Arsenic is a highly toxic metalloid currently present in pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. Its association with mortality and death has been perpetuated by its historic use as a murder weapon, but in ancient alchemical rituals arsenic was used for both medicinal and magical cures as well as to bring about a trance-like state for enlightenment purposes. Widely used by early alchemists, arsenic derives its name from Aramaic word Zarniqa and Zarnikh, which meant ‘yellow’ in Persian. The element, which comes in shades of gray, yellow, and black, is often symbolized by a swan.
The choice of symbol arises from the opinion that arsenic was not only a poison but also a substance ‘evolving’ between alchemical stages the way a duckling transforms into a swan. It is found in several ancient alchemical recipes: the Physika et Mystika (the earliest known text on alchemy) recommends that arsenic is used to whiten copper.
In the 13th century alchemist, Albertus Magnus produced the first instance of metallic arsenic. The alchemic symbols for the substance were soon changed to reflect its toxic aspects, but thanks to its transformation effects, arsenic continues to be represented by a swan in the alchemists’ world of symbols.
Amulet refers to any object that is believed to have the power to ward off evil and protect its owner or wearer from injury, harm or danger. The word is often used interchangeably with ‘Talisman‘. However, the ‘talisman’ is specifically a good luck charm that is believed to bring good fortune and prosperity, though it may offer protection too.
The term ‘amulet’ is derived from the Latin ‘amuletum’ that means an object that guards a person against trouble. An amulet can take any form including gems, engraved gems, coins, rings, pendants, statues, drawings, plants, animals and even incantations or magical spells. It may be worn or otherwise carried on the body, hung upon the bed or used externally like placing it in the bath.
Amulets have been a part of the traditions and folklore of nearly all societies and cultures through the ages. In the ancient Roman society, they were linked with religion as well as magic. In fact, several gemstones have been connected with particular gods and supposed to have their associated powers.
Confucianism, represents by this symbol, while often described as a religion is more accurately a system of socio-political and philosophical teachings. Confucius was thought to be the author of the Five Classics which were the basic texts which underpin the system. The five ‘constants’ of the system are humaneness, righteousness, proper rite, knowledge and integrity. These are accompanied by a whole host of other forms of ethical behaviours which are thought to result in social harmony when adhered to.
Visitors to Buddhist stupas in Nepal cannot help but notice the huge pair of eyes painted around the main towers. These are the “Eyes of the Buddha” that stare out in all four directions, a dramatic symbol of the Buddha’s all knowing, all seeing gaze.
Between the Wisdom Eyes, as they are also known, is a curving symbol that resembles a question mark. This is Nepali for the number 1. It symbolizes the oneness of the universe and denotes the one path towards enlightenment – this being the teachings of the Buddha. The mark is also the Buddha’s ‘third eye’, a symbol of his wisdom and infinite perception.
Shou is the Chinese character for “longevity” and can be spotted on jewelry, art, textiles, furniture, and architecture all throughout China. In Chinese tradition and folklore, longevity is considered one of the five blessings that form the foundation for a good life. The other blessings are health, wealth, virtue, and a peaceful death. In Chinese, the word for “blessings” sounds the same as the word for “bat”. For this reason, the five blessings are commonly depicted as bats, and the shou character is often accompanied by drawings of bats.
Pagodas are tower-like structures often characterized by multiple eaves stacked on top of another. Seen throughout Asia, pagodas are adaptations of India’s Buddhist stupas, which were initially built to house the remains and relics of the Buddha. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, stupas became a vital feature of Buddhist temples and their traditional dome shape slowly evolved into what we now know as a pagoda. Similar to stupas, pagodas were initially used to hold Buddhist relics, though many have since lost this function. The number of eaves on a pagoda sometimes has a symbolic meaning. In Japan, for example, it’s common to see pagodas built with five different tiers. These represent nature’s five elements: earth, fire, water, wind, and space.
From St. George’s famous battle in the bible to the colorful creatures spotted in Chinese New Year parades, dragons appear all over the world and throughout history. While dragons are often depicted in the West as ferocious monsters, in the East they have different connotations. In Chinese folklore, dragons are auspicious creature symbolizing strength, life, and prosperity. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean legends associate them with water realms, where they serve as guardians of rivers, oceans, and rain. In Hinduism and Buddhism, mythical and semi-divine serpent beings known as Naga are occasionally portrayed as dragons.
The Infinite Knot, also known as the Endless Knot, is a line with no beginning or end that radiates both calm and movement. It represents the idea that everything in this world is interconnected. It is also symbolic of the Buddha’s infinite compassion.
Dharma is continuous and inexorable, while time is but an illusion. The Knot of Infinity symbolizes that truth. The Knot also represents the idea that material life and religious thought are intertwined: the search for enlightenment does not mean giving up on worldly responsibilities.
The name Ouroboros is Greek in origin. Oura means tail while Boros is translated as eating. Taken together, it means ‘tail devourer’ or ‘one who eats the tail’. As a symbol, it depicts a serpent consuming its own tail.
The Ouroboros is one of the world’s most ancient mystical symbols, having appeared in Egypt as early as 1600 BC. It was adopted by the Phoenicians and later the Greeks, who gave it its name. Over the centuries it has been subject to several interpretations by different cultures. One is that it represents the Universe’s eternally cyclic nature, which creates life out of destruction. In alchemy, it symbolizes the continuous renewal of birth and death that alchemists struggle to break free from. Gnosticism and Hermeticism also hail the Ouroboros as representative of cyclical natural life and the unity of opposites. Gnostics, in particular, regard it as a sign of the transcendence of duality and a connection to Abraxas, the solar god.