This article has been a work in progress. Originally written in June 2009 it has been updated in 2012 and again in 2013, including always a stronger Pagan practice. The German version of the article can be found here.
Is it time for a reformation of the Four Holy Living Creatures before the Throne?
Every magician worth their penny must have come across the four holy living creatures before the throne. Traditionally they are seen as Bull, Lion, Eagle and Human. Often they are all winged. In this text I would like to elaborate their origin and throw in the question if it’s time to change their symbolic figures reforming them for our present time. So at the end of this article I will make a proposal for a new iconography.
The four holy living creatures are found throughout the magical literature. In scanning the literature I found that some authors disagree on which direction which one is put. This shows clearly, that their original meaning is not clear anymore, or it would be quite logic where to put which one because their association actually is quite explicit. To come directly to the point, the historically correct correspondence is as follows:
East – Bull
South – Lion
West – Eagle
North – Human
The reason will be explained going back in time and looking at their origin.
Origin and evolution of the four holy creatures
The four holy living creatures made their appearance in the Western Mysteries especially through the „Kabala denudata“ (1677-78), the work of cabbalist Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, which has been translated into English by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854–1918) renown member of the Golden Dawn.
Here the four holy creatures are related to the constellations:
How the Eagle became associated with Scorpio had to be explained already then: “The Scorpion is represented in his “positive” (good) Aspect as an Eagle, in his “negative” (evil) as a scorpion and in his mixed aspect as a snake” (MacGregor Mathers 1998).
But this is not the first time the four holy living creatures are mentioned.
1st Millennium before Common Era (BCE) – Ezekiel
The four holy creatures are already mentioned in the Tanach in the book Ezekiel. This book was written during the Babylonian captivity around 600 – 560 BCE (Wikipedia).
A person who knew a bit of Mesopotamian star lore of that time wouldn’t have needed an explanation to relate the four holy creatures to their respective constellations. Actually, the picture of God on the throne as Lord of the four directions is a well known title, also used by kings at least from the 2nd millennium BCE on (Davies and Zur 1979). This common picture certainly would have been known by the prophet and his listeners.
3rd Millennium BCE – the Persian’s Royal stars
An even older hint to their origin can be found among the Indo-Iranian (Arians), who settled around 2000 – 1500 BCE in what is today known as Iran. They are ancestors of the later Persian. Around 3000 BCE they established Four Royal Stars or Watchers of the four directions (Gillentine 2001):
Aldebaran (Tascheter) – Vernal equinox (Watcher of the East)
Regulus (Venant) – summer solstice (Watcher of the South)
Antares (Satevis) – autumn equinox (Watcher of the West)
Fomalhaut (Haftorang) – winter solstice (Watcher of the North)
These stars are 4 of the 25 brightest stars, as seen from our planet (Wikipedia): Aldebaran 13; Antares 16; Fomalhaut 18; Regulus 22.
The four Watchers dominate each for a few months the nocturnal sky and separate the year in four seasons. When putting the respective constellations to the royal stars we have already the four holy living creatures:
Aldebaran – Bull
Regulus – Lion
Antares – Scorpion
Fomalhaut – Southern fish (Aquarius)
The relationship between the southern Fish (not to be confounded with Pisces!) und Aquarius will probably not be familiar to modern readers, so I will elaborate:
A modern interpretation is that Fomalhaut (Alpha Piscis Austrinus) has the same celestial degree of longitude as Sadalmeli (Alpha Aquarius), but is far brighter. I have another proposition: Going further and looking at the Babylonian star lore we find a much more plausible explanation. Then the constellations of the Bull, Lion and Scorpion were already well known. And actually the Southern fish has been part of what today has become the constellation of Aquarius. This constellation has been known as “the Great One”. Its iconography showed a male God carrying water jars and water flowing out of these jars. The water has been symbolized by waved lines and jumping fish. So Fomalhaut (the mouth of the fish) and the constellation today known as Southern fish was actually part of the original constellation of Aquarius, the “Great One” (White 2008). So for the ancient it was never a question why Fomalhaut was part of “Aquarius”.
For the record: It is clear that the Royal Stars and their respective constellations have been chosen because they where at that time marking points of the solar year and the dominant constellation in the sky. The symbolic animals actually represented the constellations. People could look at them and knew in which season they were. This is why I said at the beginning, that the four holy living creatures have an explicit association to the four directions and in that time, they were the dominant constellations of that specific season of the year. I clearly see the origin of the four holy creatures here in the 3rd millennium BCE. Although we can still go further back.
4th millennium BCE: The fixed stars of Egypt and Babylon
Going further we find another similar picture.
It could be proven that the Egyptians and the Babylonians fixed their Zodiac on 4 stars (Koch-Westenholz 1994; Zabka 2003):
Antares in Scorpio
Aldebaran in Taurus together with the Pleiades
Spica in Virgo
Regulus in Leo
These Star markers originated in around 4000 BCE. During 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE the sun traversed the constellation of Taurus at the vernal equinox. Old Babylonian calendars inform us, that the Pleiades lead the first month (Plunket 1997).
The difference between the fixed stars and the Watchers is found with Spica in Virgo.
How can the change from the “brighter” Spica (rang 15) to the “darker” Fomalhaut (18) and from Virgo to Aquarius be explained?
In the 3rd millennium BCE a major social change began: The “universe” became masculine. There are several hints for this: The sun Goddess Shamash became a male sun God, the female-male Moon divinity Nana-Sin became only male (Frymer-Kensky 1992; Kien 2003). Kingship was established and empires started to build, which used a stronger solar iconography (Jacobsen 1976; Kien 2003). For a solar cult to have star markers on the major solar festivals is plausible. Spica (Virgo) was to close to Scorpio and a bad ambassador for the winter solstice. So “the Great One” (Aquarius) was chosen, to create a stellar cross, representing more logically the four directions. I even assume that the linking of the constellations to the four directions and there beginning as “Watchers” started then in the first place. Interesting is that the constellation “the Great One” originally represented the Goddess Gula (White 2008). My guess is, that is was changed to a male God, about the same time some of the other Goddesses became male Gods. I do not know, if the title “the Great One” also applied to Gula, but as she was a mistress of healing and magic and mother of the sacred child Damu it is quite possible.
Now to the question I asked in the beginning:
Is it necessary to reform the four holy creatures for our time?
As we’ve seen the four holy living creatures have their origin in natural observances of the dominant constellation in a certain time in history. But today, when at the vernal equinox I look into the night sky there are no Aldebaran and Taurus guiding me. Even Aries, the beginning of our tropical zodiac cannot be found.
The reason is the precession of the equinoxes: Because of different gravitational powers that influence our planet the axis is changed. The constellations seem to “wander” and the equinox points “move” backwards.
The constellation of Taurus was replaced around 2000 BCE by Aries. In 1600 BCE the first ram-iconography can be found in Mesopotamian art. A ram’s head appears together with Capricorn and cancer that marked the solstice at that time. Clear evidence, that there was a reformation (Plunket 1997). That the precession of the equinoxes must have been known to the late Babylonian astrologers is shown in the naming of their pole star “the exalted temple” and the pole-star of our time had the name of “the inheritor of the exalted temple” (White 2008).
There are some evidences that the change from Bull to Ram was not as easily carried out as one could think. Some city states stayed with the “traditional” (passed down from antiquity) system (Plunket 1997). The true origin of the Watchers seems to have been forgotten already, or only known to a minor number of scholars (initiates?).
Looking at the sun and the (sidereal) star sign today (Caution: please do not confound with the tropic star signs!) we find (Wikipedia):
Winter solstice – Sagittarius
Vernal equinox – right (western) Pisces
Summer solstice – Taurus / Gemini
Autumn equinox – Virgo
Today we can say that as the constellations where created the ancient did not simply connect points to figures. Through the phenomenology of the pictures star groups with a deeper cosmic meaning were summarized. Only now through the achievements in astrophysics we can begin to understand those groupings (Zabka 2003). We have to keep in mind that in Egypt and Mesopotamia the day began with the night and the dominant constellation was formative for the day. If we take cosmic influences into account we have to realise that today 6000 years later (!) we have a very different cosmic influence than the people who fixed the royal stars and their respective constellations.
Let me cut to the chase and who ever wants to indulge further into the topic how I came to the conclusion which holy creature to chose can read the derivation of them and join into the discussion.
Because of the changed constellations regarding the solar festivals of the year in our present time, I make the following proposal for a reformation of the four holy living creatures:
Direction Solar marker Constellation Holy Creature Royal Star
North winter solstice Sagittarius Centaur Altair (aql)
East Vernal equinox Pisces Swallow (dove, fish) Sirrah (Psc)
South Summer solstice Gemini / Taurus Man Aldebaran
West Autumn equinox Virgo Woman Spica
From my point of view two reasons speak for a renewal of the four holy creatures:
- Direct observations of the Sky
The principle from which we chose is the old one (direct observation), but we don’t cling to the outmoded pictures that, “merely” represent symbols but have lost their original connection. By this we relate ourselves again to the power behind the pictures. In this way we open ourselves stronger and consciously to the cosmic influences that actually influence us now.
- Man and Woman appear equally as holy creatures
Looking at the derivation of the reformed holy living creatures you will easily see, that both man and woman blend in perfectly. I believe for the healing between the sexes this is a forward looking spiritual symbolism. Forward looking for a real equality between man and woman and God and Goddess as equally holy. Let’s face it, androgyny and talking about the winged human is fairly new, the human was seen as male, as shows the constellation of Aquarius reformed from the Goddess Gula to picture a male God.
For the old system speaks tradition and the walking on well known roads and connecting to a power flux established long ago, used by many magicians around the world.
To walk a new path is not always easy and the new path needs to be proven. But weren’t the Magicians not always those walking around with the lantern and exploring all sorts of possibilities and walking on tangled paths?
I am experimenting on the new system. Which effect it has when working with it, especially when the proper constellation is in the sky. The reformed four holy creatures aren’t written in stone (yet). I would enjoy reading your thoughts about it and I invite thoes who want to join me in the experiments to do so, and let me know their results. There are certainly more interesting aspects when indulging into the correspondences.
Derivation of the reformed holy creatures:
Sagittarius – winter solstice
In the Babylonian Version we find here the God Pabilsag, a figure which shows great variation in its iconography. He is shown as being a mix of different animals and a man. Often winged, with the tail of a scorpion and the head of a dog. The picture of the centaur (half man, half horse) was found only from the middle of the 2nd millennium with the Kasitte (a Mesopotamian folk). Pabilsag is later identified with the warrior God Ninurta. His wife is the Goddess of healing Gula. With her he fathered Damu, the Mesopotamian holy child. His name can be translated as chief ancestor (White 2008).
In Greek Mythology he is a centaur, Chiron, the great teacher of Iason, Achilles and Asclepius who initiated them into the secrets of medicine (Ridpath 2004).
His cosmic influence is seen as a high mental impulse. Our moral behaviour comes from here.
Astronomically seen the constellation points to the centre of the Milky Way with many star nebulas. A black hole is believed to be there, from whom the central forces of our universe operate that is responsible for holding together our galaxy (Zabka 2003).
As holy creature I decided on the centaur, because he represents a race, half human, half animal. Through him we can also make contact with the lord of the wild beasts, which fits well to popular correspondence of the north.
The watcher Star is Altair in Aquila, as it is closest to Sagittarius. There is also a deeper connection between them two, which I will elaborate some other time.
Pisces – vernal equinox
The eastern Fish, near Aries, is identified in Babylonian Astrology primarily with the constellation of Anunitum, which is formed by the central regions of what we call today the constellation of Andromeda. Anunitum means “star of the Goddess of heaven” and is related to Inanna, the Lady of Heaven and Goddess of Love. Fittingly the western Fish (near Aquarius) is seen sometimes as a swallow and sometimes as a dove. Its name can be translated as “the exalted bird” (so which one is not that important). Later with the cord between them it was seen as a constellation known as “the tails”. In the Mul-Apin star list it is listed as a relatively new star sign symbolizing Euphrates and Tigris (White 2008). This change surely was made regarding the precession of the equinoxes. Pisces is related to mysticism and feelings (Zabka 2003). That doesn’t fit quite well to the qualities usually related to the East. But we could also be inspired by this change. As holy creature a fish would be fitting or also a swallow or a dove. In our latitude the swallow returns in March from its winter residence. So I settled with the swallow, although a dove or fish could fit well too and would be a reasonable choice if in your latitude the swallow returns some other time.
The watcher Star is Sirrah from the constellation of Pegasus. The part where Sirrah is located belonged as well to Anunitum.
Taurus – Summer solstice
Here we have the problem that the sun is on the summer solstice momentarily between Taurus und Gemini (going towards Gemini). Looking at the phenomenology of the constellation between Gemini and the horns of Taurus there is a free room. In the middle of the free room, a bit further away from the ecliptic we find Orion.
“Wild bull” in Mesopotamia was often an epithet for a male God and is later also a title for Kings. The Horns of the bull point towards a region of the Milky Way which is often brought into relationship with the realm of the souls. The star El Nath (-Tauri) symbolized fort he Hindu Agni, the God of fire (Zabka 2003). This relates wonderfully to the South.
The twins are in Greek mythology Castor and Pollux. The twin nearer to the solstice is Castor.
The horns as also the feet of the twins reach into the Milky Way.
Progressively seen the precession will bring the summer solstice towards the twins. Pollux is the 17th brightest star (Wikipedia), but Aldebaran is momentarily closer, which makes it the watcher Star.
Astronomically seen his genitals point towards a region in the universe where a lot of new stars are born.
In Babylonian tradition the Twins are seen as two armed watchmen who guard the Star portal of summer which was seen at that time in cancer when the summer solstice was there (White 2008). It also fits well that many magic working groups put in the South the Guardian. The summer portal was used for the souls of the ancestors to come back to earth at the respective festivals and for babies to be born. (The winter portal was used by the souls of the dead to go to the realm of the ancestors. Looking at the genitals of Orion, the watchmen receive a new dimension to guard. In Babylonian star lore Orion was seen as “the true shepherd of Anu”, a messenger who travels between God and the humans, between heaven and earth (White 2008). Orion is also seen as the Egyptian Osiris. There is an interesting connection between Osiris the “Bull of Amenti” and the Apis Bull. This connection also points towards the spirits of the deceased and the cycle of creation and resurrection (Richardson 1990). Again, a perfect fit to the astronomical phenomenon. As holy living creature a bull or a man could be used. I propose a man, as the precession is moving towards the twins. The bull can still be used as the metaphor for a strong (on whichever level) man. And I propose very explicitly a man – male figure.
Virgo – Autumn equinox
In Babylonian Mythology this constellation was known as the Furrow. It was identified with the Goddess Shala who was shown with a very big ear of corn in her hand nearly the same picture as Virgo is still seen today (White 2008). This constellation is one which has been identified with the female divine through and through. Wisdom is what she brings. Spica, the watcher star, is seen as her womb. Egyptian pharaohs are often portrayed sucking at the breasts of a Goddess. The breasts of Virgo are marked by the star Vindemiatrix (the female grape gatherer). The beautiful connection between the star name and the mythology still amazes me here. A bit more to the north we find the super cluster of Virgo, which is sometimes also called mother-cluster of our milky way (Zabka 2003). The Virgo super-cluster is a galaxy cluster which has at least 1300, probably more than 2000 galaxies (Wikipedia).
This symbol is so unequivocally female, that it’s impossible to give her a human as a symbol, so the holy living creature representing this constellation is obviously a woman.
So much to my „short“ discussion and proposal of a reformation of the holy living creatures. Certainly I missed out on many implications, but I want to have something for later discussions. Your opinions are very welcome.
My work on this between 2009 – 2012:
In a Pagan context I have found it easier to work with the Stars alone, instead of with the constellations. My main criteria in choosing the stars was that they needed to belong to the most brilliant. Spica and Aldebaran were easily found. The other two were difficult. I had to check again the constellations, see which stars were very bright and close by.
For the Spring equinox I desided on Sirrah in Andromeda (in older maps Pegasus). For the winter solstice Altair in Eagle. I updated the text above to include the stars.
In my practical work I included the stars when working with the four directions e.g. “with the blessing of Spica I greet the powers of the West…”, or after establishing the Cosmos “in the east shines Sirrah, in the South..” od “in the East Sirrah guides our thinking…..”
It has been a long time that I actually thought that the Celts as the Mesopotmians used marking stars for their festivals (or at least for some). This Hypothesis is based as well on pre-celtic people using the disc of Nebra on which the Plejades are shown. The Druids have been described as knowledgeable on the stars. I recently stumbled upon the work of A. Gaspani “Astronomy in the Celtic culture“, which I interpret as lending more support to my theory. There is a deferral between the stars chosen by him and mine, which I still have to look at more clearly. I am not very able in observing the stars and I wouldn’t mind someone with this ability to look over my ideas.
Fire as a symbol for the possession of the land.
for the Celts as well as for the Iselandic people and the Vikings there are tales that show a connection between the hearth fire and the taking of the possession of the land. In ritual I experimented with the use of four canldes in the four directions after the establishment of the Cosmos to mark out our ritual space and make it “holy”. I connected them with the stars in the sense of making as well a connection between above and below, Earth and Sky. Addtionally, I have to say that I see more a responsibility and not a true land owning.
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