The symbolism of the Spiral: the Milky Way, the shell, the "rebirth"

di Marco Maculotti

Having analyzed in recent months [cf. Cosmic-agrarian cults of ancient Eurasia] a series of rites, myths and deities connected to the theme of cosmic rebirth, we want in this appointment and in the next ones to focus our attention on some symbols, which we have already mentioned, which archaic man recognized as images capable of eschatologically raising him towards the understanding of this mystery.

More precisely, as we shall see, it is a question of symbols spiral-shaped (in particular a double spiral) and of images linked to the symbolism of the moon phases (horns), since since ancient times the human intellect experienced its position within a cosmic order (Cosmos) first of all through the observation of the stars and above all of the selene star, which with its perennial dance through the four phases, as well understood Carl Hentze, provided archaic man with a model of meditation on the mystery of the annihilation and continuous rebirth of the cosmos. In this sense Mircea eliade could affirm that:

“With each new fundamental discovery man does not limit himself to broadening the sphere of his empirical knowledge and renewing his means of sustenance; he also discovers a new cosmic level, experiences another order of reality. "

412 + af2v68L._BO1,204,203,200_A vast photographic and iconographic apparatus of such spiral and double helix representations in ancient cultures (and not only) of the whole planisphere it can be found in the monumental tome The magic keys of the universe by Filippo Manna (Liguori, Naples, 1988), a work unfortunately out of print and not easy to find that has the undisputed merit of relating the artistic intuitions of archaic man with an infinity of notions of a not only symbolic and anthropological, but also scientific type (mathematics, biology, mechanics, optics, astrophysics, etc.) and architectural. While consulting this magnum opus more unique than rare, the reader will have the opportunity to be led—As you can read in the presentation on the back cover— «in a quick excursus to contemplate the most colorful images of the Macro and the Microcosm: of the immeasurable Galaxy for example, and respectively of DNA, the portentous twisted staircase of life which in turn travels towards the Galaxy itself to meet a sister who perhaps awaits her… ».

Megalithic rock engraved with spiral motifs. Newgrange, Ireland, 3200 BC

The spiral in prehistoric art: the "Cosmic Uterus"

Thousands of spirals dating back to at least Neolithic they are scattered, carved in the rock, practically throughout the world: throughout Europe, in Russia and Siberia, in China, in Australia as well as in the vast majority of indigenous and so-called 'primitive' cultures. Among the best known are the famous spirals of Newgrange, Ireland, dating back to 5000 years ago, and as far as the Italian territory is concerned, those of the Neolithic complex of Val Camonica immediately come to mind.

In Neolithic cultures, as Mircea Eliade points out in Treatise on the history of religions [ "The moon and the lunar mystique", P. 141] "the spiral is one selenic hierophany, that is the light-dark cycle, and is at the same time a sign by which man can assimilate the virtues of the star» (humidity, fecundity, fertility, regeneration). The image of the spiral in connection with the selenic and aquatic symbolism (snakes, lightning bolts, shells, snails, tides, etc.) revealed to archaic man life that repeats itself rhythmically, periodically. Quoting the Romanian historian of religions, we can agree that [p. 142; p. 147; p. 168]:

"Man has recognized himself in the" life "of the Moon not only because his life has an end, like that of all organisms, but above all because the" New Moon "makes valid, with its thirst for regeneration, his hopes of "rebirth". »[…]« The metaphysical destiny of the Moon is to live while remaining immortal, to know death as rest and regeneration, never as an end. This is the destiny with which man tries to be in solidarity through all the rites, symbols, myths. »[…]« It could be said that the Moon reveals to man his own human condition; that, in a certain sense, man looks at himself and finds himself in the life of the Moon. "

As connected to the selene star, the spiral was to represent more properly [p. 147] "an ultimate truth, source of strength and life, from which they came [...] all living forms": the belief in the Moon as land of the dead, or more correctly "regenerating receptacle of souls» [p. 156]. The spiral, in other words, was considered the symbolic representation of "Fonte Primigenia" of the Universe, worshiped in the form of the Mother Goddess, from whom "Cosmic Uterus" all souls come and then return. In fact, it should be noted that nn the symbol of the double spiral we can identify both the idea of ​​the process be born-become-die as much as that of reversibility of this process. This would help explain why such symbolic motifs made their appearance in the form of graffiti in the large stone blocks that, in prehistoric times, served as tombs.

READ MORE  Access to the Other World in shamanic tradition, folklore and "abductions"

In ancient times, the spiral was also connected to growth and fertility connected to solar energy: not infrequently, in the most ancient ceremonial constructions and caves, spiral-shaped motifs were arranged on the walls so as to be illuminated by the light of the heliacal star during the day. of the summer solstice [Biedermann, Encyclopedia of Symbols, pp. 509-511]From the earliest times, the symbolism of the spiral was therefore also used to represent la expansive strength of the cosmic energy contained in the stars (and above all in the Moon and in the Sun, givers of life) and more generally in the abysses of the cosmos, 'force' that makes possible the cycle of the seasons and the abundance of the harvest. Also for this reason the most ancient populations of Europe used 'double' and 'spiral' images (in the form of vortices, snakes, crescent moonsand most often connected with symbolism aquatic) to convey concepts of abundance, fruitfulness and power [Eliade, Dictionary of symbols, p. 226].

hunab ku, the «Galactic Butterfly», Mayan representation of the Milky Way.

The double spiral and the Milky Way

The traditions of some of the oldest known civilizations share the belief that the souls of men dwell, between one reincarnation and the next, in the center of the Milky Way. This idea was widespread not only in Neolithic Europe, but also and above all in the Americas, for example. among Indians of Honduras and Nicaragua, and in a large number of North American traditions, such as eg. those of the Pawnee and Cherokee [cf. Santillana-Dechend, Hamlet's mill, pp. 287-288]. The Milky Way, in all these cultures, appears indissolubly connected to the symbolism of the double spiral and to the passage from this world to the "Other World".

According to the natives of North America, the "Spiral of Life" is a representation of the "Lodge of Dreams" (in all probability a denomination of the Milky Way), the place from which, according to the traditions, all the knowledge of those peoples comes. For the Maya hunab ku, the "Galactic Butterfly», is the primordial divinity above all the others and at the same time the center of the Milky Way: represented as a double spiral, it meant the balance of opposing forces, universal consciousness, but also the door to access other parallel dimensions .

At this point it seems necessary to note, before moving on to another spiral symbol - and catapulting us for a moment to the present day - how thanks to the most advanced scientific instruments it has now been possible to observe how the Milky Way is formed by several branches a spiral of logarithmic type, with an inclination of 12 degrees. A spiral is called "logarithmic" or "growth" when, moving from a center outwards, its sections grow exponentially, according to that continuous geometric proportion, everywhere present in nature (e.g. in galaxies, swirls, eddies of water, sunflowers, succulents, shells, pine cones, etc.) and Plato considered "the deepest cosmic bond" is "the only resonance on which the world is founded». This 'divine proportion', also called the 'Golden Section', was codified in the famous "Fibonacci sequence" (from its discoverer, the mathematician Leonardo Pisano; 1175 - 1235), which develops in such a way that each number of the sequence is equivalent to the sum of the two preceding it.

«The whole world is a living thing that dances according to a musical law. "(Plotinus)

Animation of a Nautilus in which its evolution is shown through the cd. «Golden Section» or «Fibonacci Sequence».

The symbolism of the shell

Another funerary emblem archetypally connected to the spiral (and the "Golden Section") is the shell. The Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade, in his essay Remarks on the symbolism of shells [contained in Images and symbols, Jaca Book, Milan, 2015] highlights the close relationships existing between it, the spiral, the moon, the lightning, the waters, the fecundity, the birth and the life beyond death. First of all, there is the data that refers to the most remote times, namely the "considerable quantities" from "shells, mollusc shells, natural or artificial pearls [...] in prehistoric stations, most often in tombs"[P. 123]; in the tombs of pre-Pharaonic Egypt, in Crete and in Phæstos [p. 124]; in the necropolis of Kouban, in the North Caucasus (125th century BC) and in the Scythian tombs around Kiev, Ukraine [p. XNUMX].

READ MORE  Arturo Reghini: "The myth of Saturn in the Western Tradition"

The shell, the moon, the growth

Temporarily setting aside the ritual function of the shell in the funerary context, to which we will return later, let us now turn to consider the connection that is found almost all over the world between the shell and the selenic-feminine symbolism. In ancient China, Eliade writes [p. 114]:

"[...] the shells participate in the sacredness of the moon and at the same time are the extension of the aquatic powers»

In a treatise of the third century. BC it can be read: «The moon is the root of all that is yin; with the full moon the oysters sir e ko they are full and all things yin they become abundant; when the moon darkens (last night of the lunar cycle) the oysters are empty and all yin things fail». Another Chinese treatise of the same period attributes the same periodic growth and decrease phenomena influenced by the lunar cycle to the "bivalve shells, crabs, pearls and turtles"[P. 115]. The yin, as is well known, represents the cosmic female principle, the lunar energy and in ancient Chinese wisdom humid These peculiar properties of molluscs and crustaceans were also known to Roman authors: Lucilius stated that "the moon feeds the oysters, fills the sea urchins, gives strength and vigor to the mussels»And several other authors (including Pliny in Hist. Nat. and Aulio Gellio) claimed to have noticed similar phenomena.

The shells for their resemblance to the vulva (the old Danish name for oyster is kudefisk, from kude= "Vulva") were also considered propitious to fertility and the facilitation of childbirth since, as Eliade paraphrase [p. 116]:

"[...] participate in the magical powers of the matrix [of the "Cosmic Uterus", ed.]. The creative forces that spring, as from an inexhaustible source, from any emblem of the feminine principle are present and exercised in them. "

Worn like amulets on the skin, they ward off "harmful forces" and "bad luck". In modern Hindu therapeutics of South India, pearl powder is used for hers restorative and aphrodisiac qualities. "a "scientific" application, on a concrete, immediate level, of a symbolism that is now only half understood»—To use Eliade's words [p. 117]These beliefs are also widespread in the Far East. In China, traditional medicine considers the pearl an exceptional remedy due to its fertiifying and gynecological virtues: some authors have pointed out the similarity between the pearl that develops in the oyster and the fetus that grows in the womb of the parent. Likewise, in Japan, mussels are believed to aid in childbirth.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus”, 1485.

The shell, Aphrodite and the "resurrection"

Mircea Eliade continues her comparative exploration of ancient cultures reaching ancient Greece, where «since pre-Hellenic times [...] the shells were in close relationship with the Great Goddesses"; emblems of love and marriage, considered sacred to Aphrodite as well it was born from a shell emerging from the sea foam [p. 118]. Epperò also in the great classical civilizations of the Mediterranean, as it happened for the so-called cultures. "Prehistoric", shells also find a place in funerary rites, as they are connected to the symbolism of regeneration. Look at the Romanian historian of religions, inspired by the studies of W. Déonna:

«The shells that in various Roman monuments symbolize the resurrection will pass into Christian art. Often, after all, death is identified with Venus: on the sarcophagus she is represented with a naked bust and with the dove at her feet; thanks to this identification with the archetype of life in perpetual renewal, death guarantees resurrection. "

In this regard, Eliade extends the discourse of the shell as a symbol of rebirth to some rituals and initiation ceremonies involving a "symbolic death and resurrection"Of the initiate and which involve the use of" sacred shells ". Near certain Algonquin tribe, for example, the rite "consists of hitting the neophyte with a shell during the initiation ceremony and showing him one while being told about the cosmological myths and traditions of the tribe". At the "Great Medicine Society" of the Ojibwa and during the "medicine rites" of the gods Winnebago «the candidate's ritual death and resurrections are achieved by touching him with magical shells kept in otter skin pouches"[P. 120]. In Treatise on the history of religions, the Romanian historian of religions maintains that it is "easy to understand the part represented by the Moon [and therefore, by the law of correspondences, from the shell, edin the initiation ceremonies, which consist precisely in experiencing a ritual death followed by a "rebirth", and with which the initiate reintegrates his true personality as a "new man""[P. 159].

READ MORE  Goddess of the Underworld, the Afterlife and Mysteries

The shell, the measure and standard, the "Weaving"

It remains only to mention the use of shells also in the context of the administration of justice, justified by the peculiarities «magical religious virtues»: both in "primitive" societies and in other more advanced ones (eg in ancient China), Eliade observes [Remarks, p. 121]:

"[...] the emblem embodying one of the cosmic principles guarantees the just application of the law: as a symbol of cosmic life, the shell has the power to detect any infringement of the norm, any crime contrary to the rhythms and, implicitly, to the order of society. "

This analogy between the shell (as spiral) and the measure, standard, the rhythms of life (and therefore, consequently, also of human society) falls once again within the selene symbolism: the Moon in fact in ancient traditions has always been considered—As we saw at the beginning of the article—the "Measurer" par excellence of the rhythms of creation, an archetypal function that often merges with that of the "Weaving", as confirmed by that very long list of "Weavers Goddesses" (Ananke, Parche, Moire, Norn, etc.) and mythical female characters (Arianna, Aracne, etc.) that we plan to analyze in a forthcoming study.


  • Hans Biedermann, Encyclopedia of Symbols, pp. 509-511 (Garzanti, Milan, 1999).
  • Mircea Eliade, Dictionary of symbols (Jaca Book, Milan, 1997).
  • Mircea Eliade, “Observations on the symbolism of shells”, in Images and Symbols, pp. 113 - 134 (Jaca Book, Milan, 2015).
  • Mircea Eliade, “The moon and the lunar mysticism”, in Treatise on the history of religions (Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2008)
  • Philip Manna, The magic keys of the universe (Liguori, Naples, 1988).
  • Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's mill (Adelphi, Milan, 2006).