Sacred Texts  Symbolism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Migration of Symbols, by Goblet d'Alviella, [1894], at

p. 84



Causes which may alter the primary interpretation of symbolical types.—Loss of the primitive signification.—New meanings attached to uncomprehended symbols.—Harpocrates, the god of silence.—Identical symbols applied to different traditions.—Saint George and Horus.—Daniel and the Chaldæan Hercules.—The two doves facing each other.—Chaldæan origin of the religious symbolism of the Persians.—Sources of the Christian symbolism of the Catacombs.—Causes which may alter the form of symbols.—Tendency to simplify the figures.—Tendency to beautify them.—Origins and transformations of the Thunderbolt.—The antecedents of Sagittarius.—Mistakes due to ignorance and maladroitness.—Reconstruction of a new intelligible type from degenerate elements.—Gradual transformation of linear symbols into human figures, and of human figures into linear symbols.—Substitution of one element for another in a symbolical combination.—Lily and Lotus.—Addition of new elements to a former figure.—The perron of Liege.

For two symbolical figures to have a common origin it is not always necessary that they should have the same meaning. It frequently happens that a symbol changes its meaning in passing from one country to another.

In this manner a symbol can very well become a mere ornament when, on account of its æsthetic value, or simply by reason of its originality, it is reproduced by artists who are unacquainted with its primitive acceptation. Such, for example, are those clasps in the shape of gammadions which are frequently offered for sale to visitors at Homburg, and which, according to M. Gaidoz, are

p. 85

reproductions of antique fibulæ found, some years ago, on the site of a Roman encampment not far from that place. 1

A symbol, again, may retain merely a talismanic value, like those crucifixes, converted into fetiches, which are the only vestiges of Christianity left, among certain tribes of the Lower Congo, by the Portuguese domination of last century.

Sometimes, in similar cases, the new owners of the image will endeavour to explain it by a more or less ingenious interpretation, and in this manner they will restore to it a symbolical import, though applied to a new conception.

The rising sun has often been compared to a new-born child. Amongst the Egyptians, this comparison led to Horus being represented as an infant sucking its finger. The Greeks imagined that he placed his finger on his lips to enjoin secrecy on the initiated, and they made him the image of Harpocrates, the god of silence. 2

This is what M. Clermont-Ganneau has very happily termed iconological mythology; it is here no longer the myth which gives rise to the image, but the image which gives rise to the myth.

We may further quote, as an interpretation of the same kind, the legend related by Hygin, which made the Caduceus originate in Hermes throwing his wand between two serpents fighting. It is evident that, here also, this hypothesis, soon to be transformed into a myth by the popular imagination, was due to a desire, unconscious perhaps, to explain the Caduceus.

Most frequently it is a conception pre-existent in the local traditions which we think we find amongst the products of foreign imagery. The Egyptians of the later period sometimes represented

p. 86

[paragraph continues] Horus under the form of a horseman piercing a crocodile with his spear. M. Clermont-Ganneau has shown how this symbolical image of the sun dispersing the clouds served as a model to the early representations of St. George and the Dragon. 1 The same subject had already been employed by Greek mythology to depict Bellerophon slaying the Chimæra. 2

M. Gaidoz attributes a similar origin, not only to the image, but also to the worship of the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows, or rather of the Seven Swords. He thinks that he discovers its prototype in certain Chaldæan cylinders in which a goddess is depicted in the middle of seven arrows or swords, which radiate doubtlessly from a quiver placed behind her back. The resemblance between the two images is remarkable. This is how the author explains this transmission: "An Assyrian cylinder, or some other engraved stone, reached Italy in the Middle Ages. … The image of a woman could be taken for nothing else than that of the Virgin Mary. But what could be the meaning of those weapons which were seen in the figure, and seemed to transpierce her breast? Without a doubt they were swords; and what might they signify? Some ingenious ecclesiastic was not wanting who assumed that they were the symbol of sorrows.… The swords numbered seven; it was then only necessary to ascertain, and this was no difficult task, the seven principal sorrows in the life of the Virgin Mary." 3

But here is a still better example: the image, so common on Chaldæan cylinders, of the mythical

p. 87

hero, Idzhubar or Gilgames, 1 seen from the front and flanked by two lions, which he holds at arm's length, was not only diffused amongst the Greeks


Fig. 35. Assyrian Cylinder.
(Lajard. Mithra, pl. xliv., fig. 10.)

and Hindus to symbolize their respective solar hero in the course of his exploits, it seems also, in our Middle Ages, to have suggested certain pictorial representations of Daniel in the lion's den.

FIG. 36. ON AN OLD CHRISTIAN STAFF. (MARTIN et CAHIER. Mélanges d’archéologie, vol. ii., pl. xviii.)

Fig. 36. On an old Christian Staff.
(Martin et Cahier. Mélanges d’archéologie, vol. ii., pl. xviii.)

[paragraph continues] In these the prophet is drawn full-face, standing with arms outstretched, in the classic attitude of prayer, between two rampant lions, which he seems to keep in awe as much by his gesture as by the effect of his prayer. In this manner might be explained the peculiar fact, pointed out by the Abbe Martigny, that Daniel is often represented

p. 88

between two lions, "whilst the den contains seven." 1

On a lintel of St. Gertrude's Church at Nivelles, in Belgium, there is a bas-relief representing Samson slaying the lion, which belongs to the oldest piece of carved stone still in situ in Belgium. The Biblical hero is there represented

FIG. 37. SAMSON KILLING THE LION. (Cathedral of Nivelles.)

Fig. 37. Samson Killing the Lion.
(Cathedral of Nivelles.)

dressed in the Roman costume, astride of the lion, whose jaws he seizes with his hands (fig. 37). A mere glance will permit one to find in this image a reminiscence of the scene, so often reproduced

FIG. 38. MITHRA SLAYING THE BULL. (From a bas-relief in the Louvre.)

Fig. 38. Mithra Slaying the Bull.
(From a bas-relief in the Louvre.)

on Mithraic bas-reliefs, where Mithras offers the bull in sacrifice (fig. 38).

The worship of Mithras was certainly practised

p. 89

in Belgium at the time of the Roman domination, for inscriptions, "Deo Invicio Mithræ," have been found in the Gallo-Roman cemetery at Juslenville. The Nivelles bas-relief, to be sure, is not prior to the eleventh century; but then it must be observed that at Nivelles, and in its vicinity, traces of Roman occupation have been discovered. The sculptor of St. Gertrude may very probably have been acquainted with a local Mithraic bas-relief, in which he saw an episode of Samson's history. It may, however, be equally admitted that the model came from without.

Mediæval pictorial art, moreover, borrows frequently enough from Mithraic representations, wherein the sun and moon are depicted under the forms and with the respective attributes of the solar god and of the lunar goddess in the scene of the sacrifice. 1

A remarkable example is seen in the bas-reliefs of the baptistery of Parma. 2

The group of Mithras and the bull has received other adaptations again in the hands of Christian artists. M. Th. Roller has pointed out a singular instance in a Christian bas-relief of the third or fourth century. Christ is there represented in the form of Orpheus, playing on the lyre, with a Phrygian cap on the head, and the right leg reposing on the body of a lamb, which turns its head towards the musician. 3

p. 90

These alterations in meaning may sometimes be perfectly compatible with a knowledge of the primitive signification, for one is always prone to discover in everything one's favourite image or idea. It was in perfect good faith that the Neoplatonists believed they recognized the representations of their own doctrines in the symbols and in the myths of all contemporary religions. Did not the early Christians see the Cross in all figures exhibiting an intersection of lines, as an anchor, a mast and its yard, a standard, a plough, a man swimming, a bird flying, a person praying with outstretched arms, the Paschal Lamb on the spit, and even the human face, in which the line of the nose crosses that of the eyes? When the Serapeum at Alexandria was destroyed, the Christian writers of the time relate that a certain number of cruces ansatæ were found in it. They themselves observe that in these figures was recognized the old Egyptian symbol of life; which avowal, however, does not prevent them from seeing in this emblem a prophetic allusion to the sign of the Redemption. Sozomen adds that this fact brought about many conversions amongst the pagans. 1

A legend, widely diffused throughout the ancient world, related that Zeus, wishing to know the centre of the earth, let fly at the same moment from the ends of the world, in the east and west, two eagles (other versions say two crows), which came and settled at the same time on the omphalos of Apollo in the temple at Delphi. 2 It may be questioned if this tradition was not perhaps suggested by the desire to account for a representation of the omphalos, similar to the image of a temple found amongst the jewels collected by Dr. Schliemann at Mycenæ. It is a sort of shrine,

p. 91

which stands between two doves facing one another.

The origins of this representation must, in their

FIG. 39. JEWEL FROM MYCENÆ. (Schliemann. Mycènes. Paris, 1879, fig. 423.)
Click to enlarge

Fig. 39. Jewel From Mycenæ.
(Schliemann. Mycènes. Paris, 1879, fig. 423.)

turn, be sought for in the symbolism of the worship paid, in Asia Minor, to the Great Goddess of Nature, venerated by the Phœnician populations under the name of Astarte. The doves played a part in this worship, either as personifications of the goddess, or as sacred birds reared in the temples. 1 Two doves appear on some stelai in

FIG. 40. PUNIC STELA. (Corpus inscript. semit., i., part iii., No. 183.)

Fig. 40. Punic Stela.
(Corpus inscript. semit., i., part iii., No. 183.)

[paragraph continues] Libya, and, later, on imperial coins of Cyprus; in the former they are facing one another on the opposite sides of one of those conical bethels

p. 92

which represented the goddess (fig. 40); in the latter they are back to back on the roof of a temple containing a Sacred Stone (fig. 41).

FIG. 41. COIN OF PAPHOS. (GUIGNAUT, vol. iv., pl. liv., fig. 206.)

FIG. 41. Coin of Paphos.
(Guignaut, vol. iv., pl. liv., fig. 206.)

This combination of figures might all the more easily relate to the omphalos, since the latter was a white stone, a real bethel, round at the top. I am not aware that it has ever been found represented between two crows or eagles, but Strabo informs us that near the Sacred Stone (ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ), in the sanctuary at Delphi, there was an image of the two birds mentioned in the fable. 1

Let us now pass over a dozen centuries, and, from the shores of the Ægean Sea, direct our steps towards the valley of the Sambre. Coins of

FIG. 42.

Fig. 42

p. 93

the Principality of Liege, struck at Thuin under Bishop Otbert (1092–1119), offer to our view the well-known type of the Temple,—which Charlemagne borrowed from ancient Italy,—with this

FIG. 43. COIN OF THUIN. (DE CHESTRET. Numismatique de la province de Liege, pl. iii., No. 52.)

Fig. 43. Coin of Thuin.
(De Chestret. Numismatique de la province de Liege, pl. iii., No. 52.)

difference, that here the gable stands between two doves affrontée.

M. le baron de Chestret has drawn a parallel between this image and a legend relating to the siege of the monastery of Lobbes, in 955, by the Huns, who had invaded the territory of Thuin. The Lobbes chronicle relates that two pigeons, having escaped from the church, had flown three times round the barbarians’ encampment, and that forthwith a violent shower of rain, by swelling their bows, had put the besiegers to rout. 1 As Folcuin, the writer of the chronicle, became abbot of Lobbes in 965, it cannot be maintained that this narrative was prompted by Otbert's coin; but the legend will probably have contributed towards establishing in the coinage of Thuin a type whose antecedents, perhaps, date back, across classic antiquity, to the sacred dove-cots of Phœnicia. 2

It may also happen that the signification of a

p. 94

foreign symbol is intentionally modified in order to adapt it to an idea or a belief, till then devoid of all material expression, or confined to a few rudimentary figurations. When the Persians had taken possession of Mesopotamia, they converted to their own use almost the whole imagery of the conquered people, in order to give a concrete form to their own religious conceptions, which the absence of a national art left without well-defined plastic representations. The Assyrian genii, with a double pair of wings, provided a body for the seven superior spirits of Mazdeism, the Amshaspands. The Chaldæan demons, with their hideous and bestial forms, were employed to represent the devas, those Iranian personifications of all that is false, dark, and impure. Lastly, as we shall see in another chapter, Ahura Mazda appropriated the symbol of Ashur, the great god of the Assyrian pantheon, and the Iranian Holy Tree, whose sap averts death, borrowed its shape from the conventional Trees of Mesopotamian pictorial art.

In the same manner, when the Christians began to reproduce on the walls of the Catacombs the scenes of the Old Testament and the parables of the New, it was from classic, and even mythological art that they took their first models. Hermes’ Criophoros furnished the type of the Good Shepherd. 1 Orpheus taming the wild beasts became a symbol of Christ and of his preaching. The Christian clinging to the Cross, in order to overcome temptations, was represented by Ulysses bound to the mast of his ship, so as to resist the song of the Sirens. By an ingenious application of a myth, which paganism had already spiritualized,

p. 95

[paragraph continues] Psyche offered the image of the human soul united to Love, replaced by an angel. 1 The religions of Gaul and of India have offered instances of similar assimilations from the day they came into contact with the symbolism of more advanced nations.

In general, there must be an analogy between the old and the new interpretation sufficient to justify the transition from the one to the other. On the monuments of Egypt and of Mesopotamia divinities or genii are frequently met with possessing a double pair of wings, one raised, the other lowered; the Phœnicians easily made therefrom a symbolical image of perpetual motion. 2 Amongst the Egyptians, the Phoenix rising from its ashes represented the sun resuscitating every morning in the glow of dawn. Depicted on a pyre, and encircled by a halo of glory, this solar Bird became, amongst the Romans, the emblem of the imperial apotheoses, and then passed to the sarcophagi of the Christians, as a symbol of the Resurrection.

The connection, however, is not always so easy to trace, whether in the form or in the idea, especially when it is a question of metaphysical conceptions embodied, at a later date, in a symbol of naturalistic origin. So long as symbols remain the image of some object or perceptible phenomenon, the mental operation which produced them can always be reconstituted. But in the domain of abstract ideas the field of analogy is as vast as that of individual fancy, and the same image may be used to render the most dissimilar ideas. How could we ascertain the origin of so abstract a symbol as the representation of the world under the form of a serpent biting its tail, if the texts did not inform us that in the cosmogony of Egypt, of Chaldæa, of Greece, and of India, the

p. 96

earth was believed to be circumscribed by an ocean or celestial river, whose circular course is compared to a serpent?

We must observe that even in naturalistic religions one image may be applied to very different objects. The serpent, for instance, has also served to symbolize the lightning, solar rays, clouds, rivers, and even the course of the stars in the sky.


Symbols may even differ in appearance and yet be genealogically connected with one another. This leads us to examine the causes which may alter the form of symbolical representations.

There is a tendency, in the first place, to reduce or abbreviate the figure in order either to enclose it in a smaller space, or else to lessen the work of the artist, especially when it is a complicated image in frequent use. In all systems of writing where the characters first appeared under the form of hieroglyphs, the letter need only be glanced over in order to find the symbol. It is known that our vowel A was originally a bull's head, a bucrane, and that the latter, in its turn, represented the whole animal, in conformity with the popular rule that the part is equal to the whole in the matter of symbols, as well as of sacrifices. It is thus, again, that in the signs of the Zodiac the Lion is merely represented by its tail.

At other times, on the contrary, we have additions and embellishments suggested by æsthetic considerations. Such, in particular, was the fate of nearly all the symbols adopted by Greece, whose art, so powerfully original, never accepted foreign types without stamping them with profound and happy modifications. We will see an important example of this in the transformations of the Caduceus.

p. 97

The Thunderbolt is another symbol which lent itself to all the refinements of classic art; here, however, the germs of those improvements, like the origins of the symbol itself, must be sought for further towards the East. On bas-reliefs at Nimrud the Thunderbolt is represented in the left hand of a god holding an axe in his right; at Malthaï it is brandished in each hand by the god Merodach struggling with the monster Tiamat, the mythical assailant of the moon. We may add that in these Mesopotamian sculptures its antecedents are recognized without difficulty; it appears there, indeed, as a double trident, or rather as a trident doubled in the manner of the blade in the two-edged

FIG. 44. ASSYRIAN THUNDERBOLT. (<span style=

Fig. 44. Assyrian Thunderbolt.
(Layard. Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd series, pl. v.)

axe, or of the hammer in the Two-headed Mallet.

Almost all nations have represented the lightning by a weapon. Among the Chaldæans it was depicted by a trident as well as by a pitch-fork and an axe. The Trident, with branches which zigzag like lightning, is frequently exhibited in the hands of the Assyro-Chaldæan gods. On a cylinder dating back to the oldest times of Chaldæan art the handle of a Trident held by the god of the storm lets fall a jet of water into the mouth of a deer.

The Assyrian artist who—with the intention, perhaps, of accentuating the power of the god—first doubled the Trident, or rather produced from

p. 98

it the trifid sheaf, of which Greek art was to make such good use, secured thereby for the old Mesopotamian symbol an advantage over all the

FIG. 45. (RAWLINSON. The Five Great Monarchies, vol. ii., p. 251.)

FIG. 45.
(Rawlinson. The Five Great Monarchies, vol. ii., p. 251.)

other representations of lightning with which it was to compete.

The Greeks, like all the Indo-European nations, seem to have figured to themselves the light of the storm under the form of a bird of prey. When they had received the image of the Thunderbolt from Asia Minor, they placed it in the talons of the eagle, and made it the sceptre, and even the symbol, of Zeus; explaining, in return, according to their custom, this symbolical combination by a myth: it was, said they, the eagle that brought the Thunderbolt to Zeus, when the latter was preparing to fight the Titans. 1

Roman Italy transmitted the Thunderbolt to Gaul, where, in the latter centuries of paganism, it alternated with the Two-headed Hammer on Gallo-Roman monuments; it is even found on amulets of ancient Germany, Scandinavia, and Brittany.

In the East it penetrated into India in the track of Alexander. It had there to compete with other symbols having the same signification: "the sparrow-hawk with golden wings," and "the stone with four points," of which the Vedas speak,—the

p. 99

[paragraph continues] St. Andrew's Cross (itself perhaps a double fork) which forms the vajra, the redoubtable weapon of Indra, god of the stormy sky; 1 the Drum and the Axe which figure in the hands of Siva; lastly, its own antecedent, the Trident, which the Hindus had already borrowed from the West, or else imagined themselves spontaneously.

Siva, who succeeded Zeus on the coins of the Indo-Scythic kings when the last glimmering of Greek civilization in north-west India had died out, holds in his hand sometimes the Thunderbolt, sometimes the Trident, 2 and if the latter remains the essential weapon of the god in the later imagery of the Hindu sects, the Thunderbolt made none the less its way amongst the Buddhists, who transported it with their symbolism as far as China and Japan. Even at the present time it can

FIG. 46. DORDJ. (From a specimen belonging to the author.)

Fig. 46. Dordj.
(From a specimen belonging to the author.

be recognized there under the form of the dordj, a small bronze instrument shaped like a double sheaf, with six or eight branches, which, held between the thumb and forefinger, is used by the lamas and bonzes to bless the faithful, and to exorcise demons. 3

A legend which M. Gustave Le Bon found in Nepaul claims to justify the presence of the

p. 100

[paragraph continues] Thunderbolt in the temples of the country by stating that Buddha had wrested it from the god Indra. 1 The assertion is true in this sense, that Buddhism, after having precipitated from his supreme rank the Master of the Brahminical Olympus, made of his terrible and capricious instrument an ally of man in the struggle against the powers of evil. It is interesting to note the fact that with us, too, the antique and redoubtable attribute of the Master of the Thunder has become the emblem of lightning removed from the blind direction of natural forces and placed by science at the service of human industry. Are there many other symbols which can boast of such a long and fruitful career?

This happy disposition of Greek genius reacted even on symbols of strange religions wherever their form was not invariably regulated by the canons of a perennial tradition. M. Menant has pointed out the hand of Greece in the transformation of the winged bulls which kept watch of old at the entrances to the Assyrian palaces. Their function as gate-keepers or guardians, in condemning them to remain immovable, imposed upon them, in spite of their wings, rigid contours and massive forms, calculated to give at once an impression of repose and force. With the advent of the Persian religion, in which the bull was a mythical character invested with a wholly active function, as representing Gayomert, the first-born of creation, it was no longer deemed necessary to fasten his images to the ground; the bull moved its wings, started at a gallop into space, brandished a bow, and ended, under the Greek rule of the Seleucidæ, by assuming, on cylinders, the well-known physiognomy of Sagittarius. 2

p. 101

Beside the improvements due to the artistic taste of their authors we must place the disfigurations brought about by the maladroitness or ignorance of the copyist, as may be remarked on so many Gallic coins, where Greek symbols have assumed the most singular forms.

Sometimes those corruptions tend to produce a new type, which, in passing through a whole series of intermediate forms, takes the place of the old. It is like those dissolving views where the outlines of the two succeeding pictures are blended in an image which is no longer the one, and is not as yet the other, but exhibits features borrowed from both.

Nothing is more curious than to follow the gradual stages of the degeneration which, on Gallic coins, has finally transformed into the letter E the bust of Apollo, 1 and into the letter H, on coins of Valenciennes, the type of the Carlovingian temple formed of four columns placed on a basement and surmounted by a pediment. 2


FIG. 47. Degeneration of the Temple Type.

A metamorphosis of the same kind may be noticed in the carved work on paddles from New Ireland, which were exhibited in 1872 by General Pitt Rivers at the annual session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. We see here a whole series of deformations, which at last

p. 102

change a human form into a crescent placed on the point of an arrow. Had the intermediate figures not been found, the connection between the two extremes would never have been admitted, nor even suspected.

FIG. 48. POLYNESIAN CARVINGS. (FLAMMARION. Etoiles et curiosités du ciel, p. 445.)

Fig. 48. Polynesian Carvings.
(Flammarion. Etoiles et curiosités du ciel, p. 445.)

As a counterpart of the metamorphoses which thus convert a face into a sign or instrument we will see further on examples of symbols which, purely linear in the beginning, have gradually assumed a human physiognomy. 1 These transformations may, in certain cases, be systematic and premeditated; but generally they originate in a desire to give an intelligible character to a shapeless symbol by approximating it to the image which it seems most to resemble.

When a foreign or antiquated symbol is formed of several images combined, it sometimes happens that one or more of its constituent parts are modified in order to better agree with the religious traditions, the æsthetic preferences, the national predilections, or even with the geographical peculiarities of its new environment. It is thus that, in the symbolism of Europe, the Lily has generally taken the place which the Orient assigned to the Lotus.

There are also symbolical combinations in which several superposed elements, dating back to different periods, can in some measure be distinguished. The most curious monuments to be studied in this

p. 103

connection are the perrons or pérons which, in the Middle Ages, constituted the symbol of communal liberties in several cities of eastern Belgium. The

FIG. 49. THE PERRON OF LIEGE. (Revue de Like, vol. vi. (1846), p. 86.)

Fig. 49. The Perron of Liege. (Revue de Liège, vol. vi. (1846), p. 86.)

most celebrated of those perrons is still standing, above a fountain, on the market-place at Liege;

FIG. 50. HERALDIC PERRON. (LOYENS. Recueil héraldique, passim<i>.</i>)

Fig. 50. Heraldic Perron.
(Loyens. Recueil héraldique, passim

it consists of a white marble column placed on a square base with five steps, guarded by four lions. The capital is surmounted by the three Graces, who support a Crown encircling a Fir-cone with a small Cross on its point.

p. 104

In other towns of the same country, at Namur, for instance, the perron only comprised a column on a pedestal with three steps. 1

The perron of Liege has had a very chequered existence, which makes it all the dearer to its fellow-townsmen. Transported to Bruges by Charles the Bold in 1467, after the defeat of the citizens of Liege, and solemnly restored to the old episcopal city ten years later, twice blown down in a storm, in 1448 and in 1693, it figured as early as 1303 on the banner of the trades leagued together in defence of their privileges, as also on the gemel blazon of the two annual burgomasters, or temporary masters, of the city. 2

In still earlier times it is seen on coins of the bishop-princes from the end of the twelfth century. On one of them, dating back to Rodolphe de Zæringen (1167–1191), it only appears in the form of a column surmounted by a ball, above which is


FIG. 51. Coin of Rod. de Zæringen


FIG. 52. Coin of Jean d’Aps

(De Chestret. Numismatique de la principauté de Liège, pl. vi., No. 119, and x., No. 192.)

a cross, and the inscription PERU VOC(OR) (fig. 51). On a coin of Jean d’Aps (1229–1238), however, the Fir-cone is plainly visible at the top of the column (fig. 52).

The meaning and origin of the perrons have been much discussed. 3 M. Ch. Piot, general

p. 105

archivist of Belgium, has proved in a conclusive manner that they were, in the Middle Ages, "stones of justice," marking the place where the holders of municipal jurisdiction sat in the open air; and thus it is easily explained how they everywhere became the symbol of municipal life, as also of popular privileges. 1 But this explanation leaves the question of their origin untouched. Moreover, why were these stones surmounted by a column, and why did this column itself support a Fir-cone and a Cross?

According to some, the perron might simply be a sort of Calvary, or even an elevated Cross, like that which figures on the farthings of Charlemagne, and on some coins of the bishop-princes; 2 according to others, it might date from the Eburons, and represent an ancient druidical stone; 3 there are those, again, who attribute it, together with the Fir-cone, to one or other of the Germanic races who successively occupied the basin of the Meuse; 4 whilst some, lastly, would wish to make it a legacy of the Roman domination in Belgium. 5

For my own part I consider that the perron of Liege may be resolved into five elements belonging

p. 106

to as many different periods. Putting aside the lions and the Crown, which date from the Middle Ages, and the group of the Graces, which, in 1693, replaced three copper figures representing, it would appear, scoundrels embracing rods, there remain:

1. The column, which represents the common element of monuments of this kind, and which may date back, as M. Rahlenbeek thinks, to the Germanic tribes settled in western Belgium.—Tacitus bears witness to the presence of sacred columns amongst the Frisians who occupied the valley of the Lower Rhine, nor far, consequently, from the Meuse; he even calls them Pillars of Hercules; however, he hastens to recall to mind that many things are fathered upon Hercules which do not belong to him. 1 The Saxons, that is to say the inhabitants of the right bank of the Rhine, venerated, on their side, wooden or stone pillars dedicated

FIG. 53. COLUMN OF HILDESHEIM. (KRATZ. Der Dom au Hildesheim, 2nd part, pl. vii., fig. 2.)

Fig. 53. Column of Hildesheim.
(Kratz. Der Dom zu Hildesheim, 2nd part, pl. vii., fig. 2.)

to the god Irmin; such was the famous Irminsul demolished by the order of Charlemagne. A stone column dug up at Eresburg or Stadtbergen

p. 107

in Westphalia, under Louis the Débonnaire, and placed in the cathedral of Hildesheim, where it still serves as a candelabrum, exhibits a striking resemblance to the ancient representations of the perron of Liege.

M. Piot, again, has proved that people were sworn on the perron. Now we learn from the Saga of Gudrun that amongst the Scandinavians they swore "by the holy white stone." 1 Moreover, there have been preserved until our own times, on the tumuli or haugs of the Scandinavian Peninsula, pillars of white stone to which the lower classes accord a certain veneration. One of these stones, now in the Bergen Museum, presents the similitude of a small pillar with an enlarged top three feet high and sixteen inches in diameter. 2

Were the pillars of the Germanic nations dedicated to the divinities of the sky, or of war? Did they exhibit a simulacrum of Thor, of Odin, or of a god Irmin? Had they a phallic acceptation, as M. Holmboe thinks with respect to the Scandinavian cippi, or did they provide a cosmogonical symbol, as might be inferred from a passage in Adam of Bremen to the effect that, the Saxons venerated in their Irminsul the image of "the universal pillar which supports all things"? 3 All that can be said for the moment is that these pillars had a religious character, and that they had to play a part in the social life, so intimately connected, amongst all barbarians, with the religious life of the people.

2. The Fir-cone.—This is, according to M. Henaux, "the symbol of an existence united but distinct," and represents the union of the tribes

p. 108

leagued together against the dominion of Rome. 1 We do not find, however, that the Fir-cone admitted of this interpretation in the symbolism of the ancient Germans, or even of the Gauls. To tell the truth, we possess very little information on the particulars of Germanic symbols and even forms of worship. To make up for this, however, we know that, in the Græco-Roman paganism, the fruit of the pine discharged prophylactic, sepulchral, and phallic functions.—Amongst the Etruscans the Fir-cone occurs frequently in tombs and on urns, sometimes alone, sometimes on the top of a pillar. 2 Does it there figure a representation of the flames on an altar, and does it consequently symbolize the persistency of life in death? The pillar, whole or broken, and often adorned with bas-reliefs, was a fairly common monument on Belgo-Roman tombs. 3 But we nowhere find that it supported a Fir-cone, and nothing permits us to suppose that the perrons ever had a sepulchral acceptation.—Moreover, the Thyrsus of Bacchus, composed of a stalk crowned by the fruit of the pine, was a familiar emblem in classic paganism. 4 An emblem of the same kind was borne by Sylvanus Dendrophorus, that old god of the Latin forests, assimilated at a later date, on so many Gallic monuments, to one of the principal divinities

p. 109

of the Celtic pantheon, if not its supreme god—the god with the Mallet:

Et teneram ab radice ferens, Sylvane, cupressum1

It may therefore be asked if the addition of the fir-cone to the perron of Liege is not due to the syncretic influence of Gallo-Roman art, which would thus have brought the Germanic column within the limits of classic paganism, as, at a later period, the Church introduced it into Christian society by surmounting it with a Cross. Perhaps also it was thus desired to keep alive in the monument a phallic signification, whilst correcting whatever too great coarseness this symbol might have had in its primitive form.

It is probable that the pyr of Augsburg, that gigantic Fir-cone, depicted, from time immemorial,


Fig. 54. The Pyr of Augsburg.

on the arms, the coins, and the seals of that town, dates from the time of the Roman occupation. It has been found, indeed, at Augsburg itself, on a Roman monument, now in the museum of that town, and known as the altar of the duumviri. The pine-fruit is there sculptured at the top of a pillar ornamented with flower-work, which separates the statues of the two municipal magistrates, exactly as, at Liege, the perron figures between the coats of arms of the two annual burgomasters. 2

p. 110

It must be observed that the pyr rests on a capital; now, every capital supposes a column, that is to say, that we have here the remains of a veritable perron, which was never baptized by the apposition of a Cross, but was merely shortened by the suppression of the shaft, in order to be more easily introduced into armorial bearings and coins.

I have been assured, but have not been able to verify the fact, that in Rome itself, in front of the church of SS. Nereo et Achilleo, built on the ruins of a temple of Isis, there was still to be seen, some years ago, an antique column surmounted by a Fir-cone with a Cross on the top.

We have likewise the proof that the Fir-cone,

FIG. 55. BUCKLE FROM ENVERMEU. (COCHET. La Normandie souterraine, pl. xii., No. 4.)

Fig. 55. Buckle from Envermeu.
(Cochet. La Normandie souterraine, pl. xii., No. 4.)

FIG. 56. BUCKLE FROM EPRAVE. (A. BEQUET. Soc. arch. de Namur, vol. xv., p. 315.)

Fig. 56. Buckle From Eprave.
(A. Bequet. Soc. arch. de Namur, vol. xv., p. 315.)

placed at the end of a stalk or pillar, figured amongst the objects held in veneration by the Franks, who occupied, in the fifth century, the East of Belgium and the North-east of France.

p. 111

[paragraph continues] The Abbe Cochet and M. Alfred Bequet have separately found, the former in the Merovingian cemetery of Envermeu, near Dieppe, the latter in the cemetery of Eprave, not far from Namur, silver belt-buckles adorned with an identical figure, in which I have no hesitation in recognizing a prototype of the perrons. We have there, in the middle of a support or pedestal, which is placed between two peacocks facing one another, a long stalk, capped by a conical object, whose resemblance to the Fir-cone at once struck the Abbe Cochet, though at that moment he was little thinking of the perrons of Belgium (figs. 55, 56). 1

It is to be remarked that the two birds facing one another are also met with on the sides of the

FIG. 57. SEAL OF LIEGE ad legata. (LOYENS. Recueil héraldique des bourgmestres, p. 2.)

Fig. 57. Seal of Liege ad legata.
(Loyens. Recueil héraldique des bourgmestres, p. 2.)

perron on the earliest coin of Liege, on which an attempt is made to represent this monument with the Fir-cone (fig. 52), and also on a seal which Loyens attributes to the year 1348 (fig. 57).

If the fact be insisted upon, that the stalk engraved in the Frankish image seems to be of wood, I will remark that the symbolical pillars of

p. 112

the ancient Germans were made of wood as well as of stone. This was particularly the case with the Irminsul, which the oldest chronicles define as the trunk of a tree erected in the open air. 1The Hessians of the eighth century, who lived on the Lower Rhine, still venerated, at the time when they were evangelized by St. Boniface, the trunk of a tree, which was to them the simulacrum of the god Thor. 2

Do not our May-Poles, often a mere stalk surrounded with ribbons, take us back to the time when Lucan sang of our forefathers:

              simulacraque mœsta deorum
Arte carent, cæsisque extant informia truncis 3?

Lastly, old chroniclers relate that in the thirteenth century the destruction of the Irminsul by Charlemagne was still commemorated at Hildesheim on the Saturday following the Sunday of the Lætare, by planting in the ground, on the cathedral square, two poles six feet high, each surmounted by a wooden object one foot in height, and shaped like a pyramid or cone. The young people then endeavoured with sticks and stones to overthrow this object. Does not this tradition directly connect the Irminsul, or rather the Irminsuls, with the stake which, surmounted by a Cone, is presented to our view in the Frankish buckle, just as the stone column of the Hildesheim cathedral links them with the perrons of Belgium? The same custom, or rather the same popular sport, existed elsewhere too in Germany, at Halberstadt in particular; here, however, it was the canons

p. 113

who indulged in it on the Sunday of the Lætare itself. 1

We have, moreover, a more direct proof that the representation of the stalk, surmounted by a Fir-cone, and placed between animals facing one another, figured in Christian imagery from the eighth century of our era. The sculptures in question are taken, one from the parapet of the cathedral of Torcello, near Venice (fig. 58), and


Fig. 58. From the Cathedral of Torcello.


Fig. 59. From the Athens Cathedral.

the other from a bas-relief on the Athens cathedral (fig. 59). Both of them are reproduced in the remarkable work of M. R. Cattaneo, L’architecture en Italie2

3. The Cross.—Tradition relates that the Christian missionaries everywhere overthrew, amongst the Belgians, the altars of Thor and of Wodan. But the fate of the column of Hildesheim shows us how monuments of this kind managed to escape destruction by placing themselves, so to speak, under the protection of the new faith. At Hildesheim, they placed a Virgin on the column, transformed into a candelabrum. At Liege, a Cross

p. 114

was placed on the perron, and the oaths which were taken on the "sacred whitestone" continued to be taken on the Cross which sanctified the ancient simulacrum. In Sweden also cippi are found, similar to the one I have mentioned above, on the top of which the Cross has been incised. 1

The Abbe Cochet thinks that the figures engraved on the Envermeu plate denote a Christian symbol, because we find in the Catacombs, and even in Roman architecture, the symbol of a bunch of grapes between two peacocks facing one another, depicting the soul quenching its thirst at the eternal fountain of life. Nothing, however, entitles us to distinguish a bunch of grapes in the object placed at the end of the stalk; moreover, its resemblance to the ordinary representation of the thyrsus is incontestable. Lastly, we have already seen in the present chapter that the custom of figuring sacred objects between two winged animals facing one another was spread throughout the whole Mediterranean basin long before the birth of Christian art. It is especially on the side of sacred stones and trees that they are met with, as I shall have an opportunity of pointing out in the following chapter. Now, in so far as it was a cosmogonical column, related to the Scandinavian Yggdrasill, the Irminsul is just as much connected with the tradition of the Universal Pillar as with that of the Tree of the World, both of which seem to have received their first plastic expression amongst the Assyro-Chaldæans.

Curiously enough, the Tree of Life between two peacocks facing one another is even found in the symbolism of modern India (fig. 60).

p. 115

It will be observed that here each of the two peacocks holds a serpent in its beak. Now the peacock was held amongst the ancients to kill serpents, and this also may be one of the reasons

FIG. 60. CLOTH FROM MASULIPATAM. (Sir G. BIRDWOOD. The Industrial Arts of India. 1880.
Click to enlarge

Fig. 60. Cloth from Masulipatam.
(Sir G. Birdwood. The Industrial Arts of India. 1880.

which brought about its introduction into Christian symbolism. 1

It is evident that, at least in its outlines, all this iconography takes us backwards, far beyond Christianity, into the very midst of antique symbolism.

Lastly, it is proper to remark that traces of Christianity are entirely wanting in the cemeteries

p. 116

of Envermeu and Eprave, as well as in nearly all the Frankish cemeteries of that period.

Thus, to sum up, the perron of Liege includes in harmonious order the legacies and, so to speak, the witnesses, of all the civilizations which have succeeded one another in this part of Belgium. In this respect it is more than a symbol of municipal liberty; it is the embodiment of the very history of the nation. 1

p. 117


85:1 H. Gaidoz. Le symbolisme de la roue, p. 113.

85:2 G. Lafaye. Histoire des divinités d’Alexandrie hors de l’Egypte. Paris, 1884, p. 259.

86:1 Clermont-Ganneau. Horus et saint George, in the Revue archéologique of 1873, fig. 13.

86:2 P. Decharme. Mythologie de la Grèce antique. Paris, 1886, fig. 161.

86:3 Mélusine. The number for November-December, 1892.

87:1 According to a recent communication from Mr. Th. J. Pinches (Babylonian and Oriental Record of October, 1890), Gilgames would seem to be the definite pronunciation of this name, which has been read in such different ways in the cuneiform texts.

88:1 Martigny. Dictionnaire des antiquités chrétiennes. Paris, 1865, p. 201.—See also De Gaumont. Mélanges d’archéologie religieuse. Paris, 5th edition, p. 68.

89:1 Cf. especially the bas-reliefs on the baptistery at Parma. (Revue archéologique. Paris, 1853, vol. x., pl. 216.)

89:2 In the Strasburg Cathedral there is a statue representing an individual clothed in the skin of a lion and holding in his hand a club. It was long thought to be an ancient statue to which the Christian edifice had extended its hospitality. M. Albert Dumont has shown that it was a Mediæval work, suggested probably by images of the Gallo-Roman Hercules, like those bronze ones which have been found in the neighbourhood of Strasburg. (Revue archéologique, 1870–71, vol. xxii., p. 246.)

89:3 Th. Roller. Catacombes, vol. ii., pl. iv., No. 1.

90:1 Sozomen. Hist. ecclés., vii., 15, p. 725 B.

90:2 Strabo. Liv. ix., ch. iii.

91:1 François Lenormant, in the Gazette archéologique of 1878, p. 75 et seq.

92:1 Since the publication of the French edition of this work Sir George Birdwood has pointed out to me two representations of the omphalos where the Sacred Stone is found with two doves on its sides; one (fig. 42a) is taken from a coin of Cyzicus (Numismatic Review, vol. vii. (3rd series), pl. i., No. 23), the other from a marble bas-relief found at Sparta (Mittheilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts in Athen, 1889, vol. xii., pl. 12).

93:1 De Chestret. Numismatique de la province de Liege. Brussels, 1888, p. 54.

93:2 The same subject seems to have passed into India, if we are to judge from the doves and other birds found facing one another on the roofs of the palaces represented in the Buddhist bas-reliefs of Boro-Budur. (Leemans. Boro Boedoer op het eiland Java. Leyden, 1893. Atlas, pl. lxvi., fig. 102; cxliv., fig. 22, etc.)

94:1 The origin of this type is found, perhaps, among the Phœnician people, where it was merely meant to represent the believer, or the sacrificer, bringing the sheep or the ram destined for the sacrifice. (Cf. Perrot et Chipiez, vol. iii., figs. 307, 308, and 402.)

95:1 Th. Roller. Les catacombes de Rome. Paris, vol. ii., pp. 370–372.

95:2 Sanchoniathonis Fragmenta, ed. Orelli, p. 38.

98:1 Gubernatis. Zoological Mythology. London, 1872, vol. ii., p. 196.

99:1 In the Vedas Indra's weapon is defined as "the stone with four points which brings the rain" (Rig. Veda, 4, 22, 1–2). Now the vajra of Indra had so exactly the form of a St. Andrew's cross that the term vajrarupa, "vajra-shaped," is the equivalent of our expression "in the form of the letter X." (Cf. Dictionnaire de Saint-Pétersbourg, 6, 630.)

99:2 Barclay V. Head. Catalogue of Indian Coins in the British Museum. London, 1886, p. 147 et seq.

99:3 The dordj appears already on the bas-reliefs of Sanchi.

100:1 Gustave Le Bon. Voyage au Népaul in the Tour du Monde, 1886, li., p. 266.

100:2 J. Menant. Pierres gravies de la Haute-Asie, vol. ii., p.191.

101:1 C. A. Serrure. La numismatique et l’archéologie gauloise, in the Annales de la Société d’archéologie de Bruxelles, vol. iv., p. 58.

101:2 Ch. Robert. Lettre à M. R. Chalon, in the Revue belge de numismatique of 1859, p. 133 et seq. It must be observed that the letter H is the first in Hannonia (Hainault).

102:1 See chaps. v. and vi.

104:1 Jules Borgnet. L’Hôtel de ville et le Perron de Namur, in the Messager des sciences historiques. Ghent, 1846, p. 235.

104:2 Loyens. Recueil héraldique des bourgmestres de la noble cité de Liège. Liège, 1720.

104:3 The name itself means simply "stone" (from petronem). It p. 105 is generally used in the sense of a stone with steps, a stone staircase. Yet, in the vicinity of Verdes, in France, there are several artificial mounds, composed of heaps of stones, which are named perrons or perroux, and which have given rise to many legends. (Une visite à Verdes, by M. Ludovic Guignard (from the Bulletin de la Societé Dunoise. Chateaudun, 1891.)

105:1 Ch. Piot. Observations sur le perron de Liège, in the Revue belge de numismatique, vol. iii., p. 369 et seq.

105:2 Baron de Chestret. Le perron liégeois, in the Reports of the Institut archéologique liégeois, vol. xviii. (1885), p. 175 et seq.

105:3 Hénaux. Le Péron de Liège, in the Revue de Liège, vol. vi. (1846), p. 86 et seq.

105:4 Ch. Rahlenbeek. Le Perron de Liège, in the Revue de Belgique, vol. lxv. (1890), p. 31 et seq.

105:5 Eug. Dognée. Liège, in the Collection nationale, Brussels, 1 vol. ill., pp. 24–27.

106:1 De mor. German., xxiv.

107:1 "At enom hvita helga Steini" (Godrunar-Harmr, str. 47). (In Edda Saemundar Hinns Fróda, Stockholm, 1818, p. 237.)

107:2 Holmboe. Traces de Bouddhisme en Norvège, fig. 10.

107:3 Gesta Hammenburgensis Ecclesiæ pontificum, Hamburg, 1706, lib. i., ch. vi.

108:1 Henaux. Loc. cit., p. 91.

108:2 G. Dennis. The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. London, 1848, vol. ii., pp. 157, 193, and 492.—Cf. Jos. Micali. Monuments antiques. Paris, 1824, tab. xxxvi.

108:3 L. Van der Kindere. Introduction à l’histoire des institutions de la Belgique au moyen âge. Brussels, 1890, p. 86.

108:4 It must be also taken into consideration that the burning altar often represented, as is seen at Mycenæ (see below, fig. 74), by a cylindrical pyre surmounted by a triangular-shaped flame, was accounted the centre and palladium of the city in the most ancient republics of antiquity. (Cf. Fustel de Coulanges. La cité antique.)—But this tradition does not seem to have spread beyond Greece and Italy.

109:1 Georg., i., 20.

109:2 Von Raiser. Die romischen Alterthümer zu Augsburg. Augsburg, 1820, pl. xxi.

111:1 Abbé Cochet. La Normandie souterraine. Paris, 1855, p. 344—A. Bequet. Nos fouilles en 1880, in the Annales de la Société archéologique de Namur, vol. xv., p. 315.

112:1 "Truncum quoque ligni non parvæ magnitudinis in altum erectum sub divo colebant patria eum linguâ Irminsul appelantes, quod Latine dicitur universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia." (Op. cit., liv. i., ch. vi.)

112:2 "Robur Jovis sive Thori deastri." (Eckart. Commentarii de rebus Franciæ orientalis. Wurzburg, 1729, p. 344.)

112:3 Pharsalia, iii, 412.

113:1 Eckart. Op. cit., p. 221.—Meibom. De Irminsula Saxonica, p. 20.

113:2 Translated into French by M. Lemonnier. Venice, 1891, figs. 19 and 165.

114:1 Liliegren. Nord Fomlemningar, ii., No. xci.—Cf. Cartailhac. La France préhistorique. Paris, 1889, p. 317: "Many unhewn pillars in the departments of the Yonne, Côtes du Nord, Finisterre, Morbihan, Indre, Creuse, Puy-de-Dôme, Saône-et-Loire, etc., bear Crosses and even Madonnas."

115:1 Maccarius. Hagioglypta. Paris, 1856, p. 205.

116:1 My dissertation upon the origins of the perron has had the privilege of reviving, in Belgium, the controversies which this subject seems never to exhaust. We must instance, in particular, the recent works of MM. Léon Van der Kindere, Léon Naveau, and Eugène Monseur.

M. Naveau has no hesitation in adopting the theory of M. the Abbé Louis, that the perron of Liege was, from the beginning, a real Calvary, with a purely religious signification. Liege, which, as he points out, was at one time a mere village, only became an important city from the time of St. Lambert, its first bishop and veritable founder. Now, he asks, is it credible that a bishop would have chosen a pagan symbol as an emblem of his city? (Le Perron Liègeois, from the Bulletin de l’Institut archéologique Liègeois. Liege, 1892.)

M. L. Van der Kindere admits, on his side, that the perron was in all times an elevated Cross, but he adds that this Cross had essentially a secular and administrative import. It was the symbol of the Weichbildrecht, that is to say, of the right granted to the towns to establish a market under the protection of the imperial authority, and it was thus it came to symbolize the whole of the municipal liberties. In reference to this, he recalls to mind the Rolandsäulen, those columns serving as a support to the image of a warrior, bearing the name of Roland, which, from the thirteenth century onwards, are noticed in many towns in northern Germany. He considers that these statues might have replaced the Cross as a symbolical representation of the imperial power. (Notes sur les Perrons, in le Bulletin de l’Académie royale de Belgique. Brussels, 1892, vol. xxi. (3rd series), p. 497.)

According to M. Monseur, whose opinion I am rather inclined to accept, perrons, Rolandsäulen and Irminsäulen, would be forms, differing according to time and place, of the post, sometimes adorned with a shield, which the ancient Germans used to erect in their public meetings, and which were consecrated to the patron god of those assemblies, probably Tíews, whose name, the Germanic equivalent of Zeus, is p. 117 met with in the word Tuesday. This god bears the epithet of "god of the assembly" (thingsaz, i.e., Zeus agoraios), a surname which has been pointed out in an inscription in England. This post was probably erected on a stone; whence the expression, met with in old Alsatian texts, to have "post and stone in a village," meaning, to have jurisdiction there. At a later date these posts had the Cross placed on them in Belgium, as in Germany they were surmounted by the statue of the hero whom the "chansons de geste" represented as the paladin above all others, and whose name, besides, probably offered a certain consonance with Hrodo, like Irmin, one of the names of the god Tíews. (Supplément littéraire de l’Indépendance belge of the 3rd of May, 1891.)

Next: I. The Sacred Tree and its Acolytes