Serpents, Spirals and Prayers - A Journey Through Symbolic Forms in Jewelry

Article of the Month - Aug 2005

This article by Nitin Kumar

(Viewed 104693 times since Aug 2005)

Going through regular monthly cycles, the moon inevitably came to be identified with femininity and the fact that it showered soothing and comforting rays from an eminent position high above in the sky ensured that our venerable ancient forefathers (and mothers), ascribed the status of a goddess to this nocturnal body. This is one reason why the early mainstream religions, with their marked preference for the male of the species, found the veneration towards what was a palpably feminine deity hard to digest and hence came to associate such an inclination with an aberration of the mind and it was not long before the word 'lunatic', with its lunar associations, came to brand such devotion as insanity.
However, notwithstanding the injunctions to the contrary, the moon as a symbol continued to fascinate humans. To observers on the earth, it was the most changeable of all celestial phenomena. In earlier times, the appearance of the new crescent was often greeted with joy as a return of the moon from the dead. In ancient Egypt, the sickle-shaped deity signified the goddess Isis and any jewel fashioned in its likeness was believed to protect infants. The crescent's association with babies derives from the fact that it is itself the small, newborn moon. (It was always the waxing moon, never the waning one.) Specifically, since it appeared to give birth to itself, it was natural for the heavenly body to become the patron deity of childbirth. Even when submerged in the sea of night, the moon possesses the secret of a new, evolving life. Similarly are all babies born into life out of the dark waters of the womb.
To the skeptic the fact that the moon has no light of its own but merely reflects the sun is an indication of the inferior status of the former. It is left to the sacred text Prasna Upanishad to bring things into perspective:
'The sun is the principle of life and the primeval waters are the moon. And these waters are the source of all that is visible or invisible. Hence the waters are the image of all things.' (Tr. >From Sanskrit By Alain Danielou.) Thus does the moon reflect the sun's light. Further, by analogy, it the same archetypal waters which fertilize the male seed floating in its infinite depths.

Silver Crescent Moon Design Dangling Earrings with Coral from Nepal

It is all the more auspicious to craft the crescent out in silver as it is considered the moon's metal much as gold is associated with the sun.

Lord Shiva Seated on Lion Skin

Then there is Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, who adorns his crest with the crescent, which both softens and sensualises his appearance at the same time.
In Islam too, the crescent is considered sacred since it was Prophet Muhammad himself who proclaimed the lunar dating system, replacing the earlier one based on a combination of the solar and lunar calendars. The crescent motif, known as the hilal, has been much used throughout the centuries in Islamic art and appears on the flag of many nations thus inclined.
 The stand-alone crescent is in a sense incomplete, without the mating male element, represented by the sun. The two heavenly bodies, juxtaposed in a number of imaginative ways, denote the sacred marriage of the two underlying principles, which are the building blocks of the universe. In the world's earliest book, the Rig Veda, there is a hymn glorifying the union of Soma (moon) with Surya (sun).

The Creative Tension in Chinese Thought

One night in China, the venerable sage Chang San Fang had a vivid dream of a contest between two creatures, a snake and a crane. The former came up from the earth, and the latter flew down from a tree, and then began a struggle over a morsel of food. The dream recurred, night after night, and yet neither creature was ever wholly victorious. The contest was very evenly matched - an example of opposites in dynamic harmony.

Yin Yang Ring

This active engagement of the two principles was given visual form in an ingenious diagram known in Chinese as the Tai Chi Tu. It is a perfect circle, divided into two equal parts by a central, vertical S, which symbolically represents the coiled dragon of Chinese mythology. In the white section, which is associated with the hard, male principle (yang) is a black dot. The latter signifies the presence of the softer feminine, known as yin.
The black region belongs to the yin and has the corresponding white dot representing the male. This overlapping suggests that nothing in the world is wholly yin or yang in itself, but each contains the seed of the other. Also, one may be yang in relation to something, but yin in relation to another. Hence, a grandfather is yang to the grandmother, but perhaps yin to his grandchildren (hopefully).
The incongruent dots, each occupying the sphere of its opposite are a great spur to creative activity; inasmuch as a oyster gives rise to a pearl when a foreign matter enters it, similarly does the trace of the disparate element present in the two fields become the root behind all creative impulse.

Amulets, Talismans and the Like

Though in popular parlance, the terms amulet and talisman are used interchangeably, there is a fine distinction between the two. While the former wards off bad luck, a talisman is believed to be an enhancer of good fortune. Amulets and talismans are two sides of the same coin. One repels what is baneful while the other impels on the beneficial. The employment of both rests on the belief that the inherent quality of a thing can be transmitted to human beings by contact.
The choice of objects used as amulets and talismans is determined by several different criteria, at the root of which lies the basis that "like affects like". For example, parts of animals exemplifying certain characteristics - hare for swiftness or bull for strength; relics of holy or heroic persons, or even dust from their graves, believed to be imbued with their charisma; models of common objects to which a symbolic significance is attributed, such as a miniature ladder representing the soul's ascent to heaven.

Gau Box Mandala Filigree Pendant with Coral and Turquoise - Made in Nepal

The color of an object may also be decisive and a yellow stone may be used against jaundice while a red one to relieve menstrual disorders. Ubiquitous also are models of the male and female genitalia, thought to increase the procreative ability and its associated pleasures.
It is not only material things that function as effective amulets and talismans. In primitive thought, the name of a person was not a mere verbal appellation but an essential component of his being, that of a god or demon written on a slip or engraved on a gem could therefore serve as a potential magical instrument. Similarly, scrolls or scripts containing mantras or excerpts from scriptures were (and still are) considered extremely powerful. Such culture written treasures naturally required equally beautiful receptacles to hold them. Thus was born the unique box container, the skilled craftsmanship of which was taken to dazzling heights by the Tibetans, where it was called the 'gau'.

Filigree Gau Box Pendant with Coral and Turquoise - Made in Nepal

The gau is used widely throughout the western and eastern sub-Himalayan area by tribes which follow Buddhism. The origin of this container-pendant can be traced to the often inhospitable environment of Tibet. Violent natural phenomena, such as seasonal floods, hail, winds and sandstorms, affect the success of the crops upon which the people's very existence depends. An ancient, animistic Tibetan iconography shared by most people in this region provides them with a means of coping with such natural disasters. Elemental in this system is the belief that the physical elements in the environment possess power attributed to the presence of natural spirits, some benevolent (trinchhem-po) and others malignant (sem ngem-po). The former must be propitiated, and magical protection secured against the latter. It is either of these two functions, which influences the choice of the gau's contents.
The gau combines in itself form and function. Since it is a container to hold and protect various charms placed within, it consists of two basic parts that fit together, so that access to its inner space is possible. Most generally the gau is made of silver (nga), which is used for the visible front, and the removable back half can be copper, brass, or silver itself.

Gold Plated Filigree Gau Box Pendant with Ruby Coral and Turquoise from Nepal

In addition to being a functional object, the gau is also a decorative one, often of considerable artistic merit - with the flat surface ornamented with wire work, stamped units, and often, turquoise and coral stones. The main space may be filled with filigree (cha-ku le-ka) in scrolling and tendril patterns, that symbolize the ever-flowing essence of nature. 

In some cultures, the written word may directly serve as a magical ornament. Among Muslims for instance, the most potent amulet is believed to be a small and flat sheet, usually made of gold or silver (or a gemstone), on which is inscribed a verse from the sacred Quran. Looking like a tiny page from the sacred book, it displays a special verse in Arabic script. Their spiritual strength is derived not from the shape or design, but rather the massive power that is invested in the holy words inscribed on their surface. Craftsmen (and women) from Afghanistan, create the finest examples in this genre, embellishing their calligraphic plates with tedious arabesque and other decorative patterns. The preferred materials for carving out the sacred texts are lapis lazuli and carnelian, the latter renowned for its special connection with Prophet Muhammad, who reputedly adorned his finger with an inscribed ring of the same stone.

The Story of The Evil Eye

Another ancient motif, which has amuletic connotations, is the eye, encountered on many prehistoric walls and monuments. These represent the providential vigilance of benevolent gods and spirits, counteracting the evil eye of the malevolent demons. This belief is particularly prevalent in the Arab world, where a proverb goes: "the evil eye empties houses and fills tombs".

Evil Eye Pendant

According to a related Turkish legend, there was once a massive rock by the sea, which even the force of a thousand men and a load of dynamite couldn't move or crack. There was also a man in the town, known to carry the evil eye (nazar). After much persuasion, he was convinced to come to the rock. He took one look at it and said, "My! What a huge rock". No sooner had he uttered the words than there was a rip, roar and crack and the impossible boulder split into two. Indeed, the deep-seated fear of the harmful eye has meant that wearing a rival eye - a protective symbol that can outstare the evil one - has proved immensely popular over many centuries. One such object is the blue eye from Turkey, known locally as nazar boncuk, which is set into a variety of jewelry forms.
Another rebuff to the negative eye are the Tibetan gzi beads, believed to be the droppings of the mythical bird Garuda as it flies across the skies.

The Potential Power of the Spiral

The spiral is one of the oldest pagan symbols in existence. It represents the perpetual motion of life, with the spring-like coils suggesting latent power, presenting a picture of life as an endless, evolutionary process bound within the cycles of time. Although each loop of the spiral brings us back to the same place, it takes us to a higher and more evolved level. Citrine Spiral Earrings

Citrine Spiral Earrings

Triple Spiral

This Celtic spiral represents the triple goddess of the three ages of womanhood (maiden, mother and crone). It later came to signify the holy trinity in Christianity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This motif is also called the triskele.

Turquoise Dimple Pendant with Spiral

Beaded Prayers

The activity of using beads in spiritual practice is not a recent or ancient phenomena but rather an archetypal one, as is borne out by the fact that it is common to all traditions. When strung together, these beads are used as a device to count recitations of prayers or as an aid to meditation.

The etymology of the word 'bead' helps us to understand this function, deriving as it does from the Sanskrit buddh, which refers to self-realization (Buddha being one such realizer) and from the Saxon verb bidden, to 'pray'.

The rosary however, is only one of the several ways to count prayers. The earliest means involved summing on fingers or shifting pebbles from one pile to another. These unwieldy methods were replaced by tying knots on a cord and the string of prayer beads probably evolved from this knotted thread. The Greek Orthodox Church still employs such a knotted rosary known as the kombologion.

Tabiz (Amulet) Pendant

The present Catholic rosary is believed to have been given by the Virgin Mary to St. Dominic (1170-1221 AD), bidding him to teach it to the faithful. The term rosary itself is loaded with symbolic significance, one of its meaning being a necklace of roses suggesting the stringing together of prayers in the form of blossoms. Further, the red rose symbolizes Christ's blood and the purity of the Virgin Mary. Also, collections of medieval prayers and hymns were bound into books called rosaria (flower gardens). Thus was the spiritual identity of roses extended to beads, which came to signify a permanent garden of prayers.

Since Catholics must say 150 prayers, their rosary is divided up into 15 sets of 10 beads. Each set of ten is separated from the next by a larger bead and, at one point in the circle, there will be a special punctuation, probably in the form of a crucifix, to mark the end of the cycle. For common use, there is a lesser rosary of only 50 beads, in which each piece is worth three prayers.

The credit of inventing the rosary goes to Brahmanical Hindus, as early as 1500 BC. It came to be known as the mala, literally meaning a 'garland of flowers.

Often worn as a necklace in India, the rosary thereby became a form of devotional jewelry. Today however, many prefer not to display it as a personal adornment and wear it out of sight under clothing. In fact, some place the rosary and the hand counting it into a small, often embroidered bag, so as not to make a public exhibit of their devotion.

Sphatika (Crystal) Rosary of 54 Beads for Chanting

The Hindu rosary has 50 beads, corresponding to the number of characters in the Sanskrit language. The number may go up to 108 incorporating the nine planets in 12 zodiac houses. This is also the number of dairymaids (gopis), who surrendered themselves to Krishna. Here it is relevant to observe that no material is regarded as too lowly or precious to form mala beads, just as any soul is perfect enough to seek union with god.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published *

  • Interesting article. I would like to purchase an Ankh. Is that possible at Exotic India?
    Giovanna Zammit September 21, 2008
  • I do believe that jewelry wearing had some signifinance to it. I would like to know if it all had something to do with the dead
    doretta rolle August 01, 2008
  • The Egyptians regarded the placenta as a moon that accompanied the foetus until birth. Along with the umbilicus (a serpent guardian, the Ka) and caul (a sun or egg symbol, the Ba) which were dried, the placenta was mummified and dedicated to the moon god as part of the person's funeral.
    Ian Ison June 03, 2006
  • I read your article, and found it most interesting and informative. You have a knack for making the complex understandable. Sam Serio Hallwood, Va. USA
    Sam Serio September 14, 2005
  • Congratulations for your excellent article on the above sublect. I have read you informative article but i am disappointed to learn that you have not said much about "Om" and "Swastika" and you have not got many products in yout catalogue. These are the most important symbols of Vedic Dharma and its Branches. Swastika IS THE ONLY UNIVERSAL SYMBOL that has existed in almost all cultures, civilisations and religions of the world. Promoting Swastika in your art and jewellery and other articles in you catalogue will do A GREAT SERVICE TO THIS UNIVERSAL SYMBOL WHICH IS MISUNDERSTOOD AFTER WORLD WAR TWO. The European union wanted to ban the symbol of Swastika and Hindus in United Kingdom fought agaist the ban successfully, whereas we have come across the comment that even hindus are not using swastika freely. I hope you will consider to promote our sacred symbols through your products to bring the glory of that innocent symbol. Please read my article by clicking website bellow
    Hemant Padhya August 20, 2005
  • This is a great review of important symbols and art ! Thank you so much! Gabi Greve Daruma Museum Japan
    Gabi Greve August 19, 2005
  • I have been reading your new article "Serpents, Spirals and Prayers" this morning. I am very interested in comparing the symbolism of different religions, so I found this article particularly interesting.
    Katherine Hunt, England. August 18, 2005
  • Once again you have provided a wonderful service - succinct information on the iconography of jewellery interspersed with beautifully appropriate images. I have a question that I am hoping you can answer.. your description of malas indicates that there are 108 beads as that was the number of gopis who served Krishna. I know that is one of the reasons, but I have also heard that the number relates to an abridged number of the names of God, and also somehow relates to the number of ancient texts (the Veda perhaps?). I look forward to your newsletters and the quality of your products is unsurpassed. Thank you.
    Sakshi August 17, 2005