notwithstanding the injunctions to the contrary,
the moon as a symbol continued to fascinate humans.
To observers on the earth, it was the most changeable
of all celestial phenomena. In earlier times, the
appearance of the new crescent was often greeted
with joy as a return of the moon from the dead.
In ancient Egypt, the sickle-shaped deity signified
the goddess Isis and any jewel fashioned in its
likeness was believed to protect infants. The crescent's
association with babies derives from the fact that
it is itself the small, newborn moon. (It was always
the waxing moon, never the waning one.) Specifically,
since it appeared to give birth to itself, it was
natural for the heavenly body to become the patron
deity of childbirth. Even when submerged in the
sea of night, the moon possesses the secret of a
new, evolving life. Similarly are all babies born
into life out of the dark waters of the womb.
To the skeptic the fact that
the moon has no light of its own but merely reflects
the sun is an indication of the inferior status
of the former. It is left to the sacred text Prasna
Upanishad to bring things into perspective:
'The sun is the principle of
life and the primeval waters are the moon. And these
waters are the source of all that is visible or
invisible. Hence the waters are the image of all
things.' (Tr. >From Sanskrit By Alain Danielou.)
Thus does the moon reflect the sun's light. Further,
by analogy, it the same archetypal waters which
fertilize the male seed floating in its infinite
It is all the more auspicious
to craft the crescent out in silver as it is considered
the moon's metal much as gold is associated with
Then there is Shiva, the Hindu
god of destruction, who adorns his crest with the
crescent, which both softens and sensualises his
appearance at the same time.
In Islam too, the crescent is
considered sacred since it was Prophet Muhammad
himself who proclaimed the lunar dating system,
replacing the earlier one based on a combination
of the solar and lunar calendars. The crescent motif,
known as the hilal, has been much used throughout
the centuries in Islamic art and appears on the
flag of many nations thus inclined.
The stand-alone crescent is in
a sense incomplete, without the mating male element,
represented by the sun. The two heavenly bodies,
juxtaposed in a number of imaginative ways, denote
the sacred marriage of the two underlying principles,
which are the building blocks of the universe. In
the world's earliest book, the Rig Veda, there is
a hymn glorifying the union of Soma (moon) with
One night in China, the venerable
sage Chang San Fang had a vivid dream of a contest
between two creatures, a snake and a crane. The
former came up from the earth, and the latter flew
down from a tree, and then began a struggle over
a morsel of food. The dream recurred, night after
night, and yet neither creature was ever wholly
victorious. The contest was very evenly matched
- an example of opposites in dynamic harmony.
This active engagement of the
two principles was given visual form in an ingenious
diagram known in Chinese as the Tai Chi Tu. It is
a perfect circle, divided into two equal parts by
a central, vertical S, which symbolically represents
the coiled dragon of Chinese mythology. In the white
section, which is associated with the hard, male
principle (yang) is a black dot. The latter signifies
the presence of the softer feminine, known as yin.
The black region belongs to the
yin and has the corresponding white dot representing
the male. This overlapping suggests that nothing
in the world is wholly yin or yang in itself, but
each contains the seed of the other. Also, one may
be yang in relation to something, but yin in relation
to another. Hence, a grandfather is yang to the
grandmother, but perhaps yin to his grandchildren
The incongruent dots, each occupying
the sphere of its opposite are a great spur to creative
activity; inasmuch as a oyster gives rise to a pearl
when a foreign matter enters it, similarly does
the trace of the disparate element present in the
two fields become the root behind all creative impulse.
Though in popular parlance, the
terms amulet and talisman are used interchangeably,
there is a fine distinction between the two. While
the former wards off bad luck, a talisman is believed
to be an enhancer of good fortune. Amulets and talismans
are two sides of the same coin. One repels what
is baneful while the other impels on the beneficial.
The employment of both rests on the belief that
the inherent quality of a thing can be transmitted
to human beings by contact.
The choice of objects used as
amulets and talismans is determined by several different
criteria, at the root of which lies the basis that
"like affects like". For example, parts
of animals exemplifying certain characteristics
- hare for swiftness or bull for strength; relics
of holy or heroic persons, or even dust from their
graves, believed to be imbued with their charisma;
models of common objects to which a symbolic significance
is attributed, such as a miniature ladder representing
the soul's ascent to heaven.
The color of an object may also
be decisive and a yellow stone may be used against
jaundice while a red one to relieve menstrual disorders.
Ubiquitous also are models of the male and female
genitalia, thought to increase the procreative ability
and its associated pleasures.
It is not only material things
that function as effective amulets and talismans.
In primitive thought, the name of a person was not
a mere verbal appellation but an essential component
of his being, that of a god or demon written on
a slip or engraved on a gem could therefore serve
as a potential magical instrument. Similarly, scrolls
or scripts containing mantras or excerpts from scriptures
were (and still are) considered extremely powerful.
Such sacred written treasures naturally required
equally beautiful receptacles to hold them. Thus
was born the unique box container, the skilled craftsmanship
of which was taken to dazzling heights by the Tibetans,
where it was called the 'gau'.
The gau is used widely throughout
the western and eastern sub-Himalayan area by tribes
which follow Buddhism. The origin of this container-pendant
can be traced to the often inhospitable environment
of Tibet. Violent natural phenomena, such as seasonal
floods, hail, winds and sandstorms, affect the success
of the crops upon which the people's very existence
depends. An ancient, animistic Tibetan iconography
shared by most people in this region provides them
with a means of coping with such natural disasters.
Elemental in this system is the belief that the
physical elements in the environment possess power
attributed to the presence of natural spirits, some
benevolent (trinchhem-po) and others malignant (sem
ngem-po). The former must be propitiated, and magical
protection secured against the latter. It is either
of these two functions, which influences the choice
of the gau's contents.
The gau combines in itself form
and function. Since it is a container to hold and
protect various charms placed within, it consists
of two basic parts that fit together, so that access
to its inner space is possible. Most generally the
gau is made of silver (nga), which is used for the
visible front, and the removable back half can be
copper, brass, or silver itself.
In addition to being a functional
object, the gau is also a decorative one, often
of considerable artistic merit - with the flat surface
ornamented with wire work, stamped units, and often,
turquoise and coral stones. The main space may be
filled with filigree (cha-ku le-ka) in scrolling
and tendril patterns, that symbolize the ever-flowing
essence of nature.
In some cultures, the written
word may directly serve as a magical ornament. Among
Muslims for instance, the most potent amulet is
believed to be a small and flat sheet, usually made
of gold or silver (or a gemstone), on which is inscribed
a verse from the sacred Quran. Looking like a tiny
page from the sacred book, it displays a special
verse in Arabic script. Their spiritual strength
is derived not from the shape or design, but rather
the massive power that is invested in the holy words
inscribed on their surface. Craftsmen (and women)
from Afghanistan, create the finest examples in
this genre, embellishing their calligraphic plates
with tedious arabesque and other decorative patterns.
The preferred materials for carving out the sacred
texts are lapis lazuli and carnelian, the latter
renowned for its special connection with Prophet
Muhammad, who reputedly adorned his finger with
an inscribed ring of the same stone.
Another ancient motif, which
has amuletic connotations, is the eye, encountered
on many prehistoric walls and monuments. These represent
the providential vigilance of benevolent gods and
spirits, counteracting the evil eye of the malevolent
demons. This belief is particularly prevalent in
the Arab world, where a proverb goes: "the
evil eye empties houses and fills tombs".
According to a related Turkish
legend, there was once a massive rock by the sea,
which even the force of a thousand men and a load
of dynamite couldn't move or crack. There was also
a man in the town, known to carry the evil eye (nazar).
After much persuasion, he was convinced to come
to the rock. He took one look at it and said, "My!
What a huge rock". No sooner had he uttered
the words than there was a rip, roar and crack and
the impossible boulder split into two. Indeed, the
deep-seated fear of the harmful eye has meant that
wearing a rival eye - a protective symbol that can
outstare the evil one - has proved immensely popular
over many centuries. One such object is the blue
eye from Turkey, known locally as nazar boncuk,
which is set into a variety of jewelry forms.
Another rebuff to the negative
eye are the Tibetan gzi beads, believed to be the
droppings of the mythical bird Garuda as it flies
across the skies.
The spiral is one of the oldest
pagan symbols in existence. It represents the perpetual
motion of life, with the spring-like coils suggesting
latent power, presenting a picture of life as an
endless, evolutionary process bound within the cycles
of time. Although each loop of the spiral brings
us back to the same place, it takes us to a higher
and more evolved level.
This Celtic spiral represents
the triple goddess of the three ages of womanhood
(maiden, mother and crone). It later came to signify
the holy trinity in Christianity, God the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit. This motif is also called the
The activity of using beads in
spiritual practice is not a recent or ancient phenomena
but rather an archetypal one, as is borne out by
the fact that it is common to all traditions. When
strung together, these beads are used as a device
to count recitations of prayers or as an aid to
The etymology of the word 'bead'
helps us to understand this function, deriving as
it does from the Sanskrit buddh, which refers to
self-realization (Buddha being one such realizer)
and from the Saxon verb bidden, to 'pray'.
The rosary however, is only one
of the several ways to count prayers. The earliest
means involved summing on fingers or shifting pebbles
from one pile to another. These unwieldy methods
were replaced by tying knots on a cord and the string
of prayer beads probably evolved from this knotted
thread. The Greek Orthodox Church still employs
such a knotted rosary known as the kombologion.
The present Catholic rosary is
believed to have been given by the Virgin Mary to
St. Dominic (1170-1221 AD), bidding him to teach
it to the faithful. The term rosary itself is loaded
with symbolic significance, one of its meaning being
a necklace of roses suggesting the stringing together
of prayers in the form of blossoms. Further, the
red rose symbolizes Christ's blood and the purity
of the Virgin Mary. Also, collections of medieval
prayers and hymns were bound into books called rosaria
(flower gardens). Thus was the spiritual identity
of roses extended to beads, which came to signify
a permanent garden of prayers.
Since Catholics must say 150
prayers, their rosary is divided up into 15 sets
of 10 beads. Each set of ten is separated from the
next by a larger bead and, at one point in the circle,
there will be a special punctuation, probably in
the form of a crucifix, to mark the end of the cycle.
For common use, there is a lesser rosary of only
50 beads, in which each piece is worth three prayers.
The credit of inventing the rosary
goes to Brahmanical Hindus, as early as 1500 BC.
It came to be known as the mala, literally meaning
a 'garland of flowers.'
Often worn as a necklace in India,
the rosary thereby became a form of devotional jewelry.
Today however, many prefer not to display it as
a personal adornment and wear it out of sight under
clothing. In fact, some place the rosary and the
hand counting it into a small, often embroidered
bag, so as not to make a public exhibit of their
The Hindu rosary has 50 beads,
corresponding to the number of characters in the
Sanskrit language. The number may go up to 108 incorporating
the nine planets in 12 zodiac houses. This is also
the number of dairymaids (gopis), who surrendered
themselves to Krishna. Here it is relevant to observe
that no material is regarded as too lowly or precious
to form mala beads, just as any soul is perfect
enough to seek union with god.
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