4. Tetragonus mundus

The fourfold division


‘Why do we recognize four seasons? Why not two, or three, or five?’ This basic question was posed by BURROW (1986) in his description of the general classifications in the Middle Ages. He did not find a unanimous answer. In the end, he said, it must be the power of numerology and the legacy of Pythagoras (who is always ready to carry the philosophical load if numbers are concerned).

This view is too limited. The fourfold division is more than just a numerological toy or a mythic belief in figures. It is a language of the mind and a way of communication. It is a system in which the complexities of the universe can be assessed and unified in a logical order.

This line of thinking leads to a search for earlier occurrence of quadruple thinking. The descriptive term ‘Tetragonus Mundus’ has an ambiguous meaning in the European cultural history. It points to a corpus of thoughts in which the fourfold division occurs in all kinds of images. Major fragments of Greek philosophy are present, but also remnants of Alexandrian and Syrian interpretations of Egyptian and ‘Eastern’ wisdom. Furthermore, last but not least, a substantial part of the Babylonian and ‘magical’ knowledge has entered the early Christian belief and was transmitted to Europe. In this muddle of intellectual material, in combination with Europe’s own cultural background, the structural element of a division in four parts was not far beyond the surface.

The constant interest in the ‘Tetragonus Mundus’ over ages of human soul-searching never resulted in a ‘system of thought’. People utilized the four-fold, scholars – like Peter Lombard in his ‘Sentences’ (Sententiae) – employed four methods for ordering their material and endless artists created visual references to the quaternary (fig. 8). There is, in short, a constant tetradic background noise throughout history, but it was never realized that this division holds the key to a deeper understanding.


 Fig. 8 – The New Jerusalem described in a vision of the Prophet Ezekiel. An illustration from Nikolaus of Lyra ‘Postille’, printed by Ulrich Zell in Cologne in 1485. The square city and its twelve gates (4 x 3) can be viewed at in four different ways: 1. The anagogical or highest unknown meaning (the Celestial City); 2. The allegorical interpretation of looking at the facts, but referring to something else (the Church); 3. The literal, historical approach (the city of Jerusalem), and finally: 4. The tropological meaning, where the image of Jerusalem includes moral values (the faithful soul) (PILTZ, 1981).

Centuries passed with the murmuring of a tetradic state of mind, being so normal that nobody paid special attention to it. The Holy Fathers of the Church in the third and fourth century and the Celtic missionaries of the seventh and eighth century brought the torch to the Carolinian times and the Scholastics of the twelfth and thirteenth century. Then the light diminished, only to return in a most artificial way in the Renaissance. There it became a thing to be toyed with. This game lasted for at least three centuries, when – at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century – the quadruple mind returned as a viable option in the communication.

From that time onwards to the present day, the ‘Tetragonus Mundus’ has been with us, side-by-side with strong dualistic forces, fighting for identity. If a tetradic mind becomes involved in this struggle, it looses out. Because, by its very nature, it is a peaceful way of thinking. It understands the basic mechanisms of strife and cannot propagate its ideology in a forceful way.

Even today there are people, who only have an inkling of what the ‘Tetragonus Mundus‘ is all about. They mention the four elements – fire, air, earth and water – as building stones, know the seasons and the cyclic movements of the universe, but can’t put the fragments together into a unity of thought.

The tetradic imagery – and not necessary the tetradic way of thinking – can be followed from the proto-history to the present. From the caves of Lascaux in Southern France – where human beings decorated their paintings of horses and bison’s with tetramorphic signs – to the outlay of motorway crossing in the shape of a cloverleaf: they are all tributes to fourfold symmetry. The distribution of these signs in time and place is world-wide and indicates an elementary and human way of expression.

The signs might be a reference to the sun and the Central Fire, where all division starts, and to cyclic movements in time.  There is also a division in place, a matter of position and orientation. The graphic utterances often don’t give any clue to the state of mind of its creators. Furthermore, to put any serious inquirer on the wrong foot, tetradic imagery might simply be ‘natural’ or ornamental with no visible connection with a particular way of thinking.

The modern investigator arrives here at a dilemma. Which signs are germane and which are not? The answer must be formulated in an Orwellian way: all signs are relevant, but some signs are more relevant than others are. Or better: the question should not be put in an either-or way. All tetradic signs are, in our present view, part of a wider context. The ‘context’ is directly relegated to the way of thinking and the number of initial parts in the division of the unity (of communication). Only a further investigation into the significance of a sign within a framework of thoughts can give a clue towards its real meaning.

A number of figures with a tetradic imagery is given in fig. 9 a/d. The selection has been arbitrary and only serves the purpose of showing the extraordinary versatility of the sign. Some have strong links with a quaternary way of thinking, like the Mexican and Buddhist examples. Our knowledge of the ancient beliefs of Aztecs and Maya-Indians makes it clear, that cyclic-tetradic thoughts were far advanced and resulted in a complete different approach to reality. Fragments of these thoughts were brought back to Europe by Spanish ‘conquistadores‘ and clergymen, who were born and bred in a world of dualistic thinking in opposites. It is not at all surprising that these men were only fixed on the material rewards of the gold and silver and had no imagination of the spiritual world they destroyed in the meantime.

Other examples of fourfold symmetry go back to an animistic world of shamanism and sorcery (like the symbols from Russia, China, Polynesia and Indonesia). In these worlds, the quaternary images are not necessary part of a distinct system. However, the attention paid to the ‘subjective’ aspects of a communication brings these artifacts of mind-practices in the realm of the unknown realms of the mind. They point to a deliberate attempt to explore areas of human sentiment.

Furthermore, there are stylized and ornamental signs on plates and coins. A direct relation to a tetrad philosophy is difficult to establish. It might be a geometric division, offered by the shape of the object, without reference to any wider implications. A square – like a tile – is tetradic in itself and any decoration tends to follow the given restrictions. These artistic appearances are the most difficult to interpret: how occasional are they? Are these signs part of a wider context?

Natural occurrences, like the images of Chladni’s sand figures, do not give such problems of definition. They show that tetradic imagery can be an regular thing, without any (human) philosophy involved.


Fig. 9a – Some examples of tetramorphic imagery in time and place are given here to show the versatility of the four-fold. 1. Signs for thunder, China (HENTZE, 1967); 2. Boat and sun-symbolism, Scandinavia (GELLING & DAVIDSON, 1969); 3. Chumash painting, Santa Barbara, California (HADINGHAM, 1984); 4. Aztec-calendar, Mexico (ENDRES & SCHIMMEL, 1984); 5. Korean signs for ‘longevity’ (SCHMELTZ, 1891); 6. Design of the Bouriates, Russia (SANDSCHEJEW, 1928); 7. Geometric drawing of the New Hebrides. (DEACON, 1934); 8.  Minoussinsk, Russia. (HENTZE, 1928).


Fig. 9b – Examples of tetramorphic imagery in time and place. 9. Pyramid of the Maya, Yucatan, Mexico. The building period of the temple cities is between AD 317 – 650 (Tzakol-phase in pottery) (HENTZE, 1967); 10. Borobudur, Java, Indonesia. Build as a Bhoeddist-temple, eighth century A.D. (KROM, 1930); 11. Bowl, prov. Honan, China (HENTZE, 1967); 12. Ceramics from Susa I, Persia (HENTZE, 1928) ; 13. TLV-board, Shih divination, Han Dynasty, China (KAPLAN, 1937); 14. Plate from Sighisoara (Germany) Sighisoara-Wietenberg culture (MELLINK & FILIP, 1974); 15. A ‘mandoedoe‘, Sumatra, Indonesia (SCHNITGER,  1939).


Fig. 9c – Examples of tetramorphic imagery in time and place. 16/left: Penny of the Quatrefoil-type, c. 1018-24; right: Penny of the Short Cross type, c. 1030-35 (BACKHOUSE et al., 1984); 17. Knot of Salomo on a tile in Bebenhausen, Germany (1228)  (WIENAND, et al, 1977); 18. Graffiti in Martin’s church in Little Waltham (Essex, England) (PRITCHARD, 1967); 19. The Fuller Brooch. Late ninth cent., British Museum, London (BACKHOUSE et al., 1984); 20. The Sutton Brooch. First half eleventh cent. British Museum, London (BACKHOUSE et al., 1984); 21. Exlibris, Altzella. Univ. Library of Leipzig, Ms. Nr. 675  (WIENAND, et al, 1977).


Fig. 9d – Examples of tetramorphic imagery in time and place. 22. The name of Allah. Calligraphy in quadratic Kufi, Baghdad, 12/13th cent. (BRENTJES & RÜHRDANZ, 1979); 23. Chinese incense-clock, 1329 (WRIGHT, 1968); 24. Bowl from the Cyclads, Greece (KERENYI, 1950); 25. Chladni’s sandfigures, caused by vibrations on a metal plate (SOMERVILLE, 1834 in: ALIC, 1986); 26. The road to hell, Aztecs. Codex Borgia (ENDRES & SCHIMMEL, 1984); 27. Diagram of the world with the central mountain, the Meru. West-India, seventeenth century, Ajit Mookerjee, New Delhi (RAWSON, 1973).

BURROW, J.A. (1986). The Ages of Man. A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-811188-6

PILTZ, Anders (1981). The World of Medieval Learning. Basil Blackwell, Oxford. ISBN 0-631-12712-7

Fig. 9 a – d:

1. HENTZE,  Carl (1967).  Funde in Alt-China. Das Welterleben im altesten China. Sternstunden der Archäologie. Musterschmidt Verlag, Göttingen.

2. GELLING, Peter & DAVIDSON, Hilda Ellis (1969).  The  Chariot  of  the Sun – and other Rites and  Symbols  of  the Northern Bronze  Age.  J.M.  Dent,  London.

3.  HADINGHAM,  Evan (1983).  Early Man and the Cosmos. William Heinemann Ltd., London (redrawn).

4. ENDRES,  Franz Carl & SCHIMMEL, Anne-marie (1984). Das Mysterium der Zahl. Zahlensymbolik im Kulturvergleich. Eugen  Diederichs Verlag,  Köln.

5.  SCHMELTZ, J.D.E. (1891). Die Sammlungen aus Korea im Ethnogr.  Reichsmuseum zu Leiden. Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie, IV (1891), p. 105.

6. SANDSCHEJEW, Garma (1928). Weltanschauung und Schamanismus der Alaren-Burjaten.  Anthropos, Vol.  XXIII. In: HENTZE, Carl (1922). Mythes et Symboles Lunaires. Editions ‘De Sikkel’,  Antwerpen. fig. 58, p. 83.

7.  DEACON,  A.  Bernard (1934).  Geometrical drawings  from Malekula  and other islands of the New Hebrides.  The Journal  of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.  Vol.  LXIV, pp. 129 – 176.

8. HENTZE, C. (1922). Op. cit. p. 180;

9. HENTZE, C. (1967). Op. cit.

10. KROM, N.J. (1930). Baraboedoer. Het heiligdom van het Boeddhisme op Java. H.J.  Paris,   Amsterdam;

11. HENTZE, C. (1967). Op. cit.

12. HENTZE, C (1922). Op.  cit. fig. 14.

13. KAPLAN, Sidney M. (1937). On the Origin of  the TLV Mirror.  pp.  21 – 24 in:  Revue des Arts Asiatiques, XI.

14.  MELLINK,  M.  & FILIP, J. (1974). Propyläen Kunstgeschichte. Band 13. Propäen Verlag, Berlin.

15.  SCHNITGER,  F.M. (1939).  Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra. E.J. Brill, Leiden.

16. BACKHOUSE,  Janet;  TURNER, D.H.; WEBSTER, Leslie (Ed.)(1984). The Golden Age of  Anglo-Saxon Art 966 – 1066.  British Museum Publications Limited, London.  ISBN 0-7141-0532-5 (fig. 212/215).

17. WIENAND, Adam; BICKEL, Wolfgang & COESTER, Ernst (1977). Die Cistercienser. Geschichte. Geist. Kunst. Wienand Verlag, Köln.

18. PRITCHARD, V. (1967). English Medieval Graffiti. Cambridge University Press. LCC 66-11034.

19. BACKHOUSE, Janet et al. (Ed.) (1984). Op. cit. fig. 11.

20. BACKHOUSE, Janet et al. (Ed.)(1984). Op. cit. fig.  105.

21. WIENAND, Adam; BICKEL, Wolfgang & COESTER, Ernst (1977).  Die Cistercienser.  Geschichte.  Geist.  Kunst. Wienand Verlag, Köln. ISBN 3 87909 074 2

22. BRENTJES, Burchard & RÜHRDANZ, Karin (1979). Mittelasien. Kunst des Islam. VEB/E.A. Seemann Verlag, Leipzig.

23. WRIGHT, Lawrence (1968). Clockwork Man. Elek Books  Ltd., London. Source: BEDINI, Silvio A. (1963). The Scent of Time – A Study of the Use of fire and incense for time measurements in Oriental Countries. The Transactions of the American Philosophical Society,  Vol.  53,  Part 5,  Aug. 1963.

24.  KERENYI, Karl  (1950). Labyrinth-Studien. Labyrinthos als Linien-reflex  einer mythologischen Idee.  Albae Vigiliae.  Neue Folge, Heft X. C.G. Jung  zum  fünfund-siebzigsten Geburtstag 26. Juli 1950 gewidmet. Rhein Verlag,  Zürich. Or: PURCE, Jill (1974). The Mystic Spiral. Journey of the Soul. Thames & Hudson, London. ISBN 0 500 81005 2

25.  SOMERVILLE, Mary (1834). Of the Connections of the Physical Sciences.  John Murray,  London. In: ALIC, Margaret (1986). Hypatia’s  Heritage – A History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the late Nineteenth Century. The Women’s Press, London. ISBN 0-7043-3954-4

26. ENDRES, Franz Carl & SCHIMMEL, Annemarie (1984). Das Mysterium der Zahl.  Zahlensymbolik im Kulturvergleich. Eugen Diederichs Verlag, Köln. ISBN 3-424-00829-X

27. RAWSON, Philip  (1973). Tantra – De Indiase cultus der extase. De Haan, Bussum.  ISBN  90 228 3973 9; A larger illustration  in: MICHEL, George  (1977). The  Hindu Temple.  An Introduction to its  Meaning  and  Forms. Paul Elek, London. ISBN 0 236 40088 6

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