The Golden Dawn system is a fabulously complex interweaving of magical symbolism. The major themes of each initiation ceremony change, but certain aspects remain consistent throughout. One such aspect is the positioning of the Cross and Triangle upon the Altar. Present within each ceremony from Neophyte through Philosophus, the positioning of the Cross and the Triangle relative to each other changes with each grade, and these positions each have different significance. My intent with this post is to walk you through the various positions of the Cross and Triangle in each grade, and to unpack their meaning and symbolism.
The initiate first encounters the Cross and Triangle in the Neophyte Ceremony. It is this symbol upon which the blindfolded candidate swears their oath, and which they see for the first time at the raising of the blindfold or hoodwink. The new initiate is told that the “White Triangle [is] in the image of that Immortal Light, that Triune Light, which moved in Darkness and formed the world of Darkness and out of Darkness”; and that “the Red Cross above the White Triangle, is an image of Him Who was unfolded in the Light”1.
Pat Zalewski elaborates somewhat further, stating that “the Red Cross of Tiphareth (to which the grade of 5°=6° is referred) is placed above the White Triangle, not as dominating it, but as bringing it down and manifesting it unto the Outer Order. It is as though the Crucified One, having raised the symbol of self-sacrifice, had thus touched and brought into action in matter the Divine Triad of Light.”2
One seldom-noted fact concerning the Cross and Triangle arrangement in Neophyte, which represents the entirety of the Outer Order–the “Golden Dawn” proper–is that it is identical with one of the alchemical symbols for Phosphorus. Meaning “light-bearer” (from φῶς light + φόρος bearer), and having the same appellation as the planet Venus as the morning star, the significance should be obvious. As the Neophyte Ceremony represents in microcosm the entirety of the Work of the Outer Order, so too is the symbol of Phosphorus emblematic of the Golden Dawn in the same way that Venus heralds the morning light; it is also symbolic of the Promethean ignition of the Light in the initiate. For the same reason, the Vault of the Adepti is entered through the wall of Venus, “that sole planet unto whose symbol all the Sephiroth are conformed”.3
In the Zelator Ceremony, the Cross is placed within the upright Triangle. As an evolution or unfolding of the meaning first established in Neophyte, this arrangement represents Spirit as made manifest in Matter. The Zelator grade is the first Elemental grade, and the first one in which the initiate steps onto the Tree of Life, into the Sephirah of Malkuth, the material world. The Cross and Triangle in this position reflects the maxim that “Kether is in Malkuth and Malkuth is in Kether”4.
The words of the Hiereus in the Zelator Ceremony are as follows: “In this Grade, the red Cross is placed within the White Triangle upon the Altar, and it is thus the symbol of the Banner of the West. The Triangle refers to the Three Paths [i.e. Qoph, Shin, and Tav] and the Cross to the Hidden Knowledge. The Cross and the Triangle together represent Life and Light.”5
Appropriate to the first of the Elemental grades, the three vertices of the Triangle in this arrangement correspond to the three Qabalistic elements of Air, Fire, and Water.
In the Theoricus Ceremony the Hiereus states, “The cross within the triangle, apex downwards placed upon the Altar at the base of the Tree of Life, refers to the Four Rivers of Paradise, while the angles of the Triangle refer to the Three Sephiroth NETZACH, HOD and YESOD.”6
Here the downwards triangle has its lower vertex in Yesod, assigned to the Theoricus grade; and its upper vertices point to the two subsequent grades, as well as to the elements of Fire and Water, of which Air is the son. As stated in the Fourth Knowledge Lecture, “Thus the Rivers form a Cross and on it the GREAT ADAM, the SON who is to rule the Nations, was extended from TIPHARETH”.7 Bearing the Four Rivers of Paradise, the Triangle is the downwards reflection of the Supernal Eden into the Astral realm.
The placement of the cross above the downward-pointing triangle in the Practicus ceremony is explained as “the power of the Spirit of Life rising above the Triangle of the Waters, and reflecting the Triune therein.”8 Here the symbolism of the Cross retains its significance as the Spirit of Life as encountered in the Neophyte and Zelator Ceremonies (and implicit, I would argue, within the meaning of the Cross within Theoricus as well).
Zalewski elaborates further: “The Cross above the inverted triangle is very important to the Water Grade of Hod. In reflection, the Tarot Key of the Hanged Man justifies this. The Cross, in effect, is I.A.O. or the Divine White Brilliance that is to descend into the inverted triangle–Osiris. It is the Light of Redemption, Osiris Risen through trial and suffering. In many respects it is identical to Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden; they must redeem themselves before they can return. The Cross must descend to give the triangle enlightenment.”9
In the Philosophus Ceremony, “the Triangle surmounting the Cross upon the Altar represents the Fire of the Spirit surmounting the Cross of Life and of the Waters of Edom.”10 Upon entry into the Temple of Netzach, the officers are arranged in the same pattern as the Cross and Triangle on the altar, namely that of the glyph of Sulphur. In alchemy, Sulphur is associated with the active male principle and with Fire, as Mercury—encountered in Practicus—is associated with the passive female principle and with Water. This completes the philosophic triad, the Salt of the corporeal world of matter having been introduced in Malkuth (and being physically present on the Altar in the Theoricus Ceremony).
In the Fourth Knowledge Lecture we are further told, “The Alchemical symbol of Sulphur on the Tree of Life…does not touch the 4 lower Sephiroth. The Cross terminates in Tiphereth, whereby as it were the Supernal Triangle is to be grasped, and Tiphareth is the purified Man.”11
Of the diagram of Sulphur on the Tree of Life, Zalewski says:
This diagram represents the trials and tribulations of the Candidate who has been purified and enriched through suffering by the Holy Fire. Its essence can only be reached through the process of separation from the grosser lower forms, shown by the lower Sephiroth. Its symbolic symbolism shows that through the Sephiroth of the Tree of Life one can ascend, be purified, and reborn through the Tiphareth center of death and rebirth. In many respects, this is a hint of things to come for the renewal of the spirit. The lower Sephiroth form the incorporeal cross (imperfect man) of Sulphur, Sal Salfuris (Salt of the Soul) below the actual start of the material cross (perfected man). The incorporeal cross is analogous to man, the areas that have to be purified first. … In Netzach, we see Sulphur in its own fiery nature, its basic raw state. The Sephiroth of Tiphareth, at the very base of the cross, is in its perfected state of readiness. The cross of Sulphur is also analogous to the red cross of suffering in the 5°=6° ritual, for before the lower Sephiroth can be purged of their impurities, the gap must be bridged to its Higher Form as the candidate does in the 5°=6° Oath.”12Pat Zalewski, Golden Dawn Rituals and Commentaries, pp. 321-322
In the symbolism of the Golden Dawn, the “Cross of Life” corresponds to Tiphereth, whereas the Triangle changes reference points depending on the grade to which the arrangement is attributed.
We learn in the Philosophus knowledge lecture that the symbol of alchemical Sulphur that is displayed in the altar arrangement of that grade maps onto the six upper Sephiroth on the diagram of the Tree. We are further told in the Theoricus ceremony that the triangle on the altar refers to the three Sephiroth of Netzach, Hod, and Yesod. Using this information as a starting point, we can begin to decipher how the remaining cross and triangle arrangements also fit into this scheme.
Just as the Microprosopus is the reflection of the Supernal Macroprosopus across the waters of the Abyss, embracing the six Sephiroth from Chesed to Yesod in the figure of Zauir Anpin, so too is the Cross and Triangle arrangement of the Practicus grade on the Tree of Life the mirror image of the Sulphur glyph of Philosophus, laid out upon these same six Sephiroth. Thus the triangle in this grade is encompassed within Malkuth itself, touching the three Paths but not traversing them.
A more subtle meaning of the Cross and Triangle arrangements rests with the alchemical symbolism of the Elemental grades. The meanings of both symbols as explained within the ceremonies differ from grade to grade, to the point that the Cross in the Practicus ritual and the Triangle in the Philosophus ritual effectively share the same meaning at different times. Nonetheless, I believe that the two symbols share a common meaning in a more overarching capacity within the Outer Order. The Triangle generally symbolizes the person of the initiate. This should not be considered synonymous with the body, nor necessarily with the Ruach or the Nephesh in and of themselves. Rather, it would perhaps be most accurate to frame it in the language of the Neoplatonic understanding of the double nature of man. The Triangle represents the Neoplatonic “lower self”: the part of each person that busies itself with the mundane task of living one’s everyday life. The Cross is the higher self, which we may regard in Hermetic or Qabalistic terms as the Neshamah. The Neoplatonists (at least as represented by Porphyry and Plotinus) believed that while the higher self is certainly superior to the lower self and represents the proper aim of our existence, the goal was not to suppress the lower self or replace it with the higher self. Instead, the goal was integration between the two: to live a life of engagement with noesis, understood as contemplation or meditation, while still going about the business of daily life under the direction of the lower self.
With this in mind, the progression of the Cross and Triangle motif makes a great deal of sense in light of the alchemical operations involved in the Outer Order grades. When the initiate first enters the Order, he is in a state of darkness, ignorance, and mortality. As represented by the cord and hoodwink in the Neophyte Ceremony, the soul is bound by the lower self. The Zelator grade commences the Great Work with calcination, as represented by the upright triangle of Fire. We proceed to dissolution in Theoricus, in which the Triangle is now that of Water. Following the dissolution operation we enter the separation stage, and the Cross is therefore freed from the triangle in order to stand outside it. We proceed back through the Triangle of Water in the corresponding elemental grade of Practicus, to the Triangle of Fire in Philosophus—where the arrangement also symbolizes the alchemical principle of Sulphur, as explained in the ceremony. In the operation of conjunction in Tiphareth that takes place in the Adeptus Minor grade (and to which the initiate is partially introduced in Portal), the Cross of the higher self will once again be united to the Triangle of the lower self, but this time in an integrative capacity. The Adept will begin to grasp at the peaceful coexistence of the lower self under the presidency of the higher self.
- Regardie, I. (1989) The Golden Dawn: An account of the teachings, rites and ceremonies of the order of the Golden Dawn. 6th ed. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, p. 128.
- Zalewski, P. (2011) Golden Dawn Rituals and Commentaries. [United States]: Rosicrucian Order of the Golden Dawn, p. 74.
- Farrell, N. (2015) The Magic Machine: The Golden Dawn vault in colour. Rome: Magical Order of the Aurora Aurea, p. 18.
- Zalewski, P. (2011) Op. cit., p. 163.
- Regardie, I. (1989) Op. cit., p. 147.
- Regardie, I. (1989) Op. cit., p. 162.
- Regardie, I. (1989) Op. cit., p. 74.
- Regardie, I. (1989) Op. cit., p. 178.
- Zalewski, P. (2011) Op. cit., p. 259.
- Regardie, I. (1989) Op. cit., p. 194.
- Regardie, I. (1989) Op. cit., p. 84.
- Zalewski, P. (2011) Op. cit., pp. 321-322.