Friday, May 20, 2011
I. Objects of Awe
The Egyptian obelisk is Western society's most potent and coveted talisman and literally stands as the physical marker of civilization itself. Of the 21 ancient obelisks standing today, Egypt itself retains only four; Rome is graced by 13, all plundered by its ancient emperors, then re-erected during the Renaissance. The remainder are found in what the Victorians, who coveted them as profoundly as had the Caesars, would have called 'the great metropolises of Western civilization'—Istanbul, Florence, Paris, London and finally New York City. (The fourth Duke of Northumberland and Sir William Bankes each also pillaged an obelisk as the ultimate in Grand Tour souvenirs; today they stand in Durham University by way of Alnwick Castle and at Kingston Lacy in Dorset).
Why this all came to be is quite obvious, for obelisks are quite simply the perfect monument: they are rare in the extreme, they were conceived as sacred monuments by the semi-divine rulers of the world's greatest ancient civilization, and they are the largest, heaviest and most elegant objects ever created by man. All hyperbole aside, everything about them is truly exceptional.
All ancient obelisks are monoliths quarried from the fine pink granite found at Aswan, ancient Selene, located on the banks of the Nile in Lower Egypt. The earliest obelisks were raised at On, the sacred ceremonial city known to us today by its Greek name, Heliopsis, city of the sun, or more exactly, city of the sun god Ra. Obelisks were always erected in pairs and stood at the forecourt flanking the entrance through the pylon, the massive, chamfered wall pierced by a central portal that gave access to the inner courtyard of the temple, as seen in the photograph of Luxor, above.
In form, an obelisk is defined by a square-sectioned, tapering shaft and a pyramid-shaped cap, known logically enough as the pyramidion. Like the classical Greek columnar orders (i.e., Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns), obelisks follow certain consistent proportional rules: the height of the shaft ranges from nine to eleven times the width of the base, and the pyramidion's height equals the width of the base. The largest obelisks are—excepting the extraordinary foundation stones at Baalbek, Lebanon—also the largest monoliths known to man. One unfinished obelisk, still lying in its quarry bed at Aswan but abandoned due to natural fissures, is estimated to weigh over 1,200 tons and would have stood 42 meters high—a staggering mass that even we today would find extremely difficult to maneuver.
Like the Greeks, Egyptian masons employed entasis—an imperceptible convex bulging—to give the long, straight shaft a pleasing visual equilibrium. The pyramidion and shafts were invariably carved with dedicatory hieroglyphs composed in the name of the Pharaoh who had commissioned the obelisk; the faces of the deeply incised glyphs were highly polished while the shaft itself was left in an unpolished state. Pyramidions were, as today seen on the other obelisk from Luxor now standing in Paris at the Place de la Concorde, capped with gold ("the flesh of the gods") and many also had their shafts sheathed with polished copper sheets, and more rarely with iron or entirely in gold.
The Egyptians called obelisks tejen, a word synonymous with "protection" or "defense." Obelisk is derived more prosaically from the Greek word obeliskos, a roasting spit. The orthodox explanation of their meaning offered by nineteenth-century scholars is that obelisks are a representation and invocation of the sun's rays, and thus of the sun god Ra himself. They reach toward the sun to draw its generative power to earth as well as to capture Ra's protection, and thus they dispel storms and evil influences. This interpretation makes perfect sense, since obelisks first appeared at On (Heliopsis), the city of Ra, though later they were erected before the most important temples throughout the Upper and Lower Kingdom.
However, left unspoken by the Victorians is the obelisk's obvious phallic symbolism, which is an overt invocation of Osiris—who, with his sister and wife Isis, was the most important god of the Egyptian pantheon. First-born of the union of the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut) and first Pharaoh of the mythical "First Time," Osiris ruled wisely and mercifully as the "Lord of love" until he was murdered by his evil brother Set, who coveted his throne and who incarnated the desert. Set hacked Osiris' corpse into 14 pieces and cast them away but Isis retrieved all his members save his penis, which Set had thrown into the Nile. Isis fashioned a replacement phallus of gold and momentarily resurrected her brother/husband to copulate with him, bearing their son Horus, "the Savior" who overthrew Set to regain the throne and so was considered the progenitor of all later Pharaohs. Osiris then became ruler of the Duat, or the realm of the afterlife, and together with Isis incarnated mercy, fecundity, rebirth, immortality and the cycle of the seasons.
Most broadly then, the obelisk embodied the Egyptian belief of "as above, so below" and linked the male to the female, the human to the divine, the earth to the cosmos, the living to the dead, and the reigning Pharaoh to Osiris, god of the afterlife and of immortality. The male form standing before the interior recesses of the temple, the tejen drew Ra's essence down from the rays of the sun and Osiris' seed up from the underworld.
The obelisk before St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican evokes this regenerative symbolism quite explicitly, standing as it does at the center of the female forms of Bernini's oval colonnade and before Michelangelo's dome; likewise, the Washington Monument faces the Capitol's dome in symbolic re-enactment of the Isis-Osiris myth.
Wholly apart from these vast, monumental urban ensembles, the original schema of the obelisk has also been preserved and retransmitted, almost ad infinitum, by its transmutation into classical architecture in the form of paired columns flanking an entry portal. Ultimately, the pair of posts bracketing the lowliest front door derives from Egyptian temples, and the most famous example of this schema is of course the pair of finely worked bronze columns that stood before Solomon's Temple and which are minutely described in the Bible. These freestanding columns were so important that Hiram, the bronzeworker who King Solomon "fetched out of Tyre" to furnish the Temple, had given them names: the right pillar, Jachin and the left pillar, Boaz. Immediately thereafter, the Bible recounts that Hiram "made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other"—that is, he cast a massive bronze basin that stood in the Temple's courtyard and held "two thousand baths" of water. Biblical scholars have long speculated what function this basin served, and posit either a symbolic linkage to the "primordial waters" of the book of Genesis or its use in ritual ablutions—even though the Bible states that Hiram also fashioned ten smaller basins explicitly for this purpose. Whatever its true purpose, the circular basin doubtless also symbolized attributes of Isis: the feminine, fertility, the womb.
Of course here we have also just encountered several foundational traditions of freemasonry. The bronzeworker Hiram of Tyre is known to every mason as Hiram Abiff (linked through his own murder to Osiris); and, according to the Masonic Old Ritual, hidden inside Hiram's hollow columns were ancient records and the most valuable secrets of the Jewish people (and those they inherited from their captors, the Egyptians)—the veritable ancient secrets of the occult mystery schools. And such is the influence of freemasonry that, if you were to dig beneath almost any significant public structure erected since the nation's founding, you would likely as not discover Masonic tokens beneath its cornerstone and Masonic symbolism incorporated into its site: Over 9000 freemasons paraded up Fifth Avenue to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for the New York obelisk on October 2nd, 1880, in a ceremony presided by the Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York.
Though in steady decline since the Depression era, freemasonry has recently received renewed attention, and with it vilification and demonization, exemplified by the enormous success of the conspiratorial fiction of Dan Brown. Masonic societies are believed to harbor a powerful Luciferian brotherhood, an elite network that is one of the pillars of the "unseen hand" guiding world events. Its occult symbols are woven into the fabric of our society and our built world. Doubtless the contemporary reality of Masonic influence is far more prosaic than this, though nonetheless the preceding sentence is entirely true: Masonic symbolism is indeed woven into the fabric of our built world—because freemasonry's symbols are derived from our common legacy as a civilization. Occult is an ancient word meaning "hidden" and has no prima facie connotation of sinister, as so many today believe. The point here is not to defend freemasonry but rather to attempt to disentangle its oft-contentious reputation from the realm of architecture and its meaning.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently sinister in obelisks, paired columns, sphinxes, pyramids, or any other ancient architectural elements adopted by the masons, nor have they become corrupted in how they have been employed or reinterpreted. To give but one example already cited: the great obelisk on the Mall in Washington, DC, was designed by masons and stands in a city whose plan was designed by a mason and is dedicated to the first president of the United States, a 33rd degree Scottish Rite freemason. Few structures on earth besides their own lodges are more Masonic than the Washington Monument, and yet it is a magnificent monument to a truly great man whose symbolism echoes through the ages, well over 4,000 years, to its roots in ancient Egypt. However, it does not follow that its meaning is the same as that the Egyptians gave to their obelisks, nor does it follow that it is some dark perversion of it; rather its meaning is the summation of all that has come before commingled with the aspirations of its builders, and with the greatest part reserved for its intended purpose, to honor the nation's founder with a form synonymous with immortality.