When I moved to the cottage in West Wales where I live, I was intrigued from the start by a curious bell which hung over the door. The bell is flanked by two former gas lamps (possibly coach lamps), now converted to take electric light. Each lamp is topped by an eagle in flight, facing in toward door and bell.
Searching on the internet, I have since found examples of bells similar to the one here; but none quite so detailed with regard to symbolism and meaning. It seems likely that the bell once hung over the door of a Catholic church or some other religious building. All the bells of its ilk carry an inscription in Latin: Qui me tangit, vocem meam audit. This translates as: Whosoever touches me, hears my voice. Of course, this is a play on two senses. Anyone touching the bell will hear it ring; on a more resonant level, those touching on the presence of God will hear His voice.
There are two more features which are consistent with most examples of these bells: the two figures which surmount the bell’s pivot. At its pinnacle is an angel, wings outspread. To the side of the angel is a strange creature: sphinx, monkey, cat, dog, it is difficult to determine. This creature appears literally to balance on the axis of the bell, and its mouth is open, as if some sybilline pronouncement is being uttered. More of all this below.
On the sound-bow of ‘my’ bell on the cottage, the symbolism gets interesting. I have seen no other example of these bells where such detail is present. Etched into the bell, along with the Latin inscription, are three winged animal figures: an ox, a lion and an eagle. These three beasts, together with the human/angel figure above them, depict what would appear to be the ‘four living creatures’ of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. In Chapter One of Ezekiel, the prophet experiences a vision in which the throne of God is borne aloft on four wheels. Each of these wheels is accompanied by one of the ‘living creatures’; indeed, the creatures seem to be of the wheels themselves (‘for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels’). The living creatures also make an appearance in the Book of Isaiah, and again, most notably, in the Book of Revelation at the conclusion of the New Testament, when once more they accompany the apocalyptic arrival of God’s throne. On the bell’s imagery, the three ‘animal’ creatures – ie, lion, ox and eagle – all appear to be grasping in talons, hooves and claws, a book. This is generally supposed to be the Torah (or the Pentateuch) – the first five books of the Old Testament, which chronicle the origin of the Jewish people and their call into being by God, as recorded by Moses. More generally, it can be seen as book of esoteric and universal wisdom.
The four living creatures were later appropriated in the Christian era to represent the four evangelists of the New Testament: Matthew the angel; Mark the lion; Luke the bull; John the eagle. However, what piqued my interest as a writer of fiction were the associations that exist with the four ‘living creatures’ beyond the realms of the Jewish and Christian religions, perhaps even pre-dating them: most particularly their connections with both the Tarot and astrology. These connections are shown most strikingly in the Wheel of Fortune card of the tarot – card number 10 in the 21 cards of the major arcana. Many scholars believe that the wheel of fortune has its origins in ancient Babylonian astrology and the Zodiac wheel. Seen from this perspective, the living creatures come to represent the four fixed signs of the Zodiac and also the four elements: Aquarius (angel/air); Taurus (ox/earth); Leo (lion/fire) and Scorpio (eagle/water).
There are many Tarot decks which vary in the amount and type of detail they employ in their imagery. Many of the classic, enduring decks (such as the Rider-Waite) show not only the images described above but others which emphasise the Tarot’s associations with ancient wisdom. Around the outer section of the wheel we have the letters T, A, R and O, spelling out clockwise Taro(t), then anti-clockwise Tora(h). The letters also make an anagram of the word rota, Latin for ‘wheel’. Alternating with these letters are the symbols for the Hebrew letters Yod, Heh, Vau and Heh, which make up the Tetragrammaton, or the unpronounceable name of God (Jehovah). Inside the inner circle of the wheel we find the alchemical symbols for mercury, sulphur, water and salt, the building blocks of life which in turn relate to the living creatures: eagle (mercury), lion (sulphur), angel (water) and ox (salt).
Three major figures sit or are carried upon the wheel. At its apex sits a sphinx, guardian of ancient and arcane wisdom against the forces of evil. The sphinx wields an upright sword, and in this would seem to mirror the figure of Justice in card number 11 of the Tarot’s major arcana, a card which in fact follows the Wheel of Fortune in the sequence. On the right of the wheel, Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, appears to be in ascent as the wheel turns: perhaps symbolising the spirit’s triumphant rise back into the physical world. Conversely, on the wheel’s left hand rim, the serpent Typhon, god of violence and destruction, is in descent: spirit returning back to earth. Thus, the wheel becomes a symbol of the ever-turning cycle of birth, death and regeneration. It can be seen that the Wheel of Fortune’s imagery is complex and multi-faceted.
To return to my small, modest bell here in West Wales. It fascinates me that, however it came to be placed here above the cottage door, someone clearly felt strongly enough some religious or elemental force present in the place to warrant it. Or perhaps that it is only my own fancy; possibly it was seen as merely decorative. And yet, there is a singular atmosphere to this place, nestled in a microcosmic hollow as the cottage is, bounded by trees and rushing water: many who come here feel it. It was from this that the inspiration for the Glasswater Quintet arose. Writers are often asked from where ideas and inspiration come; it is quite true that their seeds can lie in seemingly inconsequential objects such as my bell, or in a fleeting image or a snippet of conversation out of which something far greater emerges. At the climax of ‘On the Edge of Wild Water’, while a terrifying summer storm rages, the sounding of the bell acts as a catalyst which liberates – in some way – all the major characters of the novel. Bethan, in setting the bell in motion, causes the sphinx-beast on the bell’s pivot to give forth its oracular prophecy, and thereby fates are both sealed and put to rest. In ‘The Stone Forest’, on Phyl’s discovery of the derelict cottage with its bell and lamps, she feels immediately that ‘that bell and lamps were linked in some way and made a sign that people had forgotten how to read… All around was movement – in water, wind and flight. But a stillness like providence seemed to burden the little cottage.’
In the second part of this blog, I will explore the extended links of the Wheel of Fortune in the novels of ‘The Glasswater Quintet’ and its connections still further with the World card, last in the sequence of the major arcana of the Tarot.