Had we, along with artists, scholars and townspeople, attended the unveiling of Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of Moses, now in the Church of S. Pietro in Vincoli at Rome, we too might have shared the crowd’s anticipation — and their consternation. Already famous for his Pieta, Madonna and Child, David, and the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had worked for years in seclusion on this latest creation. The Pope had grown impatient. Fellow artists were understandably curious.
Now, it is revealed. The effect is cathartic. Here is a man, perfected, a veritable god in man’s image. Is it ‘Patience’? Seated yet alert, his head turned attentively for the slightest feel of need. He waits, watching, his arms holding protectively those precious tablets of the Law. Then, we sense the crowd’s uneasiness. Our eyes join theirs raised upwards toward the head of Moses. What is it there? At the forefront of his brow, rising from the sweep of curls, two small, but definite horns!
The silence becomes a whisper — confusion, distrust, despite the magnificence. Confusion lingers today. Had Michelangelo somehow been misled by the Latin Vulgate’s ‘erroneous’ translation of the word qaran in Exodus 34:29 and 35: “And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tablets of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.” “And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned, but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them.”
Later translators substituted an alternate meaning, beam or ray of light: “And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tablets of testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.” “And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”
Some authorities, and reliable ones, refuse to discount Michelangelo’s classical erudition. Recalling how, as a youth in the garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici, he had listened enrapt as scholars discussed the deeper aspects of Greek philosophy. How even then beauty of thought and of form had so fascinated him that throughout his life he endeavored in his art to reconcile and interpret the inner meaning of Neoplatonism, Christian faith, and mythology.
To these men it is apparent that Michelangelo purposefully and carefully carved those two ram horns in recognition of, and dramatically to call attention to, the mysterious and universal truths which the Moses story hints at repeatedly. Hints which stand out more clearly today with our emphasis on comparative religions. Practically all of the episodes in Moses’ life — especially the stories of the ark cast into the Nile, his training as Regent-Potential, the appearance of the angel of the Lord, his rod and feats of magic, the Laws, his death — are appealing repetitions of allegories devised in the Mystery schools.
The simplicity of fable and myth has always been used to preserve meaning intact, while at the same time softening by veil its effect on those who otherwise might be confounded by the full truth. Thus, water, fire, mountain, tree, the behavioral characteristics of animals, suggested by horn, hoof, wing, etc., have been adapted to exemplify one or another doctrine or influence.
The birth of Moses of Levite (priestly) parents, Pharaoh’s threat to his life, his concealment and rescue from the river, differs only in setting from the story of the infant Krishna who escaped King Kansa’s order that all male babies be slain, by having been hidden and carried by stealth across the river Junma. Or, from the Greek myth in which Zeus evaded his father Cronus’ attempt to swallow him as he had his other children lest one grow up to supplant him. Or, of Jesus’ narrow escape from Herod’s merciless slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.
These obvious similarities, while giving doubt to the veracity of any one particular incident, give increased importance to each as a symbolic type-story. Thus it makes little difference whether we accept them as the Word of God or as legend composed by the wise of their time. In the case of the slaughter of the Innocents, for instance, rather than regarding it merely as a tragic historical event, we recognize in it a warning that all innovation, all greatness even at its inception, must overcome opposition. Whether in our individual lives, in national affairs, or in the advent of new cycles, new presentations of truth, progress arouses resistance from the prejudiced, the dogmatic, the complacent — as we who are living through just such an era have observed!
When the baby Moses was three months old, according to biblical story, he was placed in a basket of bulrushes upon the river’s edge, rescued by an Egyptian princess, nursed by his natural mother, raised as a prince and trained in the temple mysteries.
How closely this parallels the stories of Romulus, Bacchus, Osiris, and that of Sargon who, preceding Moses by two thousand years, laid the foundations of civilization for the first Semitic empire. Inscribed on fragments of Babylonian tile:
Sargona, the king of Akkad am I.
My mother was a princess, my father I did not know.
My mother, the princess, conceived me, in difficulty she brought me forth.
She placed me in an ark of rushes, with bitumen my exit she sealed up.
She launched me in the river, which did not drown me.
The river carried me, to Akki the water-carrier it brought me. . . .
All these saviors were taken from the water. ” . . . she called his name Moses: and she said, because I drew him out of the water.” Water is one of our oldest symbols. The water-wave glyph [illustration] is found in every land, representing the Great Deep, Chaos, Wisdom, and also Universal Mother: Mary, mother of Jesus, Maya, mother of Buddha, etc. In baptism ceremonies, whether along the banks of the Nile, the Ganges, Euphrates, or Jordan rivers, at the seashore, or within church or temple, water signifies purification, dedication and the commencement of a new way of life.
The ark was another favorite symbol. Shaped variously in the Bible as ark of Noah and Moses, chest, tabernacle, and belly of whale, and in mythology as box of Pandora, basket of Red Ridinghood, boat, casket, coffin, and treasure chest, it graphically suggests both the womb of life and the potency of new beginnings. It is the seed-carrier, or container, floating down the River of Time with cargo concealed from all but him who can discover, and take by understanding, its wisdom and law.
This Moses certainly did. As adopted son of Thermuthis (daughter of Sesostris-Rameses, priestess of Hathor and Neith), and as Regent Potential, he had access to the most secret teachings of the temple. At that time Egyptian worship was directed to the celestial Amon ‘who sheds Light on hidden things.’ These ‘hidden things’ comprised much of our ‘visible’ science — architecture, geology, biology, astronomy, psychology and medicine — plus those occult disciplines which deal with the ‘invisible’ laws and forces which govern our universe.
Here possibly is where the idea of horns originates. For in the Mystery language horns are the sign of the successful neophyte, of one who has passed the dread tests of initiation and quite literally touched divinity.
But later, after the State had taken over the supervision of the Mystery schools, the spirit of their teachings became obscured so that the horn came to symbolize the conqueror of worlds rather than the conqueror of self. Thus Jamshid, builder of Persepolis, was called ‘the two-horned.’ And Alexander the Great, initiated by the oracle at the desert oasis Temple of Amon in 332 B.C., accepted as an inestimable honor the horned AKKADIAN CYLINDER SEAL headdress. He wore it with pride as did the ‘initiated’ of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. To them, as to the Vikings, horns meant power of the spirit. So with the Celts who inscribed the likeness of their teacher, Cernunnos, ‘the horned,’ on a silver plaque, sitting in a Krishna pose and holding this emblem in the form of a ram-headed serpent in his hand.
So with horns, Michelangelo acclaimed Moses a man of power and station far greater than lawgiver of a local tribe. With horns he saluted him not only as one who had stood in the presence of God, and had realized, had become at-one with, his own divinity, but nobler far, as a man fulfilled who had returned — for some do not. Only the few come back, down the mountain, in order to teach and lead mankind.
The horns themselves are an interesting symbol, for sheep, especially those native to the wild mountain areas of Asia and North America, are surefooted climbers who courageously ascend the most stark perpendiculars; while their domesticated cousins are so gentle that primitive religions readily incorporated them into their art forms. Apollo, Mercury, and later Jesus were all pictured as Good Shepherds with lambs either carried on their shoulders or couching at their feet.
Moses was without doubt accustomed to seeing ram-headed figures painted on the walls of the royal tombs, where they represented the Sun-God, Amon (later Amon-Ra). During the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. this deity was depicted in the likeness of a man, standing or seated as the Moses of Michelangelo, and frequently wearing the headmask of a ram. Those who interpret Egyptian belief explain that he symbolizes first, the Pleroma, the Fullness of things, and then, that creative force in nature which initiates and maintains intelligent life in this and in the lower worlds. For Amon-Ra was also presented enthroned on a solar boat journeying through the twelve hours of the night to illumine the Underworld.
The Greeks used Pan to express this idea. Horned, hoofed, tailed and sometimes bearded, he with his band of exuberant fawns and satyrs perennially disrupt the status quo.
Moses’ life in Egypt abruptly ended when he killed an Egyptian and fled into the desert. There we are told he came to a well, to which also came the seven daughters of the priest of Midian. They had come to water their flock, but shepherds drove them away. Moses confronted the shepherds, drew water for the daughters, and watered their flock, for which their grateful father later invited him to break bread and dwell with him, and eventually he gave him his daughter Zipporah as wife. Again the water symbol. This time, as ‘well’, it signifies spiritual knowledge as in the New Testament where Jesus on that last day said: “If any man thirsts, let him come unto me, and drink.”
The number seven is found in all sacred literatures with various significances. The seven daughters doubtless refer to the occult powers a hierophant passes on to his disciple who has conquered the baser elements of his nature — the seven selfish shepherds. It is unlikely that Moses, neophyte, priest, and initiate ever married. Instead, he ‘broke bread,’ partook of the wisdom of the ‘father,’ his teacher, and received Zipporah, enlightenment, for her name means shining, resplendent.
Not long after this, Moses’ mission of service began when an ‘angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” Here a new and very mystical symbol is introduced: fire. Only by the water of life and the fire of spirit, according to Moses, can the soul be born. Purification by water and by fire having been dramatically symbolized in the rites of the initiatory cycle of the Mysteries. Fire has been used the world over both as symbol of the divine spirit and of the regeneration of the spiritual nature of man. Zoroastrians had their sacred fire, ancient Germans their St. Elmo’s fire, Greeks their inextinguishable flames in the temple of the Acropolis. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to enlighten mankind, and Moses heard the voice of God in the burning bush, followed the pillar and the cloud of fire — of spirit.
The Lord sent Moses back into Egypt to lead his people to the good land. And the Lord fortified him with wonders. But Pharaoh called his wise men to challenge this authority and expose the wonders of Jehovah.
In those days magic was a sacred science. “It unveils the operations of nature,” said Philo Judaeus, “and leads to the contemplation of celestial powers.” Only those prepared by discipline were permitted to undertake its study. Learning first to develop their higher sensitivities, and to purify their intermediate nature so it would serve as a channel for the flow of spiritual forces, they then were allowed to study the occult and inner operations of natural forces. They discovered how, for instance, to use and control the more intangible forces of magnetism and electricity, the higher frequencies of vibration, of sound and color, and those mysterious potencies stored within the psychological nature of man and animal.
Their ‘wonders’ and ‘miraculous cures’ were based on natural law and were no more difficult for them, once they understood these energies and functions, than it is for our scientists to send men to the moon, probes to the planets, and voice and picture onto television sets around the earth.
Moses’ first wonder was changing his rod into a serpent. Thereupon the Egyptian priests cast down their rods which became serpents likewise, but Jehovah’s power was superior, his “swallowed up their rods.”
What exactly was this rod, this serpent, which later held back the Red Sea, and brought water from a rock? The caduceus of Mercury and of Aesculapius, father of medicine? The wand of every fairy godmother, of Prospero, and modern science-fiction? Alchemists probably would consider it, generally, as that direct stream of authority by which a magician commands and controls the elemental forces of nature. Or particularly, as that intelligently directed, conscious projection of willpower, that concentration of vital astral fluid, or electric ether, which flows unconsciously from the fingertips of the genuine magnetic healer and which now is being revealed in the Kirlian photographs.
Skipping along in the Exodus story, we find that after being with the Lord forty days and forty nights, after writing down God’s commandments on tablets of stone, Moses descended Mount Sinai and he gave to his people the Laws that they were to follow.
This was his masterwork. This Covenant of the Lord was the glory and summation of his mission. Some critics, however, question the source of his inspiration. Pointing to startling similarities between his laws and those which Hammurabi six centuries earlier had had engraved on stelae and erected throughout Babylon, they contend that Moses, being familiar with the common law and legal codes of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite peoples as well as with the rules and rites of the Egyptian priesthood, had incorporated these onto his tablets and into the instructions he gave the Seventy Elders. Whatever the source, we must acknowledge that it was Moses’ Laws, not those of others, that it was his Decalogue, powerfully and concisely stated, which kept the Hebrews united under one god, even during centuries of the most relentless persecution, united while peoples of other faiths splintered into thousands of conflicting sects. It was his Commandments which laid the foundations of Christianity, of civil law, and of European morality.
Moses died at Mount Nebo, his burial place unknown. One last clue surely, echoing the Mystery tradition of Old Testament idiom. Why on a mountain sacred to Nebo, the oldest god of wisdom of the Babylonians? Were biblical writers announcing, though under veil, that at this point in his life Moses, like Gautama Buddha, passed the supreme initiation? ‘Dying’ to the world, he retired into seclusion and continued his work along inner, spiritual lines?
Thinking back to that day of the statue’s unveiling, amid all its excitement and subsequent discussion, didn’t we overlook Michelangelo, standing there in the shadow, proud, very tired, humble?
Perhaps in him we find the real meaning of the Moses story. For as he, such a simple man, could create this wonder before us, so in the end will it not be a man who shall lead us and ‘save’ us? Not some lofty god from heaven, or from outer space. Not even a Christ, great as his help shall be, but one of our own. Even — the man within, alternately vulnerable, tortured with doubts and hope, with impatience and aspiration. A man like Moses who yet struggled to the end to serve his ‘Lord.’ Here is a story of dedication, purification, attainment. Exoterically it is Everyman. Esoterically it’s the Few, ‘horned’ with divinity, who show us the Way. Technlogy and Spiritual Progress.
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)