The Nose

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2:7

 It was said by Caesar and other Romans that Mark Antony was beautiful. He possessed a warrior's lean and proud stature and had a noble brow, beneath which gazed eyes of an almost dreamy nature. But it was his nose that settled the question, for it was strong and aquiline, a solar nose, beyond doubt, a nose for which golden helmets were protectively fashioned, to be worn by the gods and heroes of myth. Compare with this the nose of Edmund Rostand's hero, Cyrano de Bergerac, whose "protuberance", as he called it, condemned him to a life of defensive wit and unrequited love. Painful though his appearance was to him, his monstrous nose dominating his otherwise shrewdly sensitive face, he would not suffer either the scorn or pity of others. To an offensive bore he once announced: "My nose is huge! Enormous! Why, you pip-nosed, snub-nosed flat-head, know that I glory in this appendage of mine!" He went on to assert that "a large nose is the sign manifest of such a man as I am - courteous, witty, liberal in opinions, fired with courage".

 Cyrano later described his nose as "a rock! A peak! A cape! A cape, I said? A whole peninsula." Indeed, one's nose is not only central to the face but to one's very identity. Do we not count noses for people, and is not the word itself descriptive of that which leads ahead or juts out prominently? Etymologically, the word 'nose' is related to naze, which means 'promontory' or 'headland', very close in meaning to Cyrano's 'peninsula'. It does jut out and command attention and one's sense of self in the world is often greatly affected by it. Though poets and bards have rhapsodized eyes and lips and noble brows, none of these features have inspired such strong opinions or prejudices as the nose. The sense of self linked with it is often revealed in common idioms such as "It's no skin off my nose", or "keeping one's nose to the grindstone", or "putting one's nose out of joint", or "turning one's nose" up at something, "thumbing one's nose" at something or "poking it into" something. The familiar saying "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face" evokes a more serious predicament than the mere pitfalls of indulging pique at one's own expense. In cultures as widespread as those of certain peoples of India and of North America, mutilation of the nose was once practised as punishment for female infidelity. The transgressor's loss of virtue was thus permanently marked by the loss of her nose.

In my study of human nature I have always found that a long nose and a good head are inseparable.

Napoleon Bonaparte

 If the aquiline nose of Mark Antony was considered solar by ancient and medieval Europeans, a short, rounded member was identified as lunar. A Martian nose was thought to arch like an eagle's beak, with delicate nostrils, and a Mercurian to be rather long, straight and pointed, with narrow nostrils. The Jupiterian nose was said to be medium-sized and fleshy, and a straight, not too long but elegant nose was easily identifiable as Venusian. Cyrano doubtless possessed a Saturnian nose, borne out by Rostand's description of his large, bony prominence. Its great arched shape was narrow and thin at the tip, quite different from the wide, flaring nose associated with the earth. Napoleon seemed to have had a mixture of the Martial and Mercurial in mind when he indicated his preference, and it is interesting to note that his own nose was certainly not short.

 Such catalogues of nasal physiognomy are not uncommon. They reveal very ancient ideas about the meaning of the shape of the human body, but they also feed the fires of diverse forms of racism. In the Bible those with flat noses were admonished not to approach God (Leviticus) and were, therefore, disqualified from the priesthood. But the more intriguing aspect of such studies involves the attempt to link physiognomy to temperament, such as the four (choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic) identified by Hippocrates. In his own time Montaigne endorsed such an approach when he wrote: "Nothing has a greater appearance of probability than the conformity and relation of body to mind. It is not credible that they can be discordant, unless some accident should have interrupted the natural course of things."

 Sneezing is widely considered to be a sign of entrance. The Qur'an tells us that "when the breath of life was breathed into the nostrils of Adam, he sneezed and immediately uttered these words, 'Al-Hamdu-Allah'". So too, when Prometheus fashioned the clay image of man, he seized fire from the sun and applied it to the nostrils, whereupon it sneezed and became a living man. In the Bible, Elisha restored the dead child of a Shunammite woman. We are told that the boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes and that "the soul had re-entered his body and this re-entrance had caused the sevenfold manifestation of the nasal mystery". The entrance or re-entrance of the soul into the body is indeed a mystery, and the sevenfold process corresponds to the septenary macrocosmic and microcosmic steps outlined in arcane philosophy. But the sneeze has also been interpreted as a sign that something evil was attempting to invade one, eliciting the blessing "Gestmdheit" ("God bless you") as a form of protective magic. In a lesser sense the sneeze has been taken simply as an omen, covering everything from the poetic (the Roman saying that "Love sneezed at the birth of beautiful women") to the absurd (the Teutonic belief that "if a man sneezes on getting up in the morning, he should lie down again for another three hours, else his wife will be his master for a week"). But the ancient awe of the sneeze persisted, the belief that it heralded the entrance of the soul countered by the fear that it signalled its loss. Until very recent times in Europe it was held that certain forms of insanity involved possession occurring through the nostrils.

 The potency of the breath breathed through the nose of a holy man is thought to be life-giving. In India the sick will visit such a muni for healing ministrations. The same power is believed to give life through the sanctified exchange of breath of a Muslim bride and groom. It is this idea which lies behind many erotic practices which involve rhythmic breathing and touching or rubbing of noses. The nose is connected symbolically to procreative energy as well. Owing to its shape, it has been identified with both the male and female genital organs by many people down through the ages. Hippocrates observed the relationship, and it has been pondered by later lights such as Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud. But it has also been corroborated by studies focussing upon nasal obstruction to breathing in conjunction with erotic experiences. It is significant that blockage occurs when there is any sort of anxiety or conflict, whereas the blockage decreases dramatically with free and harmonious erotic expression. This entire relationship is extremely mysterious and significant from an occult point of view. The introduction of the olfactory variable only adds to the complexity, and the question of breathing in conjunction with yogic celibacy launches the entire problem onto another dimension of consideration.

 When Aristotle likened the various shapes of noses to dogs, swine and lions, he was probing the connection between physiognomy and temperament. Whilst suggesting certain atavistic possibilities, he inadvertently pointed to a very long process of evolution which we now know is recapitulated in the development of the human embryo. Two weeks after conception two olfactory patches of thickened ectoderm appear on the foetus. The upgrowth of the surrounding parts (of what will be eventually the face) change these into cavities. The sides grow together around these in stages resembling the fish, the reptile and the mammal. Comparing the human nose to that of an ape reveals no great difference in the internal arrangement, but externally the human nose develops into something truly distinctive. Its elevated bridge supported by the bony skull and its prolonged tip have necessitated a great thrusting inward and upward in the central area of the face of man. A complete palate is formed during the embryo's third month and there is a distinction between olfactory and respiratory parts. If one looks back millions of years in physical evolution to the development of the shark's cartilaginous nose and compares it to that of all the vertebrates and finally of man, the fundamental changes in regard to the organ of smell are not so great. The big change has to do with respiration. Certain biologists would have one remember that "the face is merely the food-detecting and food-trapping mask in front of the brain", but whilst this is certainly true of the shark, it is ludicrous to limit the infinitely complex expressions of the human face to such a description. Looking at a rat or an elephant or a pig, one is struck by the predominance of the nose. They do seem to be organs in service to the sense of smell, but in man the nose takes its place so as not to obstruct stereoscopic vision, while at the same time permitting the maximum expression of the organ of speech. One need only recall the significance of speech among human beings to dispense with the notion that the face is merely a food-trapping mask.

 In taking its place in the human face, the nose yet remains dominant both morphologically and functionally. It moistens, warms and cleans the air that is taken into the lungs. In the upper parts of the nasal cavity the filaments (hairs) radiating from the olfactory reception cells are contacted by chemical substances that have entered the nostrils and become dissolved in the fluid of the mucous membrane. The axons of these nerve cells conduct the electrical impulse thus produced through the bony roof of the nasal cavity to the olfactory bulb in the forebrain, from whence they travel through lateral axons to the cortex of the piriform lobe. This is the pathway which enables the sensation of smell to register in the brain. There are several theories as to exactly how human beings distinguish different odours, but the fact remains that very little is actually understood about this subtle process of discrimination, and almost all the fragrances concocted by man in relation to perfumes or food are the result of art rather than of any exact science.

 In most animals the sense of smell is highly developed. Large areas are devoted to accommodating the olfactory mucous membrane, and the corresponding centres in the brain are large. Man possesses a diminished olfactory sense, with brain centres of correspondingly small size. It has been suggested that primitive man had a more highly developed sense of smell, which has led some thinkers, like Freud, to speculate that he also may have been much less emotionally inhibited. Freud reasoned that as modern man progressively lost his sense of smell, he gradually severed a link that he had hitherto possessed with the earth. With this he also lost, in great part, a sort of ancestral memory, which subsequently became deeply buried in the unconscious mind. Linking this idea with the role played by odours in animal behaviour, it is easy to see that the role of the human mind in relation to the olfactory sense is distinctive and significant. Human beings are usually attracted to each other on the basis of their notions of what is attractive. Even so, perfumers have long known that the addition of animal ingredients to other scents acts as a stimulus to reproduction.

 To say that man's sense of smell is diminished compared to an animal like the dog does not mean that odours have no power over him. Literature is replete with allusions to the rank scents of low birth, immorality, foul deeds and death, as well as all the lovely fragrances associated with flowers and new-mown hay. It is common to classify odours as clear, sharp, penetrating, light or persistent. The language used is much like that associated with the other senses, but the power of odours to evoke associations in the mind is especially strong. Though relatively feeble, the effects of man's sense of smell on the imagination and memory are very great. They seem to be able to reach the subconscious and stir up unsought remembrances and forgotten moments with such vividness that the events recalled might have occurred yesterday. Havelock Ellis wondered if this associational faculty did not link human beings to remote ancestral influences. It is certainly true that when in the grips of such a powerful recollection, the conscious rational mind is in abeyance.

The smell of violets, hidden in the green,
Pour'd back into my empty soul and frame
The times when I remember to have been
Joyful and free from blame.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Secret Doctrine teaches that the earth is the rudiment (the unperfected first principal element) of smell. In the elemental dissolution of pralaya all worlds and Patalas are withered up. The waters swallow up the element of earth and deprive it of its property of smell. The earth proceeds then to destruction and becomes one with water, which is then swallowed by fire, then air, then sound, until all the seven forms of prakriti are returned to Mahat. Gandha, the sense of smell associated with Prithivi, or Earth, is the first to go in a progressive dissolution towards a more and more ethereal synthesis. Turning this around, the origin of elements (bhutadi) belongs to the triple aspect of ahankara ('I-am-ness') which first issues from Mahat. Ahankara becomes "passionate" and finally "rudimental", thus providing the origin of all conscious being. This is to say that from Mahat the seven forms of prakriti emanate in opposite order to the stages by which they are swallowed up at the time of elemental dissolution. The senses, then, are extensions through which the 'lives' comprising the elements are capable of being organized and rendered ever more perfect. If one looks at this in terms of sidereal influences, the constellation of Leo can be recognized as a stage in which the development of the senses and their organs begins. The Sanskrit name for Leo is Sadayatana, meaning the six ayatanas or powers of perception (hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell and the synthetic power of mind). The Ego operating through the 'lives' making up its vehicles brings about the evolution of these senses. These are first developed in the astral body (forming centres therein), and primary sensations are evolved in response to the action of external stimuli. Gradually these simple sensations become grouped together into 'feelings' that act upon the mind and become emotions.

 The element of the earth associated with Taurus is awakened into activity in Leo and acts as the building force which creates both shape and limitations for the reincarnating Ego through the senses. This is kama acting as the outgoing expression of the Atman, and it must be honed and turned to the service of the whole in order to release the vast energy of the potential hero-saint associated with Leo. The sense of smell is central to this process because of its powerful ability to enliven the imagination. If it can be fused with the highest longings of the soul, then it can come to serve in the work of a higher creation. To understand how this might be done it is useful to recognize the distinction between memory, which is the innate power to reproduce past impressions by association, and reminiscence, which is an intuitional perception concerned with the visions of the soul. Not dependent upon the physical senses or the brain, reminiscences can reveal the archetypal and essential quality of smell itself as well as the memories associated with it. Whilst reincarnation involves a new brain, new memories and a new nose, the reincarnating soul sifts the aromas of all events and culls out their essential and timeless significance. Rudyard Kipling wrote that "scents are surer than sounds or sights to make your heart-strings crack". But the soul's reminiscence reveals a deeper poignancy based upon an unconditioned grasp of the larger pattern of things. This may cause the heart-strings to throb in empathy with the whole but never to crack. Still, there is something of the sad sweetness of the loftier response echoed in the lower.

 In the Vedic tradition the nose (ghrana) is associated with the Ashvinis, the bright horsemen of the sun who act as harbingers of the dawn and who prepare the way for "those who have patiently awaited through the night". They are said to be the Kumara-Egos, the reincarnating 'principles' in this manvantara, and are, therefore, closely associated with the earth. Thus they are associated with the nose, representing both the power of respiration and the sense of smell. In considering the possibilities connected with respiration, one moves closer to that related to the mind. If the respiratory function of the nose could be viewed as an expression of Mahat, then its olfactory function might be seen as representing the final expression of prakriti. Thus, in man's diminished sense of smell we might see a reflection of the beginning of the swallowing-up process whereby everything is ultimately synthesized into one sense, and in the process of respiration might be found the key to conscious control of this development.

 In the science of yoga, respiration or breathing is divided into the three states of purakam (inhalation), kumbhakam (restraining breath) and recakam (exhalation). In Hatha Yoga the practice of pranayama includes all of these states and is performed in an effort to gain control of the breath and of the flow of prana through the channels of the pranamaya kosha, which is an ethereal counterpart to and interpenetrates the physical body. Thus, the Hatha yogi seeks to awaken centres of psychic power. In Raja Yoga the chittavrittis (the fundamental states in which a mind can exist) are controlled by consciousness through the will. The flow of prana in this lofty practice thus comes under the control of the mind. This is extremely important and there are repeated warnings against the practice of breath control which does not involve the development of the higher spiritual will and its mastery over the workings of the mind. Because of the hazards, Patanjali, in the Yoga Aphorisms, emphasizes the purification of the nadis (channels in the pranamaya kosha along which the currents of prana flow). For if these are not clear and prana does not flow smoothly, various nervous disturbances (physical and mental restlessness) result. This practice prepares the way (like the Ashvinis) for a safely controlled and beneficent development of powers, and this involves the practice of purakam and recakam only. Breathing alternately through the nostrils can thus purify the nadis over a period of time and produce the tranquillity necessary to more advanced practices that can be safely pursued under the thorough guidance of an Adept-Teacher. A slow and very careful purification of the mind and all the vestures is the work of the harbingers of the dawn so closely associated with the human nose.

Pranayama plays a critical role in yoga because of the close association of prana and the mind. Existing on all planes of manifestation, prana is the connecting link between matter and energy and the conscious mind. The latter cannot contact and function in matter without the intermediary presence of prana, nor can matter, in association with energy, affect consciousness except through its agency. Prana is not the breath itself but the vital force that manifests the breath and sustains life in all parts of the body. It is to the breath what the electrical current is to the blades in an electric fan, distinct but so closely connected as to allow its manipulation through the control of one's breath. H. P. Blavatsky wrote that "Prana wakes the kamic germs to life" and "makes all desires vital and living". This is the potential of Leo as it arouses Taurus and places the power of the sense of smell and of breath at the disposal of the higher image-making faculty. On the macrocosmic scale the Great Breath breathes out the universes and exudes the vital jivas which course through the electrical channels of ethereal space, bringing life to the air man takes up through his physical nose. In man, jiva becomes prana with his first breath, enabling the divine life-spark to become (as echoed in the stories from the Bible and the Qur'an) an individual spiritual presence.

 Within man the channels analogous to those in ethereal space are the nadis, whose activity through the pranamaya kosha can be purified through the practice of pranayama. This practice, in all its phases, is itself but a preparation for the further practice of pratyahara (abstraction of the mind), in which the indriyas (the senses which are part of the lower mind) are made to follow the mind and caused to function only when the mind wishes to put itself in contact with the outer world. The object of pratyahara is indeed to eliminate the ever-changing impressions produced by the outer world through the vibrations impinging upon the sense-organs. Thus, the Ashvinis, through pranayama, prepare the way, enabling the higher Divine Will to exert itself over consciousness and make of the senses its obedient tools. When this occurs, the memories of past experiences and anticipations of the future that float in the mind can come to be mastered through the practices of dharana and dhyana and, eventually, samadhi. In preparing for this, the practice of pranayama accomplishes changes in the distribution of prana and activates the psychic centres, enabling the mechanism of the subtler bodies to come into more intimate touch (through the agency of prana) with the physical brain. In this way an individual is able to become consciously aware of the luminosity associated with these subtler vehicles. Such a "release of the sun from darkness" results in the advantage that the mental images the chela has to work with in the practice of dharana and dhyana become very precise and almost tangible. The cloudy and blurred images evoked through associational memories stimulated by the sense of smell are replaced by sharp, clear pictures that can be controlled and directed with much greater precision.

 The human race must have long intuited the critical role of the nose in relation to human potentiality. Through the power of reminiscence, individuals have perceived that, on the physical plane, the nose is much more than the gateway of physical life. It provides the means through which the purification of subtler channels can take place. It truly leads the way in a manner that links the spiritual with the material so as to offer the direct alchemization of the latter. In this way the individual human being can respirit himself through respiration. Thus one may give birth within to greater spiritual life. But externalized and associated with the outer physical senses, this creative force gives rise to powerful erotic urges often linked to the sense of smell in the animal nature. Freud, instead of concerning himself with man's loss of a link with the earth, would have enlarged his view of the human potential if he had focussed upon the properly subordinated relationship of the sense of smell to the process of respiration in man. The relationship of the nose to the organs of procreation need not be understood in terms of a mere atavistic link with earthly procreation but in terms of both being vital polar loci wherein life actually comes alive through spirit. This is undoubtedly why respiration through the nose is affected by disharmonies or anxieties related to erotic experiences.

 The most important requirement for one who would make of oneself a true chela is to purify the inner vestures. In turning away from the shallow opinions and fixations upon external signs that typify the world, one ought to consider the deeper significance of the human nose and of the breath of life that passes through it. If the lofty practice of Raja Yoga is not fully within one's grasp in this life, one can still strengthen the will enormously by drawing the breath slowly and rhythmically in harmony with the Sacred Word while placing the mind totally upon the beloved Master who has given one life and hope and a sense of meaning. Thus, fixed upon the highest object of love which lives within the centre of one's being, the chela can place himself or herself completely in line with the highest Divine Will of the universe. In this way breath will become a perfect extension of that breathed forward through Mahat into the world, and each breath issued through the nostrils will carry with it a healing blessing and each breath withdrawn will be inhaled on behalf of the whole. Let everyone who longs to make of daily life a fragrant poem of devotion to the Master explore the mysteries of selfhood and of benevolent breathing.

A nose, is a nose, is a nose . . .
But oh! what floods of feeling,
What antique power
Lie within its shape!
How could we see it merely
As an adornment. . .
Or a leaky tap
To wipe?
Through its gateway
Lies the passage where Past and Future meet;
Eternity courses there
And traces its rhythmic beat.