On the Trail of the Tetramorph

Tertamorph – derived from the Greek words tetra (four) and morph (to shape) it is a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements into one unit.

The Four Royal Stars

In an attempt to bring order and meaning into the structure of their daily existence, the first wise Persian astrologers appointed four royal stars in the sky, otherwise known as ‘the watchers‘, who stood over the universality of divine dominion. These stars were: Aldebaran, the watcher of the east, situated in the constellation of Taurus, corresponding the vernal equinox; Regulus, watcher of the south, situated in the constellation of Leo, corresponding to the summer solstice; Antarus, watcher of the west, situated in the constellation of Scorpio, corresponding to the autumn equinox; and Fomalhaut, the watcher of the north, situated near the constellation of Aquarius, corresponding to the winter solstice. Together they marked the four cardinal directions, the four fixed points of the zodiac, the four elements and the four seasons, or changes within the solar year.

Referenced in the ancient Mesopotamian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, were fantastical creatures known as the lamassu. Hybrids, composed from the bodies of bulls or lions, they possessed the wings of an eagle and the heads of men. They were said to have been symbols of the starry heavens and were considered to be protective spirits, because they encompassed all life within them. They were some of the first examples of physical manifestations of the heavens above, and were literal representations of the analogical Hermetic law of magic: that which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing, a concept possibly as old as human thought itself.


The lamassu appeared frequently in Mesopotamian art and mythology, either as giant statues that guarded the entrances to the royal palaces, or on engraven tablets that were buried under the thresholds to common houses, as they were considered to be the protectors who frightened away the forces of chaos and brought peace to the home. Every town worth its salt had pairs of the lamassu situated at the city gates set around the four cardinal points, protecting the denizens within against the demons outside with their strength, swiftness and intelligence. Another version of the lamassu were the sphinxes of ancient Egypt, Greece and Babylonia, with their composite physiques (usually a mixture of bull bodies, lion’s paws, wings and human heads), and other similar creatures found within the various early religions.

‘Ezekiel’s Merkabah’, by William Blake

Considering they were the most popular winged iconography at the time, the lamassu would have been known to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel (famous for his seven visions) while he lived in exile amongst the Babylonians. In his inaugural manifestation, Ezekiel saw God approaching him from a cloud to the north (the north being the home of the gods in ancient mythology), riding upon a battle chariot (or merkabah), that was drawn by four creatures he called ‘cherubim‘ or ‘the four living creatures‘ (khayyot), which he described, “as for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. Their wings stretched upward; two wings of each one touched one another, and two covered their bodies.” Next to each of the cherubim was a tall wheel set within a wheel (ophanim), which had eyes covering the rims.

Once within shouting distance, God insisted that Ezekiel become the ‘watchman‘ of Israel. In the Bible the cherubim make their first appearance in the garden of Eden ‘guarding‘ the way to the Tree of Life, so the humans could not come back in (Satan was said to have been a cherubim before his rebellion). Early Semitic tradition also perceived the cherubim as ‘guardians‘ or ‘watchers‘, and only later did they receive their angelic status, being possessed of four wings covered with eyes which made them ‘all-seeing‘. Interestingly enough, in the Torah the cherubim were the first objects to be created in the universe, perhaps harking back to the thought of containing all life within them.

The cherubim, only with six wings like a seraph, and called ‘the four living beings‘, appear in John of Patmos’ vision chronicled in the book of Revelations as such, “The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within.” Although not included in the Bible, the book of Enoch tells a similar tale, possibly pre-dating Ezekiel’s vision by a century. “And I looked and saw a lofty throne: its appearance was as crystal, and the wheels thereof as the shining sun, and there was the vision of cherubim. And from underneath the throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon.”



The Book of Kells

Although the attributions of the tetramorph to the four Evangelists were credited to Saint Jerome, they were fully realized by the Frankish Benedictine monk, Rabanus Maurus, who cemented their various layers of meaning during the Carolingian age. Matthew the Evangelist, the author of the first gospel, symbolized by the winged man, represented Christ’s human nature and stood for reason. Mark the Evangelist, author of the second gospel, symbolized by the winged lion, represented resurrection (possibly because it was thought lions slept with their eyes open, like Jesus in the tomb) and stood for courage. Luke the Evangelist, author of the third gospel, symbolized by the winged ox, represented Jesus’ crucifixion, as well as Christ being the High Priest, and stood for sacrifice. Lastly, John the Evangelist, author of the fourth gospel, symbolized by the eagle, represented Jesus the Logos (because it was believed eagles could stare straight into the sun) and stood for the notion of keeping an eye cast upon eternity. Of course, if one wanted to pull these four ideas together – nature (planting), resurrection (the crop), sacrifice (the harvest), and eternity (the never ending cycle of nature) – it is not that far of a stretch, based upon the findings of the predecessorial Persian astrologers (in which the meaning of the tetramorph functioned as a sort of agricultural clock) that Rabanus Maurus meant to interpret them as metaphorically sowing the spiritual seeds of Christianity.

In the late Romanesque period, images of the tetramorph fell out of favor and were exchanged for their human counterparts. But in the 15th century a new card game, known as the tarot (tarocchi), or carte de trionfi (triumph cards), came into fashion. In one of the earliest decks, the Sforza Castle deck, the tetramorph make an appearance on The World card XXI. On another deck, from the 16th century, the World card is depicted with a man standing on top of the world (mondo, which could also be read as universe) with symbols for the four elements divided within. A century later, on the same card, the iconography had changed, and man stood within the center of the world, the tetramorph appearing in the four corners surrounding it taking the place of the four elements. Curiously enough, the enigmatic Sola Busca deck from the 18th century depicts the World Card as Nabuchodensor (Nebuchadnezzar) fighting a dragon, which brings one back to Babylon.

In the 18th century began the great Tarot revival and, along with the popularity of the Marseille deck in Southern France, tarot changed from a mere card game to being used for divination as well (although there are sporadic accounts of it being used earlier for such). The occultist Papus (Gerard Encausse), the first to coin the term ‘The Marseille Deck‘ in his book Tarot of the Bohemians (1889), explained the symbology of The World card as thus, “a nude female figure, holding a wand in each hand, is placed in the centre of an ellipsis, her legs crossed (like those of the Hanged Man in the twelfth card). At the four angles of the card we find the four animals of the Apocalypse, and the four forms of the Sphinx: the Man, the Lion, the Bull, and the Eagle. This symbol represents Macrocosm and Microcosm, that is to say, God and the
Creation, or the Law of the Absolute. The four figures placed at the four corners represent the four letters of the sacred name, or the four great symbols of the Tarot (the sceptre, cup, sword and pentacle).” He goes on to explain the sceptre is ‘yod’, representing fire, the cup is ‘he‘, representing water, the sword is ‘vau‘, representing Earth, and the pentacle is the second ‘he‘, representing air. Formulated together they formed YHVH, the unutterable name of the God of Israel , or the tetragramatton, which in kabbalah pertained to the mystery of the four directions, the four worlds, and the potentiality of being. Papus also stated that the World card was the key to the year, philosophy (encompassing logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics) and to the kabbalah.

Twenty years later, in his seminal book Pictorial Key of the Tarot (1911), mystic and scholar, A.E. Waite  (of the popular Rider-Waite deck) wrote about the World card thus, “It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit… But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

The tetramorph also appeared in the corners of the Wheel of Fortune card X in the Rider-Waite deck, along with a sphinx sitting at the top of a wheel. A.E. Waite described the card as, “the symbolic picture stands for the perpetual motion of a fluidic universe and for the flux of human life. The Sphinx is the equilibrium therein.” In this age, the tetramorph have been adapted from an earlier spiritual Christian function, to a metaphysical one; as a gateway between the conscious and unconscious mind, perhaps in an attempt to find the divine within the ancient rites of renewal once again. The morning stars singing together, and the sons of God shouting for joy, are a definite clue, given that each of the original four royal stars of Persia would have functioned as the morning star, depending upon the season, and in Medieval Judaism the sons of God were those individuals who possessed divine power by means of astrological knowledge, which bring one full circle. But that is the circumnavigational point of totality, in which the symbolism of the tetramorph and its other composite compatriots (the lamassu, sphinx, cherubim, etc.) are represented, isn’t it? Cycles of the harvest, patterns of existence, layers of meaning, to bring chaos into structure, and to make the unknown known. Perhaps those ancient, wise, Persian astrologers knew a part of our humanity was written in the stars after all.

On the Trail of the Tetramorph, published in Issue of 11 of The Heretic Magazine.

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