You may have heard of two magical triangles, one of black, the other of white magic. The origins of that legend are impossible to fathom. The white magic triangle is said to include Lyon, Prague and Turin, while the black one is composed of San Francisco, London and Turin. Thus Turin becomes the focal point of both triangles. I have written about this fascinating city and its interplay of light and darkness here.
This year I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Lyon, the ancient capital of Gaul. The symbolism of light permeates its history and symbolic expression. Before the Romans founded the city they called Lugdunum, the area was inhabited by Celtic tribes. The meaning of the name Lugdunum is not completely clear. It may be connected to the Celtic god Lugh (Lughus) represented by a raven; it has also been suggested that the name means “Mount of Light.” (1) Undoubtedly, right at the beginning the magic of whiteness and blackness were intertwined in Lyon.
Lugdunum was a pivotal city for the Romans as the capital of the three Gauls. It was the place where the emperor was worshipped in an elaborate ceremony that took place annually in August, at the height of summer with the Sun in Leo. The modern name Lyon may come from Lugdunum but its connection with the word “lion” is undeniable, though not confirmed by linguists. Nevertheless, the likenesses of these beasts are ubiquitous in the city, starting with its coat of arms. Lyon was also a major cult place of Cybele, about whom I have written here. It is worth pointing out that already the Romans associated the city with the lion and used it as the emblem of the city.
France in general has long been connected with the symbolism of the lion. Specifically, Marianne – the female personification of the French Republic – is often depicted with a lion. She also wears a Phrygian cup, which connects her even more with Cybele, whose homeland was Phrygia.
Different periods of history are co-present in the magical city of Lyon, located at a confluence of two rivers – the male Rhone and the female Saone. This bears the symbolism of flowing together of opposites and the Sacred Marriage of Heaven and Earth.
No wonder then that in Roman times the most worshipped deity of Gaul was Mercury, who stands for the union of opposites as well as being the god of magic. In Alchemical Studies Jung thus summarizes the role of Mercurius:
“The multiple aspects of Mercurius may be summarized as follows: (1) Mercurius consists of all conceivable opposites. He is thus quite obviously a duality, but is named a unity in spite of the fact that his innumerable inner contradictions can dramatically fly apart into an equal number of disparate and apparently independent figures. (2) He is both material and spiritual. (3) He is the process by which the lower and material is transformed into the higher and spiritual, and vice versa. (4) He is the devil, a redeeming psychopomp, an evasive trickster, and God’s reflection in physical nature. (5) He is also the reflection of a mystical experience of the artifex that coincides with the opus alchymicum. (6) As such, he represents on the one hand the self and on the other the individuation process and, because of the limitless number of his names, also the collective unconscious. (par. 284)
At the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon I was struck by the large number of Mercury artefacts and especially by a silver goblet with Gallic Gods dated to 1st century AD. Here is the detailed description from the museum:
“On the sides of the ovioid swelling can be seen from left to right, successively, a tree with a tuft of mistletoe, a wild boar, a seated man holding a purse in his left hand, the right hand picking up coins from the table: this is Mercury, identified by his two familiar animals, the tortoise and the raven … Further on, an eagle is perched on a mound and a snake winds itself around a tree. A man is seen, finally, reclining on a couch. … he is wearing a torques around his neck, …, his left arm supports a horn of plenty. Behind him is outlined a stag. In the god with necklaces, it is generally agreed we should see the image of Cernunnos, the horned god whose symbol animal was the stag.”
Cernunos shares with Mercury the chthonic and psychopomp associations. I pondered the Mercurial vibe of the city when I heard about the most famous features of the old town – the so-called traboules (Latin trans – cross, ambulare – move). These are secret covered passageways, originally used by silk merchants, who thus transported their wares in full protection from the rain. Here are just two examples:
Just round the corner from the Gallo-Roman museum and its adjacent Amphitheatre another landmark of the city is located. The Fourvière Basilica, overlooking the city from a hill, is visible from all corners of Lyon. Its whiteness is quite blinding and it has a white statue of Madonna on the main altar. The main architect was Pierre Bossan, who started his work in 1872. He was heavily influenced by the mystical Lyonese painter Louis Janmot. Bossan’s vision was to create “the palace of the most powerful of queens” – the Virgin Mary. (2) The sheer amount of Byzantine decorations, frescos, etc. is quite staggering. The most beautiful was the mosaic depicting The Council of Ephesus (AD 431), during which it was decided that Mary would be called Theotokos – the God bearer, thus emphasizing her divine status.
But what attracted me most in the Basilica was the Black Madonna – the Lady of Fourvière , also known as Notre Dame des Graces, housed in the side chapel. Her cult as well as the Baroque chapel date to the times before the current Basilica was erected. The statue is dated to the late 16the century. (3) When her chapel was ravaged by the Protestants in 1793, a gardener hid the statue. She was restored to her place in 1900 and crowned by the archbishop of Reims. The women of Lyon donated their own jewellery for her diadem. The magnificent crypt of the Basilica houses a large number of Black Madonna statues and paintings from around the world and a mosaic of seven deadly sins. The counterpoint to the dark crypt is the figure of Saint Michael aiming a spear at the dragon. As Gambier explains,
“… if we draw an imaginary line downward from the spear, we find the dove of the Holy Spirit on the keystone of the high church, the white virgin of the main altar, Saint Joseph dying under the altar of the crypt and the mosaics of the seven deadly sins of the crypt: an impressively concise link from the heavens to the earth and sinful humanity.”
Lyon’s most famous festival is the 8 December Fête des Lumières. Then the monuments of the city become illuminated at night, creating the most fantastic and bright colours and shapes. The origins of the festival are religious. When a plague tormented the city in 1643, the gentry of Lyon made a petition to Mary to save the city. It was successful and the plague ended on 8 September – the Nativity of the Virgin. 8 September 1852 was chosen to inaugurate a 5.6-metre tall golden Virgin statue on the Fourviere Basilica. Unfortunately, the work was not finished due to flood and so the feast was postponed until 8 December – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Festive illuminations were planned for that day but they had to be cancelled due to heavy rainstorm. When the rain subsided, the city dwellers took to the street with self-made lampions, candles and oil lamps thus inaugurating the first festival of light. (4)
For me the best parts of the City of Light were its dark and hidden corners. Like silk moths, which are nocturnal creatures, the city spins its best tales under the cover of darkness.
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(1) Gerald Gambier, Discover Lyon and its Historical Heritage
(3) Gerald Gambier, Fourviere: A Symbolist Basilica
(4) Gerald Gambier, Discover Lyon and its Historical Heritage