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Symbols of the Cardinal Points

The Cardinal Phases

Cardinal: pertaining to a hinge: on which a thing hinges: of fundamental importance;
cardinal points the four chief points of the compass—north, south, east, and west.

Phase One — North — The Fruit and Seed

Pure Primary Tincture

Fruit and Seed

Phase One, the New Moon, is both the end and the beginning of the cycle, hence the symbolism of the fruit which contains the seed. It represents the complete plasticity from which individuality emerges and to which it returns, and is the unified ocean of being, both Matter, or Nature, and Spirit, or God.

In terms of incarnation, its state is like that proclaimed to Adela Quested by the Marabar Caves in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India: everything exists and nothing has value. There is no independent thought or even being, and ‘mind and body take whatever shape, accept whatever image is imprinted upon them, transact whatever purpose is imposed upon them, are indeed the instruments of supernatural manifestation, the final link between the living and the more powerful beings’ (AV B 183).

In terms of the cycle of life and death, Phase One is the Phase of Beatitude, the closest that the soul attains to unity in the whole round of existence, when the two Solar Principles alone are united to each other. It is represented in the Solar cycle by the Summer Solstice when the Sun reaches its most northerly point, the Tropic of Cancer.

In terms of history, the Phase is never unmixed, since the Phase 1 of a civilisation is Phase 15 of a religion and vice versa, and countless other cycles bring other stages of development. Phase One of the Christian cycle occurs around the time of the incarnation of Christ, but this date also represents Phase Fifteen of classical civilisation, while the thousand-year cycle of Greek civilisation had already passed its Phase 15 during the epoch of Pericles and Phidias.

Phase 1 is called Moon in Sun because the lunar or antithetical tincture is consumed in the primary or solar, but from another point of view it is the Body of Fate consumed in the Creative Mind; man is submissive and plastic: unless where supersensual power intervenes, the steel-like plasticity of water where the last ripple has been smoothed away.
AV B 82

Phase Eight — West — The Cup of Temptation

From Primary to Antithetical Tincture


Phase Eight represents the discovery of strength, the emergence of true individuality, and the transition from character to personality. It is a Phase of transition, with its attendant pains, and at this Phase the individual ‘is of all men most tempted’ (AV B 119). Yeats notes that West or Phase Eight ‘is symbolised in the diagram of the “Great Wheel” as a cup, for it is an emotional or natural intoxication’ (AV B 258), and there is a sense in which there is lack of control as the state is suspended between the primary external order and the antithetical internal, emotional mission.

In terms of incarnation, its state is one of uncertainty, since the soul is largely unaware of what lies behind or ahead, so that the elements of the struggle are unlikely to be fully comprehended.

At Phase 8 is the ‘Beginning of Strength’, its embodiment in sensuality. The imitation that held it to the enforced Mask, the norm of the race now a hated convention, has ceased and its own norm has not begun. Primary and antithetical are equal and fight for mastery; and when this fight is ended through conviction of weakness and the preparation for rage, the Mask becomes once more voluntary. (AV B 85)

Balance is impossible, since the purpose of the Phase is to make the transition, but the imbalance is intolerable and ‘despair is necessary’, however the expression of this conflict is difficult in this ‘blind and throttled phase’ (AV B 159). ‘Here for the most part are those obscure wastrels who seem powerless to free themselves from some sensual tempatation—drink, women, drugs—and who cannot in a life of continual crisis create any lasting thing’ (AV B 118).

In terms of the cycle of life and death, Phase Eight corresponds to birth, the emergence of the naked baby into the world as a separate being, which is represented in the Solar cycle of the Principles as the Autumnal Equinox, when the Sun crosses the Equator southwards.

In terms of history, the Phase is never unmixed, but is for instance identified with the conversion of Constantine in the first millennium of the Christian Era, the movement of the religious impulse into the secular domain.

Phase Fifteen — South — The Flower

Pure Antithetical Tincture


Phase Fifteen, the Full Moon, is the furthest point of the cycle, the point where the urge to individuation reaches its fullest extent, though not necessarily its climax. It is symbolised by the flower, often the most beautiful manifestation of the plant’s cycle. It can be seen as the extreme point of any natural cycle whether apogee, aphelion, zenith or nadir. It is the (temporary) triumph of Image over Reality, in the sense that what is created subjectively is seen as being truer than what is perceived objectively.

In terms of incarnation, at this Phase ‘mind’ is ‘completely absorbed by being’ (AV B 183), self-absorbed in all senses, and ‘nothing is apparent but the dreaming Will and the Image [Mask] that it dreams’ (AV B 135). The soul inhabits a splendid isolation, no longer dependent upon external phenomena for its experience, living in a self-created world of vision or art. Yet it is also at this stage that ‘evil reveals itself in its final meaning’ (AV B 136), which for Yeats means the continual conflict of opposites and the recognition of the incompleteness of any life.

In terms of the cycle of life and death, Phase 15 is the achievement of maturity, probably often identified ideally with love, and sometimes with the Beatific Vision. In the Solar cycle it is the Sun’s southernmost point, the Tropic of Capricorn.

In terms of history, the Phase is never unmixed, since Phase 15 of a civilisation's historical cycle is also Phase 1 of a religious cycle: Phase 15 of the classical civilisation, the establishment of the Pax Romana perhaps, is the time of the Christian revelation, and Phase 15 of the Christian religious cycle, ca 1000CE, is the establishment of the next European civilisation. In terms of the cycles of a single millennium, Phase 15 is marked by the Attic achievement of Phidias (in the cycle of 1000BCE-1CE), the state of Byzantium (1CE-1000CE) or the flowering of the Renaissance (1000CE-2000CE).

Phase 15 is called Sun in Moon because the solar or primary tincture is consumed by the lunar, but from another point of view it is Mask consumed in Will; all is beauty. The Mask as it were wills itself as beauty, but because, as Plotinus says, things that are of one kind are unconscious, it is an ideal or supernatural incarnation.
AV B 82

Phase Twenty-Two — East — The Crisis of Strength

From Antithetical to Primary Tincture


Phase Twenty-Two is, like Phase Eight, one of crisis, but one where balance is achievable, albeit precariously and inconsistently. It is the Phase where personal strength, an antithetical quality, is broken, so that character and acceptance of the collective will can emerge. The Third Quarter is that of intellect, so that, here at the end of it, there is a possibility of analysis and understanding as the cycle moves into the Quarter of physical decay and increased spiritual objectivity. Just as the dying person should understand better what is happening than the child being born, so this Phase is clearer, but may therefore be the more terrified.

At Phase 22 is ‘Temptation through Strength’, for here the being makes its last attempt to impose its personality upon the world before the Mask becomes enforced once more, character substituted for personality. (AV B 85-86)

The symbol of the rod, either for castigation or as a sceptre, indicates both the strength and weakness of the Phase, control but also forms of intellectual tyranny.

In terms of incarnation, its state is like that of Phase Eight, but a less tortured one, because the soul is at a more internally aware point of the cycle. It is therefore the only cardinal Phase which produces historical figures; these include Flaubert and Dostoevsky, Swedenborg and Darwin, Marx and Spencer. Though there is the possibility of balance, Phase 22 is ‘as tragic as its opposite [Phase 8], and more terrible, for the man of this phase may, before the point of balance has been reached, become a destroyer and persecutor, a figure of tumult and violence; or as is more probable . . . his system will become an instrument of destruction and of persecution in the hands of others’ (AV B 161).

In terms of the cycle of life and death, Phase 22 is the point of death, marked in the Solar cycle by the Vernal Equinox, as the Sun passes northwards across the Equator.

In terms of history, the Phase is never unmixed, but Phase 22 represents the beginning of the end, where the impulse of energy is exhausted and the matters are abstracted, but also allows the beginning of more personal spiritual influence. The Reformation comes at around Phase 22 of the two-millennium Christian era, but also, along with the Renaissance, at Phase 15 of the single millennium and Phase 8 of the current civilisation. Phase 22 of the millennium from ca.1000CE to ca.2100CE (Yeats’s ‘Gothic civilisation’), spans the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, according to Yeats, ‘a period of abstraction’, which was ‘preceded by the great popularisers of physical science and economic science, and will be followed by social movements and applied science’ (AV B 299).

The East, in my symbolism, whether in the circle of the Principles or the Faculties, is always human power, whether Will or Spirit, stretched to its utmost. In the decorative diagram from the Speculum Angelorum et Hominum, printed at the opening of Book I, the East is marked by a sceptre.
AV B 257-58

The Phase Triads

In traditional astrology the signs of the Zodiac can be defined by certain characteristics, which group them: either positive or negative; either Fire, Earth, Air or Water, and either Cardinal, Fixed or Mutable (a separate usage of the term ‘cardinal’, but similarly based on the compass-points) [see Astrology]. To take the fourfold division, sometimes termed the ‘Triplicities’ or ‘Elements’, the signs are (if taken in series from Aries) Fire, Earth, Air, Water then Fire again and so forth, so that the signs are arranged in groups of four with the first of each group being Fire. In the same way, Yeats's Phases have certain traits in common depending upon their place in a regularly repeating series. In Yeats's System the Cardinal Phases fall outside the series but form a framework of extremes, with six Phases in between each of the points in each Quarter. These phases can be seen as two triads:

Excluding the four phases of crisis (Phases 8, 22, 15, 1), each quarter consists of six phases, or of two sets of three. In every case the first phase of each set can be described as a manifestation of power, the second of a code or arrangement of powers, and the third of a belief, the belief being an appreciation of, or submission to, some quality which becomes power in the next phase.
(AV B 92-93)

Within the considerations of the individual Phases, Yeats frequently alludes to a Phase’s relationship to others in various groupings, and uses the Triads almost as much as the Faculty-groups (what I have referred to as the Eight Configurations), however he never fully sets these out, and it is only after repeated reading that one begins to get a sense of how the contrasts helped Yeats and can help us to form a clearer idea of the Phases’ natures. The table below is a summary; the names given to the eight Triads are not Yeats’s and are not entirely satisfactory but give a sense of the general area of emphasis, while the summary of the salient traits is necessarily very brief and serves only to elaborate Yeats’s name slightly more fully.

The First Phase: Manifestation
PhaseManifestation ofTitleDistinguishing Trait
2 SelfBeginning of Energychild of Nature
5 Self-ConsciousnessSeparation from Innocencea disturber and wanderer
9 PersonalityBelief instead of Individualityvehemence, belief in own desire, sensuality impedes subjectivity
12 Subjective ValuesThe Forerunnerhero, desire for truth of self, belief in all values created by personality
16 ImaginationThe Positiveviolent scattering of energy or frenzy, focussed but mythologising intellect
19 DramatisationThe Assertiveartificial and dramatic, vitality comes from fact and conviction, delight in declamatory images
23 Social AwarenessThe Receptivedelight in technical skill, wants to surprise society, pity or self-absorption
26 Supersensual LifeThe Multipleconsciousness of spiritual whole only emphasises incompleteness & pitiless judge, ambitious, envies vigour
The Second Phase: Organisation
PhaseOrganisation ofTitleDistinguishing Trait
3 SelfBeginning of Ambitionsimplicity and intensity
6 Self-ConsciousnessArtificial Individualityabsorption in experience
10 PersonalityImage Breakerself-centred but practical outlook, solitary lawgiver, external links impede subjectivity
13 Subjective ValuesThe Sensuousintellectual subjectivity, sincerity, expression for expression's sake
17 ImaginationThe Daimonicdispersal without frenzy, seeks to integrate
20 DramatisationThe Concretedramatising inner in real world, delight in concrete images, creative ambition
24 Social AwarenessEnd of Ambitionsense of tradition, creator of code, wants to express society, self-surrender & pride
27 Supersensual LifeThe Saintdesire for spiritual authority, spiritual superiority or humility where supersensual whole flows through being
The Third Phase: Preparation
PhaseAppreciation ofTitleDistinguishing Trait
4 Self-Consciousness by SelfDesire for External Worldcuriosity and instinctual wisdom
7 Individuality by ConsciousnessAssertion of Individualitydelight in action and common emotion
11 Subjectivity by PersonalityPyre-buildersystematiser, conviction impedes subjectivity
14 Beauty by SubjectivityThe Obsessedtruth to self but responsibility renounced, extreme subjectivity
18 Dramatisation by ImaginationThe Emotionallinks inner world to action, disillusioned, but realism
21 Balance by DramatisationThe Acquisitiveidiosyncrasy, cool but complex intellect, ideas before people
25 Supersensual by Social AwarenessThe Conditionalcreator of belief, wants to teach & improve society
28 Plasticity by Supersensual LifeThe Foolchild of God, body is world, but self is almost non-existent

Groups of Three

The diametrical relationship of the Will and Mask (or Creative Mind and Body of Fate) means that these pairs of Opposites will always fall at the same position in corresponding Triads, both Manifesting, Organising or Preparing. When it comes to the Discords however, one further detail is worth noting: the Phases that fall in the centre of a Triad, take all their Faculties from other central Phases, reinforcing the Organising stability of these Phases, while those which fall at the beginning or end of a Triad are mixed with each other, so that if the Will falls at a Phase of Manifestation, with its unfocused energy, so does its Mask, and this is matched by the mutability of the Preparatory Phases where the Creative Mind and Body of Fate fall.

The preparatory material goes slightly further in refining the triads, describing the two triads in each Quarter as different in emphasis and manner, so that they can almost be seen as a group of six, and the same pattern is repeated with a different focus in each Quarter.

First 3 passionate (realizing objective only through self)
Second “critical” realizing the objective
(YVP 3 367)

The details of these two groupings are given most clearly on another card:

character according to triads in each set of six
passionate 1 without subjective personality. Mask thrown into objective life
(2. 9. 16. 23)
2 self isolating in intellect. action destroyed by outside influence
(3. 10. 17. 24) when once started
3 slow developed. Isolation from life. shrinks from life
4. 11. 18. 25
critical 1(4) self conscious (follow others) 5. 12. 19. 26
2[5] serenity 6. 13. 20. 27
6 expectancy & brooding 9. 14. 21. 28
Third phase in triad desires isolation from life while second phase desires isolation from intellect. In third phase action is always forced on them from without. They are confident when started & they have the reaction of self consciousness in 4th phases. they tend to follow others from fear of self. at 6 awaiting putting on of mask. mask not recognised. many are assumed.
(YVP 3 371-72)

To some extent this thinking persists in A Vision, so that when Yeats writes of the last Quarter, that of Soul, for instance, he considers the Phases as two Triads which constitute a movement of six Phases within the Quarter:

After Phase 22 the man becomes aware of something which the intellect cannot grasp, and this something is a supersensual environment of the soul. At Phases 23, 24 and 25 he subdues all attempts at its intellectual comprehension, while relating it to his bodily senses and faculties, through technical achievement [23], through morality [24], through belief [25]. At Phases 26, 27 and 28 he permits those senses and those faculties to sink in upon their environment. He will, if it be possible, not even touch or taste or see: ‘Man does not perceive the truth; God perceives the truth in man’.
(AV B 181)

Groups of Six

Although the Wheel of twenty-eight Phases does not adapt readily to a threefold division, there is a sense in which ‘each set of three is itself a wheel, and has the same character as the Great Wheel’ (AV B 93), so that the first Phase of a Triad corresponds to the movement of the Wheel under its first primary impetus as far as Phase 9/10, the second Phase corresponds to the central antithetical Phases, as far as Phase 18/19, and the third Phase corresponds with movement towards dissolution and belief found in the Phases leading up to the next New Moon. This can be pictured as the spiral of a single gyre of twelve coils trisected. The crucial Phases (1, 8, 15, 22) are simply one Phase divided into three, whereas the other Phases occupy a third part of a single circular movement.

The Triads as Gyres Trisected Gyre
The Single Gyre trisected by the Triads, as if seen from above and in perspective.

Making Twenty-Eight Twelve

One of the reasons for viewing the Phases as triads, along with the four Phases of crisis, is that this arrangement creates a twelvefold division of the Great Wheel. It is in this twelvefold guise, rather than as twenty-eight individual Phases, that Yeats normally applies the Wheel to the historical cycle and to the movement of the Principles.

By dividing his year into twelve gyres, Yeats is conforming to common experience and the natural paradigm of the year’s twelve months. The year is tied to the Solar cycle and it is therefore appropriate to use the Solar division, so that the grouping, though it is an arbitrary ‘classification not symbolism’ (AV B 196), enables a form of congruence between the Moon’s Phases and the twelve signs of the Sun’s Zodiac. It is important to note that there is no actual match, since a Lunar Month starts at the centre of a Solar Month and vice versa, and the Lunar and Solar versions of the circle (whatever its form of division) are set at 90° to each other (‘Lunar South is Solar East’, AV B 198n), which means that the System precludes any easy correspondences.

Since the basic pattern of Yeats’s vision of history is the Great Year, marked by the Sun’s precessional cycle, Yeats applies a Solar form of division to the cycles of history, and therefore writes of twelve gyres making up the two-thousand-odd years of each era, as well as the thousand-odd years of the lesser cycles. The same division is also used in Yeats’s treatment of the after-life, where the fundamental division depends upon the Solar Principle of Spirit, which is therefore seen in terms of Sun’s passage through the Zodiac, while the Lunar Principles (Husk and Passionate Body) move through corresponding twelvefold divisions of the Phases (see diagram of the Solar and Lunar alignment).

The Cardinals and Triads as Historical Gyres

The greater implications of the divisions that Yeats formulates are treated in the page on history, but it is also appropriate to consider the nature of the Twelve Gyres here. Each period of two-thousand-odd years is a complete single gyre, progressing from Phase 1 to Phase 28 (and so too are periods of four-thousand-odd years, or of one-thousand-odd years, and so on) [note on numbers and precision]. Within these larger cycles, there is a lesser gyre, effectively a single turn of the spiral, and twelve of these gyres make up the single complete gyre. These subsidiary coils are the Twelve Gyres considered here, characterised by the four Cardinal Phases and eight Triads.

The Single Gyre Trisected

Although Yeats’s general focus in terms of myth is on the cycle of 2,000-plus years, which is a month of the Great Year (representing a cycle of Religion, syncopated with that of Civilisation, with the annunciation of the coming Religion falling at the midpoint of a Civilisation), when he focuses on history, he actually considers the thousand-year cycle in more detail. In ‘Dove or Swan’, when he refers to the Twelve Gyres, these therefore correspond very roughly to periods of a century or less. The Gyres are, however, of uneven length, since even in the historical process there is the same slackening or speeding up of the greater Gyre’s movement as in any other, and they are not uniform: a given movement, trend or Zeitgeist will not be apparent in all places at the same time, arriving in one place somewhat earlier and in another later than the date given. Yeats himself complains slightly about a few of the dates, which do not quite match his own understanding, and it is clear that he was not always entirely clear about how the given elements of the System matched the reality of his interests and research.

Many gaps are left in Yeats’s treatment of the topic, particularly in the millennium prior to the birth of Jesus, and even in the first millennium of the Christian Era. Some dates and a few details (drawn from Yeats’s comments but not clearly assigned) have therefore been supplied in the table below and are prefixed with a question mark; those followed by a question mark are Yeats’s own questions. The dates in the millennium before Common Era are tied in, where possible, with the figures or movements mentioned. AV A includes some forecasts for the years after 1925, which are substituted by vaguer musings in AV B, and elements from both are included in the last entries.

GyrePhasesStart DateTrend
First 1 1000BCE?oracles
Second 2-3-4 ?900BCEHomer
Third 5-6-7 ?800BCE?civil life
Fourth 8 ?720BCE?desire for civil order
Fifth 9-10-11 ?660BCEindependent life
Sixth 12-13-14 ?600BCEpersonality begins
Seventh 15 ?500BCEage of Phidias
Eighth 16-17-18 ?420BCECallimachus
Ninth 19-20-21 ?380BCEPlato & Aristotle
Tenth 22 ?330BCEAlexander
Eleventh 23-24-25 ?270BCEStoicism
Twelfth 26-27-28 ?150BCEadoration of force
New First 1 1CEGod outside man
Second 2-3-4 120 
Third 5-6-7 250Plotinus & Origen
Fourth 8 325Constantine
Fifth 9-10-11 400germ of Byzantium?
Sixth 12-13-14 500 
Seventh 15 560Byzantium
Eighth 16-17-18 620 
Ninth 19-20-21 800destruction of images?
Tenth 22 830return of images, Charlemagne’s empire divided
Eleventh 23-24-25 900heterogeneous art
Twelfth 26-27-28 1000spiritual emphasis
New First 1 1050birth of romance and chivalry
Second 2-3-4 1100Arthurian tales & Romanesque architecture
Third 5-6-7 1180Gothic cathedrals & Thomas Aquinas
Fourth 8 1250dominance of King & Church; Dante
Fifth 9-10-11 1300Giotto, Fra Angelico, Froissart
Sixth 12-13-14 1380Masaccio, Chaucer, Villon
Seventh 15 1450‘Renaissance’ to Sack of Rome
Eighth 16-17-18 1550Michelangelo, Titian, Shakespeare, Milton, Vandyke
Ninth 19-20-21 1680Bernini to Napoleon
Tenth 22 1875abstraction, war
Eleventh 23-24-25 1927elimination of intellect, Europe in artificial unity?
Twelfth 26-27-28 ?2050adoration of force, decadence
First 1 ?2100emergence of ‘tribal’ genius

Within the treatment of individual Gyres, Yeats still sees the movement as sequential through the three separate Phases that constitute a turn of the coil, writing of how ‘Michael Angelo, Rabelais, Aretino, Shakespeare, Titian’ all bear witness to ‘the mythopoeic and ungovernable beginning of the eighth gyre’, or Phase 16, while Milton ‘is characteristic of the moment when the first violence of the gyre has begun to sink’ as it progresses into the organising stage of Phase 17, until the ‘gyre ebbs out in order and reason’ with Phase 18 (AV B 294-95). For further consideration, go to History and the Great Year.



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.