The official definition of the word ‘spiral’ is a curve which emanates from a central point, getting progressively farther away as it revolves around the point. Spirals are a mathematical yet natural phenomenon. In nature in fact, one finds curves and spirals in the most common and everyday occurrences. Think about snail shells and the biological structure of molluscs. And what about hurricanes and whirlpools? Both air and water seem to naturally revolve in spiral-shapes when the elements are agitated.
Spirals are also present in certain instinctive animal behaviour as well. For example, hawks and other flying predators tend to circle around their chosen prey in a spiral-pattern, approaching it while flying in a closing circular manner. The same type of behaviour is also true for insects which fly in a spiral when they approach a source of light.
Spirals are also to be physically found within various anatomical patterns. The layers of the human cornea are set in a spiral pattern, as are the human DNA strands, which are in fact called a double-helix, and which entwine around each other. And what about the immense celestial bodies known as spiral galaxies? A spiral galaxy consists of a flat, rotating disc containing stars, gas and dust. They are, literally, amongst the most beautiful and shining formations in the universe.
A spiral galaxy
Spirals are also one of the oldest geometric shapes found in ancient artwork dating as far back as the Neolithic period (10,200BC – 2,000BC). They are to be found on stones and temples all over the world, and it is popular belief that since they are mostly found in places of worship, they probably had some sort of religious meaning. The triple spiral, or trischelion, is to be found in many ancient megalithic and Neolithic sites in Ireland, and the Celts later adopted it into their culture. One could mention the large prehistoric monument of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, which was built around 3,200BC. Spiral patterns also appear on Greek pottery, pre-Columbian art in Latin and Central America, rock engravings in Las Plazuelas, Mexico, and the ancient city of Xian in China. We must also mention the spiral-inspired Roman and Greek mazes and labyrinths around Europe.
The most famous and ancient of all these spirals are undeniably the ones found in Malta. In fact, the oldest spirals to have ever been recorded in the world are those carved within the Ġgantija Temples in Gozo. The Ġgantija Temples are the second oldest man-made structure in the world (the first being the recently discovered Gobekli Tepe in Turkey), which are older than Stonehenge or the pyramids. The spirals which were etched at Ġgantija are at present too faint to be clearly recognisable with one’s naked eye, however tracings taken in 1829, when the temple was first excavated, are still pertinent. More prominent spirals are to be found in the Tarxien Temples, which was built around 3,600 – 3,200BC. Some of the stone slabs in this temple are beautifully adorned with flat raised spirals. These can also be found in the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, most notably in the Oracle Room, which has an elaborately painted ceiling, consisting of spirals in red ochre, and the Decorated Room, which is richly decorated in a geometrical pattern of spirals.
Ġgantija Temples in Gozo
In terms of symbology, the spiral has been known as the indicate of renewal, rebirth and growth. Being dependent on the earth’s flora and fauna, and therefore on the weather and the seasons, the ancients were very sensitive and aware of the seasonal cycle of nature. They were aware of the patterns of plant growth and human life cycles. They associated this with the stars which they could see spiralling around them – we of course know of the great importance they gave to the stars from pre-historic monuments, which were also used as star-calendars. The old dies away and is replaced with the new, which is why the spiral is a symbol of regeneration and development. It is a symbol of harmony, of expansion, and it can also represent a spiritual journey.
However, a great mystery still remains. How is it that all these ancient cultures carved into stone the exact same symbol in a time where there was no way to communicate with each other? How did this symbol come to be universally shared? The spiral has a ubiquitous appeal, and this fact is a sure indication of some mysterious resonance with the human psyche. Malta was and remains a special place, in that it holds the most ancient known collection of spirals in the world. This is something to preserve and to be proud of. It is a world-treasure – the most ancient religious symbol known to be used in spiritual practices is to be found here.
What does the spiral mean to you? Let us know in the comment section below!
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