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The Mysterious Tau

An Ancient Symbol and its Meanings

A powerful archetype yields a cosmic warning


There are symbols, and then there are symbols. Some, such as traffic signs or the male and female signs on restrooms, have a strictly limited meaning. A stop light is a stop light is a stop light — no more, no less.

Other symbols cannot be so easily encompassed. As archetypes, they stem from the deepest collective levels of the human psyche. As the great psychologist C. G. Jung pointed out, they have meanings that are not exhausted by any one reading. They serve as doorways or keys to whole realms of significance. No amount of meditation or analysis can plumb their full depth as one interpretation links to another and on and on. In a way, each is a “meme” in its own right.

Some of these are simple geometric forms — triangles, squares, circles and spirals, for instance, or the many permutations of the cross. In particular, the T-shaped cross, called by the ancients after the Greek letter Tau, (also known as St. Anthony’s or the Egyptian cross) is one that appears in a constellation of variations throughout human history. All these roughly similar shapes have wildly different superficial meanings, yet on a deeper level have a commonality that point to a kind of significance that I believe is truly transcendental.

It takes on several forms in Biblical traditions. There is the Cross of Jesus' passion, of course, as well as the pole of the brazen serpent, and the mark on the foreheads of those who were to be spared from death during the fall of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 9:4.

Rosy CrossClick on image for larger version

Many years ago one Holy Thursday, I was graced with an insight into the Sacred Tau. While I was meditating before the chalice and paten, I suddenly saw beyond, as it were, or rather through them, how that basic shape resonated with other forms, and was given a glimpse of how they all connected. Of course, I discovered later that I was not the first to have this “revelation.” The painting, Secret of the Rosy Cross, was my clumsy attempt to express what I had intuited.

I humbly offer my view of this extraordinary symbol, but do not claim that this is the only one, or even the “most correct” interpretation. It was an observation, insight, or flash of madness, that has given me much contemplative nourishment. It is presented only in the hope that it will amuse and inspire others to develop their own insights.

Here, then, are a few of its many religious apparitions:

 St. Francis' Cross

The Crucifix
Symbol of the sacrifice of Christ

 Ardagh chalice

The Eucharistic Chalice
Sign of the salvation of Christ

 Monstrance

The Monstrance
Sign of the presence of Christ

 Tut's mirror box

The Ankh
Egyptian symbol of Life

 Horus

The Hawk of Horus
Sign of the god's watchfulness

 Notre Dame

The Tree of Knowledge
Symbol of the knowledge of good and evil, temptation and the Fall

 Brazen serpent

The Brazen Serpent in the Desert
(Num. 21:7-9)
A sign of salvation through faith

 Menorah

The Menorah
Sign of the Jewish faith and the presence of God

 Tree of life

The Cabalistic Tree of Life
Sign of the cosmic order

 Golden Dawn symbol

The Rosy Cross
Occult symbol of the Cosmos

 Stupa

The Bodhi Tree
Sign of the enlightenment of the Buddha

 Hindu tree

The Hindu Tree of Life and Knowledge
Symbol of the divine life of the Universe

 Magic mushroom

The Amanita Mushroom
A powerful psychedelic and symbol of cosmic vision

 Swiss, 1515

 The Caduceus
Symbol of healing and the physician’s Hermetic art

VLAIt may even be seen reflected in more modern and mundane shapes, such as those of the telephone pole, table lamp, electric fan, and in that most cosmic potential communication device, the radio telescope.

All these things have connotations such as suffering, death, transcendence, life, knowledge, communication, light, and cosmic order. Perhaps, just perhaps, each is a shadow of an ultimate, apocalyptic reality.

Lassen Peak, 1915Undoubtedly this primeval form or something like it was witnessed before by our ancestors, on countless occasions, in traumas seared into their very brains and genes. Time after time after time in the Earth's long history, this same awful shape rose into the sky, heralding doom. Whether from the underworld or the heavens, its appearance was literally, inevitably catastrophic.

When the heavens rained terror and the earth vomited ash and molten rock, the Sacred Tau was revealed on each occasion with fire, thunder, and earthquake, death, extinction and ultimately rebirth of new life.

Even if the memories of the events were lost, even if the words to describe them failed, yet this vision somehow remained. Haunting Humanity’s dreams and nightmares, it was foreshadowed in various religious symbols. Until at last, in the fullness of time, the Tau was reborn yet again. Brought forth by our own hands, the great mystery is incarnated in all its terrible fullness as ...

 Boom!

The Mushroom Cloud
A sign of the end

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds...”
Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer, quoting the phrase from Bhagavad Gita that came to him when he witnessed the world’s first atomic blast at Trinity Site, White Sands, New Mexico, July 16, 1945.


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