The strange symbols of Wheel and Spindle in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia may have their source in the pre-socratic greek thinking, which derives from earlier sapiential traditions.
Measurements in sky and earth, or better between sky and earth. To an untrained and inattentive eye perhaps nothing relevant may be detected in this engraving, a part from the measuring devices represented in a strange and inappropriate way. Cesare Ripa’s words in no way explain the circumstances, but suggest to us some intriguing perceptions.
Nevertheless we feel as though we have been missing the point, that’s to say that ancient capacity to understand a symbolism which nowadays seems to have been lost. Our last hope to get some hints might be a source commonly neglected: the pre-socratic greek thinking. Specially Anaximander’s beliefs could unexpectedly come to rescue. In fact a relevant part of the european vulgar era hermetic symbolism takes origin from greek culture, which in its turn might deepen its roots in more ancient and dinstant worlds. We have already encounter the concept in Anaximander, Apeiron and Earthy Sea. But let’s read these few paragraphs in Cavalier Ripa’s chapter intitled “Cosmografia”. Cosmography is “ the art that contemplates the parts of the earth in relation to the sky, and makes the sites of one to be compatible to the other, since by this name Cosmography we intend the world “, according to Ripa. As we will see, something more than mere measurements.
My translation from “Iconologia del cavaliere Cesare Ripa Perugino”, Perugia 1765. You can find an introduction to Cesare Ripa and his editions of “Iconologia” at Cesare Ripa & the Hot Frozen Ouroboros World Machine: “An old woman, wearing a starry light blue shirt and underwearing a terrestrial color garment, stands with two globes on each side. On the right side the celestial, on the left the terrestrial. With the right hand she holds the Tolomeus astrolabe, with the left the astronomical radius.
Cosmography is the art that contemplates the parts of the earth in relation to the sky, and makes the sites of one to be compatible to the other, since by this name Cosmography we intend the world, being by greeks called Csomos, which makes the name Cosmography, that’s to say the description not only of this terrestrial detail, but of all the celestial globe, which composes all the world.
She is represented as an old woman, because her cause took origin from the world creation.
She wears starry light blue and terrestrial colors, as we have said, because this character shares sky parts as well as earth parts and because of that we represent her standing between the two globes, showing her action with astrolabe, which she holds with the right hand and by means of this device we measure the distance, the interval, and the size from a star to another, and with the radius, which she holds with the left hand, the operation to be done in earth”.
Here above we have seen some images of astrolabes, and they are pretty different from Cesare Ripa’s one. What’s more Ripa’s device lacks the central indinspensable oblong rigid piece of wood, metal, or similar materialpiece used for pointing. In addition Ripa’s looks very similar to a wheel. In fact the outer edges are very thick, unlike real astrolabes, and the radial lines from the center are too many and too thin not to have a close resemblance to a wheel spokes.The word astrolabe is from Greek astrolabon, neuter of astrolabos, or “star-taking”. Is the Ripa’s wheel-shaped device intended to be a star-catching, but in a different way than Tolomeus (since legend has it that Tolemeus had invented astrolabe)?
According to mythology whirligigs and rhombus were defined ‘ Dionysus toys‘ and they represented the so called ‘ second Sun‘, or movement. Ripa’s representation of an astronomical radius very hardly appears to be able to fulfill its pointing functions. In fact its form is a kind of too oblong and slender not only to make it looking exactly like an ancient radius, but even to suggest its featuring aspects as an angles finder. Ripa’s really look like just a simple lozenge. Below some pictures from ” Trattato del radio latino o Instrumento giustissimo e facile più di ogni altro per prendere qualsivoglia misura e positione di luogo, tanto in cielo come in terra”, or treatise of latin radius, suitable and right tool and easier than any other to take whatever measure and position as in sky so in earth, by Latino Orsini, Roma 1583. Ripa’s radius looks more like a spindle, in fact archaic spindles were lozenge shaped tools. But we continue to fail to understand how it could represent “the operation to be done in earth” as Cavaliere Ripa says.
Back to the Ripa’s wheel-shaped astrolabe we can not be surprised of its ancient mythical identification with the Sun. Cesare Ripa places it hovering above the Sun globe, as we can evince from ecliptic around it (1). The greek god Hephaestus was said to light his forges at the wheel of the Sun. There were other ancient cultures familiar to mythical wheels, for example Indians tales talked of Wheels of life and Egyptians believed that the god Khnum created the bodies of children on a potter’s wheel and inserted them into their mothers’ bodies, but what is of interest to us is the concept of a Wheel-Sun. I mentioned above there are many evidences of the european hermetic symbolism also deriving from the ancient greek world ( which could not be a cultural isle) and not only for what concerns the so called “phonetic symbolism”. So let’s read some interesting hints in ancient thinkers writings concerning Anaximander fragments on Sun-Wheel identification, as well as other cosmologic beliefs:
AET. II 15, 6 [Dox. 345]: ” Anaximander, Metrodorus of Chios and Crates argue that the sun is the highest of all the stars, below him the moon, the fixed stars and planets”.
AËT. II 13, 7 [Dox. 342]: ” Anaximander states that (the stars) are thick casings of air in the form of wheel, full of fire, in which a part of the openings blow flames”.
ACHILL. isag. I 19 p. 46, 20 [by Posidonius]: ” Some, among them also Anaximander, say that (the sun) sends light and is wheel-shaped. In fact, like in a wheel the hub is hollow but it keep the rays from it toward the outer circumference of the wheel, so also the sun, sending light from a cavity, produces its rays shining outside around”.
AËT. II 25, 1 [Dox. 355]: ” Anaximander argues that (the moon) is a sphere 19 times the earth, similar to a charriot wheel which has the circle hollow and full of fire like that of the sun, is placed in an oblique position like that one, and is equipped with a breather, like the pipe of a flute. Eclipses are in relation to the wheel speed.
AËT. II 20, 1 [Dox. 348]: ” Anaximander says that (the sun) is a sphere twenty-eight times the earth, very similar to a charriot wheel, with the circle hollow and full of fire, in which a portion through the opening shows fire, as through the pipeof a flute. This is what the sun”.
DIOG. LAERT. II 1-2. (1) : “Anaximander son of Prassiade from Miletus. He said that the principle and element (of things) is the infinite, without defining it air or water or anything else, that the parties change but everything is unchanging and that the earth is in the middle and has a central position, in the form of a sphere (the moon has no light of its own but is illuminated by the sun, while the sun is not inferior to earth and is pure fire)”.
THEO SMIRN. p. 198, 18: ” Anaximander says that the earth is suspended in the air and moves around the center of the universe”.
Who is this Cosmography woman? Is she the “Cosmos” ( and once again we have the recall the position of an ancient greek thinker, the pythagorean Philolaus) that’s to say our Solar system (2), the world in which we live? Ripa says that the two globes are the Sky and Earth. He also says that the woman partecipates of Sky (Sun) and Earth. But we have not been made any suggestion for the radius/spindle. It would be too much easy to take for granted the lozenge shape of our terrestrial tool as a simbol of female opposed to the male Sun. I have already stated that I don’t believe in polarities In Alchemy, since I argue Cesare Ripa’s Iconology symbolism was about it, and I fail to see all those states of genders around ( apart from biological kingdoms). I only believe in density stairs: that’s to say the same thing in different density stages. At least that’s the way our Secret Fire, this ineffable substance coming from stars and suns and still dwelling in our molecules, works. So I don’t mean to take the lozenge as a female terrestrial symbol. I would rather prefer to point at the use of this lozenge-shaped tool, apparently a spindle, I guess. A spindle is not a symbol of female, but of spinning around an axis. Probably even the spinning around a celestial axis. If this spinning action is a passive action, so in ancient cultures attribute to women, that’s another concept. The oblong and slender lozenge was chosen, just to provide an example, as emblem by many Savoia princesses ( the former royal house of unified Italy).
So we have a wheel-Sun and a spindle-spinning action. The woman is holding the Sun with her right hand and the spinnning action with the left hand. From the ancient Egypt the right is the male and the left the female. Here we are back to what I wanted to avoid: the polarity. But this is just a polarity of actions, we are before active-passive agents. The Sun is male, active. The spinning action is female, passive, or the “operations to be done in earth“. So we have understood that the passive terrestrial agent has to spin around our active agent, the Sun, or at least something arrived from the Sun. In this case male and female is used to suggest a strong attraction ( in ancient cultures humans had a naive idea of their sexuality) between two entities.
Now we have also understood who, or what, the woman does represent: our Waters both from the sky and earth (see undernote 2): ” ….this character shares sky parts as well as earth parts”. Our Secret Fire/Mercurius, which in the case of Sun we can define Sulphur, while Mercurius is the case of the terrestrial passive action. We know that because of the rule of three ( by which every symbol may stands for at least three different meanings) we have plenty of Sulphurs, Mercurii, males and females (3).
And we have plenty of active and passive agents too, according to the stages. We have them in the metallic “Opus” or work, which we dedicate to extract the Soul of a metal, and in the other “Opus”, which we dedicate to extract the Soul of a human being. Something is survived of this last, buried in myths and hidden evidences. The cavaliere Cesare Ripa, is suggesting us something intriguing: the meeting of two Secret Fires, one from the Sun and the other from the Earth. Whether the last one is a natural terrestrial product or an alchemist product, he does not say, but we have understood it is our magnet (4), in fact the Secret Fire/Mercurius we have made is called after it “Magnesia”. And very likely we have a natural spinning magnet “Magnesia” inside us too (5). The engraving on the left is a rendering of the Mercurius/Magnet by Achille Bocchi’s ” Bonon. Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere” 1555, a must to have book for every seventeenth century researcher in hermetic symbolism, as Cesare Ripa was.
You can find another meaning of the wheel allegory at Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit and Secret Iconography of the Wheel .
- See also San Miniato Sun Path or the Sky as Seen from Earth ;
- See also Thesaurus Hermeticum & Dry Pythagorean River ;
- See also Sun and Moon at the Turn of the First Millennium ;
- See also Introitus Apertus vs Open Entrance.Chap 4 ;
- See also Aiòn, Light & Spirals of Immortality ;