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Symbols of the Phases

Splendor Solis 5

Yeats’s fascination with symbols is present throughout his poetry, and is one of the reasons why he was attracted to systems of occult meditation and magic which held that symbols had special and specific powers. The Yeatses were well aware of the power and importance of images in helping to focus the mind, having used symbols such as the Cabbalistic Tree and the Tarot in their studies with the Golden Dawn. Yet one of the potential weaknesses of their own system is the lack of emotive symbolic form, since the descriptions and explanations rely almost entirely upon words, while the majority of the symbols used are geometric abstractions.

When Michael Robartes speaks about discovering Giraldus’s Speculum Angelorum et Hominum in the introduction to AV A, he comments that ‘at the end of the book were a number of curious allegorical pictures; a woman with a stone in one hand and an arrow in the other; a man whipping his shadow; a man being torn in two by an eagle and some kind of wild beast; and so on to the number of eight and twenty’ (AV A xvii). These images derive from a series which the Yeatses attempted to construct. The images involved are neither the fundamental ones of the Zodiac, a simple animal or figure, though the wolf is close, nor even the more complex but still static style of the Tarot, though some, like the man over the pool, have some resonances. Closer are the more dynamic alchemical engravings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which sometimes share the violence that characterises certain images, and also the more specifically allegorical Renaissance ‘emblems’, though these can tend to be too literal in their iconography for ready comparison. It is also worth comparing the images with those given for the Zodiac and Mansions by Renaissance writers such as H. C. Agrippa and Giordano Bruno, which show some similar traits (see table below).

2013: The artist Jaff Seijas has created pictures for each of the symbols and I am very grateful for his permission to use some of the images here: for the full set go to jaffseijas.com/yeats.html.

The Symbols of the Phases
1naked man with out stretched hands tied to swinging branch of tree ‘obsessing figure’ not [?luminous] like tree images. Snake coiled round feet.Jaff Seijas, Phase 4
Phase 4
2a white bird flying with entranced limp leopard in beak — bird not 1/6 of leopard in size
3Eagle over sea with one foot caught in back of sea lion one foot caught by Dolphin. Eagle drags both
4figure climbing pine to grasp stars
5man making chain, or putting it on anotherJaff Seijas, Phase 8
Phase 8
6savage putting nails into idol
7satyr (goat leggs) followed own image or mask
8a man across abyss hands in beak of bird of prey feet in mouth of bear. water below.
9leopard. Eagle on head plucking out eyes.Jaff Seijas, Phase 12
Phase 12
10a man with mouth forced open [by gag and tongue torn out]
11a sword cleaving through skull
12[sword cutting hand in two]
13man hanging over poolJaff Seijas, Phase 16
Phase 16
14leopard springing
15man with arrow & stone one in each hand
16dark circle with hand
17crystal arrow & crescentJaff Seijas, Phase 20
Phase 20
18Two faced figure
20White bird torn in half by wolf & leopard?
21Man & statueJaff Seijas, Phase 24
Phase 24
22Man beating self with flail
23blind folded man ballanced on point of pike & juggling
24woman, cup & boar
25[vast figure of god with small human figure flicking before his face]Jaff Seijas, Phase 28
Phase 28
26Hunch back fighting his shadow on ground which bleeds
27more or less [?easter] figure
28a shrunken faceless man whirling a rattle
from YVP 3 400-01 (see also MYV 2 400-04).

Wolf, Atalanta Fugiens

Top: Splendor Solis, The Sixth Parable (see Yeats’s story Rosa Alchemica).
Bottom: Atalanta Fugiens, Emblema XXIV, Regem lupus voravit & vitae crematus reddidit

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The following images, often identical, are given by Agrippa and Bruno for the Mansions of the Moon, and those offered for the 36 decans of the Zodiac are of a similar type. See Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book II, Chapter 46 (link to another web-site for the full text of J. F.’s English translation of 1651)and Ars Memoriae where the images serve as mnemonics for the Lullian combinations ‘Se’-‘Zo’ (the Latin text from the same web-site). Agrippa tells of how the talismans used to be made when the Moon was in a particular Mansion, with appropriate materials and perfumes, and with the following images.

The Images of the Mansions of the Moon: Agrippa and Bruno
MansionAgrippa: Occult Philosophy, 1533Bruno: Ars Memoriae, 1582
  Talisman forwith image ofMnemonic image
1the destruction of someoneA black man in a garment made of hair, and girdled round, casting a small lance with his right handAn Ethiopian in an iron chair, belted with a cord, throwing a dart
2reconciliation with a prince A king crownedAn enthroned king, lifting a prostrate man with his sceptre
3happy fortune and every good thing A woman well clothed, sitting in a chair, her right hand being lifted up on her headA well-dressed woman, sitting in a chair, her left hand raised over her head, while her left hand is twisted in the hair of a fleeing idiot woman
4revenge, separation, enmity & ill will A soldier on a horse, holding a serpent in his right handA soldier sitting on a horse, holding a snake in his right hand and leading a black dog with his left
5the favour of kings and officersThe head of a manA prince on a silver throne, holding a rod in his right hand and embracing a girl with his left
6to procure love betwixt two two images embracing one anotherTwo armed men with bare heads and discarded swords embrace one another
7to obtain every good thing A man well clothed, holding his hands up to heaven as it were praying and supplicatingA well-dressed man in a silver chair, holding both hands up towards the skies in supplication
8victory in war an eagle having the face of a manA man riding an eagle, with a palm in his right hand, followed by two captives
9to cause infirmities The image of a man wanting his privy parts, shutting his eyes with his handsA eunuch with his hands over his eyes, in front of a dirty bed
10to facilitate child-bearing The head of a lionA woman giving birth, and in front of her a golden lion and man appearing as a convalescent
11fear, reverence and worship A man riding a lion, holding the ear thereof in his left hand, and in his right, holding forth a bracelet of goldA man riding a lion, holding its mane in his left hand and a small lance in his right
12the separation of lovers A dragon fighting with a manIn a leaden, black seat, a dragon fighting with a man
13the agreement of married couples and for dissolving charms against copulationimages of man in red wax and woman in white wax embracingA stallion serving a mare, while a shepherd leaning on his staff, his head resting on both hands, looking on with a fixed expression
14divorce and separation of the man from the woman A dog biting his tailA man holding a dog suspended by its tail, with the dog biting its own hind foot
15friendship and goodwill A man sitting and inditing lettersA man seated reading, flattering a messenger
16much merchandising A man sitting on a chair, holding a balance in his handsA merchant holding silver scales in his hand, another counting money out to him
17against thieves and robbersAn apeA man carrying a chest, followed by an ape
18against fevers and pains of the belly A snake holding his tail above his headA man with a golden snake in his hand, which many serpents flee from
19facilitating birth and provoking the menstrues A woman holding her hands upon her faceA woman in childbirth with her hands over her face
20hunting Sagittary, half a man and half an horseA hunting centaur, with a quiver on his back and a bow in his left hand, with a dead fox in his right hand.
21the destruction of somebody A man with a double countenance, before and behindTwo men, one with his back turned, the other looking forwards and gathering up his shaven hair nearby
22the security of [i.e. to catch] runaways A man with wings on his feet, bearing an helmet on his headA helmeted man, flying with winged feet, returns safely
23destruction and wasting A cat having a dog’s headA cat with a dog’s head, or a dog with the back of a cat, digging up the ground, and a man falling to the ground
24the multiplying of herds of cattle A woman giving suck to her sonA woman feeding her son, who has seized horn of a ram, which a large flock follows
25the preservation of trees and harvests A man plantingA man planting a fig-tree and another sowing corn
26love and favour A woman washing and combing her hairsA woman combing her washed hair, with a winged boy in front of her
27to destroy fountains, pits, medicinal waters and baths A man winged, holding in his hand an empty vessel, and perforatedA winged man lowering an empty, holed flaggon into a well
28to gather fishes togetherA fishA man throwing a golden fish into the water, so that many living fishes swim to it

Such comparisons show some similarities, but ultimately, more than anything else, they show the difference of the Yeatses’ symbols.



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.