Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.

Ezekiel 1:16

  Neither in the measureless expanse of space nor in the celestial vault of one's imagination is there a more alluring emblem of strength and mystery than the mighty rings of Saturn. Wheels within wheels whirl around the huge and remote planet. They glissade in circling streams of icy perfection, addressing the mind's ear with a faint, mournful chorus evocative of other worlds beyond death and time. The whole universe is a great wheel and the power of life surging through it moves in wheels infinitely begetting offspring. But the pristine rings circling the shrouded Saturn seem to exemplify the very idea of this cosmic process. Remote and self-contained, they are more like an ideal expression of abstract cosmic motion than a system explicable in terms of physical laws. And the planet in their midst that presides within the envelope of icy haze rules inexorably, allowing no flaw or slippage in the assemblage swirling around it.

  If Uranus lies beyond in its representation of celestial space, Saturn signifies Kronos or time in what seems an idealized realm outside the world of materialized forms. Moving inwards towards the solar centre, Jupiter overbroods the organization of an ordered cosmos, and his offspring, Mars and Venus, interact actively and passively in this development, accompanied by the transcendent neutrality of Mercury. A great spiralling inwards to the physical sun is enacted in this cosmology, one which is accompanied by an equally vast spiralling outwards, an involution and evolution circling about one another like the overlapping colours flashing in and out around the disc of a rapidly spinning top. This breathing out and breathing in is summed up in the essence of time, in duration, which is the very fabric of Saturn, the throne upon which Kronos rules. Such duration gives birth to sequential time whilst remaining aloof from it. Things participating in timeless time are never new or old. They float changelessly in the great stream of being like undimmed glimpses of truths. They are often embodied in myths, like that which tells of the cosmogony from which Kronos, son of Gaia and Ouranos, first emanated onto the stage of an incipient world.

  In his poetic prose, Hesiod recorded how Erebos (Night) emerged out of Chaos as a field bearing Eros and Gaia, who in turn became a field fecundated by the vast space of Ouranos. Gaia and Ouranos produced several generations of offspring: Titans, Kyklopes and monsters. The monsters were so repellent that Ouranos continually pushed them back into their mother, who became overwhelmed by the pressure and devised an evil plan to put an end to their conception. Out of her matrix she assembled the precursory elements of flint in the shape of a sickle and instructed her titanic offspring to do violence to Ouranos by cutting away the means by which he fertilized her. Of the Titans, Kronos agreed to perform this surgical act and he watched as the blood of his father's wound splashed upon Gaia, bringing forth Furies and giants. Then it was that Kronos began his reign, one which witnessed a golden age when immortal souls lived free from sorrow, experiencing neither affliction nor ageing. Later, in the Age of Zeus, these souls would be known as the Blessed Spirits who watch over mortal men and defend them from evil.

They keep watch over lawsuits and hard dealings; they mantle themselves in dark mist and wander all over the country; they bestow wealth; for this right as of kings was given them.

                            Works and Days

  The reign of Kronos was one of endless duration and could never have been considered in terms of a past tense if his offspring Zeus had not rebelled against him and ushered in the era of conditioned time and space as we know it. But the duration of Kronos does not imply that which knows no limits. The ancient Egyptians identified Saturn as the planet of limitation, calling his ruler Seb, guardian of the entrance to the underworld, son of Shu and image of Ra. As Kronos or Seb, Saturn represents the recognition of the insufficiency of any temporal order. He is restless with it and exhibits a divine discontent in its presence. Human beings, combining in their natures the characteristics of all the planets and their gods, also suffer from this restlessness and discontent. Often the form this takes is less than divine and comes to be expressed collectively, as it does in the Saturnalias celebrated under various names by peoples everywhere. They involve a breaking away from the Jovian constraints of man-made order, a ritual assassination of the king or the Establishment, which is replaced by a "Lord of Misrule" or an "Abbot of Unreason". Such farcical rulers preside over a brief and intense period of chaos during which man's desperate quest for a way out of time pours forth in a wild and carefree indulgence in excesses unmarred by clocks or caution. One cannot but think of Brazil's desperately poor who, faced with naught but hardship and squalor, yet scrimp and save all year to buy fabulous costumes to wear for their moment of liberation and glory during carnival. In ancient times the Saturnalia was celebrated during the winter solstice, when there was a suspension of time between the death of the old year and the rebirth of the new. These were twelve days mirroring that dawn of time during which the idea of the dodecahedron, the zodiac and the earth's twelve-month cycle gestated. It was the time of chaos before cosmos when Saturn reigned supreme.

  For the evolution of the human soul, Saturn as ruler of the sign of Capricorn represents the gestatory stage wherein the embryo of the newly enlightened man is developed. A death of the old precedes this, bringing the soul through the cycle of its involvement with the feminine principle associated with the earth and mortality. Saturn's colour, black, and his emblem, the sarcophagus, accompany the soul as it emulates the planetary god's involvement in the feminine principle. The liberation sought by the soul from the thrall of time and form occurs in that sarcophagus, which alone can eat away the flesh of illusory existence. In the Hindu tradition it is Shiva who personifies this function, and upon comparison it becomes apparent that many of the attributes ascribed to Kronos are similar to those associated with the Mahayogin of the Hindu pantheon. Shiva can easily be identified as the god of Time by merely noticing that his damaru (drum) is in the shape of an hourglass. And the crescent moon on his brow reveals his association with the feminine principle in Nature as well as with the sickle which cuts eternity into hours and yet becomes the tool in the hands of the Good Gardener.

  In the Orphic tradition, Kronos was called the Insolent (ΰβριστικός), corresponding to the Sanskrit rajasa. Shiva is ever known for his temerity in the eyes of the other gods. He is brazen and shows little concern for the conventional proprieties which uphold the hierarchical order of things. He is also capable of severity, as well as the stark mercilessness so tenaciously identified with Saturn by multitudes of people all over the world. There is always an unsettling and awesome aspect to Shiva, and Hindus seem to isolate this aspect of his nature in their worship of Saturn while circumambulating the statues of the nine planetary gods. The image of Saturn is always black and receives a good deal of attention from priests as well as devotees. A great deal of supplication and placation goes into their worship, accompanied with chants of mantras to provide protection against harsh karma. It may be acknowledged that they have themselves sown the seeds of this karma, but they still believe that it is Saturn's sickle which will reap its unwanted fruit. Thus Shiva-Saturn is worshipped out of fear and is associated with the Iron Age or kali yuga, the colour black and death. Even in the Semitic tradition it was said that "God hath put a girdle about his loins (the rings of Saturn), and the name of the girdle is death."

  In man the girdle of death is the body and its two lower principles, all of which are bound to die. He who wears the girdle is immortal and, if he only knew it, at one with the deity whose character seems so threatening. The old Assyrians put their finger on this when they recognized Saturn as a solar deity called Nirig, "who issued forth from the shades of night" bearing the character of a warrior, whose warfare is directed against man rather than against the powers of darkness, as one would expect in a typical solar hero. The Egyptians too recognized Saturn as the planetary ruler through whose critical stage the evolving soul must pass, and wherein each of its vestures are tested and sorely tried "that naught shall mar the exquisite beauty of the kingly garment which is being woven on the looms of time". It is at this juncture that Saturn as Shiva enlists the army of the Rudras as destroyers of the human passions and senses which are ever in the way of higher spiritual perceptions and the growth of the inner man. This is what is meant when it is said that Kronos takes the kingdoms by violence. He does this not blindly or in a rage, but coolly with the sharp sword of mind. For he is what Plato called the great dianoetic power of the intellectual universe who rules over the noetic part of the soul. He represents mahat, whose seed will proliferate at myriad levels and in multitudinous forms in which he will continue to reign, even in the Age of Zeus.

  Plato depicted the Golden Age as an era in which no man ruled over others, but one in which all of the Third Race were ruled by devas and rishis. Ruled by gods, these men were demigods living at peace with one another, mingling freely with the gods and conversing intelligibly with animals. When Zeus dethroned his father and the Golden Age came to an end, "a shudder passed through the world at the reversing of its rotation, checked as it was between the old control and the new impulse which had turned end into beginning for it and beginning into end". After this great shift, the world continued in a new order in which it governed itself by innate force, and the "shepherd kings" of the Age of Kronos retired. But this was not the end of the involvement of Kronos, for, like Shiva, this presiding deity of the wheels entered, through his perpetual motion, into the manifesting activity of every atom of the gradually concretizing universe. That which is highest and most abstract thus became the very engine of what is lowest and most particularized. The aloof and mysterious ruler of timeless illumination became involved in the blackest and densest forms. The alchemists understood something about this when they asserted that their Saturn or lead was a much nobler substance than gold. They said it was the living earth, in which the soul of gold was joined to mercury in order to bring forth the human race. In Shiva this self-imposed abasement results in clarification and an assertion of detachment free of complex structures. The order defining lead and gold is reduced to its essential germ of mind in motion. The lowest is made to clarify the highest and the highest is laid bare.

Ishvara resides in every mortal being and puts in motion, by his supernatural power, all things which mount on the wheel of time.

                            Bhagavad Gita XVIII.61

  In one of her letters, H. P. Blavatsky stated that each of the seven planets of our chain has a dual septenary circle of rings, seven above and seven below, "Saturn being the only half frank and sincere planet in this case". Perhaps examining some of the characteristics of the physical planet might further elucidate this remarkable statement as well as some of the mythical and cosmogonical correlations which have been considered so far. Very generally speaking, Saturn bears a resemblance to Jupiter but is somewhat smaller, more flattened and possesses less prominent cloud markings. The yellowish and tan belts are disturbed by occasional bright and dark spots, but they are covered by a thick overlaying haze. The planet has the lowest mean density of any in our solar system. About nine-tenths the diameter of Jupiter in size, Saturn has only one-third its mass and one-half its density. This is explained by a composition made up of over eighty-eight percent molecular hydrogen and probably about eleven percent helium. There is very little rocky material and even the interior is believed to be hydrogen rich. Like Jupiter, Saturn emits twice the amount of heat it receives from the sun, though it has not retained enough of the heat accumulated during its formation to account for it. Instead, it is thought that as the planet slowly cools, the amount of helium which can be dissolved in hydrogen decreases and the heavier excess drifts inward. As they move towards the centre of the planet, the helium droplets release gravitational energy, producing a steady source of heat which then radiates outward.

  Saturn's rings have something in common with those belonging to the other giants of the outer solar system. They lie close to their parent, are centred on the equatorial plane of the planet, and have a number of moons or moonlets accompanying them. But the rings of these other planets cannot compare with Saturn's in terms of their size, density and definition. Clearly, its rings are Saturn's most outstanding characteristic, lending the planet its compelling presence in the heavens and its uniqueness. Whilst its three major rings alone measure two hundred and seventy thousand kilometres in annular width (three-quarters of the distance from the earth to our moon), all of Saturn's rings are only a few hundred metres thick, giving them a relative thickness which would be thousands of times thinner than razor-thin. They are made up of particles of ice, or material covered with ice, and range in size from a few centimetres to a few decametres. Together they circle the planet like hailstones ranging from the size of a ping-pong ball to that of a house. Seven rings have been identified by letters according to the order of their discovery. The closest to the planet is the faint D ring, then the fairly opaque C ring, followed by the brilliant B ring, with its narrow annular regions of differing brightness and opacity looking like grooves on a phonograph record. The B ring is twenty-five thousand kilometres wide and has numerous variations occurring over radial distances as small as ten kilometres, some of which appear as spokes in a great wheel. Beyond the B ring is what is known as Cassini's Division, which is only relatively empty and has the opacity of the C ring. Then comes the A ring with Encke's Division in its centre, the F ring which is narrow and faint, having thread-like ringlets which tend to braid and twist, the G ring which is broader but equally faint, and finally the E ring which is very dispersed. Together the rings cast a black band of shadow on the planet, seeming to extend the annular effect right into its hazy envelope. And as all the large rings consist of hundreds or thousands of ringlets, this comprises a spectacular pattern of rapidly revolving motion.

  The existence of so many ringlets has puzzled observers and inspired various theories. One idea ascribes each to a small satellite contained in it from which its particles are broken off by bombardment. Another hypothesis suggests that they are defined by two small shepherd satellites (like those associated with the F ring) which move on either side of the ringlets and exert periodic gravitational influences upon them, causing their braiding, but also keeping their particles from dissipating. This, like the first hypothesis, has never been confirmed, but it does focus on the importance of the many moonlets and satellites revolving around Saturn and some of the significant connections they may have with the rings. The outermost body traditionally associated with Saturn as a satellite is Phoebe, which has a retrograde orbit and is very highly inclined. Moving inward towards the planet lie the orbits of Iapetus, Hyperion, the giant Titan, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Enceladus and Mimas, plus eight more discovered by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. This total number of seventeen should probably be adjusted. By subtracting the retrograde Phoebe, one eliminates from the system what is believed to be a captured interplanetary body whose orbit is so far out from the planet that its influence upon it is minimal. Such an adjustment reduces the number of Saturn's satellites to sixteen, a symbolically more suggestive number in line with Saturn's occult nature.

  The extremely low density of the satellites suggests that they are at least two-thirds ice formed from water, which is the major constituent produced when accretion takes place at low temperatures. Because of this, most of them are extremely bright and, in some cases, lend their brightness to the ring in which they are orbiting. It is supposed that when Saturn's envelope formed, the planet's atmosphere extended into the region now occupied by its rings and innermost moons. The theory follows that, while the particles accreting in the envelope must have orbited the planet, their random motions caused them to collide. The heat and loss of energy resulting from this would decrease their vertical motion. Faster moving inner particles would hit the outer particles from behind, causing a transfer of momentum which would raise the orbit of the outer particles, whilst lowering that of the inner. Thus the envelope would spread horizontally, forming the flat disc characteristic of Saturn's rings. But it would be premature to assume that the satellites were responsible for the development of the rings. Observing giant nebulas over a vast period of time may very well reveal the presence of enormous ring systems expanding before contracting in the initial formation of globes. This centrifugal and centripetal effect is echoed in the remarkable spokes which appear and disappear in Saturn's brilliant B ring. Each can be observed for a good part of an orbital revolution of the B ring (ten hours), and new spokes arise sporadically in new locations as the old ones disappear. As they form, they appear as bright forward-scattered light and dark back-scattered light, giving the effect of an in-and-out movement. In their inner sections the wedge-shaped spokes move faster, so that they eventually become tilted and unrecognizable. The positions of new ones seem to be coupled to the planet's magnetic field and to electrical discharges streaming from the planet which are hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than lightning in the earth's atmosphere.

  It seems likely that the spokes are caused by a rain of charged material from the planet, which transfers an electric charge to micrometre-size particles and lifts them from the surface of larger particles. If so, the lifted particles would then be recaptured when they later collided with other large particles. The activity here seems to involve the continual sculpting of matter into globular form and its eternal refinement through the effects of centrifugal force. The other circular form which is being continually sculpted is the edge of the rings themselves. Saturn's many moons, orbiting inside and outside the rings, exert gravitational influences on the particles composing them and marshal electromagnetic forces from the field in which they all rotate. Such resonances produce the narrow ringlets with sharp edges which make up the major rings. Shepherd moons also act to keep their swirling streams well defined, with the result that their energies are contained and concentrated. Jupiter's rings are far more diffused than Saturn's, their particles and attendant effects spreading out through space continually. Eliphas Levi wrote that Jupiter, as agent of the sun, is the risen and glorious saviour, whereas Saturn is God the Father, from whom Jupiter takes his model. Thus the bright, well-defined rings of Saturn come to represent far more than a fascinating physical phenomenon. They symbolize the contained potential of perpetual motion representing mahat, the concentrated design which reveals a glimpse of the cosmic pattern to unfold.

They are also called Rotae — the moving wheels of the celestial orbs participating in the world's creation — when the meaning refers to the animating principle of the stars and planets; for in the Kabala, they are represented by the Ophanim, the Angels of the Spheres and stars, of which they are the informing Souls.

                            The Secret Doctrine, i 117

  In his vision, Ezekiel saw rings so high that he was filled with dread. They were full of eyes, "for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheel". At each corner of this Merkabah was one of the four faces of the archangel Michael, whom H.P. Blavatsky identified as the "Living Image of God", the Dragon-Regent of Saturn. His four faces are the Four Maharajas connected with karma as it prepares to utilize matter to carry out its decrees. They are called the "winged Globes" or "Fiery Wheels", the "fiery Serpents of Heaven" who are "the prototypic causes and builders of all the heavenly orbs which were their visible bodies or coverings and of which they were the souls". In the first divine world, Fohat formed the germs of the lesser wheels. These wheels were placed in six directions with one in the centre. An army of the Sons of Light stood at each angle with the Lipika at the centre. Next, Fohat built a winged wheel at each corner of the second divine world, which wheels are reflected in the four times four satellites of Saturn and are the four faces of the living image of God, the spirit of the planet. After this, seven laya centres were created as foundations of the manifesting universe, and they were built in the likeness of the older wheels. In these descending wheels, echoes of the arcane Word, which first engendered abstract absolute Motion, are given flesh. The wheels turn within wheels, sifting and meting out the causes and effects of karma at every level, inexorably separating the wheat from the chaff, eternally refining out the essence which reflects the core of the wheel itself.

  Gautama Buddha assisted this process when he gave a turn to the universal wheel of Law, bringing down the light from its centre into the world. By conducting the flame of Truth out to the rim of the wheel, he increased the rotary movement of terrestrial life. Karma is thus quickened and human beings feel the heat as everything becomes stirred up. The diffuse rings of Jupiter represent a centrifugal proliferation of the Law in the ordered cosmos, whilst the rigidly defined rings of Saturn symbolize the archetypal pattern and process that will be replicated ad infinitum through this proliferation. The rims of all these countless wheels are divided into sectors, which are phases of time anticipated by the mysterious spokes appearing on Saturn's B ring. These spokes provide the channels whereby beings evolving along the periphery of the wheel can come to realize the source of the whole wheel, the still centre in which the Unmoved Mover resides.

  Here in this realm of eternal duration abides the source of the pattern which endures throughout the vast and seemingly measureless cycle of a mahamanvantara. The pattern of wheels or rings thus exemplifies duration in the manifest cosmos and finds its fullest expression in the visible planet of Saturn. In the still centre of the pattern, Shiva enacts his great tandava dance, the circling reverberations of which cycle out into manifest existence to exact from all forms an allegiance to his archetypal model. For from the awakening of Kosmos, primordial matter tends ever increasingly towards a circular motion reflecting his dance, and all existing things are bound up in it. But it is Shiva who destroys the dying forms clutching to the rim of the wheel, which represents the outer world. He is the Implacable Devourer so dreaded by those who fearfully supplicate the god Saturn. He is, like the Egyptian Aames, the electro-positive force devouring all others, forcing the abandonment of insufficient forms one after another. Shiva, like Kronos, is restless in time because he is never satisfied with worldly forms or orders accommodating the conditional features of incarnated existence. None of these orders are capable of expressing and embodying the whole. All are like shapes with corners and lumps and tortuous little divisions attempting to call themselves circles. None are true mirrors of the inexorable wheel of Law, and so they must whirl through their lives, colliding like oddly shaped particles until they are sculpted into spheroids or blasted into oblivion. Just like the particles in Saturn's rings, even the idea of such orders must be ever refined. For like Kronos, who devoured all his children, Shiva demands a return to the simplicity of being before generation, to the Golden Age when human beings were truly spheroidal in consciousness and form.

  Such a return is frightening to most people because it necessitates an abandonment of all the accoutrements of the separate self and even of the hope that springs thereof. Few are willing and capable of attempting to do this. But the unappeasable dynamism of Shiva will not be denied, and the realization of this necessity will come either by choice or through the unending collisions brought about by karma life after life. The circle of flames around Shiva Nataraja burns away the temporal forms and hopes we so desperately cling to. Buddha said that the world was like a burning house and so it is, one from which even the most reluctant or defiant individual comes to seek an escape. The Saturnalias of the world offer but brief respite from the grinding wheels of time and souls become gradually filled with divine discontent. Thus, even into the sarcophagus of life Shiva-Kronos enters and afflicts the complacent with longings while stripping the hopeful of false hopes. The flesh of sensory existence is thus eaten slowly away, and individuals come to glimpse the nature of the anandatandava, the cosmic process of creation and dissolution which is going on ceaselessly in the centre of the wheel. There the maya of the world is stripped away, bypassed, as it were. For the tiruvasi flame surrounding Shiva is that maya which must be penetrated in order to move up along the spokes leading to the pranava in its midst. Here at the still centre all worlds are connected, and one sees that the little wheel of an individual life is really a reflection of wheels so much grander and all-encompassing that the hold previously exacted by the smaller wheel is loosened. One becomes gradually freed to participate consciously in wheels shepherded by beings of far greater wisdom and powers than hitherto imagined possible.

  Saturn thus regards all other than the immortal soul with indifference, arising from the knowledge that all else is illusion. This seems cold and saturnine to those cleaving to the world. It promises death to all ephemera instead of joy in life's myriad forms. But there is no denying that man's fondest pleasures reflect a longing to be free from time and the mediocre drudgery of day-to-day existence. Human beings crave the intense moment of escape, the fleeting sense of omnipotence, bliss and transcendence that comes to them only for an instant. If one ponders this deeply, one may begin to realize that as long as man flees the drudgery of time to embrace the intensity of the timeless, he is, in fact, courting a form of death of which he is, quite paradoxically, afraid. But there are many steps between entertaining such an idea and coolly confronting the ferociously uncompromising elimination of the obstacles to wisdom represented by Saturn. The thread is there, for it is the same ferocious power of involvement, such as demonstrated by the pleasure seeker, that comes into play when an individual turns to the uncompromising eliminations of obstacles to wisdom. The power which turns the wheels of involution also turns the wheels of evolution. This is why Shiva is both creator and destroyer, and in the perpetual motion of his rings the seeming conflict between total involvement and total withdrawal is resolved. It is thus that he, like Saturn, is the highest and the lowest, the pure unsullied Mahayogin and the unrestrained madman of the world.

  He is like the spinning planet, so glacial and aloof in the heavens and yet so vitally active in every atom of our bodies. Between his cool centre and the pounding blood flaming through our vestures whirl wheels within wheels - all his, all belonging to him and capable of being used to mount to his dwelling place. Like the spinning top whose colours appear to be moving in and out, man can slowly come to balance the variations, the involution and evolution, in his microcosmic being. Gradually he can penetrate the glissading rings surrounding Saturn's remote throne and lend himself in service to the perpetual design of mahat. Quietly and in silence he can transcend the pairs of opposites and arrive at that ring beyond which naught exists except a fading echo of the One Wheel's vast turning.

Before suns and planets
there were wheels . . .
Vast rings spiralling,
Whirling round the
throne of Him
Of whom Saturn forms
a splendid mirror.