The energy of the solar year slowly unwinds as the season turns to autumn. So too, our own vigor is paired with the motion of Nature, spiraling toward the dark half of the year like the twining of ivy on the oak.
It is the nature of humans to communicate through symbol, an image being "worth a thousand words." Symbols allow us to share our experiences of the ineffable and of the inexpressible across miles, generations and millennia.
One of the most recognized symbols of the Celtic world is the spiral. An organic form, the spiral can be found in the seed heads of flowers, the florets of vegetables, pine cones, leaves, draining water, the shape of animal horns, whirlwinds, hurricanes and even spiral galaxies. An often proffered example of exquisite beauty and proportion can be found in the spiral shell of the chambered nautilus.
Fluid and sinuous, the spiral has been inscribed by humankind from the Paleolithic to present-day. In the earliest extant examples (approximately 12,000 BC), the spiral is accompanied by snake forms, the crescent moon of bullé¬ís horns and other patterns such as the chevron and zigzag.
Of the spiral form, Marija Gimbutus wrote "energy inherent in continually moving forms awakens life power and moves it forward." A coiled snake form is sometimes used interchangeably with the spiral. Both shapes are believed representative of the Great Goddess, the creatrix of the world, the mother of life and death.
By 5000 BC, the depiction of the spiral form, accompanied by moon, serpentine and egg forms was common throughout Europe. The spiral form often ran in bands between parallel lines, possibly indicating a sequence or cyclic time. On figurines and in pictures, the spiral sometimes replaces eyes or is depicted on breasts or the womb. This suggests the symbol in action, augmenting the power of sight or reproduction, not resting merely as a visual image.
To the ancient people of the southwestern United States, the spiral form may have indicated the journey undertaken by the people to the "Centre," and their rebirth from it. The spiral was associated with water, serpents and emergence. Mankind is thought to have "come from the womb of the earth in water."
Some of the most beautiful and well-known spiral forms are those that decorate the passage-tombs of Brui na Boinne, Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, Ireland. Constructed in approximately 3100 BC, these structures predate the pyramids of Egypt by centuries.
In the passage-tombs of the Boyne Valley are over 600 decorated stones, representing a high point in ornamental megalithic art that flourished during the Late Stone Age along the western coast of Europe.
Within this concentration of art, the spiral is found repeatedly, paired with snake, crescent and geometric forms. Research suggests the serpentine forms may represent counting units, a reckoning of time. In the setting of a passage-tomb, it is possible, indeed likely, that these symbols depict the winding of time and the dynamic spiraling of the soul from death to reincarnation.
Interestingly, we find again that the placement of the spiral symbols on the surfaces of the passage-tomb stones was not purely for decoration. Some of the more highly developed designs were picked into the stone after it was in place, sometimes in hidden or out-of-the-way locations. Just as with the construction of the monuments of the great Avebury complex, it is possible that the ritual and power of the symbol was in its creation. A ceremony of "doing" may have sanctified the locale and enhanced the energy of the sacred image beyond the simple decorative purpose we might infer today.
Cosmologically, the spiral connects the human soul with the divine. As a matter of consciousness, the spiral connects the psyche with Self, coiling and uncoiling, ascending to investigate new potential while at the same time descending, returning to Centre, the pool of transformational possibility.
We dream of spirals, we move to spiral dances, we feel the pull of the spiral throughout the seasons of our lives, circling outward, descending, circling again to a place that is familiar but never before experienced. Not just an image on stone, paper or tee-shirt, the spiral moves our time.
When you gaze at a spiral pattern created in 2000 BC or at a spiral that you just doodled on a piece of paper, what significance does it have for you? Just as with dream images, only you can and should be the arbiter of what a symbol means to you. Living symbols, like the spiral, relate the unknowable and thus can never be fully interpreted, hence they remain ever fresh, ever accessible.
Time has spun, summer faded. Lughnasadh and the Celtic autumn arrive. Soon the first leaves will spiral to the ground.