The Spiral

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


There is a thing confusedly formed.
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void.
It stands alone and does not change.
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it 'the way'.
I give it the makeshift name of 'the great'.
Being great, it is further described as receding,
Receding, it is described as far away.
Being far away, it is described as turning back.

Tao Te Ching

 Sometimes in Nature we stand before a spiralling force which catches us, absorbs us and winds us back beyond the remembrance of beginning to the great yawning vortex of the unknown. The whirling pattern in the heart of a sunflower may carry one's mind along a spiralled curve that spins into the future through the aperture of the past, causing sequential consciousness to dissolve and leaving the force of motion as the sole reality. Few there are who have ever experienced something like this bodily and lived to tell the tale. In the clutches of a sweeping prairie 'twister' or the ferocious suction of a whirlpool, the spiralling energy of Nature is too overpowering to permit a mystical journey of the mind while still encased in its earthly form. Charybdis did not, after all, spare the sailors who steered within her whirling clutches. It was with terror that their minds were benumbed as they were swallowed up within her greedy throat. Few there are who have lived to tell of such a mighty power engulfing them and yet sparing them. Edgar Allan Poe's description of the perilous adventure of a Norwegian mariner is a vivid account of one such rare event, but few there are who have ever endorsed its veracity.

 The tale was told by the mariner as an old man, who looked back upon the terrifying saga of his youth, still marvelling at his survival and at what he had learnt while caught in the terrible whirlpool called the Maelstrom. Long ago he and his elder brother had been fishing from their smack off the island of Moskoe in the depths of the Maelstrom channel. It was their habit to cross this channel only in fine weather and only at the turn of the ebb and flood. When the flood was full and aggravated by a storm, it was dangerous to be anywhere near the place. Boats, yachts and ships had been sucked into its terrible whirl by sailing too close, and the occasional blowing and bellowing of whales bore testimony to its inexorable power to drag down to its depths anything that ventured into the vicinity. Splintered logs from trees and fragments of torn boats were regularly thrown up by the vortex, strongly indicating that its bottom consisted of jagged rocks upon which they had smashed and been whirled to and fro.

 On the day of the terrible event, the brothers, starting back during the calm, were surprised by an unprecedented cross breeze which made it impossible to achieve any headway. As they drifted in the eddies, a storm gathered to break upon them in its full fury, covering the boat with its hurricane force. The mariner grasped the ring-bolt at the foot of the foremast while his elder brother held on to an empty water cask lashed at the stern. "No one", he recalled, "will ever know what my feelings were at that moment. I shook from head to foot as if I had had the most violent fit of ague. . . . With the wind that now drove us on, we were bound for the whirl of the storm and nothing could save us." The boat reached a great swirl of foam and shot off in a new direction like a bolt, and the roaring noise of the water changed to a terrible shriek. Here, strangely, in the very jaws of the gulf, the sailor felt more calm. He even began to speculate upon the magnificence of such a death in the throes, as it were, of such a wondrous manifestation of divine power. They flew around this belt of the whirlpool for an hour or so, moving ever nearer to its horrible inner edge. As they approached its brink, the elder brother, in the agony of his terror, let go the cask and wrested the ring hold away from the younger, who groped astern to the other's former position just before the boat was swept headlong into the abyss.

 Thinking they were done for, the young mariner closed his eyes, only to open them and find that their boat was hanging about midway down on the ebony walls of a vast funnel which spun them round with overwhelming velocity. Too confused by this breathtaking situation, it was several moments before he noticed that they were not the only objects whirling about the fury. Fragments of other vessels, masts, furniture and masses of building timber floated in their company. He watched these in fascination, noting that various fragments were descending downwards at different velocities and that while one object would suddenly plunge towards the crashing foam below, others seemed to remain almost at the same level. He recalled that, whilst most of the debris thrown up on the shore by the whirlpool had been splintered and battered to shreds, some objects were thrown up untouched by any violence. It occurred to him that these few articles had never been completely absorbed to the bottom of the whirlpool before the turn of the flood had come and they had been thrust up to the surface. Observing the vortex thus carefully and considering this remembered intelligence, the young sailor ascertained that the larger objects were descending faster and that smaller cylindrical objects were absorbed much more slowly. He saw that the boat had descended some distance below such objects and tried to alert his brother with desperate gestures and signs but to no avail. It was impossible to communicate with the terror-stricken man, and the young sailor sadly abandoned him to his fate, fastened himself to the cask and dove with it away from the boat and into the whirling wall of the funnel.

 Within an hour or so the boat descended far below the mariner and his barrel. It made three or four wild gyrations and, bearing his doomed elder brother, plunged headlong into the chaos below. The barrel had descended little further than half the distance, when a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. Its sloping sides broadened by degrees and its gyrations grew gradually less violent. The bottom of the gulf seemed to rise up slowly and the winds settled down as the sailor found himself on the surface of the ocean in full view of land and above the spot where the grinding depths of the Maelstrom had been. He had survived the terrible ordeal. By calm observation of the vortex into which he had sunk, he had come to understand something about it and to be carried up by the same spiral that had sucked him down. Whether he understood all there is to know of such a phenomenon is not known, for there are many questions left unanswered, many mysteries yet unexplored.

 Mathematicians could describe the spiralling force of the whirlpool to the satisfaction of some, but what about the fact that it is a logarithmic spiral whose radius lengthens at the rate of seven percent per turn of thirty-six degrees, or one-tenth of a full circle? Does the ratio of seven to ten have any significance? What is the relationship between such a spiral and the two sets of similar spirals found in the sunflower? What is man's relationship to such a spiral? Is it death-dealing or life-giving? What is the significance of the cylindrical form which remained relatively buoyant in the Maelstrom, and what was it in the younger sailor that gave him the wits to understand this? The vivid description of his awesome ordeal suggests many such questions to one who ever looks for a deeper meaning in all things.

 The spiral as a symbol is both ancient and universal. Perhaps the ancients understood some of the mysteries associated with whirlpools or sunflowers and tornadoes. Perhaps they had answers to some of their questions about them and perceived a correspondence between spirals in Nature and in man himself. This would seem likely, for in prehistoric art "no ornamental motif seems to have been more attractive than the spiral". The most common idea associated with the spiral is that it represents a schematic image of the evolving universe. It is a symbol for creation and growth or progressive development, an attribute of power found on the sceptre of the Egyptian pharoah and the crown of the god Thoth, as well as on the lituus of Roman augurs. The spiral has always been expressed in art and Nature in three main forms: expanding as in the spiral nebula, contracting as in the whirlpool, and ossified as in the mollusk's shell. Since Paleolithic times it has been portrayed as expanding and contracting, waxing or waning like the moon. The creative aspect of the expanding spiral, which is solar, moves clockwise and was identified by the ancient Greeks with Pallas Athene. The destructive aspect of the spiral can be associated with contraction which, moving counter-clockwise, has been considered an attribute of Poseidon and the moon.

 Helical forms in Nature have always accompanied human evolution. In the mollusk, the growing fern's curl, the coiled snake, the human ear, the bull's horns and the rolled-up form of a sleeping animal, prehistoric and historic cultures have identified and celebrated the spiral. Some, like that of the New Zealand Maori, tattooed their faces and bodies with spiralling designs of magical power. Others built temples and even cities in its image. The great minaret of the mosque of Samarra in Iraq is a marvellous spiralling tower reaching towards heaven, and the town of Auroville in South India radiates out in a plan resembling a spiral nebula. The Ionic columns of classical Greece and Rome were capped with double spiral scrolls, and the lintels and thresholds of much older sacred sanctuaries were carved in similar fashion in many parts of the world. The vortical Navajo sandpaintings, the Hopi pottery designs, the Aztecan carved gods covered with spirals, the spiral tattoos on the abdomen of tribal women in Africa, the spiral dances of people around the world – all bear witness to the pervasive human awareness of the vital importance of this form of movement. For ages man has been aware that the solar systems, suns and planets are created in a spiralling movement, the inward spiralling of interstellar gas resulting in entire galaxies. There has been a continuing awareness of an omnipresent vortical law which operates throughout the cosmos and can be seen in water as it reveals in its vortical flow the matrix from which forms take their being. It has been said that from the involution of the unformed waters the egg of the world was crystallized "by the turning in on itself of energy, of matter, or of consciousness".

 From out of the unfathomable deeps there arose a circle shaped in spirals. . .

The Secret Doctrine

 Breathing out, the Great Breath gyrated forth and the Voice in the whirlwind was made manifest. Spiralling forth, the Sacred Word enacted creation. With each outward breath the Divine Principle uncoils, serpent-like, from the bindhu, the seed-point of the cosmos, and order is thus wrought out of chaos. With each inward breath it withdraws into its Essence, and Darkness lies upon the unfathomable Deep. Contemplating this never-ending rhythm of expansion and contraction, one seeks for clues that reveal its identification with the spiral. Is it like Ariadne's thread carried round and round into and out of the labyrinth? Is it the labyrinth of the world itself? Is it the gyrating force of Fohat, tying knots or points upon a descending spiral of being? Will these be untied in the unwinding of that spiral? Does the spiral unwind? Where does it go? Clues lie in the words used to describe the spiral. The term 'volute' (from the Latin voluta, meaning 'rolled up') is used in speaking of Ionic or Corinthian columns or gastropods with volutoid shells. But it is also the root of 'convolution' ('roll up together') and 'revolution', which suggests a wealth of ideas related to casting off allegiance and a great reversal of conditions, as well as the simple process of motion in an orbit.

 Whilst these two terms are suggestive of the centrifugal and centripetal nature of the Great Breath, two other terms even more closely pin-point its spiral nature. The word 'spiral' comes from the Latin spira, which derives from the Greek term σπεϊρα, meaning anything wound or coiled or twisted, like a snake. Some scholars have noticed that the idea in ancient cultures which associated the spiral with breath and spirit is borne out in the etymological similarity between spira and spiro in Latin and σπείρα and σπείρω in the Greek. While spiro ('breath') and spiritus ('breath of life') can be clearly related to 'spirit', the Greek σπείρω means 'to sow, to scatter like a seed, to disperse and to engender'. Its infinitive use (σπείρειν) simply means 'to circulate', revealing a close link in Hellenic thought between the expansion of that which gives life and circular motion. The continual breathing out and breathing in can be illustrated in terms of spherical circulation, wherein an unending spiral in a ring joins itself by spiralling through its own centre. Such a spherical vortex demonstrates Nature's perpetual motion, which is ceaselessly expanding and contracting.

 One can see these two forces merged in the sigmoid line of the yin and yang symbol and the swastika, which are volutoid in Nature. This sort of double spiral reveals the intercommunication between the principles and can represent two halves of the world egg, the solar and lunar energies coiled within an androgynous whole. But perhaps an even more fundamental attribute of the spiral lies in its demonstration of the relationship between unity and multiplicity. Like the cosmos itself, we begin life at a point and expand out in differentiation, only to contract inward, once again, to the point. Thus our cyclic path ends at the seed-point that contains the potential of the whole. But the point to which we (or the sun or the earth) return is never the same. One could imagine a moving point, circulating in a spiral around a hidden central point, and consider the nature of that moving point. Is it the spark of the One in ceaseless motion through time and space? What is the point of its beginning and ending? Is that a mayavic reflection of a universal seed which expresses itself in the world as necessarily circular motion operating on two, three and four dimensions?

 Thus everything is centre, every centre refers to the circumference, and vice versa. All creatures do not exist only in themselves, in their centre, but in the double undulatory movement by which they receive everything and transmit themselves everywhere.

Georges Poulet

 The greater spiral of existence com – es from and returns to its Source. It demonstrates cycles of change within its continuum and the alternation of poles with each cycle. It embodies expansion and contraction made manifest through changes in velocity and the potential for simultaneous movement in either direction towards its extremities. Thus centre and periphery on the spherical vortex flow into each other. The One which is omnipresent can be found in the concentrated point in motion. Spheres, belts or layers through which man has to pass in his evolution are really spirals accommodating the dimensions of time and space in manifested existence. The point in motion, so to speak, is a centre in its own right, a centre whose orbit is clearly tied to an invisible noumenal point. The relative beginnings and endings on the spiral course are mayavic increments marked by a consciousness which is enthralled in matter. God is both immanent and transcendent. The movement through the three-dimensional spiral goes towards the Divine without and within. The outward-seeming journey of Perceval or Perseus is the same journey depicted by Dante's inward spiralling mountain or the yogin's meditation upon the seed-point of vision that rests between his eyes.

 The journey is that of the immortal soul and it begins, relative to one incarnation, with the downward serpentine spiralling on the tree of life, the involution of spirit into matter. In this sense, man becomes the spiral. The spiral can be said to be comprised of man's awareness. For just as man cannot walk upon the Path until he has become that Path itself, so too he must grow wise in his understanding of the vortical laws in order to move inwardly and outwardly along the spiral. In a sense, the earth itself demonstrates this double motion, for it too illustrates the deepest involution of spirit into matter in the lowest trenches that carve the ocean basins. In almost exact balance to these are the great Himalayan peaks rising up as high as they are deep. The double triangle suggested by this global balance can be translated three-dimensionally into the circular motion of what initially would seem to be a double spiral but which is more accurately illustrated by the form of a spherical vortex.

 The journey of the soul involves it initially in successive windings as the individual egoic consciousness crystallizes. The continuum of the spiral becomes objectified with tiny spirals branching off like coiled twigs. In the return to the awareness of the continuum itself, subject and object once more become one and the extremities of the individuating process atrophy or blend back into totality. In attempting to assist this progress, the soul learns from the ubiquitous presence of spiral motion in the world. As a scholar, it may learn of the spiral of Archimedes, wherein the point recedes uniformly from its origin, or of hyperbolic spirals, wherein the radius vector varies inversely to angular displacement. But it is more likely to be arrested by the equiangular spiral revealed in so many growths and shapes in Nature. The equiangular or logarithmic spiral illustrates the principle of growth enabling an increase of size accompanied by an unaltered shape. In this dynamic process each increment of length is balanced by a proportional increase of radius. Observing the glorious sunflower, the soul comes to realize the inner significance of this through noticing the two sets of superimposed equiangular spirals etched out by the pattern of the flower's seeds. One describes a right-handed movement, the other a left. The awakening soul may thus perceive the nature of its own journey and marvel at its echo in physical form. The numbers of spirals represent adjacent Fibonacci numbers: twenty-one clockwise and thirty-four anti-clockwise, demonstrating the arcane Golden Ratio of 1:1.618, which repeats itself in patterns of growth throughout the whole of Nature.

 The individual whose ears hear with the sharpened faculty of the awakening soul may discern increments in sound reflective of the expanding and contracting logarithmic spiral. The rate of change of wavelength for each note on a descending musical scale of twelve semi-tones is 1.618 times the semi-tone above it. Plotted as a smooth curve on a polar graph in which the radii, separated by fifteen degrees, are proportional to the wavelengths, one obtains an equiangular spiral. Observing such remarkable demonstrations, one may truly assert that beauty in mathematics is not built upon an artificial basis, but grounded in the beauty of the natural world. For the law of biological growth – of plant or animal or of any part of such – is an exponential law, a vortical law to be understood as analogous to the soul's pilgrimage in and out of the world.

 The soul's involvement in matter is marked by the emanation of Shakti from the seed-bindhu (Shiva) in a spiralling downward into the body where the creative energy becomes latent. With the unfoldment of the soul, the Shakti-power rises and awakens the chakras so that they readily transmit her energy into progressively finer vibrations. This is what the Buddhists refer to as "untying the knots in inverse order". The spiralled single horn of the unicorn, which appears in so many cultures, represents the same notion of a penetrating spiritual force (connected with the bindhu-point of the Third Eye) which is capable of being subdued and directed only by the power of a pure, virginal nature. The journey back to the One point is made possible by the awakening of that pure Buddhic nature which sees the correspondences between the sunflower pattern, the growth of the human body, the whirling forces of lunar and solar consciousness within the mind and the macrocosmic spiral which unifies all these. Only with pure Buddhic perception can the seeming opposites be transcended and analogous points along the spiral provide one with recollections of patterns already mastered in the past. One can then begin to acquire conscious understanding of the vortical laws governing spiritual evolution.

 The whirling dervish begins his dance with arms folded over his breast. Moving his right foot out, he begins to turn like a planet on his own axis, his arms gradually expanding outward as he gathers speed. Faster and faster he spins, bringing the spiritual down to the earth while his own spirit soars up through the still centre within him. He becomes the spherical vortex in which the forces of expansion and contraction are translated into a perpetual continuum between unity and multiplicity. Without spinning thus with the outward physical body, the serious disciple must pass through analogous stages in his meditative efforts to align and merge himself with the bindhu-seed of spiritual awareness. As he approaches a point within him where the vortex of awakening potential power begins to exert its pull, he may well experience a great gyration similar to that undergone by the mariner, who shook so violently when he perceived the Maelstrom before him. The higher mind must take care to preserve calm at this point and rely upon the knowledge it has accumulated through many windings of its spiralled incarnations. Informed by the immortal soul, it can recognize the Path it has followed to reach the same point on another winding and master the forces in the light of things learnt in a former life. The more this is done, the steeper the gradient that measures its growth. Such points of awareness provide glimpses of the deeper recurring pattern. They can serve as keynotes of initiation whereby the decisions made critically affect the subsequent cycling.

 From narrow, obscure knowledge the mind passes to larger understanding. It gropes and fumbles about and suddenly, at the passing of a certain point, it sees. Poe conveyed this as the replacement of the horror of ignorance by an even greater horror of knowing. The mind now knows. It is stripped of nagging doubts and vain hopes and clearly perceives the cycles of inexorable causes and effects that encircle it. Whirling dizzily in the vortex of these, without a ghost of a chance of escaping their terrible and most logical concatenation, the soul as pilgrim and mariner faints and the mind is plunged in blackest despair. But if a point of awareness is grasped firmly, even in the wildest gyrations where one feels utterly overwhelmed by forces swirling within and about him, the saving memory of the immortal soul can operate. The point in line with points on another winding reveals the presence of the past in the present and the immediacy of both in what we call the future. True memory brings foreknowledge, the foreknowledge of the becalmed sailor who, while spinning down within the funnel of the Maelstrom, remembered that some objects escaped the vortex unscathed, whereas others were smashed to pulp. Even in the jaws of that terrible oblivion he calmly remembered and observed. His desire to understand and his awareness of the ultimately divine nature of all power in the cosmos outstripped his fears and the maniacal desire for physical survival exemplified in the action of his elder brother, who blindly wrested the iron ring from his grasp. Becalmed by remembered wisdom, he saw what it was that he had to do.

 Alcemon, pupil of Pythagoras, thought that men died because they could not join their beginning to their end.

William Butler Yeats

 The pilgrim and mariner and hero – all must find the way to travel back along the same spiral that involved them in the first place. He who would know the origin of things must also understand their dissolution. The wild chaotic spirals of the snakes on Medusa's head must become the ordered spirals of the Buddha's curls if one is to understand and avoid the deadly extremes of the whirlpool of self. The great spiral force of the outbreathed world cannot be avoided or negated. One is in the whirling stream of its all-informing energy as surely as one is in a bodily vesture. To go backward against this is to go against the order of things. One must learn, instead, to trust the vortical forces and lighten one's load in order to move wisely with them. Letting go of the extremities of individuation is like the mariner letting go of the ring instead of grappling with his brother for it. Letting go of identification with name and form is like letting go of the doomed ship and trusting to the knowledge that has arisen from within. The cylinder-shaped barrel to which the surviving mariner lashed himself is symbolic of the zero to which one can reduce the angularities of the persona. By mirroring the greater circle of vortical power itself, one can avoid being sucked down into the destructive depths of egotistic identity where, hugging and clutching one's little boat of self, one is smashed life after fear-ridden life.

Going on means going far,
Going far means returning.

Tao Te Ching

  Like the dervish, spinning faster and faster, one can move with assured fleetness through the maelstrom of life. Expanding outwardly the cleansing aura of spiralling spiritual energy, the mind contracted in calm meditation upon the seed of spirit can merge with the soul and soar up in conscious understanding to its divine origin. Life involves the many spiral windings made by oneself as one plodded along. Going on does mean going far, but not in the same circle over and over again. Through compulsive desire and careless wonder one falls along the windings of one's involving spiral. But by marking the recurring points, by remembering and trusting one's Buddhic awareness of the connections between these points, one may return.

 Going far requires great courage and calm, and he who hugs the shore may perish yet out of fear of the journey. Far out there on the great deep lies the testing of our fears. Opening up its terrible jaws as some unexpected wind rushes onward, the whirlpool of personal destruction threatens to obliterate the very purpose of the journey undertaken. Going so far, the pilgrim who would return to the other shore knows that its ferocity can be endured and conquered, that with the calmly spiralling wisdom within him he can rise up through the still centre of the vortex to the Divine Source of his own Beginning.

For this is the Path we have followed before,
The spiralling trail which borders the chasm;
That leads aloft past the dragon's lair,
And returns us whole to the other shore.