Slimbridge Dowsing


Stolen Images – Pagan Symbolism in Church Architecture - Peter Knight*
13 August 2015

Peter Knight needs no introduction to Slimbridge Dowsers. He has guided us around the Cerne Abbas Giant, Avebury and the West Kennet Long Barrow in the past. Today he came to tell us about his tenth book, Stolen Images – Paganism in Church Architecture.

Man’s need for symbolism originated in nature – we often see familiar shapes in clouds, rocks, plants and even ourselves. There is a natural mathematics that amounts to sacred geometry, so it was but a short step for man to incorporate that into our religious buildings.

Neanderthal and Neolithic artefacts demonstrate a similar obsession; zigzags, spirals and crosses abound; New Grange in Ireland is an excellent example.

It was Pope Gregory’s policy in AD 595 to build Christian churches on the sites of existing Pagan ones, where established leys and energy lines made it a power spot. Christian builders incorporated a great deal of symbolism of their own, but also included some Pagan symbols – pregnant with meaning – in order to make Pagans feel welcome, and open to the new religion. The Knights Templar were masters at this, and the practice continues to this day.

Peter also suggests, however, that Jesus himself bears remarkable similarities to many other gods, who were also born to virgins, killed and resurrected, made judgements in the underworld, and even had the same birthday – 25th December, all long before Christianity arrived on these shores from Rome.

In many religions, the turning of the year, based on the movements of the Sun and Moon, as well as all the other planets, was paramount. Early man was dependent on the sun for the fertility of his crops, he learned early that the moon controlled the tides, and the water that came from the heavens was a necessity of life.

Most religions have creation myths, from the Aboriginals in Australia to the Indians in North and South America. Very early illustrations often show a gateway, where you are allowed through into a better world if you have been good. The idea of St Peter at the Pearly Gates is not new.

Early religions, including Paganism, showed great respect for women, and had goddesses as well as gods. The female and feminine were revered and respected; it is the more recent religions that don’t, which Peter suggests is run by men for men!

The idea of a god on his throne is not new either. Most societies turn to the idea of one chief, and gods such as Zeus and Jupiter, as well as the pharaohs in Egypt, were all deified and respected. Putting them on a high throne simply meant they could literally be looked up to.

The Tree of Life is a very ancient symbol, again a common theme running through many religions. An associated ancient symbol is the Green Man, often incorporated into religious buildings and now available as a fridge magnet at a National Trust shop near you! The Egyptian god Osiris is always portrayed as green, as are other gods and goddesses – all representing fertility.

It wasn’t until mediaeval times that nudity was regarded as obscene. Maypoles symbolize the phallus, as did Excalibur’s sword in the myths about King Arthur. In Japan their festivals include parading models of phalluses. Where the female anatomy is to be seen in rocks and megaliths, they are valued and respected, if not worshipped.

In sacred geometry, the Vesica Piscis, created by two overlapping circles, is seen to represent the female vulva, through which all men are born. It was the mediaeval church that decided such basics represented the sins of the flesh and was therefore rude!

Halos are frequently shown in religious paintings, but again they are nothing new. The early sun gods had halos, being the nimbus of the sun.

Myths about serpents and dragons are so prolific, there must be some basis in fact. The Vikings had them on the prows of their ships; the Chinese symbol has been the dragon for thousands of years. They represented the life force of the planet and earth energies, and to ancient cultures dragons meant protection and wisdom.

Yet Christianity made serpents and dragons the bad guy. It was a serpent that tempted Eve to eat the apple from the sacred tree in the story of Adam and Eve. Christians felt the dragon represented Paganism, and had to be vanquished; hence portrayals of St George slaying the dragon.

So much of what we see, hear and believe is open to interpretation and re-interpretation. It is interesting to see how all religions throughout the history of the world have done this from ancient times to the present day. There is nothing new under the sun!