This image is a sliver of a well-known wood engraving by an unknown artist. I’ve used it as a banner for my website in the past, so thought I would look into its history and find out more about who created it. The image is often attributed to Camille Flammarion because it first appeared in his book The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology in 1888, but he probably just commissioned it. The engraving depicts a medieval pilgrim carrying a staff pushing his head through the border between worlds to look at the inner workings of the universe.
The image is often used to illustrate ideas of medieval cosmology because it shows the flat earth surrounded by a crystal sphere, but this may not have been its original intention, despite the caption:
“A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch…”.
There are many legends of monks and saints claiming to have found the edge of the world, saying they were forced to stoop on account of finding the point where the sky and Earth met: the edge of the crystal sphere they believed encased the Earth and from which the stars hung. Flammarion was probably just pointing out their glaring mistake, as the text on the facing page in the book reads:
“Whether the sky be clear or cloudy, it always seems to us to have the shape of an elliptic arch… Our ancestors imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silkworm took his web for the limits of the universe.”
Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842 – 1925) was a French astronomer and founder of the French Astronomical Society, writing a number of books on astronomy and science, as well as science fiction and psychical research. He was an advocate of both the theory of evolution and Spiritism, exploring ideas of reincarnation and extraterrestrial life in one of his novels, Lumen, where an alien incarnates on many different worlds and is able to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. He believed in telepathy and the survival of the soul after death, and was a member of the Theosophical Society.
He had some far reaching ideas about life on other planets, never shying away from a little fantastical speculation on the nature of life on Mars or Venus, and was always keen to educate the public about scientific ideas. He even wrote a book in honour of female astronomers, Astronomy for Amateurs (the French translated as Astronomy for Women), where he also discusses his evolutionary ideas:
“That we are constituted as we are, is simply the result of our pro-simian ancestors having also had a head, a heart, lungs, legs, and arms – less elegant than your own, it is true, Madam, but still of the same anatomy.”
The Search for Reality
So what does a slightly eccentric French astronomer with a penchant for patronising elegant ladies have to do with a website about awakening and mysticism?
The Flammarion engraving is often found illustrating works relating to the search for scientific or mystical knowledge. The image has always been a favourite of mine, but until now, I hadn’t bothered to look any deeper. It’s one of those pictures you stumble across all over the place, often filled in with colour or with optional extras. But the idea of being able to stick my head beyond the known world and see something new, has always appealed.
Fans of Battlestar Galactica will be familiar with Cavil’s brilliant rant about the limitations of humanity. In No Exit (season 4, episode 17) John Cavil, a humanoid Cylon played by Dean Stockwell, takes issue with one of his creators:
“In all your travels have you ever seen a star supernova? No? Well I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the universe, other stars, other planets, and eventually other life. A supernova. Creation itself. I was there, I wanted to see it, and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull. With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air…
“…I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to conceptualise complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language. But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I’m a machine and I could know much more. I could experience so much more but I’m trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.”
Aside from describing himself as a machine, I wholeheartedly agree with Cavil and understand his frustration. We are trapped in a bubble, peering out into a world we barely understand. The limits of our own senses and the way our brains are wired do little to help. They serve us well enough, I suppose, as Zoe Popper says in Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic:
“As well as adding stuff and filling in the gaps, your brain filters what you hear and see and sense, and gives you an approximate version of reality. What you think is reality is just what your brain tells you is there. We have no way of knowing what reality is really like. What we see is just enough for us to get around, not bump into the furniture or get eaten by a tiger. The brain has to filter reality or you’d be overwhelmed – there’s so much of it. Reality, that is. Not brain.” – Zoe Popper
What does the engraving mean?
Inside the sphere/bubble we see a small town in a land which seems flat. In the foreground stands a lone tree. The sun blazes down, with the moon and stars beyond. The tree could symbolise the Tree of Life and be alluding to the Garden of Eden, but there’s no serpent. The fact that we have both the sun and moon indicates this is a world of dualities: both day and night are held together under the crystal dome with its impenetrable barrier.
But the pilgrim has found a way through.
He is on his knees, humbled by a vision he can’t comprehend. What he sees outside the sphere is different from the everyday world inside. Beyond the bubble there are no dualities, no day and night, just layers of cloud and jagged lines, and circles representing heavenly spheres or planets.
There is also a piece of machinery often compared with Ezekiel’s “wheel within a wheel.” But these wheels look nothing like those seen by the prophet in his vision of strange creatures descending from the sky…
Ezekiel describes a great cloud filled with fire, lightning and gleaming metal, then out of this comes four creatures with a human likeness, but each has four faces and four wings. Their faces are of a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. They are fiery in nature and they have wheels:
“…their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. And when they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around.”
The wheels in the Flammarion engraving seem quite plain in comparison, but they still give the impression of being capable of moving in two directions at once, and this is the point. The world outside the bubble is a world beyond duality and normal rules don’t apply.
In Flying Saucers (1959) C.G. Jung suggests the engraving represents a Rosicrucian illumination. The Rosicrucians studied mystical and alchemical knowledge with the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment.
“The pilgrim has broken through the star-strewn rim of this world and beholds another, supernatural universe… In these symbols we have a prototype of the UFO vision… They cannot be heavenly bodies belonging to our empirical world, but are projected ‘rotunda’ from the inner, four-dimensional world.”
Jung suggests the pilgrim is looking into another dimension, but it is an inner dimension. UFOs and spheres are symbols of unity and psychic wholeness. Similar symbols appear all through esoteric works, and we’ve already encountered some in Ezekiel’s vision.
The number four represents wholeness or completion, and is made up of three plus one. The prophet saw four creatures, each with four faces and four wings. The creatures’ faces too, are represented by common esoteric symbols: 3 animal faces: lion, ox, and eagle, plus one human face. 3 +1 again.
The animal faces embody astrological symbolism, and all four together represent the fixed cross of matter:
- Fixed Fire – Leo, the lion
- Fixed Earth – Taurus, the ox
- Fixed Water – Scorpio, the eagle
- Fixed Air – Aquarius, human
The fixed cross of matter is the cross of incarnation, the physical embodiment of human existence. The cross creates a natural division of the circle into four, giving us our symbol of wholeness.
Smashing the Crystal Sphere
The psyche always seeks wholeness. Anything rejected, denied or repressed will return in some form, either from within or without. What we do not acknowledge within ourselves we will meet in the other. Often what we deny in ourselves, we meet in our dreams, visions, and imagination. We don’t see reality clearly because everywhere we look, we see ourselves. The content of our own psychic reality is projected into the world and plays itself out in the dramas we enact.
We don’t know what reality is, and it’s debatable whether we ever can.
This process of making the unconscious conscious, of working towards wholeness and integration, suffers if we mistake imagination for reality. Yet we must equally recognise the role imagination plays in the creation of reality. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. We will always seek wholeness, and symbols of that desire will always arise, whether they are religious or scientific or political. In fact, almost anything can be taken as a symbol for an internal reality: Christ, Buddha, Angels, Aliens, Starseeds, Indigo Souls, Utopia, the Golden Age, Liberal Democracy, Socialism…
I’m not saying these symbols don’t relate to something real and tangible. Perhaps they do. I don’t know. But it’s important not to make our symbols too concrete. Ideas have a habit of crystallising, like the spheres the medieval pilgrim believed held the stars in place.
We are trapped inside our own subjectivity and escaping it requires an act of vandalism against the self most consider too high a price to pay for the truth.
Like Tycho Brahe’s comet smashing its way through the crystal spheres of medieval cosmology, we must push beyond our limitations and seek to stretch our vision as far as it will go.
When we turn to face the world, we find ourselves. When we turn inwards, we find the world. Wherever we turn our gaze, we see what we want to see. In the end, when the veil drops and reality stands revealed, we may find we have been looking in the mirror all along.
Zoe Popper again:
“Our consciousness is on a self-referential loop, so we can’t get outside ourselves to see ourselves clearly. Just like we can’t get outside the universe to look at that either. So there’s a lot of things we’ll never see because that loop creates a blind spot. No matter how hard we look, we’ll never get it. That’s why it’s called the Great Mystery of Life. And that is what people call God. Faith is how you live with the uncertainty of not knowing, whether you put that faith in religion, or science, or money, or whatever.”
So, be careful what you put your faith in.
We may never know reality objectively, but the stories we tell and the ideas in which we place our faith, reveal the reality of our souls.
Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic is available to download here
Image: fractal Flammarion