The Pentagram

by Helen Valborg @ Theosophy Trust


THE PENTAGRAM



It becomes the task of the fifth Hierarchy – the mysterious beings that preside over the constellation Capricornus, Makara, or 'Crocodile ' in India as in Egypt – to inform the empty and ethereal animal form and make of it the Rational Man.

The Secret Doctrine, i 233

Ask anyone to draw a star and they will almost always draw a pentagram. True, there are those few who might respond with a four-pointed figure; the Dakota painted these on their ghost shirts. But if someone mentions a star, most people think of a pentagram without really knowing the reason why. It may occur to one to wonder why pentagrams are called stars. Why are stars called 'stars' and made to look like pentagrams? Is it because they are bright, shining and fiery, which is the meaning of the Greek word aster? That they are figures with radiating points? This seems a simple explanation, but their generally spherical shape is not lost in radiation, which suggests a less obvious connection with the pentagram. Perhaps the fact that they occasionally 'fall' or that they are thought to have so profound an influence upon human destiny has something to do with it. Do pentagrams 'fall' or 'shine' even symbolically? Why was the pentagram the great aenigma (enigma or riddle) of the Pythagoreans, their highest symbol, whose occult meaning remained hidden even whilst it was expressed as a sign of recognition amongst initiated members of the Brotherhood ?

Only he who is familiar with geometry shall be admitted here.

Plato

Iamblichus wrote that the sign of the pentagon was so jealously guarded that when the Pythagorean Hippasus published a construction of spheres made up of twelve pentagons, his impiety was thought to be responsible for his subsequently perishing in a shipwreck. For a similar act, Hippocrates of Chios was expelled from the fraternity, which persisted in transmitting the secret as part of a whole body of esoteric cosmological and philosophical studies. The pentagram continued to be passed down in secret through the centuries long after Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans were gone. It was kept alive as an occult paradigm for architects and master masons (transmitted from father to son or adopted son) as a secret recognition symbol, and as an actual element of magical ritual. Architects and physicians took an oath of secrecy mirroring that taken by the privileged followers of Pythagoras in antiquity.

The symbol of the pentagram has played a significant role in scholarly discussions concerning the question of the survival of Pythagoreanism after the fourth century BCE. Some who argue that centres continued to flourish after this time refer to pentagrams on buildings and stones in various Mediterranean sites, whilst numismatists point to the abundance of coins bearing the pentagram design which were used in Italy as well as Syria, Gaul and Spain until several centuries CE. Some scholars have tried to show a connection between Pythagoreans and Celtic Druids of Gaul through such coins, which are also similar to certain types used in the British Isles during the second century BCE. These pentagrams may be taken as evidence for a continuous Pythagorean influence in the ancient world, or, since most of them on coins were small signs outside the central design, they can be interpreted as merely indicating trade or profession. Such was the case under Roman rule, where a small pentagram on a coin represented the 'Builders' (Masons).

The case for the continuance of Pythagorean thought need not rest upon such limited empirical evidence. Neo-Pythagorean and neo-Platonic ideas stimulated and affected pre-Christian and Christian thinking in many more archetypal ways, from philosophical considerations to architecture and design. Arcane knowledge was passed down through the Stone Masons from the Collegia Opificum during the Roman Republic to the architectural workshops of the Benedictine monasteries and the secular medieval guilds of Builders and Masons who revered Pythagoras and Hermes as revelators of the secrets of geometry to the human race. The predominant ratios in Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture were based upon divisions of five or ten within a controlling circle of orientation. This naturally introduced the theme of the Golden Section and displayed the Pythagorean secret of constructing a pentagon in a circle for elevations as well as for plans.

The pentagon and its element, the pentagram, were treated with geometric precision, as they related to the mystery of cosmic manifestation and its reflected structuring in the world. But some claim that the secret recognition sign of the Pythagoreans was drawn as a flowing figure. They assert that it was not an equiangular uniform figure but, instead, one which resulted from the division of the square by the acute-angled triangle and the placing of the sacred cut so as to halve the square. This introduces the square as a parent figure rather than the pentagon or a circle and suggests more complexities concerning the meaning and origin of the pentagram. Was the pentagram originally a geometric figure emerging from the pentagon to gain elevated cosmic significance leading to its association with the stars and planets? Or, was it originally a slanted, long-legged design signifying merely the microcosm as man? A more deductive approach raises the question of whether the pentagram is self-evident in the cosmic process. Is this why it is said to be endless in its design? Why does the Book of Dzyan say that Aditi, the Great Mother, lay with the pentagram in her bosom, ready to bring it forth?

Since Pythagoras studied mathematics in Babylon, many believe the pentagram to have originated there, going back as far as the Uruk IV period (c. 3000 BCE.). By the same token, his apprenticeship in India could suggest a South Asian origin for the idea and, indeed, the ancient Vedas reveal hints of this. One of the oldest known meanings ascribed to the symbol is the idea that it represents the quintessence acting upon matter. In its parent form it is the square of matter overbrooded by the one apex whose fiery pyramidal point high above is free from any disturbance in the tetrad below. It symbolizes the four limbs controlled by the head, the four fingers controlled by the thumb, and four cardinal points related to their centre. Once the pentagon is formed, the pentagram joins its vertices and emphasizes the five in an unending interplay of triangles. In this guise the pentagram represents "the spirit of life eternal and the spirit of life and love terrestrial – in the human compound". It signifies the hierosgamos, or the union of the principle of heaven (3) with that of the mother (2), and it is the symbol of marriage and generation, the bringing together of the masculine and the feminine in an endless 'lover's knot' which ceaselessly delivers itself.

The structural symmetry of the pentagon is a common characteristic in Nature, and man is a perfect illustration of it. He combines all of the cosmic elements at the microcosmic level, so that earth, air, fire and water are overbrooded by Spirit, forming the fifth and topmost point of the pentagram, which represents the head seated in control over the limbs. The Pythagoreans associated this form with health and referred to the pentagram as ὑγίεια – hugieia – or 'Health' itself, a practice which clearly revealed their recognition of the importance of man's upright position, the supremacy of his thinking principle over the body and the significance of an ideal balance and symmetry in his structure. This corresponds with an upright and geometrically equiangular pentagram whose balance was believed to be fundamental to the harmony basic to good health.

A central theme running through these classical ideas is that man combines in his nature heaven and earth and possesses the means, through intelligent spiritual control, of maintaining his own microcosmic health and harmony in relation to the greater balance of forces in the macrocosm. Each individual was believed to be potentially capable of unlocking the mystery of the pentagram within and releasing the healing flow of divine love that was his birthright. With the eclipse of the Classical Age and the obscuration of the ancient Mysteries, the symbolic emphasis surrounding the pentagram shifted. Increasingly, the archaic belief in its power to protect began to dominate and man was no longer seen as being in control of his own destiny. In this narrowing mental environment the Pythagorean pentagram found its way as an apotropaic sign (one which could turn away or contain evil spirits). From late antiquity through the Middle Ages and Renaissance into the eighteenth century it persisted. Goethe's Faust drew a pentagram on the thresholds of his room in an effort to protect himself from Mephistopheles, and countless people whose lives might never have inspired great literary portraits took precaution by painting the symbol on thresholds and utensils critical to their livelihood. Frightened by what they perceived as external forces of evil expressed in mental and physical disease as well as collective chaos, people strove to barricade themselves through a reliance upon vicarious atonement and lower magical practices. These sometimes took the form of grey or black magic, and the medieval pentagram came to possess a questionable reputation, having been used to contain and transfer evil as well as to repel it.

This twisted symbolic usage represents the lowest fall of the exercise of divine intelligence associated with the pentagram, and it is only through veiled myths and legends that its spiritually occult meaning was preserved. Thus, when Gawain sustained faith in the five wounds of Christ during his quest for the Grail, he was keeping faith with the god in man, symbolized by the stigmata on the head and four limbs which formed a pentagram. Like the shield of an unknown Attic warrior of the fifth century B.C., Sir Gawain's shield is said to have borne a pentagram called 'the endless knot', which symbolized much more than the power to repel evil. It represented the five 'precious things' expressed in five ways through his wits, his fingers, his faith, his purity and virtue, as well as the merging of heaven and earth. In the evolution of the Arthurian cycle, Gawain was the first knight to bear such a shield. From him it passed in legend to Parsifal, Lancelot and to Galahad, who finally succeeded in discovering the Grail. But the myth paled in the glare of nineteenth century materialism.

The old geometrical symbols were resurrected in a cold utilitarian sense, consonant with the new scientific awareness of the world and man's increasing ability to manipulate the physical forces operating in it. The pentagram and pentagon were seen as no more or no less interesting than any other geometrical shape, even whilst the old notion that it described a star continued to persist in common lore. It is this diminished and confused understanding of the symbol which prevails in its modern usage, although children who draw five-pointed stars across the celestial borders of their early artistic endeavours probably intuit more about the symbol's intrinsic meaning than do people who vigorously wave all the star-spangled flags of the world.

Pythagoras, seeing that there are five solid figures .. . said that the Sphere of the Universe arose from the dodecahedron.

Aetius

For Pythagoras as well as for all Initiates of the Greater Mysteries, the cosmic progression from the One to the many was seen in terms of a hierarchy of Spirits. From the One Flame arose the Divine Fire of Daiviprakriti expressed through Fohat as Fire and Ether or the Atma-Buddhic prototype of the incarnating Monads. From this Duad come the Triads, the Atma-Buddhi-Manasic prototype, and the Tetrad or essence of human consciousness in which lies the germ that will fall into generation. Then emanates the Fifth Group of Dhyanis connected with the Dragon Makara, which is the Dragon of Wisdom or Manas, the Human Soul, mind and intelligence. This cosmic hierarchy ultimately expresses itself in twelve phases of manifestation. Brahman the First is followed by the AUM or Logos, the androgynous Brahm (Purusha), the Tetraktys represented by the Four Faces of Brahma, the Five Dhyanis (Jivatma) linked with the five mystical vowels uttered by Brahma, which became the Panchadasa and are followed by the Astral Light of the Virgin Mother. These are followed by the tattwas or subtle elements, thirty-six in number, and the universe in thought, which is the eighth level, involving the microcosm subjectively perceived. Then emerge the nine Prajapatis from whom proceeds the tenth, which is the shape of the material universe in the mind of the Demiurgos – the Dodecahedron. After this come the fourteen lokas and the five elements, which simply give dimension and substance to the structure already manifest.

The Fifth Hierarchy is identified with the Dragon of Wisdom or Makara, whose name signifies five (ma) fingers (kara) or sides (karam), and which readily expresses itself as the five-limbed, five-principled symbol of thinking, conscious man. The Makaram are said to be esoterically a hidden mystical class of devas whose name is an anagram for the Kumaras, the sons of Rudra-Shiva. It is significant that another meaning of kara, besides the five-fingered hand, is the star-shaped figure connected with the scorpion-sting of Scorpio (Shiva). This Fifth Hierarchy of Dhyanis contains in itself the dual attributes of the spiritual and physical aspects of the universe (Mahat, the Universal Intelligence, and the dual nature of man). They are the Five Kumaras who gained exemption from passion and have the soul of the five elements in them, with water and Ether predominating. Thus, their symbol is both fiery and aquatic, signifying the great sacrifice wherein they take up an earthly abode for an entire Mahayuga, during which they exchange their impersonal individualities for individual personalities.

These Five Dhyanis, containing the spiritual and physical aspects of the universe, represent the two poles or the number five doubled, which gives the sacred decad and the tenth sign of the zodiac or Makara. Encompassing the dual five, the pentad is the symbol of marriage, dividing the ineffable number ten into two equal parts. This relates to the fact that five alone is the binary symbol of the two sexes separated, a subject whose profound mystery is associated with the lighting up of Manas and the making of man, the microcosmic pentagram. The Makaram are called thasathisa or 'faces of the universe', which are bound by the pentagons of the dodecahedron. Before the zodiacal signs of Kanya (Virgo), Thula (Libra) and Vrischikam (Scorpio) were separated into three, Virgo and Scorpio were combined into one eighth sign, Makara, which was identified with the eight-faced octahedron. This involved a doubling of the tetrad (Tetraktys reflected), describing the universe in thought or subjectively perceived. With the emanation of the Fifth Hierarchy, Virgo and Scorpio split and there was a fall and separation of the sexes. Makara was no longer eight-faced but ten, made up of two parts. It now represented both macrocosm and microcosm as external objects of perception. This is why it is said that in Capricorn (Makara) the vehicle of the new man will be built.

Makara-Ketu is Aja (the Unborn) and Atma-bhu (the Self-Existent). Aja is the First Logos, the desire that "first arose in IT, which was the primal germ of mind", that which "connects entity with non-entity", or Manas with Atman. In the first stage Manas is with Atman. In the second stage Brahma issues the Mind-born Sons who, in the Fifth and Ninth Creations, become the Kumaras. Thus, Manas descends along a Ray emanated through Makara cosmically, and individually with each new birth, and it withdraws in like manner with physical dissolution. The Egyptians believed that Makara drew the quintessence from the life lived at the end of it, and Platonists held that the souls of the dead ascended into heaven through the constellation Makara, which they called 'the Gate of the Gods'. The Five Dhyanis are thus a door or a link connecting entity with non-entity, creating self-conscious man, whose dual nature is microcosmically echoed in the separation of the sexes on the physical plane, the latter being the delusive, externalized expression of what every human being combines in his or her inner pentagrammatic nature wherein the true lover's knot is to be generated.

The Triads become Pentagons on earth.

How did the androgynous triadic hierarchies become the Five Dhyani Buddhas who are the Jivatma in man? One might ask, how did a geometric solid made up of three-sided figures become a solid made up of five-sided figures? Again, how did the icosahedron, which represents the astral light (noumenal universe), become the dodecahedron, or the manifest physical universe? If we examine models of the two forms, we may observe that, in the process of conversion from the three to the five, the vertices of the pentagons are to be located in the centres of the triads, and the lines of the edges of pentagons cross the edges of triangles so as to be always perpendicular. Another way of visualizing this is to: "Describe a sphere about an icosahedron; let perpendiculars be drawn from the centre of the sphere on its faces and produced to meet the surface of the sphere. Now, if the points of intersection be joined, a dodecahedron is formed within the sphere." If we examine a model of an icosahedron, we can discover that the five is already inherent in its structure in the form of the pentagons containing five triangles, which are visible on any side.

In this combination of triad and pentagon, the icosahedron represents microcosmically the Higher Triad of the Inner Man as well as the potential natural man. If we count the triads, there are five above and five below with ten in between. The triads in between face up and down, creating a tension of equal attraction and repulsion between the upper and lower pentagons. They form a buffer separating the higher and lower potentials, which is a requisite condition of the hidden astral universe. With the dodecahedron, the pentagons become the faces, the five made manifest, combining the Higher Triad with prana and the linga sharira. It is through this marriage that the rational man comes into being. The dodecahedron represents an expansion of the pentagon in three-dimensional space, and in its multiple expression there is no 'buffer' separating the upper and the lower. Instead, the whole is made manifest in the pentad itself, which is a primary number divisible by unity only.

The pentagram is an element of the pentagon, joining each vertex to its opposite side. The ratio of the line between two neighbouring vertices of the pentagon and the longer line joining two of its opposite vertices is equal to Φ or the sacred Golden Ratio so valued by the Pythagoreans. This proportion is intimately associated with the regular pentagon and pentagram, so much so that the construction of the pentagon is based upon the Golden Section. Because of the connection between the Golden or Φ Series and homothetic growth, and between the Golden Section and the pentagon, it is not surprising that there is a preponderance of pentagonal symmetry in natural forms such as flowers, all fruit blossoms, leaves and starfish, as well as in the proportions of the human body. Whilst never appearing in the inorganic crystalline systems, pentagonal symmetry plays a predominant role in the shape of living organisms and in the patterns of their growth. This is known as gnomonic growth, which is homothetic growth by intussusception or imbibition (from inside outwards) as opposed to agglutination, which is simple addition from outside of identical elements, as with minerals.

The symmetry involved in this wonderful process is one of dynamic proportionality, not at all like the static concept of symmetry that developed in medieval times, which was based on arithmetic. This pristine sense of symmetry is closer to analogy or "the impression given by that which remains similar to itself in the diversity of evolution". The principle of analogy is common to both art and science and has to do with the permanent similarities. It is found at the base of eurhythmy (of or in harmonic proportion) and modulation in the arts of space as well as musical harmony. It also dominates literature, where metaphor is only a condensed and unexpected analogy. Such intuitive perception of similarity was the source of Shakespeare's metaphors and Leonardo da Vinci's insight into the laws of Nature, so beautifully expressed in his pentagrammatic drawing of man within the cosmic circle.

Pentagonal symmetry cannot be (for purely arithmetical reasons in angular distribution) associated with equal divisions of space or homogeneous point-lattices, but fits in perfectly with the seemingly asymmetrical pulsations of living growth. This reminds one of the assertion made by some scholars that the Pythagorean pentacle was not an equilateral, uniform figure and that it was drawn as a free-flowing figure whose bottom legs were of unequal length, as were the arms and head. It may be that these drawings were merely imprecise, or they could have been meant to reflect the flowing dialectic of imbibitional growths which emanate from the ideal framework of the more noumenal inner pentagram. From an archetypal perspective, however, the irregular pentagram represents the disproportion of mental perversity, which is bound to affect health adversely. Looking at the larger picture, it may be assumed that the seeming asymmetry of gnomonic growth in particular instances is balanced off in a greater symmetry operating at the universal level. It is this greater balanced symmetry which the man of perfect health is capable of reflecting.

Man is his own star and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man
Commands all light, all influence, all fate.
Nothing to him falls early, or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.

John Fletcher

The legend of Sir Gawain has been Christianized, but the original story involved the theme of magician in combat with magician. The pentagram on his shield was a key capable of releasing the higher magic through the five fingers of his mind and hand, capable of awakening him with a fiery Scorpio sting to a Shiva-like awareness of the task at hand. Just so must any man or woman make the journey to self-conscious godhood. In the preparation for the quest, an affirmation of identity must be declared, setting the stage for combat and revealing itself in the pentagram on the shield. This affirmation, this strong act of will, is the greatest defence against the indwelling adversary, and it must be held firmly upright at all times. If the pentagram becomes inverted in one's consciousness, it will draw all the forces of death and witchcraft associated with a perverse prolongation of the Fall. But if its 'head' is always held uppermost, one begins to realize in consciousness one's celestial prototype. Only as a five-pointed star can man become a living link between the celestial and terrestrial, an antaskarana bridge capable of spanning the noumenal and phenomenal worlds. The upward-pointing apex of his higher Manasic intellect becomes capable of penetrating the luminous vessel of Buddhi, and the mystic marriage between the star and the crescent can take place. In this way do pure knights and initiates ascend to the threshold of Makara, the Gate of the Gods, the place of birth of the spiritual microcosm and death of the physical universe.

It is said that the mystery of the pentagram must be mastered before the hexagram can be understood. The quest for the full realization of one's humanity necessitates a courageous adherence to Truth, Love and Beauty with such unswerving purity of mind and heart as to render one a true Brahmachari, an unsullied virginal reflector of the Dhyani-Kumaras. When the seeker has become a true Satyagrahi, overcoming any division between the higher and lower pentagrams, he will have merged in spiritual wedlock the progeny of the binary number five. With Higher Manas fully activated, the marriage with Buddhi can take place and the androgynous state exemplified by the Great Initiates of the Sixth Round be approached. Thus may the human pentagram become circumscribed by a hexagram within a circle, and the Knight-Initiate joins the ranks of those who tirelessly serve in the Army of the Builders, whose compassionate design serves as a timeless pathway leading to the perfect symmetry of Truth.


In the breast of Aditi I blaze;
Invisible fire beating,
Pulsating star unseen.
I am the five sacred words of Brahm,
The sparks of Shiva's Seed.
I am the virgin offspring of Truth,
The promised Light of Mind.
Seek ye the Dragon's Gate,
O thou of Lesser Face.
Be thou a bridge onto the Greater Shore.


Hermes, March 1983