Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


We saw several of the most curious rings of coral land just rising above the water's edge, which have been called Lagoon Islands. These low coral islands bear no proportion to the vast ocean out of which they abruptly rise; and it seems wonderful that such weak invaders are not overwhelmed by the all-powerful never-tiring waves of the great area, mis-called the Pacific.

(On board the H.M.S. Beagle, 1843)

 It was said of Medusa that one look from her eye would turn a man to stone. Hence Perseus struck her from behind and rid the world of one of its greatest terrors. When he had done this, he carried his gory burden to the sea, letting the blood run from the serpentine locks into the water. Fatigued by his adventures, Perseus fell asleep upon the shore, oblivious to the fact that even in death the gorgon's evil spell persisted. Even as it flowed into the water, the blood of Medusa curled about in certain ocean growths and turned their freely waving tendrils into stone. Like the ooze enveloping their stems, they became red and coagulated into fantastic designs, frozen in the blue-green depths. When Perseus awoke, he could hardly believe his senses and was filled with dread of the new danger created. But wise Athena was his sister and, beholding his anxiety, she named the stone shrub Gorgias and endowed it with every power for good to offset the harm done by the gorgon while alive. Thus, in the peripatetic manner of Greek myths, the talismanic power of coral was conveyed. Its association with blood is significant as is its close, though apotropaic, relationship with evil. By killing Medusa, Perseus had released a beneficent force from the serpentine coils of misused spiritual power. True, the mesmeric pall of her freezing glance and her coiled locks transmitted their influence to the blood as it streamed into the waves, but the concentrated evil died with the gorgon, leaving only a benign offspring to grace the pools and grottoes of coral seas.

 Some ancients called coral the Sea Tree of the Lunar Mother Goddess, the source of the fertility of the waters. Growing often in the form of some sort of underwater tree, coral blends the symbolism associated with the world tree and the abyss so as to emphasize the roots of the axis mundi. As an apotropaic talisman, it is considered to have the Athena-endowed power of turning away or averting evil. In the Greek tradition Orpheus recommended it powdered and scattered in growing crops in order to safeguard them from locusts, blight, caterpillars and storms. Many believed that the stone could warn of the presence of poison by subtly changing colour, and it was widely used by the Romans as a protection against childhood diseases. Small necklaces or bunches of coral sprigs were hung around the young child. The coral rattles of tiny bells used in modern nurseries are a survival from this ancient custom. Coral was also worn by Roman ladies as a protection against the pitiable condition of sterility, whilst throughout the Old World it was thought to have the power of averting the evil.

 The precious red coral found mostly in the Mediterranean was seen as a greater talisman amongst the ancients than any other gem. This is still true in India, Tibet, Egypt, China and Italy. Besides its apotropaic properties it was, and often continues to be, used to ward off cholera and other epidemics and is taken in powdered form as an astringent and a stimulant for the heart. The Gauls decorated their helmets and weapons of war with coral just as freely as oriental craftsmen placed it in the crowns of sculpted gods. But the demand for the Mediterranean gem in India was at times so great that the supply became severely limited in Europe and practices like that of the Gauls fell into abeyance. Early Greeks and the later Romans, the Italians and the French with their holdings in North Africa exported the bulk of their coral harvest to India, Persia, China and Japan for its talismanic and medicinal virtues. This limited its distribution in Europe owing to the fact that coral beds could only be 'fished' every ten years, it having been noticed over the centuries that this interval was needed for their replenishment. The best coral is found at a depth of between one hundred and one hundred and sixty feet, about five miles out from the shore. The beds are well known to seasoned harvesters, many of them being several centuries old, and their steady, controlled exploitation tends to regulate the market. There have often been stringent laws to protect national interests in designated beds, and heavy tariffs were paid by outsiders who wished to fish in these waters. The beauty and potency of coral have long exerted a fascination upon empire-builders, entrepreneurs and ordinary people who shaped it into beautiful forms or merely wore it as a protection against harm.

 The coral thus harvested is produced by the coral animal, a soft gelatinous polyp living under the surface of the sea. In the third century A.D. the Greek philosopher-physician Sextus Empiricus became interested in animals resembling plants and gave them the epithet zoophyte, which continues to denote polyps such as the coral. Although the polyp often resembles a lovely and fragile aster or flowering anemone, it is, in reality, a voracious carnivore whose leafy feelers circle continuously around a gaping mouth that leads to little more than a stomach. It is just a cylindrical sack of flesh with tentacles on top that are capable of exuding a limey skeleton at the bottom, in which it sits as though in a cup. When the little fleshy polyp dies, it leaves behind its diverse skeletal forms. This is what most people have in mind when they use the term 'coral'. Hermatypic polyps are referred to as 'soft coral' because they do not tend to produce much of a skeleton, but the 'hard coral' (Scleractinia) have within their tissue a single-celled algae which enables them to exude the calcium carbonate mass that will form their shelter during the entire cycle of their life. These are the true reef-building corals which, over generations, build enormous rock-like structures extending often for miles within the ocean.

 Amongst the alchemists and astrologers of all ages, coral is closely associated with the influences of the planet Saturn. Though a sea jewel, coral has strong affinities with the earth and that which is solid in its bony structural aspect. Its skeletal growth typifies Saturn's work under water and the calcium carbonate composition of this growth is held to be Saturn's chief counterpart in the astro-chemical world. Saturn is the ruler of the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, which is closely associated with the gestatory state wherein is formed a new embryo. The so-called shell of this embryo can be regarded as signifying 'the limits of Saturn', the source of all differentiating and diversifying power.

 In the coral this differentiating power is fully illustrated in the modes of reproduction by which generations of polyps multiply. Branching colonies of coral are formed by the budding of new polyps from the tops of older ones. Polyps are also reproduced from cells expelled by the parent and by vertical division of the creature's body into two distinct polyps. As the colony grows, there subsists an effective communication between polyps. Food that goes into the stomach of one polyp is conveyed in little vesicles to the whole mass of polyps. If the feeler of one is touched ever so slightly, the act is conveyed sympathetically to the entire coral 'hive'. In such a colony the polyps are possessed of a common sensation which wonderfully vibrates through the whole without being differentiated into the five senses. Most hermatypic corals form offspring polyps through the budding division of the parent, giving rise to colonies of polyps arranged side by side and spread over the surface of the coral skeleton. Though living within its secreted corallite cup, each polyp is connected with its neighbour by the extension of the tissue that grows out of the top of the column. In the hard coral the skeletal base is much thicker and extends up the side walls, forming a more enclosing cup, but the top of the outside of the polyp grows down over the walls of the skeleton and comes into contact with its neighbour. Branching coral, which reproduces by budding, is sometimes several feet long and as much as one inch in diameter. Looking like an outspread leafless tree, the polyps are, nonetheless, in subtle contact with one another as though they were parts of a single organism.

 In the formation of reefs the lime skeleton makes up a framework resembling bricks, which are bound together with the cementing mortar of algae. The single-celled zooxanthellae live in the tissue of the polyp, and through the subtle transference of materials from algae cells to their host, a fascinating symbiosis takes place between the vegetable, mineral and animal kingdoms which is exceedingly primitive in the evolutionary scheme of things. In The Secret Doctrine H.P. Blavatsky assigns the polyp class to the Primordial Epoch, which corresponds to the period when zoological relics of the previous Third Round appeared. At first they made an astral appearance (like other such in this Fourth Round) and later in concretized form along with the new vegetation of the Laurentian, Cambrian and Silurian Periods.

 Certain conditions are necessary for the formation of a coral reef. Whilst individual coral may be found in colder oceans, reefs develop only in tropical seas, requiring temperatures of twenty degrees centigrade and over. In the vicinity where they flourish there is a continuous absence of sediments, and though coral has been photographed at seven thousand, five hundred and fifty feet off the Canary Islands, most reef-building polyps do not normally appear below twenty-five fathoms. At greater depths there is little of the sunlight required by the algae cells for the photosynthetic process essential to the chemical action needed for the formation of the corallite 'framework' of the developing reef. Reefs tend to flourish along the eastern shores of land masses with very few exceptions, and the polyps multiply better on the seaward side, as the currents there bring with them a greater abundance of animal plankton so voraciously captured by their busy tentacles. Owing to this, a broadening channel is formed between the shore of the island and the reef or between one side of an atoll lagoon and another. Through the cracks and crannies of the skeletal structure an amalgam of 'stony' seaweeds and powder-fine detritus sands containing foraminifera sift and spread, creating a hard limestone mass along a bank. Along its flanks there are ridges, spurs and channels, terraces, gullies and chasms. Giant buttresses lean against cliff-like edges where currents can plunge downward towards a darkening world.

 A reef is made up of mostly dead material. It is, in fact, a film of living tissue overlaying a skeletal mass, a living layer of polyps depositing successive layers of lime from generation to generation. At Eniwetok a bore penetrated thirty-six hundred feet through such skeletal matter before contacting volcanic rock. To a geologist such a reef presents itself as a mountainous bone-yard accumulated over millennia, whilst the biologist focusses upon the thin and beautiful layer of life. It is, of course, both of these, and also a clustering place for a throng of dwellers, hiding and eating in incredible variety. No other habitat contains such a wealth of closely related but distinctly different living organisms in such a concentrated area.

 The coral reefs that begin their growth at the shore of islands are fringing reefs. They cling like skirts around its flanks, slowly growing outward into deeper waters, leaning out like a shelf so as to remain fairly close to the surface of the surrounding sea. Barrier reefs run parallel to coastlines. They are thick and can contain very deep water behind them. Bores made in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia have revealed a depth of eighteen hundred feet before encountering volcanic rock. The reefs which have excited so much speculation in the scientific world are the atoll reefs, or what Darwin called the Lagoon Islands. Hovering on the surface of the ocean, barely above sea-level, they are vulnerable to storm waves which sometimes wash them clear of human and animal life. The sea beyond the edges of atolls plunges rapidly to thousands of fathoms in depth, lending an even greater aura of insubstantiality to the lagoon-hugging slips of land.

 It can be said that the many clusters of islands in the tropical seas owe their existence to volcanoes and the work of the coral polyp. In the Polynesian group there are four chains which run in a bow from north to south generally. The great reefs seem to follow the direction of chains at the bottom of the ocean, as if part of the exterior skeleton of the earth or even like ribs curving out from the vertebral column of the human figure. The interplay between the arcs of volcanic islands and the work of the coral polyp sets the stage for one of the most debated scientific issues of the later nineteenth century. Over the decades and well into the twentieth century many theories have been advanced to explain the relationship between them and between the different types of reefs. Charles Darwin advanced what became known as the Subsidence Theory, which suggested that long after the volcanic island arose it would begin to subside and that as it did so, the fringing reef around it would build upward and outward to become a barrier reef. Eventually, when the volcanic island had become completely submerged, there would be, according to Darwin's theory, only the encircling reefs themselves which we know as atolls. Other theories focussing upon the rise of sea-level with glacial thaw or the truncation of volcanic island peaks enjoyed their vogue and, indeed, were based upon far more intensive observation than Darwin was able to make. It is all the more ironic, then, that after observing only one good barrier reef (Tahiti) and one atoll (Keeling), Darwin had the good fortune to hit upon a simple process of reef development which turned out to be more generally correct than any subsequent theory.

We went sailing on a coral sea
Starlit waters, my darling and me
Time was endless, love sang its song
We dreamed of tomorrow, now he is gone
I see his lips in the coral
I see his eyes in the water blue
I see his hair in the glowing sunlight
A vision clear, calling me near[1]

 As the zoological relic of a mode developed in an earlier age, the coral polyp expresses forgotten aspects of human evolution. In some sense man's lips can be seen in the coral as barely parting in what promises to be an utterance of the Word. Concretizing with the new vegetation of the Paleozoic Era, just as it does with the help of the zooxanthellae algae in this period, the coral polyp corresponds to a phase of evolution associated with the Divine Progenitors, whose work preceded the Third Root Race of mankind. About this early development The Secret Doctrine warns that "the actual chronology of the First, Second, and Early Third Races [is] closely veiled by Initiates", but one might garner from further reading that the coral is a materialized expression of astral forms evolved during the time of the Second Root Race.

Gupta Vidya teaches that the First Root Race were the Sons of Yoga, whose father was the Sun and mother the Moon. It is said that though this earliest Race possessed three elements, it had no living fire. It was made up, instead, of the astral images of their fathers, who were, in turn, the most progressed entities from a preceding lower sphere – the shell of which is now our moon. They were the sons of Dhyana (yoga) "or of that abstract meditation through which the Dhyani-Buddhas create their celestial sons, the Dhyani-Bodhisattvas". The Second Race was the product of budding and expansion. They were produced in this manner because their chhaya parents were asexual and devoid of desire or kama rupa. They were evolved as the Second Race unconsciously, in the mode of some plants, "only on a more ethereal, impressive, and larger scale". This budding is clearly analogous to the process of mitosis in a more complex organism, and it is part of a vast progressive order of methods of evolutionary reproduction which is recapitulated at many levels through time and space.

 The first order of method is that of fission associated with the First Root Race and echoed in the division of a single-celled creature like the amoeba. The next order is that of budding, related to the Second Race and typified on the material plane by such an organism as the coral polyp, which reproduces through a portion of the parent swelling out and finally separating. The next order has to do with spores or single cells thrown off by the parent, which then develop into a multicellular individual. Some coral polyps multiply in this fashion, as do bacteria. The order that follows next is that of intermediate hermaphroditism, where the male and female organs are found in the same individual. This mode of reproduction is closely allied to budding, a connection symbolized in stories like that which describes Eve emerging out of Adam's side. This mode is associated with the first half of the Third Root Race and is followed by the method of sexual procreation that marks the second half.

 The mankind of the Second Root Race did not exist physically as we experience ourselves now, but the future five-pointed vehicle was slowly being prepared through a mode of budding and expansion that is still expressed powerfully in the world today. The astral development of this earlier phase involved wind and fire, the small beginning spark which precipitated the ethereal heart and brain of the man to be. As man emerged on grosser planes, he too developed or exuded a skeletal frame, a corallite armour, which shields the inner organic seats of his higher centres. The outer flesh, muscle and skin make it appear that the human skeleton is internal, but this is based upon an erroneous identification with the outer shell of the body. This outer layer exists merely as a sensorial extension capable of lending support and protection to the calcareous structure within. The wind percolates through the whole as the Breath of Life and the fire of intelligence throbs with every beating of the heart. When this stops, when the spiritual energy is withdrawn, the flesh and muscle quickly disintegrate, leaving the skeletal template behind, much like the coral polyp leaves its corallite. During life men coexist in what are like a series of colonies. There is, as amongst polyps, a finely tuned astral and physical communication between all the members. When one eats or one experiences a disturbance of any kind, it is instantly communicated to the whole. This immediate sharing of experience hearkens back to the unconscious oneness characteristic of the Second Race. To a far greater degree than we consciously realize, humanity continues to be collectively influenced in this way.

 To extend the analogy, one can discern that the moon, too, as we see it in the heavens, is merely a skeleton left behind by the life that has moved on, just as did the Fathers of the First Root Race, who reproduced through fission. Thus all the moons in the galaxies are like vast, imperceptibly interconnected reefs circling around fiery islands which provide the stage on which things evolve for a while and then become submerged back within the great astral abyss. Thus the volcanic island itself is analogous to the coral polyp. It is born from the igneous eruption budding out of the flanks of the parent earth. It is, therefore, filled with the fiery spark of life and soon begins the business of 'exuding' a skeleton around it in the form of a fringing reef, which continues to exist and be built upon after the fire subsides and the island has finally sunk. The analogy embraces the attributes of the Second Race as well, for they were the 'boneless' ones endowed with the first weak spark of the germ of intelligence. Like abrupt explosions of igneous material forming a lava dome hovering on the sea for a while, they easily collapsed and merged back into the watery matrix wherein their fire was quenched. It is the residual reef effect left behind which is echoed in the polyp as a zoological relic.

 This early spark or fire is also symbolized in the blood of Medusa. The baleful energy within the gorgon guards the entrance to the Hyperborean Realm. Any who would travel to that sacred precinct must first subdue this terrible power. Like the destructive blast of a volcano, her glance could pursue the unwary, surround them with its killing lava and turn them to stone. But a wise man, or one wisely instructed like Perseus, could subdue the volcanic fire and convert it into a talisman capable of indicating the right path, protecting one from alley-ways which lead to poisonous darkness. Just so, it is necessary for the wise man to gain control of the forces that predominated during the formation of the Second Race and which lie with volcanic potential in the dark corners of his psyche. He must bring these forces together in the mentally focussed centre of his spiritual heart, where they can be solidified into a gem stone of compassionately concentrated purpose. The deepest meaning of coral as a symbol is based upon its mode of reproduction and the formation of a skeletal residue which provides the platform for further growth. The corallite is a world tree under water, not yet capable of bridging the three worlds but establishing the structural design for such a possibility. The apotropaic powers of coral are almost secondary to this in that they merely protect and assist the journeyman hoping to gain conscious realization of the three worlds.

 In essence man is a Monad surrounded by an astral nucleus which is, in turn, surrounded by the ovum-substance of his aura. The primordial reproduction of the Second Race involves the sub-astral nucleus exuding a double from the ovum-substance. A perfect analogue of this budding process is to be found in the mysterious replication of the simple cell division of mitosis. The coral polyp recapitulates this on a massive scale by clustering in its greatest numbers at the equatorial belt of this earth where it lines up, as it were, midway between the two poles of the spindle. By the simplest mode of this sort of division, the First Race was formed, and only a slight further differentiation marked the reproduction of the Second. If this process is traced in the budding consciousness of man, it will be seen that a tremendous knowledge of fiery spiritual intelligence is needed in order to release and direct the higher conscious will. It cannot come through any external means or vicarious involvement. It must be drawn from within the nucleus of the Monad-being and exuded outwards as a progeny capable of refining the vestures on the lower planes.

 In the Coral Seas are islands cloaked with primordial vegetation. There the sun comes up with no warning and blazes forth with the deadly innocence of undifferentiated consciousness. Intellect is barely present and, instead, all floats as a tropical dream dreamed on the edge of a timeless vortex leading back to distant rounds of existence. Those who live out this dream look in wonder at the noisy preoccupations of later Races. They have always sensed the vast power in the volcanic buddings on which they live; the gestatory forces of Saturn surround them utterly and are part of the dream. They live easily on the slopes of death and move rhythmically through the treacherously diversifying reefs. They die easily and in rhythm with the inexorability of time, the cruelty of this sometimes demonstrated casually in their lives. They seem to exist on the threshold of mindfulness without really participating in it. They stand at a critical stage of soul evolution where Saturn rules and where every vesture is tested and tried and weeded out. The rampant energy of all that has evolved through the Races and that which is shapeless or redundant is sloughed away. The concretizing of coral signifies the character of Capricorn ruled by Saturn. All that which is limiting, denser and solidifying induces the soul to discover its potential as a self-conscious being. The body of Medusa becomes a monstrous irrelevancy, whilst the impartite essence of her fiery life-blood contains the focal point for the soul. It is the maintaining virgo intacto of this focus which provides the true apotropaic protection desired, the central focus being a crucial aspect of Saturn's power. Medieval alchemists called Saturn (lead) "the living earth in which the soul of gold is joined to Mercury, that they may bring forth Adam and his wife Eve. Wherefore since the highest has so lowered itself as to become the lowest, we may expect that its blood may be the means of redeeming all its brethren." The coral represents the solidified essence of Saturn's work under water and can guide us in that difficult and sometimes dangerous quest for knowledge of the deeper unconscious realms in the human psyche wherein the more fundamental springs of Divine Will are to be found.

 It is essential in this quest to comprehend 'the limits of Saturn', the shape of the self-conscious centre which has grown on the shell of previously evolved forms. The earth itself demonstrates the earliest modes of budding and diversification. The earth, the moon, other planets and their moons, the growing coral reef, the replication of chromosomes in a single cell – all are recapitulating before our very eyes the powerful arcane forces involved in emerging intelligence. They show us the map we can use to plumb the primordial depths of the collective unconscious. It is the coral which focusses the fire and the point of our quest and thus preserves beauteous order in the midst of the stormy ocean of psychic turmoil. With it as talisman, one is reminded constantly of the ordered limits to be observed in the sea of diversification into which one enters. With conscious discrimination of the limits, proportionality and balance can be maintained and the shell that develops out of such steadfast ideation can truly emerge as the embryo of the New Man. In this, the highest does indeed lower itself to become the lowest and the redeemer of one's fellowmen. The entire wondrous process imbues even the lowly polyp with dignity and universal significance, whilst its jewelled offering points to the very substance of redemption.

Coral gardens drifting in the waters of the mind.
Jewelled recollections of ages slipped away – beyond
 the reef.
But here, where the water is clear,
The design reveals itself in a thousand ways.
The design reveals itself like the budding earth,
Exuding fire and rocky shapes,
Only to sink once more in a coral sea.

"Bermuda" by Cynthia Strother, (c) Lowlights Publishing (BMI).