I happened to be on the side of an Alaskan mountain one summer, amazed at the nature of a ground-cover leaf, nearly the size of an African elephant's ear. I intended to capture its grandness with a photograph. Realizing there was no sense of scale in the composition, I reached into my pocket for a common coin to provide perspective for the shot. However, there was no change. Alternatively, I dropped a U.S. one dollar bill directly upon the leaf, landing backside up. While refocusing, my interest in the leaf's grand design quickly shifted to the bill's intricate designs. I wondered, "What's the meaning of this?" Seeking a satisfactory answer, I began an inquiry. Although my quest for its significance continues, many diverse sources and resources advance this understanding . . .
Right on the Money!
Designed more than 220 years ago, The Great Seal of the United States is art conveying a vision and communicating a message to bring about the renewal of culture. Created by America's Founding Fathers during the Revolution, it expresses their notion of a nation and concept of a country. The Continental Congress in Philadelphia eventually adopted its two halves as a whole on June 20, 1782. Keep in mind, more than half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen, eventually providing for the division of Church and State, yet insisting upon God in government.
Although one may begin by reading any element of The Great Seal first, I prefer beginning at the top of what is considered the obverse. "ANNUIT COEPTIS" is a Latin phrase meaning "He (God) nods with favor upon our undertakings." Within the sunburst below, a sacred triangle represents the royal splendor of the spiritual world. The all-seeing eye of God, The Eye of Providence, peers from within this triangle. Knowing the eye of the soul is the will, one is reminded of Matthew 6:22 "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." referring to the potential impact of a singular vision on a nation of enlightened citizens. Here, a single eye boldly supercedes the conventional duality, reminding one of Matthew 6:24 "No man can serve two masters . . .", referring to England's King George III and God. Incidentally, to further protest the monarchy, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams intended for a motto in English to appear on The Great Seal: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."
Keeping in mind that many of the Founding Fathers were Free Masons, a truncated pyramid was chosen to symbolize the 'undertakings' for its permanence, strength, and spiritual significance. Its thirteen steps represent the thirteen original colonies. It appears incomplete to suggest the understanding that this was indeed just the beginning of a growing nation. Also, it suggests their effort is only complete in a union with God above. The Roman numerals "MCCCLXXVI" written in stone on its foundation indicate this effort began some 1776 times since the Earth revolved around the Sun following the birth of Jesus the Christ. The pyramid arises from a desert, signifying that the undertakings arise from divine revelation. Below, a scroll signifies the passing of time and destiny. Inscribed thereon is "NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM", a Latin phrase meaning "The New Order of the Ages." Was this an attempt to create 'The New World Order' by visionary activists?
On the top of the reverse, a starburst symbolizes Divine Truth or Enlightenment piercing the darkness. Within, thirteen five-pointed stars are arranged in a configuration of a large six-pointed star. The five-pointed star is reminiscent of French heraldry; the six-pointed star is reminiscent of English heraldry. This configuration honors the major European powers that helped establish this new nation while also suggesting a union of the royal splendor of the spiritual world with the matrix of the natural world (represented by its intersecting triangles). Furthermore, this symbol of that union boldly proclaims 'as above so below', the Divine Truth chosen to pierce the darkness here on Earth.
Below, America's destiny is inscribed on another scroll "E PLURIBUS UNUM", a Latin phrase meaning "Out of Many, One." It heralds a universal concept: as two sides make one seal; many people, one community; many communities, one state; many states, one nation; many nations, globalism. Like "ANNUIT COEPTIS," this motto also has thirteen letters. Being firmly clenched in the beak of an eagle signifies these are indeed words of power. As a symbol for the nation itself, the eagle embodies the three branches of government in the new American system: its head of white feathers represents the tremendous wisdom of the Executive (Presidency), its chevron design is emblematic of entities comprising the Legislative (Congress), and its nine tail-feathers symbolize the truthful contemplation of the members within the Judicial (Supreme Court).
Incidentally, these three branches of the Federal government were symbolically rearranged in the 1789 design of the U.S. Treasury Seal now on the face of all U.S. paper currency. Here, the Judicial appears at the top represented by a balanced scale; the Legislative remains in the middle represented by an angled band of thirteen stars; and the Executive appears at the bottom represented by a key.
All the symbols appearing thus far were adapted from Old World cultures. However, this eagle is uncommonly unique, for this American bald eagle was unknown to Old World heraldry. In addition to symbolizing the new nation, it represents the release from bondage, the ability for the spiritual principle in humankind to soar heavenward. Consequently, it alludes to the freedom of worship initially sought by pilgrims who settled these lands. Simultaneously, this eagle honors Native American iconography, representing a new far-reaching vision touching the past, present, and future. It also represents an awakening ability or need to learn "to walk between worlds." Likewise, as a sea and fish eagle, it has a symbolic association with water, the mediator between Sky and Earth. Ultimately, it confirms revelation, echoing the spiritual meaning of the six-pointed star above and the sacred symbolism of the desert on the obverse.
The eagle's talons tell many tales. In western art, the work's right (not the viewer's right) is considered to have greater meaning and significant, for the Latin word for "left" is "sinister." Western tradition considered the left to be unlucky and weak, and at one time left-handed people were pronounced evil and had their left hands tied behind their backs. Accordingly, the eagle faces its right, with its talon grasping an olive branch baring thirteen olives and thirteen leaves. Meanwhile it clutches thirteen Native American arrows in its left talon. Thus signifying, the nation must always seek peace, yet be prepared for war.
Incidentally, there is a legend that accompanies these thirteen arrows. On July 4, 1744 the great Iroquois chief Canassatego met with colonists in what is now Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, he represented the interests of his people in the Six Nation Confederacy, and their desire to live in harmony with the colonists and the land. Minutes from this extraordinary meeting were taken to Philadelphia to be printed. Coincidently, the owner of the print shop was Benjamin Franklin (Franklin means "a freeman"). While setting the type, he was greatly impressed by the reported wisdom of the Native Americans and their system of self-government. Later he chose to meet with them directly . . .
Upon greeting the great chief, a gift was ceremoniously presented to Franklin. He accepted this offering of a single arrow. While Franklin pondered its meaning and significance, the chief snatched it back, cracked it over his knee, and handed the broken arrow back to his startled guest. Suddenly, the chief knocked the broken arrow from Franklin's hand, reached behind himself, and then presented thirteen arrows. Again, while Franklin pondered the meaning and significance of this offering, the chief snatched it back and cracked the arrows over his knee. Surprisingly, the arrows remained unbroken. The chief then presented Franklin with a gift of these thirteen unbroken arrows (seen here in the eagle's left talon), suggesting the thirteen colonies be united and thus be less likely broken by the British. Canassatego reenacted the same symbolic gesture Deganawida and Hiawatha used to establish the Iroquois Confederacy some time before the coming of Columbus to the New World.
Why did the Founding Fathers find it necessary to create such a symbolic seal? Although some colonist were illiterate; many came from various religious backgrounds, familiar with both Latin and symbolic imagery. Initially, the seal was printed on paper and circulated as a visual aid for an emerging oral tradition. Word of its vision spread quickly, directly to the ears of a British agent. In the time it took that agent to sail to England, seek permission from King George III to stop this treasonable activity, and then return to America, the vision permeated the colonies and created a new reality. Does the reality Americans now live in reflect this vision, or does the vision Americans now live in reflect another reality? If so, what new designs best symbolize it?
The Great Seal of the United States is an example of art designed with meaning and significance, communicating a message that brought about the renewal of culture over 220 years ago. Its symbols and slogans are to the whole, as each work is to The Cause Collection, an effort to raise consciousness of the need today for cultural renewal while achieving what's possible when . . .
IN GOD WE TRUST.