Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

What can be seen in Louis Carroll’s “Looking Glass” (DeDisnification, Part 7B)

My main quarrel with Disney’s version of Alice is that it is simply too much to fit into a 75-minute package. The language, imagery, and nearly everything else that made the original novels—and it’s noteworthy that they condense both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There into a single piece—these classics gets cut down so much that it becomes a Best of Alice clip show. To illustrate, I’ll briefly explore just one aspect of the books here:

Among its Victorian allusions, wordplay, mathematical tidbits, and card-game and chess references, the consistent symbolism throughout both books is that of the Wars of the Roses. Immediately the presence of White and Red parties calls to mind the Yorks and Lancasters, but the scene of the royal gardeners repainting white roses red removes all doubt:

‘[…] this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know.’

A major source of Carroll’s knowledge of the Wars of the Roses seems to have been William Shakespeare, one specific example being 3 Henry VI, in which Margaret of Anjou, who is the Red Queen, AKA the Queen of Hearts, calls for the execution of the Duke of York, saying:

Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head […]

And again,

Off with his head, and set it on York gates […]

Shakespeare is not one to repeat himself, so if he has Margaret saying this twice, it seems to us that she must say it all the time, which Carroll naturally has her do. Once this is clear, the other pieces also fall easily into place. The main beheading the Queen is calling for is that of the Knave, so he therefore corresponds to the Duke of York.

The Red King then must be Henry VI, who was known as a bad ruler due to his mental instability and unresponsiveness to the chaos of the wars. When the Queen demands Alice’s head:

The King laid his hand upon her arm, and timidly said ‘Consider, my dear: she is only a child!’

And after the croquet game, wherein the Queen orders still more executions,

As they walked off together, Alice heard the King say in a low voice, to the company generally, ‘You are all pardoned.’

While this seems reasonable to us (and to Alice), it reflects his timid and ineffectual rule, because of which the affairs of his reign were essentially run by Margaret. And, as Tweedles Dee and Dum note, everything—everyone exists because the Red King is asleep and dreaming it:

‘Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’

‘If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, ‘you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!’

‘I shouldn’t!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. ‘Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’

‘Ditto’ said Tweedledum.

‘Ditto, ditto’ cried Tweedledee.

All this is reiterate that the wars are occurring because of Henry VI’s failure to attend to the kingship of his nation—he’s sleeping through it.

The Duchess also appears in both Shakespeare and Carroll as well: In 2 Henry VI, Margaret gives Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester “a box on the ear”, to which she responds, referring to herself in the third person,

[…] She shall not strike Dame Eleanor unrevenged.

So what occurs in Alice seems to be the promised comeuppance, though it does not go unpunished either:

[…] said Alice: ‘—where’s the Duchess?’

‘Hush! Hush!’ said the Rabbit in a low, hurried tone. […] ‘She’s under sentence of execution.’

‘What for?’ said Alice.[…]

‘She boxed the Queen’s ears—’ the Rabbit began.

As the Duchess is depicted taking care of a baby (badly), one would assume it to be her own child, but it is not. Instead it is Richard III, with the link being that it is on him the dukedom of Eleanor’s husband is settled after his demise. Hence her mistreatment of him, as they are from opposing sides in the wars. And furthermore, the baby turns into a pig:

The baby grunted again, and Alice looked very anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it. There could be no doubt that it had a very turn-up nose, much more like a snout than a real nose; also its eyes were getting extremely small for a baby […]‘If you’re going to turn into a pig, my dear,’ said Alice, seriously, ‘I’ll have nothing more to do with you. Mind now!’ […] it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm. This time there could be no mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig […].

And Richard is well known to have adopted the White Boar as his personal device, as well as becoming somewhat inhuman and greedy for power. A similar heraldic reference occurs when the White Queen (Elizabeth Woodville) comes to resemble a sheep—it matches with a version of her husband, Edward IV’s arms.

In Through the Looking Glass, the White and Red Knights fight over Alice, as to whether she is the Red Knight’s prisoner or the White Knight has rescued her:

‘I wonder, now, what the Rules of Battle are,’ [Alice] said to herself, as she watched the fight, timidly peeping out from her hiding-place: ‘one Rule seems to be, that if one Knight hits the other, he knocks him off his horse, and if he misses, he tumbles off himself […].’

This is a clear allusion to the many reversals that occurred during the Wars of the Roses. It is a comical, chessboard reflection of the Game of Thrones episode name-cum-tagline, “You Win or You Die”. The show, it has already been pointed out, is the Wars of the Roses with a thin veneer of fantasy fiction, with Starks for Yorks, and Lannisters for Lancasters, etc.

Humpty Dumpty, in the rhyme the character based on as well as his conversation with Alice seems to clearly represent Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Such things are not uncommon, as another such rhyme, “The Grand Old Duke of York”, attests:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

It has as one of its candidates another figure from this same war, the Duke of York, who I’ve already mentioned, and who was defeated at the Battle of Wakefield. There are other candidates, to be sure, and as these verses come initially from an oral tradition, tracking down the original intent can be decidedly tricky. There are various theories on the meaning of the rhyme “Humpty Dumpty”, including that it was originally meant to be a riddle, as the word egg is nowhere contained in it, and might have been its answer before it became so well known.

Whether or not it is historically true, the words of “Humpty Dumpty” seem to correspond to both the words of Shakespeare regarding the Earl, as well as the egg-man’s role in Alice. As to Humpty’s position prior to the battle, in 3 Henry VI, a parlay is sounded by Edward’s besieging forces at Coventry and the Earl appears:

Gloucester: See how the surly Warrick mans the wall!

And not just literally, but also historically, he was a “fence sitter”: as “the Kingmaker” he switched sides between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, and indeed deposed and enthroned rulers in order to increase his own power. History now takes a more ambivalent stance on Warwick; I’m describing the view that both Shakespeare and Carroll share here. Ditto for Richard III. Carroll’s description of him seems to match his role:

Humpty Dumpty was sitting with his legs crossed, like a Turk, on the top of a high wall—such a narrow one that Alice quite wondered how he could keep his balance […].

His being an egg can also be seen as reflecting the delicacy of his situation. The discussion that occurs between Humpty and Alice is a battle of words, covering semantics and pragmatics in its course, and also continuing to echo the parley (and the ensuing fight) between Warwick and Edward.

When Edward informs Warrick that the king he is backing, Henry VI, has been imprisoned, Gloucester chimes in with a playing-card themed taunt that was sure to have found favor with Carroll:

Gloucester: Alas, that Warwick had no more forecast,
But, whiles he thought to steal the single ten,
The king was slily finger’d from the deck!
You left poor Henry at the Bishop’s palace,
And, ten to one, you’ll meet him in the Tower.

Humpty asks Alice what her name means, and she wonders whether a name must mean something, whereupon he replies:

‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: ‘my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too.

The Kingmaker’s name’s resemblance to his nature is a well-known and oft-used quip, one that I first heard in Beyond the Fringe’s Shakespearean sendup “So that’s the Way You Like it”:¹

Peter: […] Thus fly we now, as oft with Phoebus did
Fair Asterope, unto proud Flanders Court.
Where is the warlike Warwick
Like to the mole that sat on Hector’s brow
Fair set for England, and for war!

The earliest use I could find was in Spenser, but it’s not easy to research…. Shakespeare certainly used it in 1 Henry VI.

Next Alice asks why Humpty Dumpty is alone, which is his situation in the play as well—he is in Coventry awaiting the arrival of Oxford, Somerset, Montague and Clarence, who never arrive. Then she asks him if he wouldn’t be safer on the ground than on the wall, again a reflection of the Shakespearean parlay:

King Edward IV: Now, Warwick, wilt thou ope the city gates,
Speak gentle words and humbly bend thy knee,
Call Edward king and at his hands beg mercy?
And he shall pardon thee these outrages.

Back in Alice, Humpty counters:

Why, if ever I did fall off—which there’s no chance of—but If I did—’ Here he pursed his lips and looked so solemn and grand that Alice could hardly help laughing. ‘If I did fall,’ he went on, ‘the King has promised me—with his very own mouth—to—to—’

Alice completes the line for him:

‘To send all his horses and all his men,’

Which, as we’ve already seen, is a vain hope. Humpty is disturbed that she knows about the king’s promise, and accuses her of spying, to which she replies that it is in a book, to which he responds:

‘Ah, well! They may write such things in a book,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a calmer tone. ‘That’s what you call a History of England, that is.

And of course the play is one of Shakespeare’s English Histories. Next the subject of Alice’s age is raised, which she says is seven years and six months, to which Humpty replies rather threateningly that,

‘ […] With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.’

Although the correspondence is inexact (adding 10), I believe this to be a reference to John Clifford, 9th Baron de Clifford’s slaying of the 17-year old Edmund, Earl of Rutland, son of the Duke of York, at the Battle of Wakefield.

The subject turns to Humpty’s cravat, which Alice mistakes for a belt, and after the awkwardness arising is past, we find out:

‘[…] It’s a present from the White King and Queen. There now!’

We can easily fit the pieces and see that this represents the chain of office of chancellor conferred, along with a heap of other titles, following Edward IV’s ascension to the throne, by him and Elizabeth Woodville, who was recently given her own TV series literally called The White Queen.

And this in turn means that Iris, the White Pawn-Princess Alice is standing in for as “too young to play”, is Edward V, with the gender swap seemingly based on a pun on his and his brother’s imprisonment as the Princes in the Tower. We see her first high on a table (imprisoned in the Tower), out of reach of her parents, and knocked over (deposed)….

All the correspondences provided here might seem like overinterpretations (and there are such overinterpretations, including those positing that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Carroll’s real self, a strait-laced professor of mathematics and clergyman in the sleepy town of Oxford was hopped up on opium), but I know I’m not alone in finding at least some of them, and I feel instead that I’m just scratching the surface. With the proper resources, a book could well be written.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole


  1. Emphasis mine.

Down the Rabbit Hole

How “Alice” went astray (DeDisnification, Part 7A)

In 1951, Disney Animation Studios released Alice in Wonderland to lukewarm response. The offering was overshadowed by the earlier Cinderella, which had been boffo at the BO and racked up a trio of Oscar noms to boot, making Alice quite the shabby younger stepsister.

Though far from a disaster it has to have felt like one to a Disney shop that had just bet big and won on Cinderella—if Cinderella had failed, the studio, already heavily in debt, would likely have been shuttered. Walt seems to have been something of a gambler, as this is a common refrain throughout his career. Even though the earlier films like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi had been bombs initially, they would soon come to be recognized as classics, with multiple theatrical rereleases. But not Alice.

Alice was just not very good. Walt put down the failure to the titular character, saying she had no “warmth”. I can’t say that I disagree with Disney’s assessment—in order to avoid narration, his Alice talks a lot more than she does in Lewis Carroll’s books, dialogue which lacks purposefulness as well, and makes us question what motivates her. The studio’s reductivism also makes an appearance—Alice follows the White Rabbit hoping that he’s late for a party, rather than due to simple human curiosity and impulsiveness in the original.

In fact, there’s very little preamble to the book’s adventures: Alice is almost immediately thrown into a strange world. This effectively makes her an easily relatable cipher—we’re right there with her just as lost and confused. Or in my case, slightly more so, with a linguistic disadvantage in understanding what I’d later come to recognize as the idiom of roughly a century previous and halfway around the planet.

As to the Disney film, Walt’s comment could simply be expanded to the whole of it: nearly none of the characters are interesting, endearing, or appealing. Events from both of the Carroll books are thrown together in a nonsensical jumble, the songs are mainly mediocre boildowns of the original’s fantastic poetry—along with many others, I can still recite much of Carroll’s poetry by heart—and its quirky charms replaced with over-the-top wackiness.

One of the animators, Ward Kimball, characterized what he saw as the central problem with the production thus:

[I]t suffered from too many cooks—directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product.

And this makes complete sense to what one experiences when watching it—it’s flat, with no structure, no buildup, no lulls; just a series of pointlessly bizarre incidents.

Turning to Rotten Tomatoes, their Critic’s Consensus unexpectedly nails it:

A good introduction to Lewis Carroll’s classic […]

Yep. If you already have read it, this film will add nothing to your life, but if you haven’t we can only hope you are inspired to. My precocious hipsterism having been discussed previously, of course I knew the books well in advance of seeing the Disney version so I immediately disliked it. And while I had a similar experience watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, that film had a glimmer that I couldn’t ignore—mainly Gene Wilder’s charismatic performance, and while the songs were changed, they too were generally improvements, particularly Veruca Salt’s show-stealing number.

Alice did grow on some people, though—specifically freaks and heads. The film experienced a renaissance among those who decided it was an awesome film to watch while stoned. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was a paean to the heaviness of this trip for the tie-dyed, face-painted counterculture of the ’60s.

I know my dislike of Disney’s Alice would seem to fit with the media integrity ethos I’ve already put forth, but I’d like to demonstrate that I’m not an ideologue but an admirer of good art: Certainly there’s a lot to overcome here—Carroll is a skillful writer and storyteller, and, in Shakespearean fashion, an enricher of the English lexicon, creating such words as chortle, borogove, frabjous, frumious, galumph, jabberwocky, mimsy, portmanteau, slithy, snicker-snack, tulgey, unbirthday, vorpal, and wonderland, as well as new meanings for rabbit hole and looking glass and the names of his iconic characters; Bandersnatch, Jabberwock, Snark, Tweedle-dee, and Tweedle-dum, all of which can now be found in English dictionaries. But the original goes still further: Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations are amazingly rich and detailed.

There are literally scores of works based on these books (Alice fitting again with Disney’s risk-averse pattern), with the first films appearing already in 1903 and while I haven’t exactly sought them out, there are a few that are worthy of praise.

An excellent film adaptation that incorporated both Alice books much more successfully than Disney’s version was the black and white Alice in Wonderland of 1933. In fact, Walt Disney’s plan for his own version of the works predated this film, stretching back to some shorts using mixed live action and animation a decade earlier. This mixed format was what he planned for his own feature film, for which he licensed the Tenniel illustrations, and identified Mary Pickford as the lead in 1932. But when he heard Paramount had their own version in the works, he shelved it in favor of Snow White.

The film features many stars of the day, including W.C. Fields, Edna May Oliver, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and others, all in makeup and costumery so heavy that the credits feature images of them beside their characters so the audiences can sort out who is who. The practical effects in general are incredible—and not just for their day, when much of the language of the field was being created. One scene in which Alice flies down a flight of stairs, around a corner, then through the door and down the house’s front walk is particularly impressive. Another one that has stuck with me for the many years since I first saw it was the glowing, disembodied face of the Cheshire Cat.

The art direction leans heavily on Tenniel, but because it’s beyond their reach, and the film is pre-Code, some of the scenes are grotesque and even disturbing. Perhaps for this reason the film was a massive flop at the box office, so much so that the entire genre of live-action children’s fantasy was avoided until 1939’s Wizard of Oz proved it could be successful.

A more recent version was the also largely overlooked Alice Through the Looking Glass TV movie of 1998 from BBC 4. Again it had a stellar cast featuring Ian Holm, Penelope Wilton, Ian Richardson, Siân Phillips, and Steve Coogan, as well as Kate Beckinsale in the lead role. The film, in somewhat retro fashion, focuses on practical effects over modern VFX as well.

Furthermore, the dialogue in the looking-glass world is nearly verbatim, but very well-delivered by its cast, and even a scene omitted from the original publication, “A Wasp in a Wig”, is restored. It also closes with “Alice’s Poem”, a haunting verse that spells out the full name of Carroll’s muse as an acrostic through the initial letters of each line.

Best by far is Ian Holmes’ performance as the White Knight, as well as the titular “Aged Aged Man” in the poem the knight recites, which has always been a favorite of mine: full of genuine melancholy and also genuine absurdity. It is presented as a black-and-white film with scratches on the frames and scratchy sound as well, and irises to black when it’s over—a tribute to the early filmic versions of Alice.

To me it’s slightly marred by Beckinsale, portrayed as being the mother of a child of around Alice’s age, but then stepping into the role herself, donning a pinafore and proclaiming herself to be seven and a half years old. Still, Charlotte Henry who starred in the 1933 version was 19, so Beckinsale’s not much older here at 25, and it’s typical for Hollywood to have an actress play someone younger.

My favorite however is Walt Kelly’s “A Report from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Who Stole the Tarts?” Apart from incorporating the characters from his Pogo comics, the work is straightforward with Carroll’s full text appearing as captions to Kelly’s brilliant illustrations. Kelly counts Tenniel as one of his main artistic influences and shows an excellent grasp of the material.

There is also some recontextualization involved in the presentation: Pogo often commented on politics and culture, leading to it being criticized and even censored by more conservative publications. Kelly considered himself a newspaper man, and refused to compromise his principles leading to some of his material being censored in some publications. This particular piece was published in 1954 during the Army-McCarthy hearings as a commentary on those Kafkaesque proceedings—as Jorge Luis Borges notes in “Kafka and His Precursors” (“Kafka y sus precursores”), his oeuvre seems unprecedented until you look around—Carroll’s tart trial is just a more lighthearted and satirical version of Kafka’s The Trial (Der Process). Simple J. Malarkey was added to the regular strip as Wiley Katt’s even creepier cousin, and a clear reference to Senator Joseph McCarthy. He appears here as the King of Hearts, who leads the trial’s proceedings.

Funnily, Kelly had worked for the other Walt: from 1935 to 1941, he was an animator with credits on Pinocchio, Dumbo and Fantasia. Disney’s recommendation is essentially what led to Kelly’s getting his own strip. One can only wonder how Alice might have turned out if Kelly had taken a role.

One that I can get behind even less than the 1951 version is the Tim Burton-Disney live-action remake of 2010. Where most have sought to represent Carroll’s vision as well as they could, Burton’s was a reimagining, where the characters with familiar names and traits were thrown into a setting seeming to borrow more heavily on The Chronicles of Narnia. He might well have a better imagination than many people in Hollywood, but when it comes to Lewis Carroll, in the words of the Red Queen:

‘[I]t takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

A Child’s Garden of Tessellae

The far-reaching symbolism of the Tetractys (The Tetracys, Part 2)

In addition to a more-than-passing familiarity with Pythagoras (Πῡθαγόρᾱς) and mysticism in the ancient Mediterranean world, I am also well versed in hexagons. You might be asking why I say hexagons when the tetractys is triangular. Well, the lattice for the equilateral triangle and the hexagon are the same—as a regular hexagon is made up of six equilateral triangles and the lattice points for both define a hexagonal nucleus; put another way, a hexagon is a truncated triangle—and the Pythagorean symbol is just a discrete set of points within this lattice:

I know the pattern well. It was one that you’d get by staring at the tessellae of a midcentury bathroom floor—a favorite activity of mine. When you move out from the basic tile, you get a triangle, then a rose; a hex made of seven hexes (i.e. six corners and a center).

This rose was also the shape of Honeycomb cereal, which I would painstakingly nibble to make stars, triangles, individual cells. From the hex rose, if you add three corners, you’re back to a triangle, another three and a flower with more pronounced petals, or what I’d later come to know as a Star of David.

When I was seven, I unknowingly encountered the tetractys at a friend’s cub scout meeting, made of 10 pennies and presented together with the fiction that it was a squadron of jets in formation that needed to reverse course and resume the same formation while only changing the positions of three planes. To me, the pennies were simply inexact representations of the hexagons I loved to play with, so of course I knew what to do.

It appeared in other places too, bowling alleys, real honeycombs, cut paper snowflakes, Chinese Checkers, rock candy, chicken wire, the quartz crystals in my brother’s rock collection. Of these the tenpins pattern and the colored corners of the Chinese Checkers board are true examples of the tetractys, as is the baryon decuplet (the Chinese Checkers field can be thought of as another set of six tetractys pointing inward and defining a hexagon). And when I got into strategy board games, there were those bathroom tiles again, now overlaying terrain maps. And then there were Japanese decorative motifs where the hexagon represents a scute from a tortoise’s carapace (亀甲, kikkō).

And now Eco tells me this is a sacred symbol of the Pythagoreans:

The Tetraktys is the symbolic figure by which Pythagoreans swore their oaths, and it represents a perfect and exemplary reduction of the numerical to the spatial and of the arithmetical to the geometrical. Each side of this triangle is formed by four points and at its center there stands a sole point, unity, from which all other numbers are generated.

Unity is one of Pythagoras’ influential principles of numbers, in this case, the number one. It also represents deity, which has no parts. That is, it is indivisible. It also echoes the “one” at the center of the Adonai Square, and, indeed, that figure is related to this one via the dissemination of Pythagorean ideas throughout the Mediterranean, so much so that the tetractys emblazoned with the Tetragrammaton has become a Kabbalist symbol as well. In addition, one is the origin of all things, as Eco mentions. Each of the three corners can also be thought of as representing this same unity, which allows us to overlay the upsilon (Υ, ὖ ψιλόν). This letter is known as the Pythagorean or Samian letter (Samian as Pythagoras hailed from the island of Samos, Σάμος), symbolizing the branching path that leads to earthly or divine wisdom—the path begins (at whichever corner) and branches at the center point:

The influential principles continue, counting across the rows, where two is diversity, and therefore disorder, the principle of strife and all evil. This should not be mistaken for in any way being about race, or anything else like that, but reflected as in the Berber saying, “A devil takes one and makes two; a saint takes two and makes one.” The next row is three, which is perfect harmony, or the union of unity and diversity. Both principles reflect again the upsilon symbology. One can see that the image below, DaVinci’s representation of a “tetrahedron with empty planes” in perspective closely resembles the upsilon tetractys. This set of numbers makes up the triangle itself and also symbolizes the Pythagorean idea of a threefold god: the beginning, middle, and end of all things. This older concept of a divine trinity can also be seen in the Hindu Trimūrti, wherein there is a triad of deities, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, all ultimately aspects of a single avatar, Dattatreya. Furthermore, the soul has three vehicles: the ethereal, which is luminous and celestial, in which the soul resides in a state of bliss in the stars; the luminous, which suffers the punishment of sin after death; and between those two, the terrestrial, which is the vehicle it occupies on this earth.

The final line of the tetractys is four—Eco continues:

Four thus becomes synonymous with strength, justice and solidity; the triangle formed by the series of four numbers is and remains a symbol of perfect equality.

As an influential principle, four represents perfection, also expressed as cosmos. One of the ideas most central to the symbol is that the sum of these first four numbers is ten (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10), the basis of all numbers. Four is also the first square (2 x 2 = 4).

These rows further represented geometrical ideas as points: the first row being a single point has zero dimensions. The second is a pair of points that define a line, the third is a plane—a two dimensional figure requiring three points. The fourth line of four points creates the simplest solid: a tetrahedron, and the tetrahedron is the essential form of the caltrop in this site’s icon. These four lines further symbolize the four classical elements: fire, air, water, and earth, and therefore a whole series of associations: the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, the set of simple bodies (tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron, cube), the ages of man, etc. Also note that the ancient symbols for the elements were a set of triangles and inverted triangles.

Further, the rows can be read musically as ratios: 1:1—the fundamental, 2:1—the octave, 3:2—the fifth, and 4:3—the fourth. These are the basic intervals of the Pythagorean scales, and also form the basis of the concept of the music of the spheres. Also known as musica universalis, this is the idea that the proportions and movements of celestial bodies create a kind of divine mathematical harmony—not, as is often mistakenly thought, literal, audible music.

Turning again to Eco:

The sum of the points that form the triangle is the number ten, and with the first ten numbers all possible numbers can be expressed. If number is the essence of the universe, then the Tetraktys (or decade) represents a condensation of all universal wisdom, all numbers, and all possible numerical operations.

And this echoes the Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης) quote from Part 1, of which, we can be sure Eco was aware.

The tetractys has found its way into art and architecture down through the ages, some even claim it to be the basis of the Masonic symbol depicted on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States: an incomplete pyramid surmounted by the Eye of Providence. It also forms the basis of a layout for Tarot card readings, as well as a syllabic poetic form. The syllabic values for the lines are 1, 2, 3, 4, 10. Here’s an example penned by Ray Stebbing, the form’s creator:

us all greatly.
Volatile, big-bodied tots are selfish.

I’ll leave you with one final fun fact: in the gematria, the value of the word τετρακτύς yields the value 1,234.

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Eco, Pythagoras, and the Mystic

Eco, Pythagoras, and the Mystic

Signore professore dottore schools me on Ancient Greek symbols (The Tetractys, Part 1)

In reading Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza), I came across a symbol I hadn’t before. First, a bit about the book itself: it is exactly similar in structure to The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari), and actually makes up a trilogy with On Ugliness (Storia della bruttezza) being the final member. Various concepts of beauty are presented chronologically with contemporary images and quotes illustrating each. I’d say it has a great deal more depth than his other book, and often connects movements across art, architecture, philosophy, and religion.

When I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was fortunate to have had an art history lecturer named Robert Loescher whose knowledge was immense and presentation style both humorous and thought provoking. Unfortunately, being a teenager, I was chronically sleep deprived, the lectures immediately followed lunch, and the newly renovated auditorium featured comfortable chairs and dim lighting better to show the slides. All of this meant I’d often suddenly jolt awake sometime in the middle of any given lecture having missed an unknown number of pearls of wisdom and kicking myself. Worse, the sketchbook all my notes were in went missing some time ago so I can only rely on my fallible mental software.

Nonetheless, even though art history is not the field Eco is best known for, he manages to surpass even this excellent lecturer. And it’s great to have the information in a book, so if I fall asleep, I won’t miss anything, and unlike my vanished sketchbook, this one can sit safe in my library to be referred to again and again. My only criticism, similar to what I said of Eco’s other book, is that further breakdown of the images would be awesome, but I can also understand how this could increase the scope excessively, something like a full-scale map.¹ And I can simply have recourse to the internets if I want to know how Hans Holbein the Younger rendered the anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors.

Back to the original point: I’ve run across many things of which I was previously unaware in this book, but one I would have supposed I would have known about was this symbol: the tetractys.

And why do I think I should already have known about the tetractys? Because it was a symbol of Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας), who, while best known today for his supposed creation of the eponymous theorem (it is clear that the Babylonians were aware of the mathematical relationships among the three sides of a right triangle, and other cultures also discovered it independently, but tradition assigns the first written proof to Pythagoras), was actually best known in antiquity as a thaumaturge (θαυματουργός)—a miracle worker.

And because of this, I had already researched him heavily for the creation of the Mystic class in Gods & Heroes.

Therefore I had already learned of his near-mythic status in this regard, how he eschewed property, sharing all in common with his brethren instead, and how he espoused vegetarianism for ethical reasons. He also posited a heliocentric astronomical model well in advance of Copernicus.

This intertwining of mathematics and mysticism might seem strange, but Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης) made some sense of it in his Metaphysics (τα μετα τα φυσικά):

[…] the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything. And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers[…] many analogues of what is and comes into being […] and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers […] it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe […].

Aristotle uses the phrase “so-called” here as he doesn’t think Pythagoras to have been a real person.

The prodigies ascribed to Pythagoras were many and varied, the best known being his golden thigh, his use of hypnotism, his claim that he could write on the moon, at least one instance of bilocation, his possession of the Golden Arrow of Abaris (Ἄβαρις), as well as his doctrine of transmigration, regarding which he:

[…] maintained that he distinctly recollected having occupied other human forms before his birth at Samos [Σάμος]: (1) He was Æthalides [Αἰθαλδης], son of Mercury; (2) Euphorbos [Εὔφορβος] the Phrygian [Φρυγος], son of Panthoos [Πανθοος], in which form he ran Patroclos [Πάτροκλος] through with a lance, leaving Hector [Ἕκτωρ] to dispatch the hateful friend of Achilles [Ἀχιλλεύς]; (3) Hermotimos [Ἑρμότιμος], the prophet of Clazomenae [Κλαζομεναί]; and; (4) a fisherman. To prove his Phrygian existence he was taken to the temple of Hera, in Argos [Ἄργος], and asked to point out the shield of the son of Panthoos, which he did without hesitation.

For a bit more detail on these prodigies: having a golden thigh might seem an odd miracle, but it essentially meant that he was part immortal. The same trope is at work in the tale of Pelops (Πέλοψ), who, after being hacked to bits and offered to the gods in a stew by his father, Tantalos (Τάνταλος), was put back together, and returned to life with an ivory shoulder. Bilocation means he was seen simultaneously by two different people in two far distant places. And the Arrow of Abaris allowed one to ride through the air, become invisible, cure diseases, and give oracles.

Quoting myself from a developer diary I wrote about the Mystic in Gods & Heroes:

This Roman tradition of “sorcery” centered around a couple of things—mastery of time and space, nature control, various healing arts including uses of medicines, and cursing, generally associated with necromancy.

One can see that apart from the dark magic at the list’s end, and which I drew from other sources, these fit well with the tale of Pythagoras. For dark magic I drew on traditions that existed across the ancient Mediterranean, best known from the use of defixiones (Greek κατάδεσμοί), which invoke the aid of underworld gods to act against a subject. The skills available to the class included some that clearly were influenced by these ideas as well, including:

  • Acquired Immunity
  • Cleanse
  • Mesmerize
  • Hypnotize
  • Persuasion
  • Insubstantiality
  • Transmigration
  • Summon Shade

Of these, the last is slightly less clear in referring to Pythagoras’ feat of bilocation, but is essentially a dark form thereof, just as there were negative forms of other abilities such as Miasma in opposition to Cleanse. The application of the word mesmerize is a bit awkward as it is named after German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). Regardless, the “animal magnetism” described by Mesmer matches well with the descriptions of Pythagoras’ dominion over beasts and birds by the power of his voice and touch.

In any case, the tetractys is a simple-seeming symbol, but which has a ton of depth. There are different versions of the figure, but the basic version looks like this:

A discussion of its manifold meanings will have to wait for Part 2.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: A Child’s Garden of Tessellae


1. The reference is to Eco’s essay, “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1” (“Dell’impossibilità di costruire la carta dell’impero 1 a 1”), collected in How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, a partial translation of Il secondo diario minimo, 1994.