The most well known symbols on the walls of the Salt Lake Temple are the Earth, Moon, Sun and Star stones. That is so, likely, because they are easily understood in terms of our present cosmology. Yet, they also have an iconographic role in the cosmology of antiquity, as do all temple icons.
The Earthstones are located at the bottom of the temple buttresses. Most Saints take them to symbolize the earthly nature of the telestial kingdom, the least of the three degrees of glory.
However, their position at the bottom of the wall is also reflective of Earth’s position in the polar alignment of antiquity. Its inferior position at the ‘bottom’ of the group allowed ancient man to see the other planets in the congregation in Earth’s northern skies. So, the positioning of the Earthstones at the base of the temple buttresses, beneath the other astronomical stones, is entirely appropriate.
As our eyes ascend those same buttresses, the next symbol we see is that of the moon.
The Moonstones portray the various phases of the moon as it goes through a complete cycle. Their presentation on the temple walls was the result of on-site observations made by Elder Orson Pratt, a member of the twelve, from a modest observatory constructed on the temple grounds for that very purpose. Elder Pratt was a recognized, world-renown mathematician and astronomer in his day.
The reasons for the use of Moonstones are complex because they represent both current cosmology and aspects of ancient cosmology, presenting certain aspects of two planets in Earth’s ancient heavens. The application of Moonstones to the present order of the heavens needs little explanation, but their relation to the ancient heavens is complex and needs further exposition.
After the catastrophic change of the heavens from ancient to modern, mankind sought to find similarities between the old cosmological order and the new. For example, unique groupings of stars—constellations—were identified (12 of them, naturally, as with so many ancient icons) and attributed identities and attributes to them once reserved for the planetary gods of the old celestial order. In the same process, the moon inherited much of the imagery originally connected to both Venus and Saturn, partly due to its brightness—second only to the sun in the new cosmological order—and partly due to its uniquely distinct, highly visible crescent.
The moon’s brightness is important in this comparison because next to Saturn, Venus had been the brightest object in the ancient heavens — even exceeding Saturn in brightness at certain junctures in its metamorphic evolution. In the new heavenly order, the moon assumed the number two role of second brightest, just as Venus had been second only to Saturn. Additionally, the moon was the only celestial object that persistently changed its appearance as Venus had done in the old heavens. For these reasons, the symbolism of Venus was shifted to the moon in the new heavenly order. The moon was given a similar identity, including its characterization as a female deity.
The moon’s crescent is a still more powerful reminder of ancient Saturn and its imposing crescent. The crescent of Saturn was a veritable fount of symbolism. From it came the idea of a horned god, the Apis cult and the worship of bovine animals.
It was also the ship of heaven, pictured in innumerable Egyptian documents such as the facsimiles Joseph Smith acquired.
Positioned atop the pillar, it was thought of as the outstretched arms or wings of the Heaven Man or an angel.
It provided twin peaks for the World Mountain or the Twin Pillars that stood before the throne of god.
It was the crescent’s appearance upon ancient Saturn that first gave man the concept of time. Up until then, there was no means of timekeeping. It was always light; there was no darkness. The crescent appeared to rotate around Saturn once each day, due to Earth’s rotation. Thus it became the delineator of time in antiquity.
In the new cosmological order, the moon inherited that role as the timekeeper. Also, it was used as a calendrical device in many ancient temples for religious festivals. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that modern temples have moon icons, and their placement above the Earthstones is also consistent with the present cosmological order.
The meaning of the Sunstones, like that of the Moonstones, is also complicated by their duality. Saturn symbols are often confused with sun symbols when encountered in ancient temples and texts by modern anthropologists. It is for this reason that scholars tag most ancient cultures as “sun worshippers.” This same pluralism manifests itself in the case of the Salt Lake Temple’s Sunstones. In the present cosmological order, they do represent our sun, but they are also representative of the ancient, best sun, Saturn. For much the same reason, the Babylonians called the sun Shamash, but they also wrote that Saturn was Shamash.
As with the other buttress icons in the Salt Lake Temple, the Starstones represent both the modern and the ancient heavens. Clearly, our evening sky is bejeweled with countless stars, making them an appropriate icon for a temple. But the actual star symbol is nowhere to be seen in today’s heavens. The cultural image of a star has nothing to do with those tiny pinpoints of light in our night sky. It was unique to Earth’s ancient heavens where Venus became the prototype of all star icons. (See “The Saturn Epic: In The Beginning.")
In fact, the very word star (str) derives from the ancient goddess Astarte (Aster, Ashtoreth) that virtually all mythologists acknowledge as the planet Venus and can be seen in other words, having to do with things celestial, such as ‘astronomy’ and ‘astronaut.’
Thus it is that the most familiar icons on the Salt Lake Temple can be understood more fully by seeing them in terms of Earth’s ancient skies. Indeed, in many cases, they can only be understood in those terms.
The six towers or spires
Look, for example at the six towers or spires on the temple. Rather than terminating in a peak, each is crowned with a sphere.
This may seem nothing more than decoration until one considers that such a structure once stood in earthly skies.
Indeed, the six spires on the temple are replicas of the ancient World Mountain, the pillar that sustained all heaven — the same icon from which the Egyptians derived their pyramids.
Should doubt persist about this interpretation of those spires, consider that the temple is frequently referred to in scripture as “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” This phrase makes no sense in ordinary terms. But in the language of Saturn symbolism, it makes perfect sense. If, as the ancients surely did, you consider the house or throne of god to be the orb at the peak, the structure beneath it becomes a high hill or mountain. Together, pillar and orb form the temple of god, or “the mountain of the Lord’s house.”
Thus we see that the symbols give meaning to the metaphor of scripture and vice versa. This type of interconnected unity between icon and metaphor can only be achieved by acknowledging the reality of the polar alignment of planets as Talbott and Joseph Smith depict them. This argues eloquently for the validity of this thesis.
The fact that the spires are grouped in threes is said to reflect the trinity of the godhead, but it may also reflect that three orbs were visible to the ancients.
The angel Moroni
The most dominant icon on the Salt Lake Temple is the statue of the angel Moroni, which stands atop the center spire at the east end of the temple. The most fascinating part of this statue is the trumpet he holds. Popular opinion among the Saints holds it to symbolize the sounding of the gospel to all the world. It also suggests a connection to the trumpet sounds to be heard in the Last Days, as described in Revelation. To those who have studied ancient cosmology, it points to the very real sounds that once appeared to emanate from the planetary powers that stood over the Earth, sounds that very much resembled that of trumpets. Indeed, the very instrument itself may have been invented by ancient man to duplicate the sounds once heard in the heavens. (See “The Name of God.”)
Truman O. Angel’s original illustrations of the Cloudstones for the temple depicted hand-held trumpets protruding from beneath the clouds, pointing downwards. If one understands the clouds to be a representation of Saturn or Jupiter in one of its dark or hidden phases, then the trumpets are most appropriate because it was at this catastrophic juncture in the Saturn saga that those trumpet-like sounds were most likely heard.
The baptismal font and the twelve oxen
The baptismal font in the Salt Lake Temple sets atop the backs of twelve exquisitely carved oxen.
This may seem a strange juxtaposition of images until seen in light of the ancient co-linear configuration of planets.
The horned oxen harken back to the apis statuary so common in Middle Eastern temples of antiquity. The horned bull is often depicted in Egyptian and Babylonian art. In the Saturn tradition, the crescent on Saturn was the prototype of the horns on a bull or cow, giving rise to all such worship, metaphor, iconography and art in antiquity. This is an element that properly, traditionally belongs in a temple.
Seen from ground level, the oxen and laver bear no resemblance to Saturn symbols. But if seen from above, the arrangement becomes a circle with 12 oxen evenly spaced around its edge. This is clearly Saturnian. The 12 oxen are the equivalent of the twelve numbers on a circular clock face, the 12 signs of the zodiac arranged in a circle, 12 gates to the heavenly temple as envisioned by John in Revelation, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles. It also suggests an origin for the baptismal rite in Saturn traditions. Indeed, when closely analyzed, much of the ritual and its trappings within the temple have Saturnian touches.
The Nauvoo temple icons
Many of these same icons were originally used in the Nauvoo temple. However, a close look shows that the icons on the walls of the Salt Lake Temple were not carbon copies of those used in Nauvoo. This indicates a great flexibility in the appearance and use of these symbols, yet it shows the enduring nature of the archetypes that continue to inspire the icons. No temple, ancient or modern would be complete without them.
The way these icons are depicted is consistent with the original celestial pattern. Their placement and appearance is not haphazard or capricious. It all stems from a studied grasp of ancient traditions as they apply to temple tradition and the gospel. While parts of temple iconography reflect the modern heavens and the teachings of Christ, other parts reflect the ancient heavens and traditions. Accordingly, a grasp of the ancient message of temple architecture is almost as important as the sacred covenants administered within its walls.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2001