from my book Your Soul at a Crossroads:
Symbols of Renewal and Rebirth
Here is a personal glossary of universal symbols that appear in dreams or stories about change and renewal. They will naturally appear in your soul work in the right time for you. Even if we aren’t aware of the symbols in the way defined below, they rest in our ancestral memory and animate our souls. Sometimes we even use them in colloquial conversation without thinking about it. You can use this chapter for possible guidance in regard to renewal and rebirth.
Vessel—The vessel is the womb. The female body is such a container. The uterus and the oven are both vessels. Pottery/vessels used for the gathering of food and water from early cultures had breasts. The funereal urn is also a vessel. Projected outward, it symbolizes the world, the cosmos.
Erich Neumann in The Great Mother wrote that in the beginning of civilization the Feminine was seen as the creative principle that encompassed the whole of the world. She was nature in which all life arose and achieved its highest transformation in the form of the spirit. “Later the patriarchate postulates the reverse just as one-sidedly; namely, that the male seed is the creative element while the woman as vessel is only a temporary abode and feeding place.”
In Christianity, the vessel became the baptismal font and the chalice of the Last Supper.
Vulva—The vulva, yoni, or vagina is the place of putting in the semen, which jumpstarts procreation and birth. Through it passes all human birth. The vulva is also like rich soil desirable for sowing of the seed. Grain is the fruit of the earth; hence, the Feminine principle has always been associated with food and nourishment. Births and harvests have been celebrated in all cultures since earliest domestic times. Plants, flowers, and trees bear seed and thrive, depending on fertile soil, clean air, and water.
A symbol for the vulva or vagina is the triangle.
Belly—The darkness in which most transformation takes place. The belly is a holding place, where growth can safely occur. Synonyms include cauldron, nest, chrysalis, or cave.
Fire—Used to create vessels and tools, to fry/broil/roast food, it is thus an agent of transformation. Emotions and conflicts, religious and sensual desire, heat our temperature; containing them allows inner fires to work their changes.
Water—Our bodies are mostly composed of water; water covers most of the planet’s surface. The water cycle moves between the heavens and earth, determining weather. Whether ocean or river, its power can drown and engulf but also buoy and fructify. Ancient and primal, water is considered the mother/creator of all life. Because it dissolves most things, it’s been a primary image for the swallowing of our egos. The depths have been synonymous with the unknown; confronting them in a heroic manner brings wisdom. “Catching a wave” means being launched on inspiration. The ever-changing waters of the soul’s journey sustain and refresh.
Egg—The incubator and newly born, the container of life. In Egyptian cosmogony the cosmic egg or golden womb contains all the never-ending changing universes.
In Hinduism it is said:
According to the worshipers of Vishnu, the cosmic egg emerges from the world ocean as a result of the friction produced by wind and water. Vishnu, the protector, enters the cosmic egg and after a period of quiescence the creator god Brahma is born from his navel. From the two shells Brahma formed heaven and earth; in the middle he put the air, the eight directions of the world, and the eternal dwelling of water. Thus, the manifest universe begins. In this creation story the god precedes the egg rather than the egg being the original progenitor.
In the Chinese I Ching the image of the egg is identified with “Inner Truth” in hexagram 61. It says that the symbol is an egg with a bird’s foot on it, meaning the egg must be brooded upon.
Through inner truth or illumination one can penetrate very difficult situations. A leap in consciousness is made that has an effect on one’s relationships, work, and society. “The egg motif shows the constellation of this possibility by an enormous concentration of energy in this one center.” (Marie-Louise Von Franz, Creation Myths)
Seed—In the cycle of life or inner transformation, life begins in the spring with the seed; the seed puts forth tender shoots (while many die or get trampled on); with luck the seed blooms; it then must wither and die and endure the cold dark winter in order to be regenerated. Inner growth follows the same cycle: first we are lit up by the seed of inspiration; then we struggle to make a project a reality; we all like success or the blossoming stage, but equally important is the passing away of the bloom and facing the empty unknowingness before the new seed can be born.
Moon, Sun—We liken our changes to their phases. Each day the sun courses through our sky, bringing nurturing light and warmth. As the sun leaves, we experience gentle, cooling moonlight, also important to growth. The phases of the moon—from crescent to full to gibbous—are frequently employed metaphors, as in this poem:
“The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness
Ready and poised to wax or wane;
A fire of pale desire in incompleteness,
Tending to pleasure or pain:…”
~ Christina Rossetti
In the early Egyptian Mysteries (sacred religious rituals), it was understood that the candidate for rebirth must take a journey into the Underworld following the path of the sun. (See Andreas Schweizer’s The Sun God’s Journey Through the Underworld for a description of the passages through the 12 hours of night.) In the first hour a baboon rides with the passenger, signaling a divine journey. In the second and third hours, the goddess of love and the beauty of nature are shown. It’s as if we must know love and beauty before descending into the darkness, because they will help get us through the challenges. In the fourth-sixth hours one is in darkness and silence, the old self dismembered. Midnight is the turning point toward the light and reunion. In the seventh-tenth hours one ascends and gains strength. In the eleventh and twelfth hours, death is overcome; the divine child is born with the dawn.
If you see your own process in this journey, knowing the steps can help you through the chaos and confusion. Recognition of your myth supports you; it serves as a container and shows you what you need to do.
Lotus—The many-petalled lotus begins as a seed at the bottom of a murky pond and rises to float on the top, opening in the morning and closing in the evening. For the Egyptians, it was the first flower of the universe, representing the Goddess’ vulva, from which sprang the first gods. Many of the ancient pillars in Egypt were sculpted like bunches of lotuses. Worshipers of Vishnu portrayed the World Lotus as growing from his navel. For Buddhists, the murky water represents the material world of the senses; the struggle through the chakras is the quest for enlightenment; and the blossom represents the attainment of nirvana. The Buddha is often shown seated on a lotus flower. The Hindu Padma-Lakshmi, goddess of happiness, health, fertility, and good fortune, is shown openly displaying her lotus genitals. Attaining sexual and cosmic union leads to rebirth.
Rose—The Western equivalent of the lotus is the mystic rose. Ancient Rome knew the rose as the Flower of Venus. Red roses belonged to full-blown maternal sexuality; the white rose to the Virgin Goddess. Christians transferred both to the Virgin Mary and called her the Holy Rose. In Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” the Goddess had a bower of bliss, a mystical and erotic allusion. In Dante’s Divine Comedy in Dante’s Paradiso, the poet perceives paradise as a vast white rose on whose petals are enthroned the Angels, the Redeemed, the Virgin, the Christian saints, and children: “In form, then, of a radiant white rose/That sacred soldiery before mine eyes appeared.” (Canto XXXI). He then lifts eyes to the sun, symbol of the overpowering light of the divine, shining down upon the rose; the sun gives life and the rose manifests the sun’s power and glory. A river of pure light and love lies beyond time and space.
Mandala—The root word “manda” means essence, and “la” means container. The mandala contains the spiritual essences of life. The picture express order, balance, and wholeness. Mandalas are usually circular or spherical and elaborated into a flower or wheel; the center contains a sun, star, cross, eye of the self; sometimes the circle is squared by being contained within a square, such as a castle, city, or courtyard; around the center may be triangles or squares.
XX(here should go a picture of a mandala)
Many religions have used them as healing rituals, including Native American, Christian, Islam, aboriginal Australians, Hinduism, and Buddhists.
Buddhists use mandalas as foci for meditation. For them the illustration holds a map of the universe, a sanctified place inhabited by the deities, the principal one at the center. The purpose is for the individual to internalize every detail into one’s own being and use the energy to become an enlightened being. In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism monks make of mandalas out of colored sands to the accompaniment of chants and music. The ceremony is used to send healing energies to the people and environment. To represent the idea of impermanence, the beautiful creations are brushed away when finished and offered to a stream of water.
Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung used mandalas as a centering tool for his clients and in his own Red Book to help with the process of change. For him it was key that they be spontaneous creations. He found that the unconscious would formulate mandalas to bring order to an inner chaos especially in states of disorientation or panic. In Mandala Symbolism he said:
The fact that images of this kind have under certain circumstances a considerable therapeutic effect on their authors is empirically proved and also readily understandable, in that they often represent very bold attempts to see and put together apparently irreconcilable opposites and bridge over apparently hopeless splits. Even the mere attempt in this direction usually has a healing effect, but only when done spontaneously. Nothing can be expected from an artificial repletion of a deliberate imitation of such images. (See his book for individual case studies.)
Lightning—signifies a sudden, dazzling, and overpowering change of psychic condition.
Cave—The cave is a dark protected place, where inner vision and change can manifest. Bears show us the symbol in that they hibernate throughout the winter; in gestating their cubs, the females emerge with tangible new growth. Native Americans used caves for vision quests.
Erich Neumannn in The Great Mother describes brilliantly how the cave is also associated with the nest, cradle, bed, wagon, and coffin. The temple is the ultimate development of the cave. The gate is the entrance into the sacred space, the womb of the goddess, where rebirth takes place. In the Christian era the sacred cave/temple became the church.
Plato, the philosopher, famously used the “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic to compare the shadows we see on the walls of the caves to our perceptions of reality. In his philosophy, behind the substance of things are their ideal essences—Forms, which do not exist in space and time. For example, a straight line or a circle is recognizable as such but only as an infinite series of dots. Perhaps he was intuiting the existence of mass made up of atoms and particles.
Goddesses—The Feminine guides of spiritual transformation are known as the Great Mother, in Greece Demeter and Artemis, in Egypt Ishtar, China Kwan Yin. Also, the Hebrew Shekinah and Christian Mary.
Gods—Masculine, they are associated with creation and transformation: Zeus, Pan, Shiva, Krishna, Bodhisattva, Great Spirit, Almighty, Yahweh, Christ, Allah.
[Note: The majority of cosmogonic gods are bisexual, showing the unity of male and female.]
Destruction/decay and renewal—The process of change and transformation is creative but understandably also involves pain, rendering to pieces, and death of the old ways. Anguish, horror, and fear loom large. Madness or stupor induced by drugs tends to dissolve the personality. The Hindu Goddess Kali, the projection of all negative aspects, wears a necklace of skulls; death, nothingness, disease, hunger, war are her helpers. The temple of Kali in Calcutta is famous for its daily blood sacrifices; it’s a slaughterhouse for hundreds of goats and pigs. The belief is that the blood flows to the goddess as a plea for the renewal of life. Similar practices of blood sacrifice and dismemberment around the world are aimed at fecundating the earth. Aztecs sacrificed 20-50,000 persons annually. These were external measures of sacrifice. Now we experience sacrifice internally, e.g. in a divorce, in loss of limb, a move to a new community.
In nature, plants rot and decay and fade away. We make compost piles where heat can turn dead vegetation and garbage into fertile soil. Even polluted ponds cleanse themselves if conditions are right.
In both personhood and nature we must experience equally birth and death, creation and destruction. To bring about rebirth requires sacrifice, worship, and attention to keep the process moving.
On the floor of Egyptian sarcophagi the heaven goddess Nut embraces the dead man. She is the goddess of rebirth.
Labyrinth—There is no path in finding one’s way to the center when one is dying to the old and trying to find the source of new life. In many sacred rites the labyrinth is situated at the entrance of a cave. Walking the spiral labyrinth signifies movement from what is outside to what is inside and invisible. The journey may be regarded as a return to the soul’s source, a descent into the unconscious, or a journey to the center of the world. It is often connected with initiation. Symbolically the initiate is confused and lost; yet through the journey a transformation takes place.
At Chartres the labyrinth is combined with a cross; at the center is the symbol of the Virgin Mary, the feminine principle.
Darkness—Countless mythologies begin in darkness, whether the source of life is the primordial ocean or earth or heaven. In the dark night of the soul, we feel lost and miserable. Yet, in darkness the light of the moon and stars can be seen. Darkness is a symbol of the unconscious, the unknown. From there the next steps or dawn emerge.
Light—Spiritual radiance, transcendence, conscious insight, inspiration.
Divine Child—The Child symbolizes pre-consciousness and post-conscious essence after death. Naked and vulnerable, the child is the new creation coming into being with powers greater than our own.
[Note: A stimulating book is The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, prepared by The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. It contains 17,000 images with commentaries.]