The Meaning of Neos Alexandria’s Symbol

In early 2007 the members of Neos Alexandria determined that we needed a representative symbol for our group. We wanted one that would be distinctive and yet easily reproducible by all of our members, whatever their level of artistic skill. We also wanted something that suggested the dual nature of our group, honoring both the Egyptian and Greco-Makedonian heritage that serves as the foundation of Neos Alexandria. We spent several months debating a number of worthy symbols before finally deciding upon the image that adorns our website, which was drafted for us by the talented artist Joan Lansberry.

Anyone who has visited the site certainly knows what our symbol is – but they may not understand what it means. Like most symbols, ours is complex and has many layers of meaning. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that there is no one right, true, and only interpretation of what our – or any symbol – means to its viewer. Each of us may take away different things while contemplating it. Sometimes our understanding of a symbol will evolve over time, as we learn new things or our experiences change. Two people can see in a symbol completely different and contradictory things – and still value it deeply. So while the following explanation is not to be taken as an orthodox pronouncement on the meaning of Neos Alexandria’s symbol – it is, nevertheless, what many of us think of when we examine it.

The first layer is that of the Winged Solar Disc itself. This image is said to represent Horus of Behedet, a powerful sun god and fierce warrior. According to a late Ptolemaic text from the temple of Horus at Edfu (Behedet), the barque of Re was beset by terrible creatures who were trying to stop the Sun’s daily journey through the heavens. Horus of Behedet came to his aid, spearing the hippopotamus-formed creatures with his mighty weapon. In gratitude Re declared to Thoth that “the Winged Solar Disc, with Uraei, should be brought into every sanctuary wherein he dwelt, and into every sanctuary of all the gods of the lands of the South and the North, and in Amentet [the Underworld], in order that they might drive away evil from therein….”

Thus this image was found displayed in all of the temples in Egypt and depicted hovering over the head of the King, its healing and protective rays raining down upon him. It was such a powerful and popular image that the common people would have representations of it made in cheap metals, wood and stone to hang in their own homes or wear as a protective amulet.

Nor is this image to be found solely in ancient Egypt. The image is represented in many places throughout the Near East including Persia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, northern Syria and even in Palestine. In fact, Biblical scholars believe that the author of Malachi 4:2 is referring to this symbol when he writes, “the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.”

The wings can be interpreted in a number of ways. For some they may suggest the wings of powerful birds like the hawk or eagle. Both of these birds were connected with kingship in antiquity. The eagle is the sacred animal of Zeus, the ruler of gods and men. Its nest is found in the highest places, that it might, like Zeus, survey the world below from its celestial perch. The eagle is famed for its wisdom and prowess – as well as its protective qualities. When Ptolemy Soter was an infant, so the legend goes, he was exposed by his parents. An eagle swooped down, covered him with its massive wings, and sheltered him from the elements until he was found by a kindly stranger who cared for him. The eagle, symbolizing this, was placed on many of the Dynasty’s coins – and passed from there into the iconography of Rome, Germany, England, the United States, and numerous other countries. Similarly, the goddess Isis enfolds her worshippers in her gentle wings and shields them from the hardships of life. Her wings suggest the comfort of faith and the power of grace. These wings also bring to mind the hawk who is the embodiment of Horus, whose powers the current reigning Pharaoh personified. Like Horus, the hawk is a noble hunter, a protector of its young, gifted with speed and dexterity. Its wings could also symbolize thought – which soars to the heavens, flying above the mundane world of limitations, swift and keen as the wind that gives it mobility. For this reason in Egyptian hieroglyphs the hawk came to symbolize divinity and was used for many gods besides Horus.

Within the heart of the Solar Disc one can see another image closely connected to it in symbolism, the so-called Stella Vergina. As the name indicates there is scholarly disagreement about whether this represents a sun or a star – though it is generally held that the symbol was connected with the Makedonian royal family, since it is found on the larnax or burial urn of Olympias, Philip II (though some claim this urn belongs to Philip III Arrhidaeus) and on numerous coins minted by the royal family. Vergina is the modern name of Aigai, home of the Argead dynasty which claimed descent from Herakles and Dionysos and ruled Makedonia in northern Greece from 700 to 309 bce. The most famous king of this Dynasty was the son of Philip II, Alexander III known to history as “the Great” and conqueror of the whole of the eastern world. In 331 bce Alexander was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt and founded the great city of Alexandria. Upon Alexander’s death, his general Ptolemy took over control of Egypt, inaugurating the fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture which we celebrate today over two thousand years later. Like Alexander, Ptolemy was a Makedonian (and there was even a tradition in antiquity that Ptolemy’s father was not Lagos but rather Philip, making them half-brothers) and so to honor these two outstanding men – and the Greco-Makedonian heritage they were so proud of – we have included the Stella Vergina in our official symbol.

There were several different forms of the Stella Vergina used in antiquity. It could have eight, twelve, or sixteen points – and we have opted for this last because that number held deep symbolic value for the ancient Egyptians. Sixteen represented abundance, fertility, completeness, and perfection. Sixteen was considered such a holy number because of its connection with the Nile river and the god of the Nile’s inundation Hapi (whom the Greeks called either Apis or Neilos). The association with sixteen arose because of the nileometers which were used to gauge the holy river’s levels. These nileometers contained markings a cubit apart – at around 8 cubits, the river would swell its banks and bring the much-needed nourishing waters and rich alluvial soil necessary to produce abundant crops and keep Egypt from being swallowed by the desert wastes that surrounded it. Sixteen cubits saw the river at its most powerful and beneficial heights. Anything above that would be disastrous. Therefore this number came to represent the god in both his fertile and benevolent aspect.

For some, the Stella Vergina may also resemble a compass star, which can suggest finding one’s way amid the tumultuousness of life, and the gods as guides in the process. It further symbolizes the hope of many of us that revived pagan religions will someday be found in all four corners of the globe and that the worship of the gods will flourish everywhere once more. Thus informed by
the star, the wings become also the wings of the phoenix, symbol of perpetual rebirth.

Above the Winged Solar Disc one sees a single serpent coiled. Traditional Solar Discs were adorned with two serpents, representing the Uraei or the twin Eyes of Re who represented sovereignty, protection, solar ferocity, the divine power of the Pharaoh, and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Our symbol has only one serpent, however. That is because he represents Agathos Daimon, the tutelary spirit of Alexandria.

In ancient Greece the Agathos Daimon or “Good Spirit” was a protective being who guarded the household and cared for the individual, much like the similarly snake-formed Zeus Meilikhios and Zeus Ktesios. He brought good luck and warded off evil, and families would keep tame, poisonless serpents to represent him, feeding them with honeyed cakes and milk. Aside from this humble domestic worship, however, the Agathos Daimon seems not to have received any kind of formal, state-sponsored worship.

Things were different, however, in Alexandria. Pseudo-Kallisthenes in the Alexander Romance records that when Alexander the Great was laying down the foundations of what would become the most famous city in antiquity, a serpent appeared and was killed. Alexander repented the hasty action, built a shrine to it and ordered that the serpent be given heroic honors. Agathos Daimon became one of the most popular deities in Hellenistic and Roman Alexandria, equated with Serapis, represented on coins, and featuring in a host of legendary and mythical narratives such as the Potter’s Oracle. Furthermore, snakes – which may or may not have represented Agathos Daimon – play a major role in the story of Alexander and the Ptolemies. Alexander was conceived after Olympias was seen to lay with a giant serpent; serpents guided Alexander and his army to the oasis of Siwah when they got lost in the desert seeking the oracle of Ammon; a serpent appeared to Alexander in a dream to instruct him in how to heal Ptolemy who was dying from the wound of a poisoned arrow; a serpent appeared to Ptolemy during the dream in which Serapis commanded that his cult-statue be moved from Sinope to Alexandria; in the reign of Ptolemy II a 20 foot snake was brought to the city; and of course there is the famous story of how Cleopatra met her death by the bite of a serpent, bringing a close to the glorious Ptolemaic Dynasty.

What, one might naturally ask, contributed to the rise in prominence of such a humble domestic spirit to such stellar heights? The answer to that lies in the nature of Alexandria itself.

The city of Alexandria was a completely new creation. While both the Pharos and the settlement of Rhakotis had existed there previously, they were very minor sites of no importance. Following in the footsteps of Alexander, Ptolemy built a huge city on the site, the largest, most complex, most highly cultured city the world had ever seen before. To do that Ptolemy put a call out and received hosts of people from all parts of the Greek world and beyond. People rushed there to escape the old world, its wars, blood feuds, and limited opportunities. They sought their fortunes and the freedom to follow their dreams, creating new lives for themselves and their families in a new land. And like the immigrants who have flocked to America over the last two hundred years, they built a society that was mobile, individualistic, cosmopolitan. A society where it didn’t matter where you came from, what your race was, what your family name might be – only what you could do with your hands and brains. Most ancient Greek cities had three categories of people – citizens, non-citizens, and resident aliens. Alexandria only had the first two – because everyone living there was, to some sense, a resident alien. And like the immigrants in America, when the rush of newness and excitement and wild creativity crested, people began to feel lonely, cut off from the past, rootless. They needed something to combat that. And so they turned to Agathos Daimon. But instead of just watching over the home or the individual, he would guard the whole city, which was reenvisioned not just as a collection of private homes and families, but as one home for all people, one family sharing the common bonds of existence as a citizen of Alexandria, with Agathos Daimon as the protector and nurturer of the individual.

And that is what he does for us today in the New Alexandria, a city of the heart and of our dreams. He is there to guide and protect us as we establish our own religious community and seek to revive the beautiful Greco-Egyptian syncretic tradition.

But there is also another level to that serpentine symbol, for Agathos Daimon lies coiled in a figure eight. There are two complimentary levels to this part of the symbol. First, the figure eight suggests the Ogdoad or primordial grouping of deities at Hermopolis who together caused the world to manifest and collectively represented the fullness or completeness of the cosmos. The gods, who are responsible for the creation and maintenace of the world, lie at the heart of all we do. We seek to honor all of them collectively, both the gods of Greece and of Egypt. Additionally, the figure eight signifies eternity – or more specifically, the teachings of the Alexandrian Gnostics concerning the ourorobos or world-serpent consuming its tail. This stood for the cyclical, eternally returning patterns of time – or to put it another way: growth, destruction, and rebirth as the ourorobos consumes and produces itself by turns. The ancients saw this pattern reflected in the ebb and flow of the Nile river, which brought life and abundance in its appearance, death and famine in its absence. The serpent was the guardian of those mysteries, concealed in the kiste or wicker basket along with the phallic liknon and presented at the height of the mysteries to the devotees. It was handled and “passed through the bosom” to enfuse the initiate with its transformative and life-giving powers, and to convey its closely-guarded wisdom.

When the temples and schools of Alexandria were closed, a light vanished from the world. The light of the Pharos. The light of the radiant Solar Disc. The light of learning which keeps the darkness of ignorance at bay. Now that light is reemerging into the world, kindled by each of us who hold the ancient gods dear to our hearts and seek the undying wisdom of antiquity, given form and expression in a new era, a new world. What once was, shall be again. Death shall give way to life. Alexandria shall be reborn.

Such is the meaning we find in our symbol; such is the purpose of the group Neos Alexandria.

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One Response to The Meaning of Neos Alexandria’s Symbol

  1. Pingback: Household Worship: My Lararium | Temple of Athena the Savior

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