Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1990 Volume 4. "Earth & Sky: W"

Ordinarily, this feature looks at human and divine personages (if one may say such a thing) but as this issue is devoted to symbology, we are happy to present a small collection of human and sacred symbols, drawn from diverse traditions.


Walls are naturally associated with doors, gateways and thresholds; in spiritual matters, they signify the boundary between inner and outer, seen and unseen, while on earth, they help to separate sacred and profane space. Philosophically, it might be asked, would any space be sacred if it were not separated from the profane? But walls are more than mere markers — they also suggest protection, and there is a strong tradition of guardians connected with walls and gates. Such guardians are said to prevent the unready, the unwary or the uninitiated from seeing what they should not, either for the protection of the seeker or of that which is sought. It may be, though, that such sights are self-secret, as is suggested in the well known Sufi story of the wall. According to this tale, there was once a people who lived beside a high wall, but although they had lived there as long as any of them could remember, none of them knew what was on the other side. At last, they determined to send one of their number over the wall to find out what was there. The one selected climbed a long ladder to the top of the wall, looked at what lay beyond, and promptly dived to the other side and was never seen again. This of course did not satisfy the people's curiosity, so they selected another. He too climbed the ladder, looked over, and was gone. When the people selected a third seeker, though, they decided to tie a rope around his ankle lest he also try to escape. Like the first two, he climbed the ladder, looked at what lay beyond, and was about to leap from their view when the people hauled him back to their side of the wall. Their cleverness was in vain, though, for they found that the one who had looked beyond the wall had now completely lost the power of speech.


To wander is to travel aimlessly, without predetermined path destination. It might sound better to be a pilgrim, that someone with a known goal, but sometimes much can be accomplished when the goal or the route has not been defined, chivalry, the 'knight errant' was one who set out on an adventure, usually a search for the Holy Grail, not knowing when would take him, a condition still evoked in the knight's move chess. Such wandering is also symbolized in mystic mazes labyrinths which were built throughout Europe in earlier time the path to the goal is not direct, and, depending on the nature of the maze, may require special knowledge to complete. Buddhists, though, wandering connotes samsara, the ignorance that sends sentient beings through the cycle of birth and de until the wheel of illusion is broken and the stillness of nirvana, is attained at last.


Such a large symbol that almost anything said about it is incomplete. Water dissolves, purifies, regenerates and revivifies, sustains, but it may annihilate as well. It is usually (but r always) lunar, especially as the ocean, which responds so read to the moon. It stands for the Great Mother, the womb creation, and therefore, for life and fertility, but it can also stand for unconsciousness, forgetfulness, destruction and chaos. Eve culture and every religion has found great meaning in water. Walking upon water means to rise above the emotions and circumstances which traditionally drown us — every bit as much a miracle as to physically walk upon the surface of the waves. ' the Hebrews, wisdom and the law have been seen as a spring water, while in Islam, water signifies mercy. In the Taoist tradition, water embodies the doctrine of wu-wei, yielding at the point of resistance, thus surrounding, passing on, and event ally wearing away even the hardest rock. Water in its different forms has meaning, too. The spring, for example, has always been regarded as divine inspiration. Dew, on the other hand stands for benediction. Deep water is often seen as the home the dead or of supernatural beings, particularly among Celt peoples, and it is from this belief that many people still throw coins in fountains — though they may, themselves, be unaware of the reason. Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan often used the metaphor of rain when he spoke of the Message, coming as it does from above and given to all, without distinction. In Nature Meditations, he offers the following meditation on rain: Send the shower of Thy mercy and compassion on humanity. Pir-o-Murshid also called upon the properties of water to describe two types of belief, likening fixed belief to ice, and fluid, adaptable, progressive belief to flowing water.


When warmed, wax becomes pliable and malleable, and takes whatever shape is offered it Therefore wax represents mutability, and even insincerity. In fact, the word 'sincere' means literally 'without wax.' In this sense, it is the opposite of the symbol of the wall. However, wax has other properties, too. It resembles fat, and so may be said to contain life substance; also, it burns with a clear flame, leaving no residue, which suggests a kind of purity and wholehearted commitment Perhaps it was this aspect Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan had in mind when he described some hearts as being like wax. By this he did not mean they were insincere, but rather that they were easily softened by the fires of love, and, if a proper wick were supplied, could be kindled to give a beautiful light.


As anyone who has savoured a glass of good wine can attest, it easily symbolizes revelation, truth and life — but as anyone who has overindulged can add, it can also signify death. Specifically, red wine may represent the blood of life sacrificed; also, fire, and divine wisdom. Perhaps all three of these meanings are evoked when Sufi poets call to the inn-keeper for yet another cup of wine; to the Sufi, wine represents divine ecstasy, a divine and fiery wisdom which can only be reached when the ego has been sacrificed on the altar of the heart. Wine and water, as a pair of symbols, are solar and lunar, and may represent divine and human nature, respectively, which would add a new dimension to the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast.


The Sufi emblem of the flying heart is composed of several elements, among them, outspread wings. It is notable that wings have been used extensively in depictions of divine and supernatural beings in the West and Middle East, but, with the exception of the winged dragon and the Garuda, very little in the Far East. Wings are active, mobile and solar; they represent divinity, and particularly the protection of the tireless and all pervading God, and the power of the spirit to transcend the limitations of earth. In the Zoroastrian tradition, Ahura Mazda was shown as a winged disk, as were the Sumero-Semitic sun gods Shamash and Asshur. Hermes, as Messenger of the Roman Gods, had a winged cap and sandals, while Cronos, representing the flight of time, had four wings, two in flight and two at rest, signifying perpetual movement and vigilance.. In both Hebrew and Christian traditions, angels and archangels, also heavenly messengers, have wings. Of course, so does the Devil, but this fallen angel is usually given wings of skin, like a bat, rather than softly feathered ones. In the Buddhist tradition, two wings (not ascribed to any particular being) stand for wisdom and method. Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan tells us that the wings of the Sufi emblem stand for indifference and independence, through the cultivation of which the heart may become responsive to the ever-present light of God, and thus achieve liberation.


In spite of having wings, usually signs of good omen, the meaning given to this shy, hard-working bird has not always been positive. It is said to be prophetic and magical, and a guardian of kings, as it looked after Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome. It was sacred to Jupiter, Mars and Silvanus, among others. Christians, though, have seen it as representing the Devil, and the undermining effects of heresy. To North American aboriginals, the woodpecker, armed with a hard and heavy beak with which it strikes many blows, was seen as a bird of war.


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