Symbols for the Permaculture Age? Interview with Paul Burley, author of The Sacred Sphere: Exploring Sacred Concepts & Cosmic Consciousness through Universal Symbolism. By Willi Paul. Presented by permaculturexchange.com
“Based on etymology, then, the phrase “sacred sphere” suggests a globe-like form, whole and pure, consecrated with divine intent. Earth is often referred to as the sacred sphere in the context that it is our home, the Mother Goddess, Gaia. However, equating the sacred sphere with Earth places an unfortunate geographical limit on what I believe to be the true nature of the symbolism. Why is the circle so prevalent as a religious symbol, across the millennia and around the world? Is there something intrinsic to a circle that has been recognized by people throughout history as an important symbolic representation of key religious concepts? Do important spiri¬tual or religious concepts symbolized by the circle cross time and space to all people seeking to understand themselves and their role in the universe?” – PB
* * * * * * *
Interview with Paul by Willi
Please explain the differences between “mythic places” and actual places? Can you give us an example?
World mythology and mythologies related to specific cultures commonly have several layers of meaning. In the Sacred Sphere I discuss four of those layers – physical, intellectual, emotion and spiritual. The stories usually describe events occurring at a particular time and place, often involving protagonists and antagonists with some problem to be solved. The overt story line often describes events that occurred in the distant past at some specific yet veiled location. An example of this would be the lodge where Tate – Wind – came to Earth long ago to live with his four sons, as described in Lakota mythology.
Tate’s lodge is generally understood to be Bear Butte located about five miles from Sturgis, South Dakota, just northeast of the Black Hills. As a mythic place Tate’s lodge is described as being at the center of the world, round, and beyond pine forests; the door into the lodge is located at the south side of the lodge, and Tate’s place of honor is at the rear, or north side of the lodge. In actuality Bear Butte is a sentinel butte with a rounded profile and separated from the pine forests of the Black Hills by a grassy plain; the midday sun shines down onto the south side of the butte, while the comfortable side is located on the shaded north-facing slope.
In this myth we have a physical description of a mythic place, the abode of Wind at the center of Earth that is in fact a reasonable description of Bear Butte situated at the center of the traditional territory occupied by the Lakota prior to intrusion by 19th century America. As such the myth requires that we make an intellectual connection between physical attributes described in myth, and the very real and sacred location occupied by the Lakota.
Can you give any examples of circular artifacts from the Anti-War protests, a tradition that continues today in the new OWS movement?
An obvious example of a circular symbol associated with the Anti-War protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s is the peace sign constructed of a circle, a vertical diameter line, and two short lines extending from the center of the circle toward the southwest and southeast. The symbol was designed by Gerald Holtom for the British nuclear disarmament movement in 1958. The symbol later became an icon of the Anti-War protests and pop culture. The circle might have simply provided a formality to the central portion of the symbol, but can be perceived as the shape of Earth as well, thus the symbol representing world peace.
Interestingly the circle is also a part of the symbolism associated with the OWS movement. It may be that the circle in this circumstance continues to represent the world, but this is not clear at this time. However, within the confines of the circle are such images as an ‘A’ as representing anarchy, a five-pointed star suggesting the devil or evil, or a fist as a symbol of social or socialist worker unity depending on personal and organizational perspective. The common ground in these symbols is the circle representing the sacred nature of Earth since ancient times, while the interior symbolism in recent demonstrations has morphed from the concept of world peace to one of social unrest and unity against other human beings, private institutions and government. The dichotomy is quite stark yet understandable given the OWS movement’s intent to confront the current economic infrastructure.
I am incorporating new sacred and alchemical elements in my work. How have humans used alchemy to build their symbols and traditions?
Alchemy developed numerous pictographic symbols representing the four element of air, fire, water and earth, as well as various chemical elements and compounds important to civilization for millennia. Components of those symbols include equilateral triangles and circles used in tandem with dots, lines and curves. By understanding that the equilateral triangle represents the tetrahedron, and the circle represents the sphere, we begin to recognize development of symbols communicating physical aspects of matter and chemical interactions.
The deeper meaning of those symbols becomes more evident when we understand that the essence of alchemy is recognition of vital relationships between nature, humanity and the universe. The Lakota believe humans are related to all other aspects of the universe. Similarly, alchemists envision universal unity when applying Hermetic principles – such as ‘As above, so below’ – in the understanding and application of cultural mythology, religious traditions, and human spirituality. Thus alchemic symbols for the various elements and compounds are similarly applied to sacred relationships between people, as well as between humans and Earth, Cosmos and Creator.
One of the most common examples of alchemy is turning lead into gold. Exoterically the challenge is to discover the process by which the element lead can, in fact, be turned into gold. After thousands of years of trying, humans have yet to figure out how to do this. However the esoteric meaning of that process is one of personal transformation, or perhaps even world transformation from a state of evil and decay, to a state of universal peace, understanding and eternal life. Obviously both processes are more easily said than done, and the symbolism appears equally relevant to the alchemist.
What is the difference between metaphor and symbol in your work?
‘Symbol’ and ‘metaphor’ can be used interchangeably under specific circumstances. A pictographic symbol (such as a circle) represents something else – perhaps a concept or a physical object. In the case of The Sacred Sphere those ‘somethings’ generally are ideas or processes expressing ancient, indigenous and modern understandings of sacred relationships. For example, a circle with a dot at its center is a traditional symbol representing our sun. The circle depicts the spherical form of the sun, while the dot indicates that the sun is the center, or source, of life. So the symbol represents not only the sun itself, but the vital relationship we have with energy provided by the sun.
A metaphor is usually considered to be a term or phrase communicated as representing something else as a matter of resemblance rather than a literal relationship. For example, a car enthusiast might consider a 1964 Ford Mustang convertible in mint condition to be the ‘bomb’, meaning the best car ever. Of course a bomb and a car have no literal relationship, but the metaphor is clear when we recognize the huge impact that the Mustang had on the auto industry in the 1960s, and even today.
In my book there are occasions when I equate a symbol as a metaphor. An example is Shamhat, the harlot priestess described in the Sumerian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh. The string of letters in the name ‘Shamhat’ form a word that is a symbol representing the priestess. I suggest that the myth uses this priestess to represent the physical aspects of civilization that have always drawn humans away from a natural existence and toward a life in the city. In this way Shamhat is a metaphor for those attractions, applicable even today with no literal relationship between this priestess and our modern urban lifestyles.
What makes an ancient ruin an active spiritual site today?
A spiritual site remains a spiritual site as long as it is held in such regard. Be it ancient or in ruin, if a person recognizes significant spirituality at a particular location then the site has a spiritual value to that person and perhaps others as well. A site that is sacred to one Native American tribe is sacred to all tribes. Similarly, the Giza plateau is a very spiritual site for many people today, just as it has been for over 5500 years.
However, the spiritual import of a site can be affected by events. Degradation of the natural environment or destruction of human constructs built in recognition of the spirituality of a site can cause a perceived, if not very real, loss of spiritual importance of than location. This is why sacred sites should be left intact whenever any person visits one or encounters a site unexpectedly. Spiritual sites may be in use for ritual or ceremony today, just as there were many years ago. Help protect the site and respect the rights of those who consider the site to be sacred.
Who drew the first circle? Do you suppose that the inspiration was Nature-based or cosmological?
We will never know who drew the first circle, let alone why it was drawn. However, we know that early Paleolithic the tool making processes, as early as 1.5 million years ago, resulted in producing spherical hammerstones used over and over again. Also, rotational and mirror symmetries in broken stones appear to have been considered by hominids of the time to be worth keeping if for no other purpose than to ponder the apparent geometry of the stone.
Did these proto-people recognize a relationship between such forms and nature, or perhaps some cosmological significance to certain shapes? Certainly at some point in time such relationships were recognized and appreciated, and I believe that the carrying of stones from place to place, even though the stones had no apparent utilitarian value, is an indication that inspiration for sacred relationships came far earlier than Western science accepts today. Remember too that stone fire rings – circles – date to over 1 million years. Obviously form followed function in this case. Our forefathers and mothers knew much more than we give them credit.
Can we create new traditions with the old symbols?
Cultural traditions include use of symbols, many of which date to prehistory. Pictographic symbols are found throughout the arts of every culture. Traditions evolve over time as each culture assimilates new ideas and values, and new symbols develop as expressions representative of the culture at a particular time.
Old symbols certain can, and are, used during formation of new traditions. This was the case for Christianity with use of the cross as an important symbol of Christ and the promise of everlasting life. The cross as a sacred symbol having similar meaning goes back thousands of years before Christ, evident in the temples and tombs of ancient Egypt and geometrical symbolism in Sumerian mythology.
What is also true is that many ancient symbols continue to retain cross-cultural meaning after many thousands of years. It seems that old symbols never die. While new traditions might adopt old symbols and apply a new meaning to them, the likelihood that such meaning will be retained over the long term might be minimal. It is difficult to argue with symbolism that has stood the test of time.
Can you text a mythic symbol?
Results of my research suggest that the circle might be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, pictographic symbol. It has represented the form of a sphere for a very, very long time. And of course the letter ‘o’ can represent that concept. A similar example is omega (Ω), the last letter of the Greek alphabet, possibly derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. To the Greeks omega represented the end, while to the Egyptians it may have represented the cosmic dome over the firmament and the perspective looking from Earth out toward the great abyss of space. The letters ‘T’ (tau) and ‘x’ are other mythic symbols that date to ancient Egypt and Sumerian, if not earlier.
When does a circle symbol mean evil? Why?
As a means of communication, a circle symbol represents some concept of evil when both sender and receiver understand such intent in the message. This is no different than a common understanding of the circle representing the world, the sun, or any other intended message.
It would be unusual to apply the meaning of a circle as a representation of evil. However, it is often the case that the circle represents a boundary separating something (usually a space or object) from everything else. The circle might represent a boundary between good and evil, or a device to protect a person inside the circle from the evil lurking beyond. The circle can be used in tandem with other geometries to symbolize concepts of evil applied within a particular space or object – such as Earth. This may be the case within the realm of the occult, when someone desires to either cause harm to someone else, or to protect one’s self from harm by others.
Please explain what Firth refers to as “… unconscious elements in symbolization…” (p. 27)
Firth is referring to an apparent presumption by the anthropological community that humans have an innate, unconscious ability to relate natural forms with symbols. For example, let’s assume that our perception of the universe is reality. Firth suggests that anthropologists assume humans naturally conceive of symbols (illusion) to represent reality, and that this ability includes an unconscious formulation of geometric elements for representation of specific ideas.
You use Design from Nature and Patterns as section headers in Chapter 15. Do you realize that these are straight from the design science called permaculture?!
You make a very interesting observation. I was not aware of the phrase ‘Design from Nature’ and the term ‘Patterns’ as they relate to permaculture. However, I am not surprised that permaculture considers important concepts of sustainable design principles inspired by nature, or application of physical patterns within a general model for assembly of species, function and landscape. There appears to be a significant correlation between these concepts and creation of an effective pictographic symbol.
For example, the Sacred Hoop of the Lakota is related to the four dimensions of space and time, and the circular shape observed throughout natural systems. Its design derives from principles of nature. Individual elements of such symbols (lines, curves, dots and so forth) comprise the breadth of geometrical ‘species’ that can provide specific symbolic functions within some cultural context, paralleling landscape as it concerns permaculture.
Perhaps an appropriate symbol of permaculture would be the Egyptian hieroglyph of the anhk (eternal life) within a circle (Earth, eternity, permanence), and colors representing the sun, air, water, earth and vegetation. Just a thought.
* * * * * * *
Paul D. Burley
Who is this person writing about ancient and indigenous people, symbols and spheres and such?
My father was a civil engineer, my mother a teacher. I was born in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and by the age of 15 I had lived in numerous places between Buffalo, New York and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
I earned Bachelor of Civil Engineering and Bachelor of Science – Geology degrees from the University of Minnesota, and promptly married my high school sweetheart before moving to Illinois to work for the Department of Transportation. After a few years cutting my teeth in design, construction, and project management I turned to consulting in the arenas of geotechnical engineering and environmental geology, and for 11 years owned a consulting company operating form offices in Montana and Minnesota. Over the course of 30 years I’ve investigated physical landscapes and historical cultural developments of thousands of sites across North America.
In tandem with my professional services, I’ve always had particular interest include the history of architecture, engineering, science and technology, and indigenous and ancient religions. Since 2003 I’ve been studying world mythology and the record of graphic and architectural symbolism expressed in secular and spiritual traditions around the world. I’ve presented professional papers addressing numerous engineering and environmental concerns, as well as archeological and ethnographic analyses of the Lakota people on the northern Great Plains, and the symbolism found in sacred pre-historic artifacts. This journey to understand the meaning of Native American medicine wheels led me to research religious symbolism and the cosmic consciousness exhibited by humankind throughout time. Results of this study resulted in a new paradigm in the understanding of the sacred life way of indigenous people. I’m also the author of “The Business Owner’s Guide to Environmental Site Assessment”. My sweetheart and I reside in northern Minnesota.
I began writing The Sacred Sphere about two years ago. It is a fully-illustrated book presenting the history of the circle as a two dimensional representation of the sphere, symbolizing mankind’s relationships with each other, the world, the cosmos, and the Creator. The book is written for people interested in ancient cross-cultural mythologies, timeless religious and spiritual principles and practices expressed in traditions as varied as mathematics and monumental architecture, and mankind’s growing concern for our relationship with Earth. It describes evidence in mythology and archaeology for prehistoric and historic social and cultural symbolism, mythical and cultural symbolic expressions of the human condition, and modern personal relationships within the larger community. These interests and concerns are inherent in all cultures. Unlike all other accounts addressing historical symbolism, the book is the first to detail the origin, mysticism, and world-wide spiritual and cultural history of the sphere as a symbol of relationships vital to humankind.
Paul D. Burley
Pdburley at gmail.com
* * * * * * *
More Spirits Musing at the OpenMythSource FaceBook