Old symbolism in a modern city

When you are walking through an old village, your eye may fall on artistic expressions of what you can call ‘traditional art’. Symbols on houses, in fences, on roofs, etc. When you start to notice them, you may also find them in more modern villages, on farmhouses, etc. But, when you know what to look for, you will also find these traditional expressions in a modern city! I live in Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands. For many decades this city has been known for finding everything older than 50 years, old enough to break down. Only recently people realised that by doing so, the history of the city itself is lost. Many old buildings no longer excist. There even have been thoughts to get rid off the famous “Evoluon” or the “light tower” in which Philips lamps have been tested for many decades. Fortunately this never happened. Now older buildings sometimes get a new function. But, that is not what this article is about.

A while ago I found a second hand copy of the book Tussen Hamer En Staf, voorkristelijke symboliek in de Nederlanden en elders in Europa (‘between hammer and staff, pre-Christian symbolism in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe’) by Koenraad Logghe. With this book in my hand (‘head’ actually) I crossed the city of Eindhoven looking for the symbols that are described in the book. There are much more left than I dared to hope! This article is to give you an idea what such things mean and that you become somewhat familiar with them. You will not only start to recognise them when you see them, but you eyes will fall on them more quickly. You will find out that even a dull city as Eindhoven is full of pre-Christian symbolism. Moreover, it is nice to know what such things mean.

Worldtree / tree of life

I have writen an article Of Irminsuls and World Trees a while ago. Although this is slightly speculative (but rather generally accepted), the world tree or tree of life is the same as the Irminsul of the ancient Germans. ‘Irmin’ is probably the same as ‘Saxnot’, ‘Tiwaz’ or ‘Tyr’. The Irminsul is the pole on which the heavens lean, the pillar of the world and the connection of our world and the world of the gods. It comes back in virtually every mythology, whether Indo-European or not. Usually the pole stands on the North Pole and reaches to or ends in the Polar Star. The world tree is -as I mentioned- often the same as the Yggdrasil, the world-ash of the ancient Northern peoples. Maybe more correct: the Irminsul was or could be a tree and therefor became one in the minds of men. There was a huge tree in front of the ancient temple of Uppsala in Sweden and there were trees in nowadays Germany that were called ‘Irminsul’s and in the houses of the ancient Nordic people there was a pole or a fire with the same symbolic meaning. Stylistically the world tree often looks similar to what you see on the left.

A notable point are the curves in the top. I think that this is a recognisable design for some of you. The designs get much more complex, like here, but when you know the standard details, an Irminsul in this style is easy to recognise.

World trees on houses look different though, more like a tree, but on the other side, maybe not! However Eindhoven isn’t a very ‘folkish’ town, there are a great many older houses that still have world-tree wall-anchors. A wall-anchor was originally to count the bricks in a wall, but also to steady the wall. A simple wall-anchor is just a pole, a more decorative wall-anchor can be a world tree. Here a few examples.


(from left top to right bottom: Hagenkampweg Zuid, Hagenkampweg Zuid, Julianastraat, Prins Hendrikstraat, Rechtestraat, Rechtestraat, Stratumseind, Wilhelminaplein, Willemstraat, Tramstraat)

Just a few examples so you will learn to recognise them yourself. As you can see, they go from simple to pretty complex. A nice joke I ran into on a Jugendstil building in the St. Catharinastraat which has three wall-anchors above eachother looking like this:


St. Catharinastraat

Another kind of world tree in famous is better known. They are very beautiful cast iron worldtrees in skylights (?), the window above the front door. These kinds of world trees can often be found on old farms. In Eindhoven I have only found three of them:


Hoogstraat, Edestraat, Rechtestraat

Of the next symbol I am not totally clear, it can be either again a world-tree, but it could just as well be a symbol for mother earth. Added to this idea is that you can clearly see ‘something’ growing out of ‘something’, which in total could be either a world-tree coming from mother earth or in total this could be a symbol for mother earth. In Tussen Hamer En Staf Logghe describes how the heart is the symbol for mother earth and often ‘something comes out of it’. You may wonder if in the long row of wall-anchors above, the first picture from the right is a world-tree or a mother earh symbol. Also with flag-poles and chimney-decorations this is not always clear:


Stratumseind, Rechtestraat, Palingstraat, Palingstraat

Irmin symbol

The next symbol is actually not much more than a part of the world-tree, the top part (also it can be the top part of heart). The Irmin-symbol looks like the two curls on top of the world tree, but without a central pole. Like the flag-pole above actually. This Irmin-symbol can often be found above doors, in (balcony-)fences, decorationally build in farcades, etc. They are often nothing more than (coincidental) decorations, but sometimes it is quite obvious why they are depicted the way they are. I haven’t found a whole lot of examples, but here they are:


Demer, Edenstraat, Stratumseind, Rechtstraat

Three pillars

Now we come to something completely new. It is also immediately a bit of a questionable subject, because there is a big risk of ‘wishfull thinking’ involved. In many traditions there is a lot of stress put on the three pillars of wisdom, strenght and beauty. This was in particular the case in the Northern mythology. There were three statues of gods in the temple of Uppsala in Sweden: Odin (wisdom), Thor (strength) and Freyr (beauty / fertility). Of course Christianity also loves the notion of the trinity, so trinities remained in all kinds of expressions. But to come back to the three pillars. In old towns you can often see houses in which clearly three pillars are worked out in the front, often two pillars and a (symbolic) tree of life in the middle. In Eindhoven there are quite a few examples of this idea, but like I said, is many cases, this can also be wishfull thinking. There are a few cases which are too obvious to be coincidental though are the three pillars are clearly marked. Just a few examples:


Stratumse Dijk, Kruisstraat, Hoogstraat, Tramstraat

Lapsit Exillis

The last picture above, the one from the Tramstraat is interesting in two regards. There are many doors with a bow above with three stones looking different from the rest. This is not only construction technique, as you know people could and can easily make round bows with bricks alone. The three stones also refer to the three pillars. I haven’t found any in Eindhoven, but I am sure you know these old houses where the doors have pillars on each side. The house is a representation of the kosmos, the pillars are similar to pillars in churches or temples. The middle pillar, or third pillar gives the door the symbolism as ascribed above. There is an extra symbolism in ‘three stone doors’ though. The bow above the door represents the heavens, the conic stone, represents the spike that holds the heavens together. This is the “Veraldar Nagli” or ‘world nail’ of the Northern peoples, the stone that fell from the sky of Wolfam von Eschenbach (see my article about this subject), the pole on which the heavens lean, the Yggdrasil, that we have seen above. In many older cities you can find highly decorated doors with this symbolism, Eindhoven seems to only have the ‘simple form’.

Division of the year

In the last picture you can see something interesting as well. There is a decorated roof-edge which points down in the middle. We don’t have them much in the area where I live, but in other parts of the Netherlands and Belgium, there are old farms which have something similar in wood. The roof-edge goes up to a symbol that depicts something being split in two. This can look like the photo most right in the row of wall-anchors above. Logghe calls this the division of the year. The ancient Northern Europeans (both Celtic and Germanic) had only two seaons: summer and winter. What now are the beginnings of summer and winter (21/6 and 21/12) were then the middle of these seasons and therefor called ‘midsummer’ and ‘midwinter’. In Tussen Hamer En Staf Logghe identifies a number of symbols depicting this idea, among which the decorated roof-edges, similar to the picture above most on the right. I accidentally photographed a dormer which possibly shows this idea better (left), the other I ran into after having put the first version of this article online:


Hoogstraat, Parklaan

The photos are not too clear, but the idea is: a wooden roof-edge split in two by some kind of inverted heart (or whatever you want to call it). More in large, you can see this in the more Northern parts of the Netherlands on farms. Logghe opens his book with this kind of symbolism and later returns to it suggesting that old symbols with this idea developped into world-trees.

Ur

Another difficult one. I am sure you know about the Egyptian goddess Nut who stands naked bend over the world? Well, this inverted U is also a Norse rune, but then a little bit stylised (made round). The Ur-rune refers to the primal ox and his symbol might live on in the luck-bringing horseshoe. The Ur-symbol is known in the entire Indo-European area. It is sometimes seen as the entrance of the underworld, sometimes linked to the motherly breast, or the fertile udder. It may (like Nut) refer to the heavens and sometimes comes back as a rooftop over a cross either or not with Jesus hanging on it. In the construction of houses, it is built over a window. Of course in every case you can wonder if this round over the window is functional, decorative of symbolic. I suggest you see the rest of the building and decide for yourself. Here a few Eindhoven examples:


Rechtestraat, Rechtestraat, Kruisstraat, Stratumse Dijk, Stratumse Dijk, Paradijslaan

Heavenly waters

The “UR” symbol of above is a symbol of the heavens, the firmament. There are other examples of this. Perhaps the ‘division of the year’ (see above), is actually a ‘lapsit exillis’ (see above), the world nail in the middle of the heavens so the rest of the roof-frame represent the heavens. There are clearer examples of the heavens. Please scroll back up to the “Hoogstraat” photo under “three pillars”. As you can see the roof-frame is wavy. This is a strong indication of ‘heavenly waters’ or the firmament. The same ‘wavy characteristic’ you can find in this picture:


Jan van Lieshoutstraat

I think this is the oldest housefront of downtown Eindhoven, a tiny pub. As you can see the roof has been bricked in a very strange fashion. This has no use whatsoever from a ‘contructional point of view’, decorational then? As you will have learned, there was no such thing as ‘just decoration’ in times past. This way of laying bricks is purely symbolic and refers (of course) to the wavy waters of skies. A house was a temple, remember? The roof, the heavens, the foundation the earth and the holy fire(place) in the middle of the living room, making a column of smoke (leaving through the hole in the roof), connection our domain, with the domain ‘up there’. Also see “Hoogstraat” under “three pillars” above.

Ing

And now that I am talking about runes, I will go to another rune that can often be found in buildings. The Ing-rune can be either a cross (X), or two V’s entangled (either in horizontal or vertical position). They are sometimes very stylistically used. Since there are two parts intermingled, the explanation of this symbol is similar to that of the star of David. Two oppositals (male/female, light/dark, heaven/earth, etc., etc.) come together in one symbol. It is in particular a fertility symbol, but it can also refer to the division of the years. If you are lucky, you will run into such a symbol built into a brick wall. More common is the symbol in the window above the front door, like these here:


Julianastraat, Julianastraat (the same), Hertogstraat, Paradijslaan

Three suns

This refers to the ‘three phases of the sun’. As I said earlier the Nordic people devided the year in two halves. In one halve, there are two phases of the sun, two equinoxes and a solstitium. These three steps of the sun come back in many forms, such as the three steps a candidate has to make during his/her initiation. In buildings they can sometimes be seen as three globes, most often with the middle higher than the rest. Again, not every combination of three globes will be meant as the three suns, but then again…


Kruisstraat, Kruisstraat

Why would somebody make three dots and three metal globes on the roof of a building twice in the same street? My guess is that this refers to the three suns. The middle sun also looks like a division of the year too.
The picture on the right is also suggestive, but not totally clear.

Field

When the Ur-symbol refers to the sun, what is under it, may refer to the earth. According to Tussen Hamer En Staf, a cross-striped part on a wall can refer to a field, of course meaning fertility (of the land). There are a few buildings in Eindhoven that have a suggestive similar pattern. Have a look at two Ur-photos on the left of both lines and then these:


Rechtestraat, Kleine Berg

Sun

I have to excuse myself in advance, because things are getting more and more speculative here. The sun was a powerfull symbol in the old cultures and the most notable symbol for it is the cross in the circle. A window with such a design is of course very speculative. Also I ran into a few skylights with what seem to be sunbeams, but I could be taken too rapid conclusions.


Hertogstraat, Stratumse Dijk, Stratumse Dijk

And this one may not be traditional, but it certainly is beautiful!


Palingstraat

Wheel

The wheel can be found in many cultures. It can refer to the cycle of life (and death), the year and whatever cycle you can think off. It can be divided into four, to refer to the four seasons. This is often done with arrows and only two arrows can often be seen in skylights as well. Wheels are often made into fences, but I found a building with wheel wall-anchors. This particular wheel is divided in six parts, but I think it is a year divided into two halves ànd into four for the four seasons. The design is quite common.

Kleine Berg

Graveyards

And here I come back to more explicit old symbolism. A lot of symbolism can be found in graveyard, also Christian. Of course in the more recent decades, the symbolism disappeared, but just go to an older graveyard and check it out. I have taken pictures only at the St. Catherine graveyard in downtown Eindhoven. I will give you a nice row of photos and explain the symbolism a bit.

I start with the most pagan of graveyard symbols: the tree. In the ancient days the three was a most important symbol. A tree was planted when a child was born or when a couple got married and (a cracked) tree was put on the grave of a deceased. This habbit remained after Christianisation and eventually the Christians replaced the tree on a grave by a tree-cross like yo see here. The wreath that hangs over the cross is also an ancient symbol, a wheel of life like above, often made of branches and leaves, but in this case of stone.

And where there are trees, there are trees of life! They can be either very explicit or stylistic (going towards Irmin-symbols), but when you can recognise them in buildings, you will most definately recognise them in a graveyard. I have a few beautiful examples for you:

When you see a cast iron cross, you must pay extra attention. These crosses can be made in such detail, that when you have a good one, the symbolism is layered and heavy. Just have a look at the photo on the left. You can only start to wonder what could be meant with it all. Are the three circles on the ends of the bars the three suns? Not unlikely, because this is not an uncommon symbolism and Tussen Hamer En Staf has a few examples of it.
In the middle of course you see a year divided in four (and then with the Holy Spirit in the middle). Also the three suns are divided or did the maker want to make sun-symbols? The rest seems like decoration and I want to leave it to you to find more symbolism in it.

Conclusion

As you can see, even a dull city as Eindhoven has a rich architectoral symbolism with symbols dating back to pre-Christian times, you just have to learn to recognise them. Then of course your fantasy may run wild, so do be carefull with interpretions of each and every decoration that you see. I tried to do that myself when going round making pictures. Some things are obvious, other are dubious, but I tried to stay away from purely decorative designs, which is of course hard. Tussen Hamer En Staf had a far bigger geographical area to cover and also it doesn’t stick to symbolism in buildings, so there are many more examples of pre-Christian symbols in this book. I just didn’t run into more than you see above in Eindhoven. Then again, not a bad harvest, right?

Happy hunting to you. Even when walking up and down a shopping area, look above the windows displays and discover the rich history of your own town.
-22/6/05-

5 comments

  1. Where can I purchase wall anchors? I would like to decorate the wall of my house in Singapore and wall anchors are common in Melaka, (a former dutch colony) and where my ancestors came from.

  2. SUPER. Graag zou ik deze site als link op willen nemen op onze website.

    Wij maken ook veel foto’s van details aan de gebouwen. We zeggen altijd kijk altijd een verdieping hoger. Dan is Eindhoven ook nog mooi en heeft ook zijn unieke plekjes. Volgens mij zou er onder de muurankers van de Julianastraat de St. Catharinastraat moeten staan. Daar hebben ze deze muurankers geplaatst na de renovatie van LTS-school naar appartementen.

    Veel succes verder met uw site.

  3. hi there , i was wondering if there are any of these trees still in existence and where to find them i reside in ireland,many thanks niall mckay

    1. Do you mean the trees of life over doors and as wall-anchors? And do you mean to see or to buy? I do not know if they were ever used in Ireland, but I guess they are more ‘a Germanic thing’ than ‘a Celtic thing’, so you may have more chance to find them in The Netherlands, Germany and Northern Belgium.
      As to buy, they are not too hard to find in my own country. The tree of life is called “levensboom” in Dutch. They are usually of cast iron, so if you search for “gietijzeren levensboom” or “levensboom gietijzer” you will find mostly the trees that are to be put over the front door. When you search for “levensboom muuranker” or “gietijzeren muuranker” you will find wall-anchors. Do not buy the first one you find. The prices differ (as there are second hand and new ones for sale). They are not too expensive though. For something around € 20,- you have cheap one, for for an expensive one you can easily add an 0.

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