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

Article of the Month - August 2005
Viewed 81004 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

...Continued from Page 1

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The Buddhist mala too consists of 108 beads, echoing the number of Brahmins present at the birth of Buddha. This is also the number of earthly desires of ordinary mortals in the Japanese Nichiren tradition. It is common to see Buddhists wearing their rosaries either as a necklace or wrapped like a bracelet around the left hand. Its constant presence makes the mala always available for use in leisure time which is more often than not devoted to its counting. Even when occupied with other routine tasks, a Buddhist will commonly say his beads and will tend to stick to one string throughout his life, its inevitable wear and tear reminding him of the impermanence and transience of one's own life.

The Tasbih with 33 Beads and Tassels
The Tasbih with 33 Beads and Tassels

The Muslim rosary is known as the tasbih, derived from the Arabic root s-b-h, which means 'to glorify'. It consists of 99 pieces, divided into three equal groups, usually by a bead (different from the rest in shape and material) placed after the 33rd and 66th piece. These markers are considered equivalent to the round mark (ayat) in the Quran text where a reader may occasionally pause. The beginning (or the end) of the rosary is hung with tassels. These are said to repel the evil eye, which specifically dislikes such ornamental fringes. The number of the beads represents the 99 beautiful names of God, Asma'u'llah (Quran, Surah, vii 179). According to Muhammad, "Verily there are 99 names of God and whoever recites them shall enter into Paradise" (Mishkat, Book cxi).

Often the rosary will have a 100th special piece representing the ineffable name of God: Allah. However, theologians differ on this, rejecting the idea that the essence of God the Creator could be thus rendered into concrete terms.

Like the Christian one, the lesser version of the Muslim rosary may contain 33 beads only, each equivalent to three prayers.

The Cross

Though the prophet Isaiah castigated women who wore charms (3:20); nevertheless, the cross has developed into the principal symbol of the Christian religion, recalling the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the redeeming benefits of his passion and death. It is thus both a sign of Christ himself and the faith of the Christians.

There are four basic types of iconographic representations of the cross:

1). The crux quadrata, or Greek cross with four equal arms.
2). The crux immissa or Latin cross whose base stem is longer than the other three arms.
3). The crux commissa, in the form of the Greek letter tau, and sometimes called St. Anthony's cross.
4). The crux decussata, named from the Roman decussis or symbol of the numeral 10, also known as St. Andrews cross.

Types of Crosses
Types of Crosses

Tradition favors the crux immissa as that on which Christ died, but some believe it was the crux commissa.

The symbol of the cross however predates Christianity. Two of the earliest forms are the Swastika from India and the ankh from ancient Egypt.

The cross was not the symbol of choice for the early church, for whom the crucifixion presented a problem. It had to convince unbelievers of what would have seemed a bizarre claim, that it's god was a victim of this foul, and then still very current, form of punishment. Historically, crucifixion was not a punishment meted out by the Jewish authorities, whose preferred method of execution was stoning; it was imported into Palestine by the Romans, and so was an instrument of imperialism and subjugation. Secondly, it was used in particular on slaves found guilty of a crime. Therefore, it was humiliating for Jesus the Jew to die like a slave on the Roman cross.

William Blake. Moses Erecting the Bronze Serpent. c.1805. Pen and watercolor over pencil, 13 3/8 X 12 3/4"
William Blake. Moses Erecting the Bronze Serpent. c.1805. Pen and watercolor over pencil, 13 3/8 X 12 3/4"


It was only over time that Christians began to think through the implications and meanings of the crucifixion, and to glorify the cross. It seems though that Jesus always understood the cross' positive significance. He had predicted his death by such means and compared himself to the bronze snake that Moses erected during the Exodus ('Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life', John 3:14-15). The purpose of the snake was to cure people from poisoning. God had sent a plague of snakes to the Israelites but he also provided a cure, which was effected by looking at the bronze snake. Poison is a Christian symbol for sin, and Jesus' words suggest a direct analogy between the power of the bronze snake to cure poisoning and his own potential to do the same for sin.


The cross is also a cosmic symbol, with its vertical and horizontal lines spanning the universe. According to Rutherford: 'The cross of Christ on which he was extended, points, in the length of it, to heaven and earth, reconciling them together; and in the breadth of it, to former and following ages, as being equally salvation to both.'

The Celtic Cross
The Celtic Cross





A beautiful thing about the cross is that its center of gravity is not at its exact center, but upwards where the stake and the crossbeam meet. In simple terms it symbolizes the tendency to remove the center of man and his faith from the earth and to "elevate" it into the spiritual sphere.






The Serpent - Friend or Foe?

For many, the serpent is an enemy to be feared and avoided at all costs. Its venom makes it a villain. However, in several parts of the world, this slithering reptile, with its peculiar and swift locomotion, is viewed as a sacred protective power. Snake amulets were being worn at least 3,000 years ago and still are today. How can this contradiction be explained?

The answer lies in the serpent's ability to renew itself by shedding its skin. When the ancients observed this, they may have imagined them to be immortal. One day, they would see a snake with a dull, damaged skin and eyes glazed over. The next morning, the same creature would be smooth and glistening, with eyes once again clear and penetrating. It appeared as if the snake was capable of rejuvenating itself, much like the moon and thus it was concluded that it held the secret to eternal life.

The world traditions are replete with positive references to the serpent. According to the Celtic druids, the world originated from an egg that came from the mouth of a snake; in some Gnostic writings there is the notion that the first human beings crawled on the ground like snakes; the Ngala tribe of central Congo believes that the moon once lived on earth as a python; and then, there is the well-known saying of Jesus: "Be wise as serpents" (Matthew 10:16).

Some Unique Images of the Viper

Two Kissing Dragons Bracelet
Two Kissing Dragons Bracelet




The double serpent (or dragon) - one with a head at each end - can simultaneously symbolize both the sun and the moon.




Antiquated Kundalini Snake Pendant
Antiquated Kundalini Snake Pendant




When depicted with three-and-a-half coils, the snake represents the inherent potential energy which lies coiled at base of our spine (kundalini).





Manasa Devi
Manasa Devi







The Indian snake goddess Manasa is even today invoked against snakebite.







Garnet Dragon Ring
Garnet Dragon Ring




The dragon shares the cosmic stage with the serpent. According to a legend, when the Chinese monster Kung Kung battled with the emperor Yao and tore a hole in the sky, it was a dragon who replaced the cavity, causing daylight when it opened its eyes and night with their closure. When this great sky dragon inhaled, it brought forth summer, and by exhalation, winter.







Two Coupling Lizards
Two Coupling Lizards


The Egyptians regarded the lizard as a benevolent spirit, keeping watch over the house or hearth. Indeed this diminutive reptile, that basks in on the stone walls of houses or gardens in Mediterranean countries, drinking in the sunshine and snapping up little insects, has become a familiar, protective creature and a symbol of domestic happiness.


The Chinese Journey to Paradise

Lapis Lazuli Donuts
Lapis Lazuli Donuts

If one visits the Chinese market in Singapore and asks for a lucky charm, the amulet that is most likely to be offered will be a simple, circular, flat disc with a hole in the center. It is none other than the ubiquitous donut. This is the Chinese symbol of heaven known as the Pi (or Bi) disc. One tomb dating from the fourth millennium BC contained no fewer than 24 such rings, which had been placed there to ensure the deceased's ascent to heaven.

It seems strange to envisage paradise shaped like a circle with a hole in the middle, rather something like Nestlé's Polo mint. The orifice at the center is said to signify the 'path of transcendence', which leads to eternal bliss. In other words, the thread that passes through such a bead, recreates in a sense the journey to heaven.

The Power of Sikh Unity

The Sikh Kara
The Sikh Kara





A follower of the Sikh religion feels unprotected without a symbolic bodyguard in the form of the metal bangle called the kara. This religious bracelet, worn permanently by both sexes on the right wrist, must be made of iron or steel. It is forbidden to fashion it from either gold or silver.

Officially, the function of the kara is to act as a visible symbol of power and unity. The material represents the strength while the circular shape signifies the essential oneness of the Sikh faith.






The Butterfly and the Moth

Butterfly Bracelet
Butterfly Bracelet

The latter is irretrievably attracted to a flame, and the moth that immolates itself at the lighted candle is one of the favorite images of Sufism. It is a metaphor for the soul losing itself in the divine fire.

The life cycle of the butterfly presents a perfect analogy for immortality:

a). The crawling caterpillar signifies the ordinary life of mortals, preoccupied with fulfilling our trivial needs.
b). The next stage, the dark chrysalis (cocoon), represents death.
c). The butterfly symbolizes rebirth and a new beginning in life, with the soul fluttering free of material concerns and restrictions.

These three stages also serve as a microcosm for the biography of Jesus Christ - life, death and resurrection.

The Stabilizing Dragonfly

Dragonfly Brooch
Dragonfly Brooch

They are fantastic and confident flyers, darting like light, twisting, turning, changing direction, even going backwards as the need arises. They are inhabitants of two realms - starting with aquatic bodies, and moving to the air with maturity, but nonetheless staying close to water. Thus, the motif of the dragonfly is believed to endow on the wearer a relative stability deriving from a sense of rootedness, and mental control and clarity as against emotional and impulsive excitability.


The Peacock - The Transformed Beauty of Venom

Meenakari Peacock Pendant
Meenakari Peacock Pendant

The magnificently endowed peacock has posed and strutted in the gardens of kings and emperors during biblical times and before and has attracted attention throughout the world ever since. When he raises the feathered train high above his back, rattles his quills, and emits raucous, harsh screams, he is unsurpassed in drama and beauty. Although this display is part of the peacock's courtship ritual (small wonder that peacocks have harems of two to five hens), he will not hesitate to repeat the performance for attentive humans.

According to a Greek legend, the peacock was sacred to the goddess Hera. She directed Argus, the creature with 100 eyes, to spy on a rival. When Argus was slain, Hera placed his eyes on the tail of her favorite bird. However, the earliest mention of peacocks in Western Literature is in the play The Birds, written by Aristophanes in 414 BC.

In Hinduism, the peacock is the vehicle of the god of war Karttikeya, and in Buddhism that of Amitabha - one of the five Dhyani Buddhas. It is said to be capable of swallowing vipers without coming to harm itself. In fact, the peacock is believed to derive its rich plumage from the poison of the snakes on which it feeds. This symbolism, of being open even to poison, and transmuting it into beauty, gives us a feeling of the purifying and transforming power of this fascinating bird. For us ordinary mortals, it is a reminder that perhaps even our darkest and most venomous aspects are capable of reformation.

References and Further Reading

  • Alun-Jones Deborah and John Ayton: Charming - The Magic of Charm Jewelry: London, 2005.
  • Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths: Oxford, 2000.
  • Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs: Boston, 1999.
  • Bontekoe, Ron and Eliot Deutsch. A Companion to World Philosophies: Oxford, 1999.
  • Cashford, Jules. The Moon Myth and Magic: London, 2003.
  • Chebel Malek and Laziz Hamani. Symbols of Islam: Paris, 1997.
  • Colin, Didier. Dictionary of Symbols, Myths and Legends: London, 2000.
  • Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
  • Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
  • Dubin, Lois Sherr. The History of Beads (Concise Edition): London, 1995.
  • Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols: London, 1997.
  • Gideons International. The Holy Bible: Tennessee, 1978.
  • Henry, Gray and Susannah Marriott. Beads of Faith: London, 2002.
  • Huxley, Francis. The Eye - The Seer and the Seen: London, 1990.
  • Jones, Lindsay (ed). Encyclopedia of Religion (Previously Edited by Mircea Eliade) 15 volumes: MI, 2005.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Eastern Philosophy Key Readings: New Delhi, 2004.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy: New Delhi, 2004.
  • Morris, Desmond. Bodyguards Protective Amulets and Charms: Boston, 1999.
  • Nissenson, Marilyn and Susan Jones. Snake Charm: New York, 1995.
  • Purce, Jill. The Mystic Spiral (Journey of the Soul): London, 1997.
  • Taylor, Richard. How to Read a Church: London, 2003.
  • Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
  • Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India: London, 1997.

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  • Interesting article. I would like to purchase an Ankh. Is that possible at Exotic India?
    by Giovanna Zammit on 21st Sep 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
    by doretta rolle on 1st Aug 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.
    by Ian Ison on 3rd Jun 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
    by Sam Serio on 14th Sep 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
    by Hemant Padhya on 20th Aug 2005
  • This is a great review of important symbols and art ! Thank you so much!
    Gabi Greve
    Daruma Museum Japan
    by Gabi Greve on 19th Aug 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.
    by Katherine Hunt, England. on 18th Aug 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.
    by Sakshi on 17th Aug 2005
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