The Canon – Exploring the mystery of humanity’s place in the cosmos

from A footnote from the first chapter of William Stirling’s classic 19th century work, The Canon, provides a centering thought for the themes which will be the focus of the upcoming Evolver Learning Lab that Scott Olsen and I have organized to present the concepts of sacred geometry and alchemical transformation. To avoid misunderstanding, it may be stated here, that throughout the present inquiry the doctrine of the mysteries is assumed to have been a defined scientific tradition, communicated orally to the initiates or mystics, who secretly passed it on from generation to generation. Therefore, mysticism being synonymous with gnosticism, it must not be confounded with the speculative mistiness which is cultivated by certain dreamy philosophers of our day. The mystic in the old sense has naturally become extinct, together with the gnosis which formerly instructed them.

Although today science and the sacred seem to exist on uneven ground, with tensions played out in the fury of debate that arises in mainstream media, in his work Stirling opens the doors on an incredible vision of integral understanding evinced in the art and architecture of past ages.  Throughout the book he speaks of a future time when the material he presents will be better understood and available to those who seek a unified vision of self, society and the cosmic order, a time when science rediscovers the profound mystery of how deeply humans are intimately entwined with the universe through the hidden harmonies which weave the world of phenomenal being.

As anyone can see looking around at the profound discoveries and multi-disciplinary approaches emerging in the contemporary world, the time that Stirling hoped for is upon us, or at least peeking in through the hazy veil caused by closed minds and short sighted interests. This can be seen in the fact that much of the material that we are presenting during the Evolver Learning Lab digital seminar comes from programs fostered by one of Buckminster Fuller’s most gifted students, the philosopher and scholar of traditional science, Keith Critchlow, at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in the United Kingdom. These are programs patroned by Prince Charles himself in order to bring back the beauty and poetry that once attended these areas of science, and which have over the centuries been slowly eroded by lesser concerns of commerce and material profit. 

In his introduction to The Canon, Critchlow says of this work:

“the Canon is based on the objective fact that events and physical changes which are perpetual are never the less completely governed by intrinsic proportions, peridicities and measures, It is to just such a hidden intrinsic language that (Stirling) has dedicated himself.”

It seems fitting to reflect on Stirling’s magnum opus of the traditional arts, written over a 100 years ago, to see how at this present moment the opportunity is arising to engage with these ideas in our own lives, bringing a renewal of the sacred sciences back to a society so deeply in need of change. There is also a familiarity in his concerns that can awaken us to the realization that this struggle to recapture a sense of wholeness is not new to this age, but the perpetual quest of humanity in all times an places. Here we are given not some conceptualized comparative mythology, such as those who seek pagan forms beneath contemporary masks, but the very root ratios of existence that provide a window into the innermost workings of the material world. 

During the free introductory session to the webinar series Scott Olsen mentioned that the material we will be discussing has been the domain of the most closely guarded initiatory secrets. This is easy to brush off in our culture, were value is predicated on economic viability. However, consider deeply the true worth of this, described by Stirling when he says: 

“From the times of ancient Egypt this law has been a sacred arcanum, only communicated by symbols and parables, the making of which, in the ancient world, constituted the most important form of literary art ; it therefore required for its exposition a priestly caste, trained in its use, and the guilds of initiated artists, which existed throughout the world till comparatively recent times, were instructed in it.”

In this period of great upheaval every thinking person is being given an opportunity to renew the world through passionate engagement with these  ideas that were once the domain of a very select few.  It would be a shame to read 100 years from now the same call for conscience and find that those who held the ground today gave up before their purpose was fulfilled to the best of their ability. 
So here, without further delay is the first chapter from The Canon: An Exposition of the Pagan Mystery Perpetuated in the Cabala as the Rule of All Arts, may it open your eyes to a future where we once again seek harmony with the wider world, returning as beloved children to the source from which we spring:

“The wisdom of the Egyptians what was it but principally astronomy?” — St. Augustine, “City of God,” bk. xviii., c. 39.

The failure of all efforts in modern times to discover what constituted the ancient canon of the arts, has made this question one of the most hopeless puzzles which antiquity presents. It is discouraging in the extreme to approach the subject at all. The absence of all explicit information from the ancients themselves, combined with the complete ignorance of modern authorities, is sufficient to make one hesitate to lay before the reader any proposition, however plausible, on this obscure subject. It is hoped, however, that the investigation of what appears to be a clue to the method practised by the old architects in building the temples, may prove of some assistance in elucidating the principles, which were the common groundwork of the arts and sciences of the past. For it would appear, that there was an established canonical law underlying the practice of building as well as all other arts.

In a general way this has been felt by all competent students of antiquity ; and many traces of such an uniformity have been pointed out, but as the root of everything in the old world was primarily centred in religion, it is to the ancient theology, that we must look for the foundation and basis of the old canon. 

The priests were practically the masters of the old world. Everything and everybody was subservient to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and no work could be undertaken without its authority. That the priests were legitimately entitled to regulate the building of the temples of the god nobody will deny. And that they did exercise this control is beyond dispute. For we find these freemasons, or some body corresponding to the mediaeval freemasons, with exclusive privilege and secrets required for building the temple, under ecclesiastical authority, have always existed. And the knowledge which we possess of the mediaeval freemasons is sufficient to show that their secrets were the secrets of religion, that is, of mediaeval Christianity.

It is these secrets of the old priests, carefully guarded by them, and only communicated to the authorized builders of the temples, that we propose to treat of in the following pages, and we shall endeavour to show that these secrets, comprising the esoteric doctrine of religion, have been transmitted in unbroken continuity, at least from the building of the Great Pyramid, down to recent times. It is, of course, far beyond the scope  of this small work, limited to a single object of inquiry, to enter into a historical examination of the evidences of this continuity of idea, and since there are already in existence books dealing with this special investigation, it is superfluous to undertake it. It is only necessary to accept the testimony the old Greek historians, who emphatically assert that the essential doctrines of the Greek religion were imported into Greece from Egypt.

We know that all modern civilization in Europe is of Greek origin. The Gospel itself is indisputably as much a Greek as a Hebrew creation. It is written in Greek, and was first established among Hellenized peoples, and wherever it was accepted in succeeding generations, it brought with it the ideas of Greece. As there is no reason to doubt the assertions , of the Greek historians, as to the indebtedness of their nation to the Egyptians for instruction in the arts and sciences, there has clearly been, through the Greeks, a direct communication of Egyptian ideas to the Hellenized portions of the world, to which we ourselves belong.

Just as Pythagoras and Plato, and other Greek philosophers, visited Egypt to study the religion and sciences of that country, so every educated man of a subsequent age studied the religion and philosophy of Greece with the same object, namely, to perfect themselves in that knowledge, of which the Greeks were known to have been the recipients. To us the Egyptians are only a step further off ; but fundamentally the doctrines which we are now investigating were the same both in Greece and Egypt. How much, the original religion and philosophy of the Egyptians may have been improved by filtering through the refining influence of Greece, must be decided when Egyptologists come to have a deeper knowledge of Egyptian things, than they have at present.  But whatever changes may have been added by Greeks and Christians to the original Egyptian theology, it is insisted, that the central mysteries were accepted by all priests and philosophers, as the only possible basis of religion. And more than that (for we must not always be content with a sensible reason for anything in human affairs) the absolute conservatism, always observed in religious matters, would scarcely admit that any received doctrine, once established, should be removed.

It must be borne in mind, that only the vaguest ideas at present prevail as to the mystical secrets of the old priests. Everybody knows that the Egyptians, Greeks, and other Eastern nations concealed the vital doctrines of their theology from the ignorant and vulgar, and it was only by a gradual process of initiation that the meaning of the sacred writings and ceremonies were explained. And then, after this preparation, the initiates were allowed to be full partakers in the religious rites. It is a misfortune that all the ritual of the older religions has been destroyed, and it is particularly regretable that no scrap of the sacred writings, or temple ritual of pagan Greece of Rome, has survived to our time. We do not even know whether the Hebraized or Christianized version of the Masonic ritual, as we now know it, has anything more than a faint resemblance to its primitive form. Besides the ordinary services in the pagan temples, it is well known that there were in certain periods especially mysterious celebrations of the nature of dramatic shows or plays, in some cases apparently intended to form the concluding spectacle of the initiations. A few ancient authors have alluded to these shows, but when everything is collected from their works, it amounts to very little indeed. Plutarch, St. Clement of Alexandria (who had been initiated at Eleusis before he became a Christian), Lucian, Apuleius, Macrobius and other writers give some slight information, directly or indirectly, on these mystical ceremonies. 

Besides these, there is a treatise by Jamblichus pretending to expound the whole subject of the mysteries, but this work has been composed with such careful and scrupulous obscurity, that few people have found themselves much the wiser after reading it. There is also the Jewish Cabala, containing an explanation of the priestly secrets and mysteries of the Hebrews, but no one at the present day can fully understand it. There are the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus preserved by the Neo-Platonists, written in the same philosophical jargon used by Jamblichus and the rest ; and there are the references to the doctrines of the heretical Christians called Gnostics, preserved in the controversial works of the early fathers. These are some of the most direct sources of information on the mystical doctrines common to the Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, and Christian religions.

But turning from these obscure and fragmentary references, the law of the Hebrew Scriptures and the extensive commentaries of the Talmud, the Gospel with the offices and ritual of the Church, are each an epitome, in its most complete form, of those mysteries for the expounding of which they were severally created ; if these works were clearly understood the difficulty would be cleared up. The deplorable fact, which we have now to regret is, that the priests who ought to be able to tell us the meaning of the Scriptures, which they undertake to expound, know nothing whatever of their real significance. It is probable, that there is not a single Christian priest who knows what the Canon of the Church is, or why a certain office or literary arrangement Is canonical or what makes it so.

He would deny that the Old Testament and the Gospel are allegorical books, but has no explanation to offer for the absurdities, which occur in these works, if taken literally. In fact, the modern priest, to whom we naturally turn for instruction in the mysteries of the Church, is the very last person from whom we are likely to get any information. Let us therefore leave this man, who does not seem to be aware that his office was created that he might receive the canonical tradition from the mouth of a pre-ordained teacher, and by its light impart the spirit to the letter of the law.

We shall assume, that at the building of the Great Pyramid, the first principles of all later theology were already established and fixed, and it would seem, notwithstanding the modern belief to the contrary, that at that early period the Egyptians had arrived at some elementary knowledge of astronomy and cosmography ; that they knew the measures of the earth, and the distance of the planets, and had observed the recurrent cycles of the sun and moon in their several orbits, and many other simple astronomical phenomena ; that from these ascertained facts, they derived a scheme embodying, in the persons of certain hypothetical gods, a symbolical image of the created universe, and the invisible powers which regulate it. The deity in this scheme was conceived according to the exact forms manifested in the phenomena of nature. The whole physical and material universe was symbolized by the seven revolving planets and the sphere of the fixed stars, while the agent, or mover, who inspires all bodies with life, was personified by the figure of a man. Thus the philosophers constructed a system, which attributed to God a body composed of all the matter of the world, and a soul, which was diffused through all its parts. The creed of the philosophers, however, was never openly avowed in the popular religion, but was concealed in the parables of which the old theology was composed. For the old priests never scrupled to believe, that history and philosophy “sufficed but for the chosen few,” while the populace were carefully instigated to the practice of morality by being instructed in that kind of fiction which, in this country, emanates from Exeter Hall. 

Strabo admirably expresses the attitude of an educated man to the religion of his day. He says, ” The great mass of…common people cannot be induced by mere force of reason to devote themselves to piety, virtue, and honesty ; superstition must therefore be employed, and even this is insufficient without the aid of the marvellous and the terrible. For what are the thunderbolts, the aegis, the trident, the torches, the dragons, the barbed thyrses, the arms of the gods, and all the paraphernalia of antique theology, but fables em- ployed by the founders of states as bugbears to frighten timorous minds ? ” (Strabo s ” Geography,” bk. i., ch. ii, § 8).Again, the difference between Moses, and Linus, Musseus, Orpheus, and Pherecydes, is well defined by Origen, who says, that the Greek poets ” display little concern for those readers who are to peruse them at once unaided, but have composed their philosophy (as you term it) for those who are unable to comprehend its metaphorical and allegorical signification. Whereas Moses, like a distinguished orator (1), who meditates some figure of rhetoric, and who carefully introduces in every part a language of twofold meaning, has done this in his five books ; neither affording, in the portion which relates to morals, any handle to his Jewish subjects for committing evil ; nor yet giving to the few individuals who were endowed with greater wisdom, and who were capable of investigating his meaning, a treatise devoid of material for speculation.” (Origen ” Against Celsus/’ bk. i., ch. xviii). That is to say, the Hebrew delivered his fictions in the guise of moral precepts, while the pagan Greeks were not so particular.

It is well known to many people that certain numbers had an important place in the philosophical and theological system of the ancients. The Pythagoreans concealed their doctrines in a numerical and geometric system, which was the only form of their philosophy given to the outer world. The Jewish priests also elaborated an extensive system of numeration in the Cabala, and the Rabbis frequently make use of it in the Talmudic commentaries on the Scriptures. The early fathers of the church have preserved considerable expositions of the system in their books controverting the heretical opinions of the various sects of Christian Gnostics. But the purport of all these theories of numbers has ceased to be understood, together with the greater part of the doctrines of the ancient mysteries of which this numerical philosophy formed a part.

The oldest use of numbers as symbols of an esoteric doctrine is to be found in Egypt, from whence it was derived by the Greeks, and transmitted by them to the modern world. Although we have, unfortunately, no direct evidence of how the mysterious people of Egypt actually made use of their numbers, it would appear that their numerical system formed a part of the dogma in those laws, referred to by Plato as having been ten thousand years old, and was perpetuated, as oneof the bases of religion and art by all subsequent peoples. The words of Plato are : ” Long ago they appeared to recognize the very principle of which we are now speaking — that their young citizens must be habituated to forms and strains of virtue. These they fixed, and exhibited patterns of them in their temples ; and no painter or artist is allowed to innovate upon them, or to leave the traditional forms, or invent new ones. To this day no alteration is allowed, either in those arts or in music, at all. And you will find that their works of art are |painted or moulded in the same forms that they had ten thousand years ago (this is  literally true, and no exaggeration), their ancient paintings and sculptures are not a whit better, or worse than the work of to-day, but are made with just the same skill.” (” Laws,” 656. Jowett’s translation, vol, v., p. 226). What this canon of art actually was is now unknown, but it is possible to discover the traces of it in the religion and art of the Greeks and Christians.

Theology, in its various forms, has always been the epitome of art, and constituted the law for its guidance. From the times of ancient Egypt this law has been a sacred arcanum, only communicated by symbols and parables, the making of which, in the ancient world, constituted the most important form of literary art ; it therefore required for its exposition a priestly caste, trained in its use, and the guilds of initiated artists, which existed throughout the world till comparatively recent times, were instructed in it. Now-a-days, all this is changed. Theology has dropped her secrets ; her symbols have become meaningless ornaments, and her parables are no longer understood. The artist in the service of the Church no longer represents her mysteries in metaphorical shapes, and the priests have as little skill in the old art ofmyth-making, as they have in interpreting the Scriptures.

Few people have an adequate appreciation of this lost principle— the art, that is, of working symbolically. To us, who have now nothing to conceal, such a practice has naturally gone out of fashion, and the symbol, as a means of concealing rather more than it was intended to explain, has become gradually obsolete. We still write or paint symbolically, but only to make that, which is obscure, more plain. In the hands of the old priest, or artist, on the contrary, the symbol was a veil for concealment, beautiful or grotesque, as the case might be. A myth or parable, in their hands, subtly conveyed a hidden truth, by means of a more or less obvious fiction ; but it has come to pass, that the crude and childish lie on its surface is ignorantly believed for the whole truth, instead of being recognized, as the mere clue to its inner meaning. All theology is composed in this way, and her two-fold utterances must be read with a double mind. Thus, when we read in the Scriptures of the Church, or in the saintly legends, a fiction showing more than ordinary exuberance of fancy, we may be sure, that our attention is being specially arrested. When miraculous events are related of the gods, or when they are depicted in marvellous shapes, the author gives us to understand, that something uncommon is being conveyed. When singular and unearthly beasts are described, such as Behemoth and Leviathan, the unicorn, or the phoenix, it is intended, that we should search deeply into their meaning : for such are some of the artifices, by which the ancients at once concealed and explained their hidden mysteries.

When everything was mystical and metaphorical, it was only natural that numbers should have been brought to the service of Art. Geometry also provided a symbolical code, which may some day be understood. These geometrical symbols enabled the mathematicians to import the secret mysteries into their works, and also gave to the builders a means of applying a numerical system to the temples, which, as Plato says, exhibited the pattern of the laws in Egypt. Considerable traces of this symbolical geometry survive in the arcana of Freemasonry. Most of the practical secrets of the old mediaeval architects, who built the cathedrals according to the mysteries of the church, have perished with the old craft lodges, which preceded the establishment of the modern theoretical masonry. Nevertheless it is possible to gather out of the early architectural and technical books some clue to the old practice of building. All old writers on architecture, as well as freemasons, insist that geometry is the foundation of their art, but their hints as to its application are so obscure, that no one in recent times has been able to explain how it was used.

Philosophy must have been equally dependent upon some system of geometry, for Plato wrote over the door of his academy ” LET NONE IGNORANT OF GEOMETRY ENTER HERE,” and in the ” Republic” (bk. vii. 527), he says, ” You must in the utmost possible manner direct the citizens of your beautiful city on no account to fail to apply themselves to geometry” — a science which, he says, ” flatly contradicts the language employed by those who handle it.” From this it may be concluded, that Plato meant to inform us, that no one could understand his philosophy without knowing the geometrical basis of it, since geometry contained the fundamental secret of all the ancient science.It is known both to freemasons and architects, that the mystical figure called the Vesica Piscis, so popular in the Middle Ages, and generally placed as the first proposition of Euclid, was a symbol applied by the masons in planning their temples.  Albert Durer, Serlio, and other architectural writers depict the Vesica in their works, but presumably because an unspeakable mystery attached to it these authors make no reference to it. Thomas Kerrich, a freemason and principal librarian of the University of Cambridge, read a paper upon this mystical figure before the Society of Antiquaries on January 20th, 1820. He illustrated his remarks with many diagrams illustrating its use by the ancient masons, and piously concludes by saying,” I would by no means indulge in conjectures as to the reference these figures might possibly have to the most sacred mysteries of religion.” Dr. Oliver, (“Discrep.” p. 109) speaking of the Vesica, says, ” This mysterious figure Vesica Piscis possessed an unbounded influence on the details of sacred architecture ; and it constituted the great and enduring secret of our ancient brethren. The plans of religious buildings were determined by its use ; and the proportions of length and height were dependent on it alone.”(2) Mr. Clarkson (Introductory Essay to Billings’ *’ Temple Church”) considered that the elementary letters of the primitive language were derived from the same mystical symbol. He says that it was known to Plato and ” his masters in the Egyptian colleges,” and was to the old builders an archetype of idea] beauty.” The Vesica was also regarded as a baneful object under the name of the “Evil Eye,” and the charm most generally employed to avert the dread effects of its fascination was the Phallus (J. Millinger” Archseologia,” xix). In Heraldry the Vesica was used as the feminine shield. It was interchangeable with the Fusill, or Mascle (Guillim’s ” Display of Heraldry,” 4th ed; 1660, § iv., ch. xix., p. 354), and was also figured as a lozenge or rhombus. In the East the Vesica was used as a symbol of the womb, and was joined to the cross by the Egyptians forming the handle of the Crux ansata.

Geometrically, the Vesica is constructed from two intersecting circles, so that it may be taken as having a double significance. Edward Clarkson says that it ” means astronomically at the present day a starry conjunction ; and by a very intelligent transfer of typical ideas a divine marriage,” or the two-fold essence of life, which the ancients supposed to be male and female. To every Christian the Vesica is familiar from its constant use in early art, for not only was it an attribute of the Virgin, and the feminine aspect of the Saviour as symbolized by the wound'(3) in his side, but it commonly surrounds the figure of Christ, as His Throne when seated in Glory. As a hieroglyph the combination of Christ with the Vesica is analogous to the Crux ansata of the Egyptians.

Besides the Vesica Piscis the old philosophers and freemasons were accustomed to use as symbols all the plane geometrical figures. The Pythagorean emblem, the Pentalpha, or five-pointed star, and the Hexalpha, or Solomon’s Seal, have been used in the church from time immemorial as symbols of Christ and the Trinity, and have a varietyof emblematic associations. The Hexagon was the common symbol of the Masonic Cube or Cubical Stone, while the Triangle, and Square had each their use as geometrical symbols. The Cross has also been from the remotest times a potent mystical emblem among all ancient peoples. Crosses were generally of three kinds, the Tau Cross, the upright or Jerusalem Cross, and the Saltire or diagonal Cross, and each had its peculiar significance.

Everybody knows, that the Greek and Hebrew letters had each a numerical value, so that every word in these languages may be resolved into a number, by adding together the value of each letter of which it is composed.

Thus the word iesovs zr 888, christos = 1,480,  LOGOS = 373, the Hebrew word, Messiah rr 358, IHVH (Jehovah) = 26, zeusi= 612, mithras =360, and ABRAXAS = 365. Of course no one supposes now, that the numerical value of the name christoshas any particular significance, or that the number 1,48o is anything but an accidental number, produced by adding together the letters which form the Greek word for “Anointed ; ” nevertheless, we believe, that the word christos was carefully selected by the Greeks, who constructed the Christian theology, in order to exemplify the old Gnosticism, which forms the basis of Christianity in common with every other old religious system. This number 1,480, as will be shown further on, accurately exhibits an important measure of the Cosmos, and was, apparently, chosen to be the foundation of the scientific pantheism upon which the Christian theology is built, and was a part of the Gnosis, primarily derived from those laws of the priestly astronomers of ancient Egypt, who first devised the canon, which became a fundamental principle in the Greek, Jewish, and Christian Law.

But there is no apparent evidence, that the Jews and Christians possessed a sufficiently exact knowledge of the Cosmic scheme, to introduce any of  its dimensions into the names of the Deity.

And so it would appear. But the meaning of those works which make up the canon of the Scriptures are no longer understood, and although the knowledge of which we are speaking is carefully preserved in these Scriptures, so unintelligible have they become, that no one at the present day appears to be aware of its existence.

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