because they were "life-givers" which caused the birth of the year, and therefore ensured the food supply and promoted health, longevity, etc. Dragons and "makaras " were likewise " carriers " of gods, and of kings ("sons of the sun"), and of ghosts, because they were products and expressions of a group of complex beliefs similar to that symbolized by the whirlwind spiral. But the dragon and "makara" were not merely complex manifestations of the group of ideas connected with the "air of life " the whirlwind. The dragon was a "thunderer". In Asia the thunder god, in human, animal or reptile form, caused the "birth "of the year by bringing fertilizing and nourishing rain. He was, however, closely associated with the wind god, or a group of wind gods, as was, for instance, the Hindu Indra with Vayu, and also with Rndra, and with the Rudras and Maruts. The spiral, as a "life-giver", was thus a symbol of the thunder-god, as well as of the whirlwind in China and Japan, as is shown, in the "thunder bolt" and the "dragon-roll" (the whirlwind).

It symbolized the energy of which the god was a manifestation, syrnbolized the outstanding attributes of that life-giving, god. The dragon's life-giving, health-promoting was, we are informed, an "ascending spiral", which had put out by the ascending, active dragon; a "flat spiral" the dragon itself (in repose). Whirlpools were caused by and dragons lived in whirlpools. The Chinese texts are quite it in these connexions. China acquired much from India, and, India, from Iran, which was heavily indebted to Babylonia. As the dragon-god had an intimate connexion with the elements, logically connected with the heavenly bodies which appeared, many scientists with limited knowledge, to control the elements and the seasons; and, in China, we find the spiral as a symbol of the sun and moon and intimately associated with the "Great Bear" (Ursa Major) constellation, the ancient Chinese "chariot" of the chief god of the Universe. Like the whirlwind and the "makara ", this stellar "chariot" was a "carner" of a deity. At the same time it was a "helice."

The spiral theory may be said, indeed, to have haunted the minds of the early scientists and philosophers, until Epicurus rejected the " Vortex of atoms "favoured by the great Democritus. But, the scientists of today do not ridicule that theory, as did certain classical writers, for discovery has been made of "spiral nebulae". Neither Democritus, nor his "master "Leucippus, how they possessed any exceptional or exclusive astronomical knowledge to justify their Vortex theory, which was really rooted in ancient oral symbolism in inherited lore regarding Celestial whirlwinds and whirlpools, and the whirlwind-whirlpool lore was originally connected with whorled-shell symbolism. An interesting poetic description of shell symbolism is Dante's spiral-shaped Inferno's hell a "wind hole", with a history rooted in Palaeolithic times. The swastika, which was associated with the spiral in many ways, appears, as is shown, to have been introduced some time in the discovery of agriculture and the fixing of the cardinal points. Its development from the equal-limbed cross of the early mariners, including those who settled in Crete, apparently took it when it was observed that the revolving "Great Bear" indicates the seasons, pointing, with its "tail", eastward in spring, southward in summer, westward in autumn and northward in winter.

As a Cross of the cardinal points, the swastika appears to have been originally a symbol of the world under the guardianship and control of the season-ruling gods of the four cardinal points. It still, as is shown, retains that significance among Asian Moslems, the gods having been supplanted by angels. After the swastika was, like the simpler cross, the four horns, the four pillars, etc., taken over by the solar cult, it became in certain areas mainly a symbol of divinity, and as such was used, as were some other symbols, to emphasise in its own particular bearing, the sacred character and the attributes of certain images and cult animals. We find that the swastika was used at Troy sometimes as a symbol of the four gods of the cardinal points, sometimes as a symbol of one of these gods, and sometimes as a symbol of the sun as ruler of all the gods. Not the least interesting of the surviving swastika symbols is the Navaho (Red Indian) "whirling logs "an equal-limbed cross, with gods perched on each point, giving it a swastika form (see frontispiece). This cross is kept revolving in a "whirlpool lake" which is situated in the north of the sky. The spiral and swastika were apparently definitely connected with the revolving "Great Bear" (Ursa Major) constellation in the New World as in the Old.

The "ear symbols", as is shown, link with the spiral, as the spiral links with the swastika. Their most intimate connexions, however, are with the whorled shell and the sun. One of the by-products of the arbitrary association of the ear-helix and the sun, is the fantastic idea of birth from the ear. Originally the shell was a symbol of birth, being a birth-assisting amulet. That may be why the spiral became a symbol of the birth of the year, and why importance was attached to whirlpools and whirlwinds regarding which much suggestive lore is provided in this volume. The murmuring shell was apparently supposed to give birth to wind the whirlwind and to be connected with water, and especially the life-giving whirlpool. Life, it was conceived, began to be in a whirlpool on the waste of waters which covered the entire universe before

the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos.

The first whirlwind was the cause of the first whirlpool, or "water spout." It was the "air of life "the breath of the creative "word". The "ear" (helix) of Chaos heard the "word" and received the breath the "word" and "breath " being one. That was evidently why the ancient Egyptians believed that the "air of life" enters the right ear and "the air of death" the left ear; but that strange concept could not have possibly emerged until after "right" and "left" had assumed a definite significance in connexion with the cardinal points. Thus, as is found, the symbolism of the whorled murmuring shell-the first natural spiral which attracted early man's attention became exceedingly complex and profound in the course of time, and even before Democritus connected the whirlwind spiral with the Atomic theory.

The ear symbols were not products of "savagery"; they appear rather to be relics of the doctrines formulated by the thinkers and teachers of early civilization. In ancient, as in modern times, the few taught, the many were instructed; the few thought, the many believed; the few led, the many followed; progressive peoples developed ideas and "backward "peoples acquired them.

The tree symbols, when considered in connexion with texts, folk-beliefs, customs, etc., are found to be less a mystery than used to be thought, and more the result of intelligent observation and speculation than of the influence of ''natural' supposed by some to govern the "workings" of the human mind, so as to

produce similar groups of complex ideas at similar stages of mental development at different periods and in different parts of the world. Owing to the persistence and cultural influence of spiral symbolism, as developed in centres of civilization, "twisted frees" and those plants that during growth climb supports in spiral fashion, became sacred to agriculturists and horticulturalists.

The arbitrary association of sacred, milk-yielding cult animals with sacred trees was effected after it had been found that the fig and other trees yield a milk-like fluid. Evidence is provided in this connexion to show why the sacred milk-yielding tree was ultimately placed in the Paradise of the "sky world " Trees that, like the vine, yield a watery fluid," water of life," were likewise invested with sanctity, and so were "fire-yielding" trees, the twigs of which were used to produce what is referred to in Gaelic as " friction fire".

Throughout this volume I have given selections from the available evidence so as to assist students to solve some of the problems which arise. It will be found that the so-called "simple symbols", like the swastika and spiral, do not, even among "backward peoples", express merely "simple ideas" connected with ordinary, everyday experiences, but rather highly complex beliefs, which have a history, and appear to have been acquired from ancient centres of civilization. The view that the Polynesian, who tattooed a spiral on his face, was moved to do so in response to the appeal of his aesthetic sense, is one which is exceedingly difficult to accept. There must have surely been a fundamental psychological motive for this deliberate act of facial disfigurement. We seem to meet with that motive when we find that a Polynesian of the "sky cult" believed, as did the Polynesian of the Underworld cult, that after death a goddess examined and picked off tattoo marks. The Polynesian who favoured the spiral symbol ascended to the "sky world" on a whirlwind. But before ascending to the sky, the Polynesian ghost had to travel to the homeland of his race, which was supposed to be situated in the centre (navel) of the world. The Polynesian of the Underworld cult went in the same direction) but, in accordance with the tattoo scheme of his cult, he descended to his own particular Underworld paradise. It is apparent, therefore, that the complex beliefs of Polynesia cannot be accurately designated as "primitive".

Much appears to have been inherited from the ancient civilizations with which the ancestors of the sea-faring Polynesians were originally in direct touch. It may not, therefore be, after all, merely a coincidence that the banyan tree is sacred in Polynesia as in India. The banyan was imported by man into Polynesia, as was the Indonesian coconut into India on the one hand and into pre-Columbian America on the other.

Those anthropologists who reject the diffusion theory favour the theory of the independent origin of similar groups of complexes in different parts of the world, and insist on the essential "psychic unity" of all mankind. The reader must decide, after patient investigation, whether we really possess sufficient knowledge of "the workings" of the human mind to justify acceptance of this rival theory. That the evidence regarding the symbols dealt with in this volume will assist students to consider the theories of

Diffusion and Independent Origin, the writer is not only hopeful but firmly convinced.