Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Isis sat reciting to the oil Abartat and lamented to the true oil saying, 'Thou being praised, O oil, than being praised by the Agathodaemon; thou being applauded by me myself who will praise thee forever, O herb-oil, O sweat of the Agathodaemon, Amulet of Geb. It is Isis who makes invocation to the oil.'

Demotic Magical Papyrus

 A young boy follows the bent figure of a diviner into the earthen-floored room and is seated upon a stool facing the East. He gazes unconcernedly at the brick and mortar wall while the old man rubs the soot from a blackened pot upon the palm of his right hand. He merges his fingers and cups them slightly while the old man anoints the darkened area with sesame oil and he draws to full attention as the incantation begins. Three times the diviner calls in his right ear and then above his head. As he moves slowly around to the left, the boy's form grows rigid and his eyes stare unblinkingly at the oiled palm. The old man's voice gathers strength and he calls out, "Bright oil, pure oil, shining oil, the purifying oil of the gods, oil which softens the sinews of man! With oil of the incantation of Ea, with oil of the incantation of Marduk I have made thee drip; with the oil of softening which Ea has given for soothing I have anointed thee; oil of life I have put thee on!" Now standing before the motionless boy, he orders him to speak and tell his master what he sees. The stillness of anticipation gathers while the boy continues to stare and only very slowly do the formulations of words begin to resonate in its oppressiveness. "I see a prince in white garments who bids thee slaughter a lamb in preparation for the answering of thy questions." "It is done!" cried the old diviner, "and do thou request the Spirit of the Hand to speak of the welfare of the king and the overthrow of our enemies." The youthful voice carries the questions and, in echoed measures the answers come, heard through his eyes which never waver in their steady gaze upon the anointed hand. Sensing the boy's growing fatigue, his master nods in satisfaction and wipes the oil from his upraised palm. The child slumps beside the stool and falls into a deep sleep while the old man carefully records all that has transpired upon his ritual tablet. He marks the date upon the lower corner of the tile . . . the month of Shabatu, year 7 in the reign of King Amar-Sin of Ur.

 Thus it was in Babylonia, and in many ancient cities of the world, oil was viewed as a mystical element. Its use in rites of consecration and dedication was common, as when Jacob hallowed the stone at Bethel by pouring oil on it and Moses anointed the head of Aaron whom he dedicated to the service of God. As soothing balm it was used to restore cleanliness to the leper and its reflective surface provided the mirror of the diviner's art. There were exacting rules of specificity in its use, such as the injunction that one should whisper a charm over oil in the vessel and not over oil in the hand. The sacred Talmud taught that "he who feels pain in his ear should put oil on his head and whisper a charm but he should not put oil into the hand or into the vessel". In Mesopotamia the two great gods of magic and divination were Ea and Marduk, whose aid was invoked more than four thousand years ago by those who would know the future or cure sickness. A look into a dish of oil could ascertain if the afflicted was bewitched or possessed and often it was poured upon water so that an omen might be read. If, when falling upon the water the oil broke through and then came up again, it was taken as a sign that the sufferer would recover. But if the oil sank to the bottom of the vessel, death was predicted, for the Princes of the Oil had turned away and all offerings and incantations would go for naught.

The Water, like a witch's oils,Burnt green, and blue and white.

The Ancient Mariner

 In the days when 'wildcat' territory was being drilled, the mysterious art of oil witchery flourished. All over North America, oil smellers, jumpers and doodlebug men captured the hopes and capital of men who dreamed of oil and saw in it their god of fortune. But it was not the golden sesamum or olive oil they sought. It was petroleum, the black gold of Texas and Oklahoma crude that laid the basis of their particular vulnerability to the wiles of would-be magicians. Men dreamed of oil and found it while others dashed their hopes upon barren rock. The Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, site was discovered by a man who received spirit guidance from a dead Seneca Indian, and others were located on the basis of visions had by people who had never even seen an oil rig before. But the majority of seekers went out into the likely fields, the barren hillsides where little vegetation grew. They looked for signs, believing "there must be something under the land when there is nothing on it". In the field they met the oil witches with their doodlebugging devices ranging from green twigs to extraordinarily complex machines that popped and flashed and vibrated over likely drilling spots. And in and amongst the charlatans they sometimes found genuine psychics with a gift for 'smelling' or seeing clairvoyantly the exact locations of oil. Among these were some who believed their skill to be a divine gift and refused to amass the fortunes they easily could have had in the feverish climate that prevailed among prospectors. The lure of vast riches was matched by tales of equally great if exaggerated proportions. It was said of the legendary roughneck Kemp Morgan that "once he brought in a gusher when the weather was so cold that the oil froze as it came out of the well, whereupon he sawed it into sections and shipped it out on flatcars". The God or Prince of the Oil had evidently become the driller himself and his power was that of releasing the flow. But the witchery and magic continued to surround the lure of oil as though men sensed a quality within it which was more than the mere power that money could purchase.

 When people speak of the Oil Market it is petroleum that they nowadays have in mind, but actually all sorts of oils have been treated as commodities since very ancient times. Their exchange has been, for thousands of years, like a thermometer which is very sensitive to the shifts in economic conditions. Oil from plants, animals and even the rock-oil (petra + oleum) which seeped naturally from the earth, were always valued and frequently the focus of greed and selfishness. When one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese tradition wished to test the sincerity of would-be converts to his doctrine, he travelled as a seller of oil. During an entire year he found only one old woman sufficiently unselfish not to demand more than the amount of oil that the price warranted. To her alone he gave the wealth of his teachings.

 The value of oil seems always to have been apparent to men. The primitive hunter with the bow and spear has smeared their sinew backs with animal fat for tens of thousands of years. In the arctic cold he rubbed his body with blubber and burned his wick in its melted stream just as ancient villagers in warmer climes burned their cotton yarns in olive oil lamps. For millennia oils have been used in a remarkable variety of ways. As a preservative and lubricant, oil has always been indispensable. It was used as a binder for pigments, for tanning, sealing, caulking, cooking, soap making and for mummification. Great quantities of olive oil were imported by Egypt during the rise of its monumental civilization for the purpose of lubricating the tools used in the moving of heavy building materials. Castor oil was widely used in the Mediterranean for the greasing of chariot wheels and Homer mentions oil as an aid to weaving. Oil preserved perishable items and made things flow. It smoothed the workings of moving parts and softened the raw edges of adjoining things. Little wonder that Pliny the Elder observed, "Everything is soothed by oil." The axles and wheels of commerce itself were lubricated with oil, which remains the medium of exchange in many parts of the world. Many a peasant still brings in his crop of olives or seeds to the local mill to gossip away the hours while mules or camels rotate the great stone quern that crushes the fruits of his weeks of annual labour and brings him the subsistence around which his life revolves. The oil will be his fuel, his light, his food, his soap, his base for medicine and pomade. He will preserve his food in it and receive its sacrament at the end of his life, and he will barter the meagre surplus he has saved for rope and metal tools he cannot make with his own hands.

 The oil-seed trade of India extended the channels of reciprocity beyond the village and through the gateways of such vast and pulsating markets as that of Bombay where the godowns of merchants stored and passed on their riches into the hulls of ocean-bound ships for centuries. A Greek merchant visiting the coast of Africa in 60 AD. described the importation of Indian goods including ghee and sesame oil. Enormously complex and delicately shifting relations exist now as then between the farmers and the muccadams and merchants in the city. Their interactions are articulated with all the subtle fluctuations that the circumstances of supply and demand suggest, and the pattern of their relations can be seen as a balanced exchange poised upon a scale which reflects far-reaching conditions. Uses of oil, however, have not always reflected a desire to sustain balanced relations. In the fifth century B.C. Persians used incendiary arrows wrapped in oil-soaked tow during the siege of Athens and in later times the Knights of St. John used a 'secret weapon' called 'the Greek Fire' against the Turks at Malta. They filled porous containers with paraffin and ignited them with gunpowder and fuses. How contrary a use of the 'liquid fire' which the Zoroastrians worshipped at Baku as it burst from the earth where natural petroleum seepages accumulated. Their eternal flame of harmony had been converted into an explosive weapon of aggression.

Why does pouring oil on the sea make it clear and calm? Is it for that the winds, slipping the smooth oil, have no force, nor cause any waves?


 Oil is an unctuous, viscous, combustible liquid at ordinary temperatures and soluble in ether or alcohol but not in water. It is greasy and to oil anything is to smear it, lubricate it or supply it. It is to make anything unctuous or smooth and in human relations can imply fluidity of interaction as well as bribery or even an oily and affected manner. While oil may smooth waves in a stormy sea, it can also become the ointment of deception causing one to forget its combustible nature or its ability to create a beguiling film over things. The overlapping and varied meanings that have been associated with oil reflect the distinct characteristics of the different types of oil which include non-volatile oils like olive or soybean, mineral oils like petroleum, and volatile or essential oils like those of turpentine and clove. The etymological development of the word itself traces the relation between these different types beginning with �laia (eleaia) in the Greek to olea in the Latin which forms the basis for the French and English derivatives. Originally, these terms referred exclusively to olive oil but the word oleum came to be used in the generic sense. Though vegetable and animal oils seem to be different from oil which comes out of the earth, they are all of plant or animal origin. The oils in plants and animals are compounds formed when hydrocarbon radicals replace the hydrogen of an acid which is internally present within the seed or fruit, but which is taken into an animal body as part of its diet. Oil from the earth is found in shale formations dark in colour due to carbonaceous material derived from plant or animal remains and thus from previous forms of life. It is a hydrocarbon mixture varying in weight from extremely heavy crude oils where the carbon element predominates, to lighter gases. Some of the volatile vegetable oils are more flammable or explosive than the heavier petroleums. One can imagine how difficult it would be to soothe tired muscles of the body with oil of clove or turpentine. There are, however, overlapping uses, and light motor fuels made of palm and other vegetable oils have been used in Chinese industries when petroleum was not available. Whether oils are within living forms or derived from previous forms of life, they provide food reserve and energy, insulation against cold, protection and preservation of tissue and emulsifying agents vital to growth. They perform this function within plant and animal organisms and, through conscious human application, in the artificial and technological realm created by man in the course of his cultural history.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange,

The Tempest

 The last lines of these words of Shakespeare are inscribed on Shelley's gravestone and cast an aura of metamorphosis about the poet's immortal essence, as though the essence itself gave off a perfume which lingered within the shifting forms taken by the disintegrating parts of a vesture ennobled by its former dweller.

 No atom is ever lost in the tireless process called life and death, and the oil oozing from the bottom of the sea or blazing from gaseous crevices in the Caucasus is rich with lives 'lived' long ago. In this sense the origin of petroleum is related to the origin of organic life itself, on this earth and in other parts of the universe. Oilfields contain the concentrated saline fluids of ancient seas which were absorbed into the clay mineral surfaces and compacted. The organic lives trapped in this compaction provided the materials for the hydrocarbon conversion which removed the oxygen components as the sediments thickened to form kerogen. With a slow, steady heat the kerogen molecules would 'crack' and release their paraffin chain. Immense amounts of time are required for the formation of oil to take place, but once it accumulates it sometimes escapes upward to the surface where it may explode in mud volcanoes that palpitate periodically, like those of the Caspian Sea which are affected by the gravitational influence of the moon, or those of the Baku area which are called 'the Eternal Fires'.

 The fiery and explosive characteristics of oil combine with its soothing and lubricating nature to suggest a complex symbolic meaning. Added to these aspects is its preservative nature which includes, among many attributes, the ability to carry in its substance an aroma for a very long time. These characteristics can be linked with other elements in a symbolic interpretation. Thus there is the fiery nature having to do with the higher Triad in man. The combustion possible upon exposure to oxygen (the element related to prana) involves a release of energy which can enliven the vestures of man. An explosive combustion, however, may be related to the rate at which heat is released and may indicate, by analogy, either a breakthrough involving the expression of a higher form of energy or an imbalance in terms of acceleration and dissipation. If we applied this last to the realm of reciprocity in economics, we would have a situation of disequilibrium between supply and profitable use. Comparing the flowing and soothing nature of oil to water, it becomes apparent that it is their liquid natures which they have in common. They are affected by the moon and assume the form of anything that contains them, and yet oil will maintain its form in water. Earth will be broken up and carried by water but oil, because of its viscous nature, has the power to resist a change in the arrangement of its molecules and will spread in water without being broken up by it. While fire can cause a molecular alteration in oil, it is only ether or alcohol which can cut it. The association with water seems to point to the reflective nature of the astral, reminding one of the divining art of oil magic which, however, cannot yield the highest wisdom associated with the archetype of ether. The oil referred to in the most sacred form of anointment must combine the purest reflective powers of water and its ability to flow everywhere with the incandescent nature of fiery Akasa.

 In The Secret Doctrine the principles of Atma, Buddhi and Manas - the Triad of the Unmanifest Logos, Universal Latent Ideation and Universal Active Intelligence - are depicted as overbrooding the four principles of kama, linga sarira, prana and gross matter. Kama is related to hydrogen, the lightest gas, which burns in oxygen producing the most intense heat. Its archetype is cosmic chaotic energy or Akasa. This highly active principle is followed by the passive linga sarira, related to nitrogen which is the inert, gaseous vehicle of oxygen that allows animal respiration. This is an expression of the astral ideation which reflects terrestrial things, Prana, related to oxygen, is the life-essence or energy and supports combustion, being the active chemical agent in all organic life. At the base of all these is gross matter or carbon which is the foundation of all organic substances having to do with the earth. In this series we see a chain of conversions from the intensely active through the inert to the active, ending finally with gross matter. The series moves from light to darkness, from diffuse to concentrated, and yet includes the entire realm of the hydrocarbon mixtures known as oil.

 Petroleum is spoken of as an exhaustible resource and in view of its critical role in supplying energy, it is hardly surprising that anxiety and manipulation should surround its supply and demand. All the wheels, cogs and engines of the world seem to endlessly require more oil and the finitude of its supply presents an intriguing irony in the light of the arcane maxim that all the elements and forces represent reflections of archetypes in relation to which we must assume a balance. If this is the case, then the possibility of depleting the world's oil resources must represent a colossal imbalance in relation to the use of other resources. Perhaps it is a little like what the poet had in mind when he wrote:

We spend our midday sweat, our midnight oil;
We tire the night in thought, the day in toil.

 A more balanced way of life would certainly require a reduction in the manufacture of petrochemicals (which have replaced ninety per cent of equivalent 'organic' products in the United States) and a re-examination of such works as the Sushmita Ayurveda which discusses the use of seed oils for medicinal purposes. Focussing upon the lubricating nature of oil, it ought to serve to articulate the reciprocal flow of wealth in the world just as it can stimulate a balanced function within the human body.

 Oil as used in industry is a unique commodity with greater apparent significance than others both to producer and consumer. It has utterly changed conditions in a number of producing countries, supplied arms for heated political causes while providing the foundation for industrialized civilization in consumer countries. Negotiations regarding pricing and supply of oil have become more focussed upon politics than economics, which results in agreements that necessarily recognize the legitimate interests of the producing countries. Thus oil has played the role of forcing the necessity of awakened recognition of the needs of developing countries while at the same time pointing to the broader issue of a more equal distribution of the world's wealth. While this obviously tips the balance back away from a previously dominant inclination towards global Westernization and suggests to the world alternative modes of development based upon the lines of non-Western cultural heritage, it does not solve the problem of a balanced distribution of the world's wealth. There are many poor nations in the world which do not produce oil and are dependent upon suppliers for chemical fertilizers that are necessary for agricultural breakthroughs such as promised by 'the Green Revolution'. For a quarter century the rich nations of the world were urged by the U.N. and liberal economists and political thinkers to spend at least one per cent of their gross national product on 'Third World' nations. This was never done and now those who are oil producers have come to help themselves. But the question remains as to their wisdom regarding the helping of those who continue to suffer from the imbalances wrought by colonialism and subsequent political and economic instability. Will those who now control vast amounts of oil show a greater understanding of a reciprocal balance which can be made smooth and universally effective through the wise application of oil? If a ton of paraffin is treated, it is technically possible to obtain a ton of protein in the form of a vitamin concentrate. Large-scale production could supply the world's needs from only a small fraction of the global output of crude oil.

Give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah

 For millennia oil has been used to preserve and protect tools, food, skin and myriad items. It is the organic preserver in nature. Those oils which come from previous life-forms symbolize a fluid link with the past, articulating all the interstices of the complex web of life and preserving continuity through time. Those residing in living forms perform the same task within the life span of the plant or animal. All of the dynamic connections made in life are effected through the lubricating medium of oil which is to be found, in one form or another, everywhere in the world. It is like the Great Preserver Vishnu who pervades the whole world with his energy. All the gods, Manus, Rishis and Sons of Manu are said to be impersonated potencies of this deity who enters everything like an eternal omnipresent flow. All of the elasticity and flexibility of life are possible as a result of the extending and softening nature of oil which enters into forms and prevents them from drying, rotting and breaking up. It greases or sustains, like Vishnu, the operation of the cycles of life. Oiling the wheels of all exchange, it acts as a filler between stages of movement and growth. It is when oil is in a volatile state that explosions of change occur causing a more fiery Shiva-like force to dominate over the lubricating nature that usually prevails. Then it burns intensely and if it is free of the grosser forms of carboniferous material, its flame will be pure and steady. Like the golden oil of the diviner, it will rise up in the water as an omen of spiritual ascendancy.

 Thus a man within himself can imitate the flow of nature by drawing up and refining its lubricating oils until they assume their ethereal nature and serve to illuminate his entire set of vestures. Like the marvellously light oil of the jojoba plant whose use could wholly eliminate the slaughter of oil-bearing whales, a man can apply the refined oil of love in his dealings with all other forms of life. The wheels of human relationships can turn effortlessly when greased with the perfumed essence of reciprocal flow. That this requires selflessness is evidenced in the example Nature affords us when we recognize that the sweet aroma of the oil is released only with the sacrificial crushing of the seed. This requires a complete abandonment of the psychic frenzy accompanying the desire to possess oil. The psychic element which is strongly aroused in connection with the discovery of oil and its use in divination must be controlled so that its overheating does not result in a destructive explosion. Lack of psychic control within oneself or in human relationships is failure to recognize that oil is like a thermometer which we should be able to read in order to understand the balance of things. It can indicate greedy imbalances and disproportionate development because of its subtle and enduring responses to complex changes, like the bubble in the oil cylinder of the carpenter's level. The psychic passions that work to clog the free flow of reciprocity in the world are like the crudest oils and tars which preserve indefinitely but do not generate spiritual growth. They are like water which stagnates and never moves towards the promise of creative transformation. They can never rise up as refined substance to be quickened by the light of Akashic fire.

 Oil is a universal lubricant for it cannot be that only one portion of an integral whole needs be preserved. It cannot be exhausted for it is the ointment of healing and the substance of continuity out of which the spark of true growth can take its fuel. If men will recollect this essential truth about the nature of oil, then they can follow its flow and divine the collective and interdependent destiny of all. He who has arrived at this depth and breadth of understanding, who grasps penetratingly the nature of the compassionate and eternally reciprocal essence of all life, is an anointed one and truly enlightened.

May there be many among us
Who, with every breath taken,
Are willing to crush
The hard seeds of self
And release the balm of fragrant oil.