Friday, July 1, 2011

The Symbolism and Meaning Behind Our Flag

America is young, but its symbols are old. Of the symbols and myths we chose since European colonization, the ones that have become American icons are those representing hope, positive growth, and opportunity.

Many of the symbols included in The United Symbolism of America have become so familiar that most of us don't give them a second glance, let alone a second thought.


Given that it's July 4th weekend in the United States, and we are in the midst of celebrating our independence, I thought it might be a good time to share with you a look behind the symbolism of our Flag. This material is taken from Chapter 3: The American Flag: An American Beauty, A New Constellation.


Our Flag as Cosmic Drama
One reason we did not inherit lengthy explanations of the symbols in the flag is because the Revolutionary generation had a far greater level of familiarity with heraldry, symbols, and art than is commonplace today. Minute interpretations seemed unnecessary to most of them to whom reading symbols and designs would have been as simple as reading in a foreign language. There are obvious practical reasons why they chose the colors and designs that they did, but our founders were also aware of some of the ancient correspondences attached to these colors, numbers, and shapes. Symbols that express fundamental, archetypal truths can transmit the same message generation after generation without guidebooks.

The design for the Great Seal (1782) and the design for the American flag (1777) are interrelated, having been created and approved by many of the same people. Unlike the Great Seal, however, the flag was very casually described, and continued to significantly transform in design long after the 1777 resolution. Because of their similarities, many of the interpretations we all take for granted about the flag were actually written to describe the symbols in the Great Seal, and are only assumed to apply also to the flag.

A different look at the flag. Ginny Holmes modeling a version of the flag in 1967. Painting bodies was a fad in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and I enjoyed this opportunity to paint on another type of moving canvas—a startling and new way to send art and symbolic messages out into the world. With painted bodies, there are obvious distractions to the art, and thus I always painted in symbols to speak directly to the subconscious. See a photo of my biodiesel Founding Fathers Artcar on page TK for another moving canvas.

Vexillologists mostly say that the colors red, white, and blue were chosen for the American flag because they were the most available, and because they were the same colors used in the Union Jack of the Mother Country. Whitney Smith points out that “in heraldry, there were only the basic colors of red, blue, green, and black. There was also yellow, gold, silver, and white, but they were used mostly to separate the other colors…. There weren’t any good green dyes in those days….

The symbolism of black was negative, and yellow was the color of quarantine…. So there just weren’t many choices, and since red, white, and blue were the British colors, it made sense.” Although this practical explanation is compelling, it does not address the soul-stirring power this arrangement of colors and shapes has over us at certain times. Assessing our flag from an archetypal and symbolic perspective, we can reveal a deeper meaning and an entirely new appreciation for “Old Glory.”

There is a common prejudice that only the physical, material world with documentary evidence should be considered. A higher state of awareness reveals that man is more than just a physical body. Though we have no documents from the Founding Fathers giving us their symbolic interpretations of the flag, if we accept a “Divine Providence” overshadowing their decisions, an archetypal rendering of these symbols can be most revealing. It is my hope that a deeper appreciation of these symbols will lead Americans once again to recognize themselves as a nation of one people, and our diversity can be our strength when we rally around the flag of unity.

The Rectangle Is a Temple
The blue canton of the flag, and the entire flag itself when viewed as a whole, are both rectangular in form. To the ancients, rectangles symbolized temples, probably because most ancient temples were constructed in this shape. The stars within the blue canton represent the stars in the heavens, meaning the temple of our flag is related to the universe. The founders acknowledged this when they called the stars a New Constellation in the June 14th resolution. The white in the stars is linked to silver and thus to the moon representing the perfected personality, the perfection of the physical body in alignment with the spiritual temple.

3 Colors: A Trinity
Three colors were chosen for the design of our flag. Not two, not four, but three. The powerful three of the trinity is also the three of the triangle that as the tetrahedron is the basic building block of the universe. These three colors could symbolize the trinity of Father (blue), Son (red), and Holy Spirit (white). In A Dictionary of Symbols, the triangle is “the geometric image of the ternary, and in symbolism of numbers, equivalent to the number three…. [W]ith the apex uppermost it also symbolizes fire and the aspiration of all things towards the origin or the irradiating point.”

When I last counted, nearly 30 countries used the same three colors of red, white, and blue in their flags, and another 20 used predominantly these three. Examples include: Cuba, Costa Rica, Chile, Norway, France, Ukraine, Nepal, Thailand, South Korea, and Australia. Why so many flags carrying the same colors? Is there some kind of unrecognized law at work here, or maybe a karmic relationship between these countries? Or are there just too few colors to choose from?

Red
According to Charles Thomson’s description of the Great Seal, red stands for “hardiness and valour.” The color red is traditionally linked to the planet Mars, which symbolizes more or less a masculine energy, though it is also associated with the blood of fertility. The red rose is the symbol of love and fidelity. Red is frequently used to symbolize blood. Blood is the element that flows within all of us carrying the genetic structure of the energy of the seven bodies, where all is interconnected from the physical to the divine. Red is an agitating heat-giving color. In the Greek mysteries the irrational sphere was always considered as red, for it represented that condition in which consciousness is enslaved by the lusts and passions of the lower nature.

White
The color white in the Seal “signifies purity and innocence.” But in heraldry, white is also used to symbolize silver, which is linked to the moon, and therefore to the feminine. White is symbolically the combination of all colors, or the rainbow. We have unity expressed in at least two places in the canton. First, in the early versions of the flag, all 13 states were placed equally in a circle. Unity is also expressed in making the stars white. It says, “out of many, one.” All the states are equal to each other, and all the people within each state are equal to each other. We are all one.

Blue
In heraldry blue has always been used to represent the heavens, where one looks for wisdom. Blue is also related to the planet Jupiter, standing for justice, knowledge, honor and nobility. Jupiter is the symbol for expansiveness, all-inclusiveness, and a breaking down of barriers and limitations. Thomson said the color blue signified “vigilance, perseverance and justice.” We can also read into the symbols to see white stars on a field of blue, suggesting that our country is designed to be in line with the spiritual elements of the heaven worlds, as above, so below. It depicts a place where the spiritual world and the physical world are in alignment, and therefore a state of perfection.

Triskaidekaphobia Is Not the American Way
If ever a number has been misunderstood, it’s 13. The fear of this number is a relatively recent phenomenon, and, when examined as to its source, it appears to be a strange leftover from superstitions of the Dark Ages. When the church was clamping down on pagan folk healers and persecuting women, the number 13 was associated with followers of the Goddess and the way this culture marked time, based on the annual menstruation cycle of the average woman. The current administration of those days spread the word that 13 and symbols associated with 13 were evil, and they began burning the folk healers as witches. Some fundamentalist-conspiratorialists explain that 13 is unlucky because it is the number in the room after Judas arrived at the Last Supper to betray Jesus. They fail to mention that 13 is also the number of the group of 12 disciples together with Jesus during all the years of his ministry. Some have gone back even further to the first time 13 is used in the Bible. It appears in Genesis 14:4 in the list of a litany of wars between kings surrounding the story of Abram and Lot. “Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but the thirteenth year they rebelled” is the phrase, and from this they have concluded that the number 13 is associated with rebellion. Some say that the reason we fear Friday the 13th is that it’s the date on which the Knights Templar were arrested in October 1307, linking the date to bad luck ever since.

Before all of these theories, however, in many ancient cultures, 13 was seen as a number of transformation, symbolizing renewal, rebirth, and regeneration. This interpretation may have resulted from the fact that 13 follows the nice, round, complete number of a dozen. Thirteen is the number of the Zodiac when you include the sun as it travels through them in the year. Thirteen is the initiate, the one regenerating himself. Often associated with the number 13 is the zodiacal sign of Scorpio, the sign that is also linked to themes of regeneration and rebirth. One could conclude that in order for America as a nation to reflect the 13 in our flag, many trials and errors over many lifetimes, many rebirths and regenerations will be required for the ultimate success. When we add together the numbers one and three to assess the number 13 numerologically, we arrive at the number four. Four can refer to the four elements of the physical world: air, earth, fire, and water. It is in the physical world where rebirth and regeneration must take place to be reborn in spirit or attain spiritual vision. In the I Ching, the 13th hexagram is T’ung Jen, or “fellowship with men” that “must be based upon a concern that is universal.”

As classically trained scholars, some of the Founding Fathers were probably aware of the association of thirteen with rebirth. The number of colonies uniting in 1776 as 13 was fortuitous, when an attempt to coerce Canada into becoming a 14th state failed miserably early on. But once they were the Thirteen Colonies the founders really played up that number in their propaganda and symbolism. By doing so, they very well may have been consciously emphasizing rebirth and renewal as much as the number of united colonies. When the artists depicted them as stripes, or stars, or tiers on the pyramid, or arrows in the eagle’s claw, or berries on the olive branch, it meant the 13 individual states were united as one in their effort of renewal.

6 White and 7 Red
The number 13 in the fly of the flag is achieved by combining six white and seven red stripes. Six symbolizes beauty, balance, symmetry, harmony of opposites, equilibrium, and reciprocity. Six combined with the white (Holy Spirit) stripes could symbolize that the Holy Spirit manifests through beauty and harmony (6).

Seven is a very popular biblical number. It appears many times in the Book of Revelation (for example, in the seven sealed scrolls, the seven golden lampstands, and the seven-horned lamb). In the Kabbalah seven symbolizes victory of spirit over matter. It took seven days for the creation. On the seventh day God rested. He was victorious over matter. Seven combined with the red (Son) stripes could symbolize the Son’s victory of spirit over matter, of consciousness over unconsciousness. Seven is considered a holy number, but is also related to time, expressing the rhythm of evolution in the changing positions of the sun, creating a seven-day week.

The ageless wisdom teachings suggest that the human is not one body, but seven, ranging from the lowest, the physical body, to the highest, or divine body. Six has often been related to Venus, meaning harmony and balance. When you add six and seven, you could be indicating that all seven bodies are aligned harmoniously, as in a perfected human, so that the fly of 13 stripes is relating not just to America, but to all humans in all nations.

Red for Mars stands for activity and masculine energy. It is the color of power and ambition. The color white is astrologically linked to the moon, or the feminine energies. White symbolizes purity without and within. External and internal, above and below. Once again we have a demonstration of symbolic balance on the American flag. Linking the number 6 with the color white (the feminine side of the human), and the number 7 with the color red (the masculine aspect), we have an alchemical combination known as the hermaphrodite. The word hermaphrodite is itself a balance between the names of Hermes (Mercury or the messenger) with Aphrodite (Venus or the higher mind) and the hermaphrodite is a balance between masculine and feminine energies. It is the natural evolution of spirit. The red and white stripes could thus be translated: Victory (7) is assured through the Son (red) by the balance and harmony (6) of the Holy Spirit, or power of God (white).

Clipping a Point Off the Stars
George Washington seems to have preferred a six-pointed star, carrying it on his banner while leading the Continental Army. He appeared in the Betsy Ross legend with a drawing of the proposed flag using six-pointed stars, and she allegedly demonstrated for him how much easier it was for a seamstress to clip a five-pointed star than a six. Francis Hopkinson also seems to have preferred the six-pointed star. His family coat of arms featured three six-pointed stars, and he used the six-pointed star in his design for the Great Seal. Both Hopkinson’s Great Seal stars and Washington’s Headquarters flag stars more closely resembled three intersecting tapered lines (or six-pointed flowers) than interlocking triangles or stars.

There is no existing documentation that explains why or when the five-pointed star came into use on the American flag. It was possibly influenced by the 1841 new steel die for the Great Seal cut by John Peter Van Ness Throop. The original 1782 die had become worn, which may explain why Throop mistakenly gave the eagle only six arrows and the stars only five points. Many of the earliest depictions of the Stars and Stripes flag show it with six-pointed stars, though seven-, eight-, and five-pointed stars also make appearances early on. The explanation may be as simple as the practical decision of seamstresses in upholstery shops around the Union (or perhaps one in particular in Philadelphia) that it was easier to cut out five-pointed stars. The symbolic difference is significant, but it does not appear that anyone was giving it that much thought.

By stitching together $157 worth of dollar bills into this familiar shape, artist Ray Beldner made the statement in 1997 that America is built on the almighty dollar. (Illustration from Hinrichs and Hirasuna’s Long May She Wave.) Used with permission.

The 5-Pointed Star
The five-pointed star was almost unheard of in flags before this time. In heraldry, stars of the sky would usually be depicted with six, seven, or eight points, and a five-pointed star would sometimes refer to starfish or flowers. Hexagrams, or the intersection of two triangles, represent the union of male and female energies, or fire and water, or spirit and matter, and would have symbolically reinforced balance and unity. Sometimes called the star of man, the five-pointed star can be likened to the head above the torso with two arms and two legs (think of DaVinci’s Vetruvian Man), or even to man’s five physical senses. The five-pointed star has many mystical meanings. Paul Foster Case said five is “the sign of absolute universal synthesis,” symbolizing the small world or the microcosm.

Today, through long identification, the five-pointed star is strongly associated with the U.S. military, which began using it based on its use in the American flag. A pentagram is a five-pointed star made by drawing intersecting lines in one stroke with equal angles at all five points. It is thought to have first been deemed sacred by the ancients tracing the path that Venus makes as it traverses the Zodiac. The pentagram has a long history as a magical symbol for many cultures and religions, including the Babylonians, Egyptians, early Christians, and Freemasons. In the last century the pentagram became associated with Satanism, possibly due to a misunderstanding of ceremonial magic. Even if Satanists do use a pentagram, that is just one possible level of interpretation for this popular symbol. Magical historian Eliphas Lévi was responsible in the 19th century for incorrectly identifying the difference between an inverted pentagram, calling it negative, and an upright pentagram, calling it positive. Before Lévi’s ideas were published the pentagram was used by early Christians and everyone else with the points facing both up and down without any distinction.

50 Stars and the Meaning for Today
The number of stars has increased as our country expanded, symbolically demonstrating the evolution of America. Today we have 50 stars on our flag, meaning we are at a stage where the number 50 has some meaning to us. Following a numerological procedure of adding the two digits 5 + 0 gives us a total of 5, meaning the earlier translation also relates to the contemporary version of 50 stars on our flag. Five is translated by Paul Foster Case as “the dynamic law proceeding from abstract order…. [It is] mediation…, adaptation, means, agency, activity, process, and the like.” In the I Ching, the fifth hexagram is Hsü, or waiting. It is not the waiting of empty hope, but with the inner certainty of reaching the goal. The 50th hexagram is Ting, the Cauldron. According to Richard Wilhelm, the cauldron “presents a transformation…. Ting shows the correct way of going about a social reorganization.” The cauldron also means taking up the new—as in the “New Order of the Ages,” one of the mottoes on the reverse of the Great Seal. The cauldron can be likened to the “melting pot” philosophy of this nation.

Much more could be said of the deeper levels of interpretation surrounding our flag and the mythologies behind these colors and numbers. With even this small code, however, anyone familiar with the language of symbols can form a deeper appreciation for our flag. Overly sophisticated academics will probably scorn this symbolic approach, because there is no written documentation to indicate that any of the founders considered any of these correlations. Deliberate or not, however, I believe that it is on these esoteric levels that the true meaning of our flag may be revealed.

Robert Hieronimus, Ph.D., is a historian, visual artist, and radio host. His research has been used by the White House, State Department, published in the Congressional Record, and shared with the late Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat. He has made a lifetime study of the symbols of secret societies and other American legends, and his 2006 book, Founding Fathers, Secret Societies, was featured repeatedly on the History and National Geographic Channels and on TV shows in Germany and South Africa. His weekly program, 21st Century Radio with Dr. Bob Hieronimus, broadcasts New Paradigm topics across the United States.

Image Credit Stuart Zolotorow

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