The Crown

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.


 The howling din of arms subsided, erupting only in scattered pockets where a hapless few still sought to scatter their life's sap upon the blackened battleground. Cries of the dying hovered over the unhearing dead, whose number included the tattered corpse of a fallen king. Amidst the ruin lone horses fearfully picked their way, dazed by the fruits of their faithful service, draped with the bedraggled remnants of royal ambition. Neither royal robe nor banner tended the form of Richard III. The torn silk fluttering from the sides of a frightened horse cast a momentary shadow-blanket over his crushed remains, though too late to render solace to his shattered soul. Thus it was that the last York king of England died at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. His battered crown was taken from the corpse and hidden by a soldier in a hawthorn bush, where it was later found by Sir Reginald Bray, who presented it to Lord Stanley, the son-in-law of Henry Tudor. It was this crown, worn by Richard about his helmet, that Lord Stanley placed upon the head of the victor and saluted him as King Henry VII. Later, Henry was crowned at Westminster Abbey with St. Edward's crown, but he always prized highly the crown he received on Bosworth Field. Its meaning for him bore upon the question of rightful succession and the mystical association of kingship with the crown. In his will he directed that it be given to Westminster Abbey and rendered into a figure in the likeness of himself.

 The power of kings has always been thought to have had a mystical origin which sheds its influence upon all the objects associated with kingship. But of the most universally recognized items of royal regalia, none can equal the symbolic importance of the crown. Not all kings in human history have worn a crown but very few have gone bareheaded, and the sacred ideas people have had about them are quite similar in different parts of the world. The essential meaning is derived from the character of the head, which surmounts the body and rises above it. Thus it symbolizes the idea of pre-eminence, which is at the core of such designations as 'a crowning achievement', referring to something which is superlatively successful. The crown stands for reward, victory, honour and the highest attainment. It is the completion of things, signifying continuity and duration within the circle of time. Bringing to an apex all these attributes, it is the perfect symbol for sovereignty and seems to suggest a point where immortality and mortality converge. As such, the crown radiating out from the head is the emblematic expression of enlightenment. Indeed, it is said that he who conquers himself wins the crown of eternal life, a very different sort of conquest from that suffered by Richard III.

 The crown is the top part of the head, the highest central point of an arch, the cap of a tooth and the upper portion of a cut jewel. 'To crown' is to invest, to put finishing touches to and bring to the highest possible level. In examining the etymology of the word, its meaning came to emphasize the characteristic of the curve of the head, crown or halo of light. The Latin generic term corona defines a disc of light around the sun or moon, or the appendage on the top of a seed. 'Coronoid' simply means 'curved', whilst 'coronary' describes an encircling like a crown or like the arteries around the heart. 'Coronal' is another Latin derivative which indicates both a circlet for the head or a suture of the skull separating the frontal from the parietal bones of the crown of the head. Ultimately the Latin comes from the Greek κορονας (coronas), which simply means 'curved' and refers to such examples of this in nature as a bird's curved or crooked beak. The Latin diadema (diadem) is a neuter term from the Greek διαδημα (diadema}, which is related to διαδαιο (diadaio), meaning 'to bind round'. The Sanskrit term for diadem is the neuter word kirita, which is used as an epithet of Indra and Arjuna. It comes from a root word kir which describes a 'scattering' or 'pouring out'. Thus, three complementary ideas are expressed by these Indo-European terms: the curve itself, the encircling, and the notion of the containment of that which can pour out. The visible corona of the sun during the time of a full eclipse is forcefully suggested by all three.

 The crown is, therefore, representative of a victory over darkness and vice. In the Christian tradition the Virgin Mary wears a crown of stars, whilst a triple crown symbolic of the holy Trinity is worn by the pope. The crown of thorns which was forced upon the bleeding brow of Christ was meant to be a parody of the Roman emperor's crown of roses. This barbed crown of martyrdom became an attribute of Mary Magdalene and later of Louis IX of France. The crown of St. Charlemagne was triple like that of the pope, whilst that of St. Helena emphasized the importance of the cross in her quest to vanquish the powers of darkness in the early Christian era. Pre-Christian chiefs and kings of Europe wore crowns made of the branches of trees or the horns of a great stag. When these were incorporated into war helmets, they presented a fearful sight on the battlefield, ranging in totemic lineal clusters across the enemy line. Shamans sometimes wore crowns made of animal parts belonging to their familiar, with whom they sustained a power pact. Enormous bear claws might be arranged so as to curve upwards from an encircling band. In Mexico, where the staff of life was maize, a crown filled with this grain was the symbol of Tonacatecuhtli (Lord of Our Flesh), who was believed to be the creator god and food-giver. To the Aztecs he was the first Lord who blew forth and divided the waters of heaven and earth which mingled before him. Thus, he is called Lord of the Overflow, who gave man all things and was the only one pictured with the royal crown.

 All of these crowns were believed to contain a spiritual power which was either bestowed upon the wearer or which, as in the case of the Mexican god, was an attribute of the wearer's power – a pre-eminent expression of his essential condition. The double crown of ancient Egypt expressed these and other subtle combinations of symbolic meaning. The white crown of Upper Egypt, which lies to the south at the source of the Nile, was placed upon the red crown of the Lower Kingdom to the north so as to symbolize the spiritual dominance of the higher world and mind over that of the lower. Thus, a white mitre-shaped bonnet arose out of a shape evolved from adapted hieroglyphics. The coif was a glass or dipper whose curved stem symbolized vegetation, whilst the upright stem was the ideogram for the earth itself. The god Babi of the Upper Kingdom was depicted wearing a white mitre bonnet from which dangled a whip, symbolic of his dominion over the Lower Kingdom. He was called Master of Darkness and was widely worshipped as a deity capable of sustaining a righteous balance in the world. Various Egyptian gods and goddesses wore crowns associated with either of the two kingdoms, some symbolic of enlightenment, others of fertility, and still others of dominion and conquest.

 In the alchemical tract known as Margarita pretiosa, the six base metals are shown as slaves with uncovered heads bowed before the metal gold, which is their king. After their transmutation they are shown wearing crowns on their heads representing the victory of the higher principles over the lower. The radiant nature of pure gold relates closely to the shape of the radiating crown which, like a halo, represents the power contained in the head and signifies the seat of the soul. To wear this crown is to have arrived at a threshold of spiritual enlightenment, rarely if ever achieved by worldly kings. The turreted crown is one whose crenellated shape symbolizes the walls of the holy place of a deity. Such crowns were often worn by mother goddesses and seem to have been widely depicted amongst Semitic people. This wall or mural crown is also, understandably, connected with battle and was the attribute of a protector of state and defender of kings. Ashtar, Ishtar and Allat of Petra wore such crowns, as did the Arabic goddess Fortuna. The Greek Kore and Tyche of Antioch also wore such crowns, establishing their relationship with fate as well as protection. Astarte of Memphis wore a feather crown of war. Erect feathers in two's or four's crowned the heads of several Egyptian war deities who seemed to be acting as assistants to the Sun. The wearing of feathers evokes ideas about the symbolism surrounding the phoenix bird, but there is also the association of the feather with the soul, which suggests the guarding of the higher within a solar cycle.

 Evergreen crowns have always been associated with immortality and victory. The laurel crown of Apollo was awarded to victors at the Pythian games, the parsley crown of Zeus to those at the Nemean games, the pine crown of Poseidon at the Isthmian games, and the wild olive crown of Zeus was bestowed upon the winning athletes of the Olympic games. In those days there were no crowns other than these, and the honour of receiving such a fresh and auspicious prize must have been deeply felt. The heads of noble youths gracefully bedecked with such wreaths remain in art and literature as the classic symbol of mortal man's achievement of intimations of immortality on the physical plane. Very different from this was the ancient Chinese crown which, whilst representing imperial authority, basically sought to cover the head. The covering over the ears signified 'hears no slander'. A screen of jewels covering the eyes meant 'sees nothing unworthy'. In India and Southeast Asia the crown usually took the form of the sikhari of Hindu temples or the shape of a Buddhist stupa, whilst the turban was symbolic of the winding serpent offering protection from the full blaze of the sun. The ancient Levites associated the white turban with the full moon, whilst Muslims traditionally saw it as representing spiritual authority. During Moghul times great kings often wore priceless jewels pinned to the front centre of their immaculate silk turbans. Shape, design and material played essential symbolic roles in the evolving styles of crowns. The intrinsic symbolism attached to certain trees, fibres, metals, colours, crystals and so forth have been combined in many complex ways as people attempted to express their notions of power and glory in the world.

 The close association (and frequent confusion) of divine sovereignty with dominion and conquest has created an historical intertwining of helmet and crown. Many early European crowns appear to be modified helmets, suggesting that tribal warfare merged into the establishment of kingdoms over a long period of time. The seventh-century helmet excavated at Sutton Hoo in England illustrates this blend very well. It is "an object of burnished silver metal set in a trellis-work of gold, surmounted by a crest of massive silver and embellished with gilded ornaments, garnets and niello". The eyebrows are decorated with silver wire and niello inlay and set with garnets over gold foil. The visor is decorated with embossed panels depicting armed warriors and gods, and golden heads of boar, serpent and bird are cleverly worked into the humanoid design. The owner of this awesome helmet was a ruler whose remains were found in an ancient ship burial, marking the custom of the barbaric Viking kings who seldom reigned in peaceful circumstances.

 When, after the third century, helmets came to be cast with seams, they were reinforced with arches, which later came to be a popular feature in crowns. This slow incorporation of military features into the crown was paralleled by a subtle shift in emphasis during coronations in the Christian era. By the end of the fifth century, the ceremony, whilst retaining the essential elements of election, acclamation, elevation and the donative, no longer contained the same emphasis on the overriding power of the army. The old custom of being elevated in the German style on the buckler disappeared. The church began to play a stronger role, culminating in the religious high point of the setting of the crown. It is not true, however, that the increased importance of the Roman Church led to a decrease in war or conquest. The Holy See positively encouraged the extension of empire as a means of widening its influence, and the pope usually was available to crown or provide the crown for the new king. Thus, with the creation of kingdoms through conquest, Christendom grew as a political power in the world and great riches from far-flung dominions flooded back into its coffers. This was the pattern that set the stage for colonialism and eventually contributed the fabulous jewels that adorn most of the crowns of the Christian world.

 The magnificent Black Prince ruby from Afghanistan, which is the size of a small hen's egg, was set in the crown of Richard III, lost at Bosworth Field. Recovered for Henry Tudor, it was later set in the crown of his son, Henry VIII. Later yet it was restored to the crown of Charles II and has appeared in the crown of every monarch since that time. It now graces the front of the Imperial State Crown of Elizabeth H. The fabled Koh-i-noor diamond passed through history leaving a wake of murder, torture and deposition behind. Originally thought to weigh one thousand carats, the gem perilously graced the persons of Malwa rajahs and many Moghul rulers before it fell into the hands of Sir John Lawrence, the administrator of the Punjab who brought it to Queen Victoria. It was believed to be the ultimate symbol of sovereignty and whoever held the stone was said to rule the world. But the British, who have held it since, took heed of the curse it bore for male rulers possessing it and have set it only in the crowns of queens and kings' consorts. So close has been the symbolic link between the crown jewels and British sovereignty over its empire that the jewel which fell from the crown of George III at his coronation was said to have presaged the loss of the American colonies.

 The crown jewels of England alone bear witness to the success of imperial colonialism, but early Christian kings did not always find it easy to support their endless foreign wars and were driven to pawn the very symbol of their power for arms-money. Edward III pawned his crown in 1346 for a large loan as did his son, Richard II, So often did subsequent kings feel forced to sacrifice their crown for means of making war that it would seem to have tarnished the most sacred meaning attached to the crown and the coronation ceremony. But the mystique surrounding it persisted even whilst the motives of church and kings became increasingly worldly. Some, like Shakespeare, with poetic clarity, saw the ephemeral quality of worldly power and wrote of it all the more forcefully by using the metaphor of the crown. In the play bearing his name, King Richard II lamented the folly and delusion of temporal power by pointing to the "hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king [within which] keeps Death his court". But others persistently fastened their sights upon the battle for crown and cross with a monomania which glossed over the great irony of a militant Christianity.

 Though far from peaceful, the early Greeks and Romans held a strong distrust of a crowned king. When Alexander the Great adapted the Persian diadem in 330 B.C., his troops were profoundly disaffected from even so charismatic a leader. During the Republic (509-527 B.C.) the Romans would not tolerate the wearing of a diadem. Coronas of leaves were given for special military feats, and it was only in the later imperialistic period that emperors began to affect the wearing of a golden laurel leaf band around their heads. The centuries of relative democracy and republicanism were over and the stage was set for the rise of the Byzantine kings. With the reign of Constantine in the fourth century, the first Christian ruler's crown came into existence. He introduced the stephanos (imperial crown) and the imperial ceremonial helmet, As these styles evolved, the diadem came to be worn over the helmet with arches, and the stemma shape developed, which was wider at the top than at bottom and displayed a prominent jewel in the front. Emperors and kings wore a closed crown, unlike those of empresses which were always open at the top, looking more like receptacles than sources of power.

 He who bestows the crown has great power, and so the long-term struggle between church and king was bound to become highlighted in the act of coronation. The crowning of Charles, King of the Franks, in A.D. 800 involved Pope Leo III, who, according to some, established the right to bestow the imperial crown on the emperor on Christmas Day. The crown was evidently provided by the pope, though the biographer of Charles claimed that the emperor used to say that even at so great a festival as Christmas, he would not have entered the church if he had known the pope's intention. Later, he himself crowned his son, Louis. It was the custom of popes in the ninth century to provide the crowns with which they invested the Carolingian emperors at Rome in order to demonstrate publicly that the imperial status was conferred by the papacy. In the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries most European kings were at pains to persuade the papacy to crown them as Christ's vicar in a Christian nation, but there were exceptions like the Aragonese of Spain who resented papal interference. In the early sixteenth century, Henry VIII of England vowed "to keep the Imperial Crown of this Realm from the annoyance of the See of Rome as from the authorities of other foreign potentates attempting the diminution and violation thereof".

 The link between king and priest has its roots in all the theologies of the ancient world, and the recapitulation of this symbiosis is repeatedly played out in the symbolism associated with crown and coronation. In ancient India the purohita or priest was the king's Brahmin adviser and minister appointed by the king who "puts him in front". The deities Savitri, Agni, Soma, Brihaspati, Indra, Rudra, Mitra and Varuna 'quicken' the king through the priest so that, henceforth, he rules by divine right. In the ceremony the king dies, is quickened or reborn, and brought forth as a god by the priest who is, in this respect, his 'father'. In the West this relationship tended to express itself through the style of the crown as well as through ritual. Otto, the reviver of the Holy Roman Empire in the West (tenth century), took his inspiration from the Old Testament when designing a crown patterned after the gold crowns worn over mitres used by high priests. This was the first of the mitre-crown style which was destined to become the dominant fashion throughout Christendom. With its steeply rising arches and mitre it combined perfectly the warrior-king's helmet and the priest's ecclesiastical bonnet. With this merging of forces came increased responsibility and a precarious sense of performing a balancing act between the greedy hopes of men and the mysteries of Divine Will. The cares of the Crown came to rest heavily on some, as is noted in the poignant lines of Shakespeare's Prince Henry who, watching by his dying father's bed, says:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish'd perturbation! golden care!
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night, sleep with it now!
Yet not so sound, and half so deeply sweet,
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scald'st with safety. By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not.
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move. My gracious lord! my father!
This sleep is sound indeed, this is a sleep!
That from this golden rigol hath divorc'd
So many English kings. Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously,
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate from thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me. [Puts on the crown.] Lo where it sits,
Which God shall guard; and put the world's whole strength
Into one giant arm, it shall not force
This lineal honour from me. This from thee
Will I to mine leave, as 'tis left to me.

Henry IV

  The tragedy lying at the heart of King Henry's death had its roots in his act of seizing the crown from an unwilling Richard II. When he had taken it, he attempted to mollify Richard by saying "Part of your cares you give me with your crown." But he did not accurately judge the burdensomeness of those cares or the nagging sense that he had usurped the crown which would trouble his last years. In wearing the crown Henry came to bear a cross far heavier than the bejewelled Maltese contrivance atop his crown of state. It was Francis Quarles who sternly wrote, "He that has no cross deserves no crown." But the sanctimonious ring of this pronouncement does not accommodate the subtleties inherent in the mystical symbolism attributed to the crown. The simple hymn of George Bennard reflects a more truly religious spirit. Many people have hopefully intoned "I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown", believing that through patient suffering a crown of immortality could be won. The crown resting by poor Henry's head was not such a crown nor would it bring to its heir a happy end.

  Just as the crown of Charlemagne was used in French coronations until the fall of the monarchy, so in England the crown of St. Edward the Confessor had been thus used for a thousand years. Crowns like these were quite simply believed to contain something of the power and spiritual virtue of their original wearers, who acquired almost superhuman qualities in the minds of generations that followed them. To many men such kings were seen as instruments of Divine Will and their crowns came to symbolize the attributes of a godlike Heavenly Man who operated in the world for a time, 'bigger than life', and who represented a link between this world and that from which all power and virtue come. Such a pattern emulates the ancient Chaldean teachings which state: "When the Heavenly man (or LOGOS) first assumed the form of the Crown (Kether) and identified himself with Sephira, he caused seven splendid lights to emanate from it (the Crown)." The Sephira is the Heavenly Virgin from whom emanate the upper and lower hierarchies. She is the crown (Kether) on the abstract plane only. On the differentiated plane she is the female aspect of Adam Kadmon.

  Thus, the Sephirothal crown is not visible in the gross material sense but is "the first triad of the body of Adam Kadmon [which] cannot be seen before the soul stands in the presence of the Ancient of Days". This crown or upper triad corresponds to the three elemental kingdoms which precede that of the mineral and which answer in cosmic differentiation to worlds of form and matter from the super-spiritual to the archetypal. The Sephiroth of this triad are: Kether, the crown, which is the brow of the Macroprosopus; Hokmah, the male principle of Wisdom; and Binah, the female principle of Intelligence. After these three come the seven limbs of the Heavenly Man which express manifestation. The seven splendid lights issuing from the Kether are thus identified with these seven limbs or powers, and they radiate out from their crown like the 'scattering' or 'pouring out' implied in the Sanskrit kiritet (diadem), which is an epithet for the great god Indra himself.

  But kirita is also an epithet for Arjuna, the heroic potential in man, thus rendering the crown of flashing lights capable of being reflected by human beings on earth. It is the soul-memory of such concepts that has inspired people to identify a reflection of this great archetypal idea in the crown of Charlemagne or St. Edward. Indeed, in the case of the latter's crown, there were twelve ritual exhortations associated with its flashing jewels: the red-gold sardius at the top signified that the king was son of earth and subject to God. The topaz reminded him to exercise virtue, the emerald justice, the chryolyth wisdom and prudence, the chalcedony fortitude and mental courage, the hyacinth to let shine through celestial virtue, the grass-green jasper to care for the sustenance of his people, the chrysoprase to aspire to heaven, the beryl to practise asceticism and appear lean and sober to his people, the sapphire's blue light to instruct continence and cleanliness of body, the amethyst to strengthen duty and love for his people whom he should defend with his life, and the black, red and white sardonyx to practise humility, charity and sincerity. Whilst the Logos manifests as lights through the Sephirothal crown, the king attempts to manifest the power of virtues under the influence of the jewelled lights embedded in his crown. These virtues express the principle of manifestation on the moral plane and, being twelve in number, correspond to the cosmic elements characterized by the dodecahedron.

  The powerful crown thus encircling the head was echoed in the shape of the temple tower in India, where the structure was considered to be a microcosm of the cosmic Heavenly Man. Its tower was its head and was fashioned in the shape of a tapering sikhara which rises above the inner sanctum of the temple. On its ornamented sides progressive stages of manifestation, from above below, can often be traced. It is crowned with an octagonal or circular dome-like form called a stupika, which itself is capped by a fluted blue lotus (amalaka) and the Kalasa, symbolizing the Jar of Nectar. Thus, the sikhara acts as a channel for immortality which passes through the lotus crown down into the sanctuary below. Kings wearing crowns patterned after this archetype were themselves thought to be channels of immortality through whom a whole kingdom gained strength, virtue and life.

  This lotus diadem or circle of gold atop the head is analogous to the mystical Ring-Pass-Not within which the Lipikas circumscribed the manifest world of matter. Within this ring the One becomes the many, just as the Logos identified himself with the Sephira when first assuming the form of the crown, Kether. The winding serpent and the wreath of leaves on the metal crown signify the limits of a cycle within which kingship, victory and immortality can be realized. The head that wears the crown rises within and above its encircling band and participates in the deathless realm of the gods, ordering the seven principles of his nature to reflect their cosmic will. Such a crown may exist in the world, wrought by some inspired hands, but more likely it will be invisible to all but the soul which "stands in the presence of the Ancient of Days". Crumpled and mouldering in the thickets of a hawthorn bush is the crown of worldly kingship. Stained by wasted blood and darkened by ignorance, it has witnessed for millennia the misuse of spiritually derived powers. It waits to be melted down in the crucible of hard-won wisdom and fashioned into a radiant crown of golden light to be worn by initiates of the Aquarian Age. In that crown no stolen jewel will blaze forth, but it shall be set with gems of pure Logoic light shedding its colourless truth through the seven limbs of the world.

At the outer limits of time,
At the uppermost point
Of the spindle-of-necessity,
There is a golden crown
Upon whose encircling band

The legend 'Pass-Not' is writ.
No conceit could bid us go beyond
And yet it is the opening to the One.
We would join our Self in coronation
To the halo of its inexorable Truth.