Aviary at the Gates of Heaven: Examining the Bird Symbolism in the Thoth Empress Card
"This card, summed up, may be called the Gate of Heaven."
Book of Thoth, p. 77.
Eight birds adorn the fourth card of the Thoth Deck Major Arcana, The Empress. These eight birds, their variant
symbology united, point at one overarching meaning -- as Crowley says, "in this card all symbols are cognate, because of
the simplicity and purity of the emblem." (Thoth 75)
These eight birds: the sparrow, the dove, the pelican and her four young and the double-headed eagle, unite to
proclaim the magical power of the yoni and to crown the powers of female creation with the title "Gate of Heaven."
Moreover, this compound symbol of the pure essence of female sexuality and spirituality hints at Crowley's later-life
declaration of the "pre-eminence" of woman in magical work. (Private Manuscript).
On the face of things, one might be tempted to judge The Empress to be the balanced counterpart and consort of the
subsequent card, The Emperor, however Crowley warns us that "her attributions are much more universal." (Thoth 75) In
fact, Crowley goes on to point out that Daleth, the path of the Empress, connects the Mother (Binah) and the Father
(Chokmah). In other words, The Empress is more than the female half of Union -- The Empress stands alone to embody
union, complete within herself.
She is likened to Salt, the inactive principal of nature that must be energized by Sulphur (The Emperor card) if the
equilibrium of the Universe is to be maintained (Thoth, 75). But Crowley also likens her to the Sun when he says that
the Sun's "image is the belly of the chalice." (Thoth, 76) Identifying the masculine, Fatherly symbol of the Sun as an
element of the feminine, Motherly, Grail again hints at the hidden androgyny of the symbol of Woman as depicted on the
As Crowley further points out, the alchemical symbol of the planet Venus, attributed to the Empress card, is the only
planetary symbol that can be perfectly drawn upon the Naples version of the Tree of Life -- the circle being drawn
clockwise over Kether, Chokmah, Chesed, Tiphareth, Geburah and Binah while the cross upright is drawn from Tiphareth
through Yesod to Malkuth, its arm being the path of Pe which reaches from Hod to Netzach. Observing this symbology
assists in comprehending what Crowley meant in declaring the Empress' attributions to be universal as well as hinting at
the layers of meaning in his statement that "The Brothers of A.'.A.'. are Women." (Thoth 74)
So why is the Empress card so loaded with avian symbolism? The answer to this question can be approached by regarding
the alchemical significance of winged creatures in general. However, as we will see, Crowley's symbolism transcends the
medieval alchemical view that saw women as incomplete or imperfect. (Humburg)
McLean posits that the alchemists viewed birds as mediators between the earthly realm and the heavenly world. (Birds
in Alchemy) Birds, in their unfettered flight through the air, symbolize the human soul both in its spiritual aspirations
as well as its physical limitations. McLean goes on to paint a picture of the five stages of alchemical evolution --
both the spiritual development of the individual and the various chemical stages of alchemical lab work -- using five
birds as the archetypical symbols of these stages.
These stages can be summed up as follows:
Expression turned Inward:
Black - Crow - withdrawal from dependence on physical senses
White - Swan - Female - experience of the etheric body
Green - Peacock - astral body consciousness
Expression turned Outward:
Red - Pelican - Male - conscious use of the forces of the etheric body
Flame - Phoenix - freeing of the spirit from the bounds of the physical
It should be noted that McLean's model is only one of many symbolic possibilities. Medieval alchemists often used
different symbols to indicate the same notion, thus the Green Lion, for example, is generally considered to be the same
symbol as the Peacock's Tail.
Although the standard alchemical color for the Female stage is white, Crowley hints at an evolved alchemical
definition of the Female in the colors of the Empress card. Certain elements, including the Masculine Pelican symbol,
are white or nearly white but the overwhelming impression the card offers is of greens and blues -- the shades of the
McLean explains to us that the Peacock's tail stands apart in the five stages and represents entering into the inner
experience of the astral world, transformation and the purification. Echoing the Daleth symbology of uniting Binah and
Chokmah, the Peacock's Tail stands between and unites the Feminine stage of the White Swan and the Masculine stage of the
Red Pelican. Thus Crowley has again, through alchemical symbolism, shown us that the Feminine is "pre-eminent" in
"Perching upon the flamelike uprights of her throne are
two of her most sacred birds, the sparrow and the dove;
the nub of this symbolism must be sought in the poems of
Catullus and Martial." Book of Thoth, p. 76.
Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84-54 BC) and Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 40-140 AD) were Roman poets, both of lasting
fame but utilizing greatly variant writing styles.
The poetry of Catullus, elegant love poetry spanning the spectrum from initial attraction through consummation ending
with despair and depression was one of the sources drawn upon for the medieval concept of courtly love.
Having translated the poetry of Sappho, Catullus was well aware of her use of the sparrow as a symbol of Aphrodite --
in "Immortal Aphrodite," Sappho describes Aphrodite's form of transport as a "chariot yoked with swift, lovely sparrows"
bringing her "over the dark earth, thick-feathered wings swirling down from the sky through mid-air." Surely this
symbolism informed his decision to use his lover's sparrow as a symbol for his tormented love for her.
Catullus was bewitched with love for a woman ten years older than him -- a married woman named Clodia who Catullus
refers to as "Lesbia" in his poetry, yet another nod to his Sapphic influence. Two of his Lesbia poems stand out from
the rest in the context of the Empress card: "Passer, deliciae" and "Lugete, O Veneres".
"Passer, deliciae," or "Delightful Sparrow," tells of Lesbia's little pet sparrow and how it cheers her in sad
moments. Catullus tells us that he wishes he could be as close to Lesbia as her sparrow. He wants to comfort her in her
sorrows the way her pet sparrow does. If only Lesbia would let him into her heart, he would be as relieved as if he were
a young girl unlacing her binding corset and losing her virginity.
In this poem Catullus manages to combine erudite references, sexual double-entendres and pathos, showing us a sparrow
that is, like the golden apple of legend, a great, nearly unobtainable prize. The sparrow is a symbol for Lesbia's
favor, the soft feathers echoing the softness of her vulva. But the sparrow is more than mere sexuality to Catullus --
it is the symbol of a sacred quest for True Love.
His other sparrow poem shows us a much different point in Catullus' cycle of mainly unrequited love for Lesbia. In
"Lugete, O Veneres," or "Lament, Oh Venus," it appears that Lesbia has yielded to Catullus' advances for he now calls her
his girl and his love but her little sparrow has died. Though Catullus may not have had such perspective on his deeply
felt emotions, one could take this symbolism to indicate that the grail Catullus had sought was now unobtainable.
Catullus had acquired that which he thought was the object of his yearning -- intimate relations with Lesbia -- but in
so doing he had destroyed that which he truly sought. Though Catullus blames evil shadows of the underworld Orcus for
the death of the physical sparrow, it was Catullus himself, unknowing, and Lesbia as well, who destroyed the spiritual
sparrow leading eventually to Catullus' betrayal by and separation from his beloved Lesbia.
More than the sexuality of Lesbia herself, the sparrow represented the union between Lesbia and Catullus. When
Catullus had achieved sexual union but failed to achieve spiritual union with Lesbia, the sparrow died.
"Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior."
(I hate and I love. You ask me how this can be?
I don't know: I only know that I feel it, and it is excruciating.)
A century later it was Catullus' epigrams that were most remembered and Martial acknowledged him as his master.
Martial's poetry tends to be ribald and bawdy, sometimes downright vulgar compared to modern sensitivities. He documented
the everyday aspects of Roman life rather than an idealized notion of how he thought things should be. Martial is
especially known for his cutting wit in epigrams that drive their point home in the final line.
Searching through Martial's poetry revealed only one poem that mentions sparrows or doves. In this poem, promiscuous
people hopping from bed to bed are likened to doves hopping from cote to cote of their columbarium.
From this brief dove reference in Martial, combined with Catullus' two poems about Lesbia's sparrow, we are led to
presume that Crowley meant the dove to symbolize sexual passion while the sparrow symbolized spiritual bonding. Sitting
on the two uprights of the Empress' throne, these two birds hint at two ingredients of a magical working aimed towards
the 2=0 union written in the symbols of Atu III. As Crowley says of the Empress, "She combines the highest spiritual with
the lowest material qualities." (Thoth, 75) This echoes the alchemical interpretation of birds as the intercessors
between Earth and Heaven.
And thus we have the alchemical and classical birds of the Empress card, each bird lending meaning to the whole. But
though we can break down the symbolism of each and study it separately, at last the aviary must be reintegrated and taken
as a whole symbol rather than the sum of its parts. "It is impossible to summarize the meanings of the symbol of the
Woman," Crowley tells us (Thoth, 75) and warns, "because of the beauty of the symbol, because of its omniform
presentation, the student who is dazzled by any given manifestation may be led astray. In no other card is it so
necessary to disregard the parts, to concentrate upon the whole." (Thoth, 77)
It is this author's humble wish that this attempt to illuminate some of the individual manifestations has not resulted
in the self-deception of which Crowley warns. Knowing more of these parts, you may now disregard them and return to
contemplation of the whole.
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Hope, Ken. Selected Poems of Catullus in Different Translations, http://www.northshore.net/homepages/hope/Catullus.html, accessed September, 1999.
Humburg, Burt. On the Color Changes in the "Great Work", or the Alchemical Transformation of Matter, http://www.levity.com/alchemy/humburg.html, accessed September, 1999.
Lewis, Charleton T., Charles Short (editor) A Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1956. (accessed through Perseus Project, September, 1999)
Martial, A. J. Boyle (Editor), J. P. Sullivan (Editor) Martial in English, Penguin, 1996.
McLean, Adam. The Birds in Alchemy, Hermetic Journal No. 5, 1979, http://www.levity.com/alchemy/alcbirds.html, accessed September, 1999.
McLean, Adam. Animal Symbolism in the Alchemical Tradition, http://www.levity.com/alchemy/animal.html, accessed September, 1999.
Sappho. Poetry of Sappho, http://www.sappho.com/poetry/sappho.htm, accessed September, 1999.
Wiseman, T.P. Catullus and His World : A Reappraisal, Cambridge Univ Press, 1987.
Suggested Web Resources
- Aviary at the Gates of Heaven: Examining the Bird Symbolism in the
- "This card, summed up, may be called the Gate of Heaven." Book of Thoth, p. 77.
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