Monday 7 July 2014

The pentangle - a spiritual symbol


(In Middle English)

THEN þay schewed hym þe schelde, þat was of schyr goulez
Wyth þe pentangel depaynt of pure golde hwez.
He braydez hit by þe bauderyk, aboute þe hals kestes,
Þat bisemed þe segge semlyly fayre.
And quy þe pentangel apendez to þat prynce noble
I am in tent yow to telle, þof tary hyt me schulde:
Hit is a syngne þat Salamon set sumquyle
In bytoknyng of trawþe, bi tytle þat hit habbez, 
For hit is a figure þat haldez fyue poyntez,
And vche lyne vmbelappez and loukez in oþer,
And ayquere hit is endelez; and Englych hit callen
Oueral, as I here, þe endeles knot.
Forþy hit acordez to þis knyȝt and to his cler armez,
For ay faythful in fyue and sere fyue syþez
Gawan watz for gode knawen, and as golde pured,
Voyded of vche vylany, wyth vertuez ennourned
in mote;
Forþy þe pentangel nwe
He ber in schelde and cote,
As tulk of tale most trwe
And gentylest knyȝt of lote.


Then they showed him the shield that was of shining gules,
with the pentangle painted there in pure gold hues.
He brandishes it by the baldric, casts it about his neck,
that suited the wearer seemly and fair.
And why the pentangle applies to that prince noble,
I intend to tell, though I tarry more than I should.
It is a sign Solomon settled on some while back,
in token of truth, by the title that it has,
for it is a figure that has five points,
and each line overlaps and locks with another,
and everywhere it is endless, and English call it
over all the land, as I here, the Endless Knot.
For so it accords with this knight and his bright arms,
forever faithful in five ways, and five times so,
Gawain was for good known, and, as purified gold,
void of every villainy, with virtues adorned
                    all, so.
          And thus the pentangle new
          he bore on shield and coat,
          as title of trust most true
          and gentlest knight of note.



The pentangle is a name for the five pointed star drawn as one continuous line - this particular name comes from the Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (from the late 1300s) where it is extensively described in terms which make clear that it was at that time a Christian symbol.

Others call this type of star a pentagram.

Since then the pentangle has been variously (although not frequently) used by Christians - sometimes inverted (with the point downwards, sometimes with the downward point extended) - and also and more widely known by magicians and neo-pagans, who tend to enclose the star inside a circle: this is sometime called the pentacle. As such it appears in some versions of tarot cards.

But - in one form or another - the pentangle has for a long time, been a very potent spiritual symbol for me; beginning from my early neo-pagan times and this continued when I became a Christian.


Symbols are interesting things. On the one hand there is an objective quality to symbols, so that they are not open-endedly interchangeable - an inverted pentangle is quite different from the usual orientation, a four- or six-pointed start is quite different from a pentangle, and enclosing the pentangle in a circle (the pentacle) is different again.

Explaining why this should be tends to lead, in my opinion and experience, to a heap of unconvincing nonsense - such as numerology.

All I can give is my own subjective feelings on the subject of the regular pentangle with point upwards

1. It has a perfection absent from any other geometrical figure: perhaps because it is the simplest figure which is yet complex enough to be non-obvious and interesting (compare the dullness of a square or a triangle).

2. Furthermore, it is a dynamic shape - closely associated with the act of drawing it, or describing it in the air - it is 'the endless knot' (mentioned in Gawain). Perhaps this suggests eternity?

3. I cannot explain why - but the shape seems to have a connotation of protection. This seems to be a particular element in the Gawain poem - the pentangle protects him - which is why it is on his shield. But, probably, it only protects the worthy knight: protects his virtue, and protects him from harm.

4. And finally there is an obvious association with the human form of head, arms and legs; regularized and abstracted - with somehow each pointed away into... What? Eternity?


So for me the pentangle is lovely in itself, and also for its associations. Indeed, I feel an affection for it which I do not feel for 'the cross' as a symbol (with the exception of the Russian Orthodox cross, which seems very potent in my mind). And I am, in general, averse from the crucifix (Christ on the Cross). Not fixedly so, and there are exceptions; but as a general rule the crucifix either does nothing for me, or evokes a claustrophobic despair. This is probably linked with ineradicable theological reservations about what I regard as a false and distorting emphasis on the necessity and totality of the specific action of Christ being crucified.


On its own, the pentangle is perhaps too abstract and inhumanly-perfect a symbol - but it has a place, I feel, among other symbols, states, icons. At any rate, for those who respond to it as I do.



ajb said...

Can you say anything about what you like about the Russian Cross, as opposed to the more pictorially simple symbol?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - No, I can't really explain it.