In the sixth century BCE, before the beginning of classical Greek civilization, a mysterious man was traveling in a circle encompassing Greece, not stopping to eat or drink except at the sanctuaries of the Gods. He traveled swift as the wind — some said his feet didn’t touch the ground — banishing pestilence and purifying the land. He held a peculiar sort of golden arrow, by which he traveled. They said he was possessed by Apollo and came as a prophet and envoy from Hyperborea, the land beyond the North Wind especially dear to Apollo (most likely northern Asia).
His name was Abaris, which simply means “the Avar,” referring to the nomadic bowmen of Mongolia. This is according to classical scholar Peter Kingsley’s exquisite and well-documented new book, A Story Waiting to Pierce You, a source for much of this article. Abaris was called a Skywalker (Grk. aithrobatês), the Greek translation of words common in Tibet and Mongolia to describe shamans, but also arrows (e.g., Tib. khandro).
One early account of the Avar Skywalker says that Apollo himself had given him the arrow, which was made of gold and unusually bulky. But the Greek word belos, often translated “arrow,” can also refer to a dart, javelin, or any terrifying missile that strikes from afar. (One of Apollo’s common epithets is Hekêbolos — Far-Darter — for his arrows strike out of nowhere, bringing pestilence, but also sudden cures, inspiration, and illumination.) Kingsley argues that Abaris’ golden dart was a Phurba, the three-bladed ritual dagger of Mongolian and Tibetan shamans, of Tibetan Buddhists, and of Indian Vedic practitioners. As will be explained shortly, it is simultaneously arrow, dart, dagger, and stake.
To traverse the thousands of miles from Hyperborea to Greece, Abaris would have traveled in an ecstatic trance, like the Tibetan “wind walkers,” whose feet scarcely touch the ground, if at all. Complete inner stillness and control of subtle energies (using lung-gom-pa, the “wind-energy meditation”) enables superhuman outer abilities. He would have flown across the landscape, carried by his Phurba, held in front, in the same way that water witches are dragged about by their willow wands.
Apollo had given Abaris the golden arrow as a token of divine sanction. He was described as an ambassador from the Hyperboreans, which is unsurprising when we learn that Mongol ambassadors were sent with a golden arrow as a token of trust from the Khan, often conferring spiritual authority on its recipient. These envoys fly like magical arrows to their destinations, penetrating all obstructions, finding their way unerringly. Ancient sources say explicitly that Abaris traveled in a circle around Greece, and the Mongols called their envoys “arrow circulators,” which is also how they were described by Chinese observers (chuanjian, chuanjian dahua, chuanjian tonghua).
By definition, a new era, a revolution in thought, cannot grow out of the dichotomies and structures — the being — of the past, which define the shape of possibility. The future must be created afresh by those who are able to journey to the undifferentiated ground that underlies being and to bring back a new dispensation from the gods and the ancestors. This is the task of the Skywalkers, who visit Heaven and the Underworld, and then become the Arrow Circulators, who cast a sacred circle round a land and consecrate it to a new destiny. What destiny did Abaris bring?
Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century BCE, holds a unique position in the history of Western science and esotericism, for the Pythagoreans understood numbers both scientifically and mystically, a unified view lost to contemporary science. The Pythagorean influence was profound. Both Copernicus (who called his heliocentric model “the Pythagorean theory”) and Newton (whose was obsessed with occult forces and alchemy) appealed to ancient Pythagorean ideas. But these are just two examples, for this 2600-year long river of thought and practice runs deep under the Western world.
Ancient biographies tell us that the Delphic Oracle predicted Pythagoras’ birth and that in fact he was the son of Hyperborean Apollo. (His name refers to “the Pythian,” that is, to Apollo.) These biographies also say that Abaris came to Pythagoras and gave him the golden “arrow,” conferring on him the authority to, in effect, establish the European scientific, esoteric, and spiritual traditions. Abaris also saw that Pythagoras had a golden thigh, evidence of a shamanic initiation, in which the future shaman’s body is torn to pieces and reassembled, but with one human part made divine. Many of Pythagoras’ teachers and students display shamanic abilities, including being in two places at once, traveling to spirit realms in trance, journeying on a magic dart, accompanying Apollo as a bird, and remembering past lives. Indeed, Pythagoras could identify objects he had owned in previous incarnations. This is, of course, one of the techniques by which a reincarnated spiritual or worldly leader (Tib. tulku) is identified; the Dalai Lama is the best-known example.
Pythagoras formed a spiritual fellowship devoted to promoting a better way of life for people as individuals, in community, and in the state. He even coined a word for their Love of Sophia (Wisdom): philo-sophia. For in the ancient world philosophy was not a sterile academic study; it was a way of life built around ethical behavior, spiritual practices, and mystical experience. Pythagoreanism is the fountainhead of most of Western mysticism, especially of the theurgical practices for invoking the Gods. (See my “Summary of Pythagorean Theology.”) This tradition is central to the destiny of Western civilization, but it has been marginalized for many centuries in favor of strict materialism.
A traditional Phurba is divided into three distinct parts: the pommel, the handle, and the blade: its head, body, and feet (see the figure). Symbolically these correspond to the three realms of shamanic cosmology: the heavens, earth, and the underworld. Appropriately, the shaman grasps the Phurba by its handle (the human realm) and holds it like a dagger, with the blade downward.
From a Pythagorean perspective, the three parts of the Phurba also represent the three realms of (1) spirit or mind (which is eternal and of the essence of the divine), (2) the soul (which brings the divine into active manifestation in time and space), and (3) matter (which is animated by the soul). These three levels structure the macrocosm as a whole and are mirrored in the microcosms of individual people. In this way the shaman identifies with the Phurba.
For Tibetan Buddhists the upper half of the Phurba (pommel and handle) represents nirvana, and the blade represents samsara (the illusory world of the senses). As a whole the Phurba symbolizes their union in a single primordial nature, the Ineffable One, the awareness of which is the essence of wisdom.
Although there are many kinds of Phurbas, the pommel usually has three faces, representing three aspects of Vajrakilaya (Tib. Dorje Phurba)—the deity governing and immanent in the Phurba (kilaya is a form of Sanskrit kila, which translates Tibetan phurba; vajra kila means “unshakable or indestructible phurba”). The three faces are Vajrakilaya’s joyful, peaceful, and wrathful aspects (a compassionate wrath that destroys dualistic delusions, obstructions, and other negative influences by transmuting them into wisdom). This is, however, just one of the many layers of meaning. For example, the faces also represent Buddha's “threefold body” (Skt. trikaya): his individual mortal personality, his timeless Buddha nature, and his spiritual joy in teaching. They also represent the basis, path, and result of spiritual practice. Above the three faces is a unifying symbol, such as a half-vajra (half-thunderbolt), symbolizing enlightenment, the indestructible nature of awareness. A Pythagorean might see the three aspects of the Ineffable One: Existence, Life, and Mind, which recur in various guises throughout the divine realms.
The handle of the Phurba takes the form of a stylized thunderbolt (Skt. vajra, Tib. dorje), although it is often represented as tied with cloth or “eternal knots.” This is appropriate for the human realm, for our souls are embodied; the divine spark is bound and hidden inside. It also protects holders who might not be fully qualified and empowered to wield the Phurba.
The blade has three triangular faces, thereby incorporating the divine numbers Three and Nine. For Buddhists the blade represents the “three poisons” that block spiritual progress: (1) desire and excessive attachment, (2) aversion, fear, and anger, and (3) delusion and ignorance (from which the other two arise). In an instant these three demons can be ensnared by the Phurba’s blade and banished through its point, which represents the one-pointed concentration of the fully enlightened mind that has penetrated all obstructions and obscurity. Thus the Phurba is thrust firmly into the earth like a tent stake. The staked demons are immobilized but not destroyed, so their power may be transmuted and used constructively. Negative mental states are liberated from duality and dissolved into the undifferentiated ground of primordial nature, supreme awareness wisdom (which is also Vajrakilaya). This wisdom reveals that these mental states have no inherent existence; they are “empty.” Vajrakilaya neutralizes obstacles as the sun dispels obscurity and darkness, or as Apollo’s bright arrows purify whatever they strike.
The faces of the blade are decorated usually with serpents (the Nagas), especially two intertwined serpents reminiscent of Hermes’ caduceus. The blade may flow from the mouth of a monster (often the makara, an elephant-crocodile chimera), whose head surmounts the blade. Thus the blade represents the subterranean waters and the monsters that dwell therein. But the monster’s mouth, which is at the Phurba’s navel, unites nirvana (represented by the phurba’s upper part) with samsara (represented by the blade) and symbolizes the compassion that enlightened beings pour onto unliberated beings. It removes obstacles for those who have wandered off the path of enlightenment.
The symbolism is similar in Pythagorean philosophy, for Hades, the Underworld, is a symbol of the material world — the world of demonic distractions — in which everything is in flux, and thus symbolized by water. In Greek myth, Apollo killed the Python, a subterranean monster, and built his Delphic temple upon its body. Delphi is considered the World’s Navel, from which the Pythia, the Delphic oracle, makes her pronouncements.
Many think the original use of the Phurba was as a tent stake. As such it is an instrument of stability, in the mind as well as in the physical world. It establishes the bounds of the tent, and therefore is also used for establishing sacred space, immobilizing all malignant forces, especially those coming from below.
Like the shamanic World Tree, the Phurba is planted in the Center, the Cosmic Axis, the Navel of the Earth. Its pommel is the crown of the World Tree, its handle the trunk, and its blade the roots, penetrating and grounded in Mother Earth. Therefore the Phurba is the means by which the shaman journeys on the Cosmic Tree, ascending up the trunk into the Heavens or down its roots into the Underworld.
The Samoyeds of Siberia saw the Pole Star, which marks the cosmic axis, as the “Sky Nail” that anchors the canopy of the sky, like a macrocosmic tent, to Earth. Thus the Phurba is a symbol of the cosmic pillar penetrating the Earth at Her navel. Mountains, which are natural comic pillars joining Heaven and Earth, are called “Phurbas of the Earth” (Tib. sa-yi phurba). For practitioners of Bön (pre-Buddhist Tibetan shamanism) the Phurba was also a symbol of the lightening bolt striking the Earth and of the rays of the Sun. Consistent with these images of power descending from Heaven, meteoric iron, which they called “Sky Iron,” was prized for making Phurbas (although Phurbas of different materials and colors are used for different purposes). Thus the Phurba is the magical dart or arrow shot by a God from Heaven to Earth, bringing the Divine into the human realm.
The Phurba thus represents illumination from Heaven—the Sun’s rays—Apollo’s arrows. But if the arrow-rays descend from Heaven to Earth, they are also provide the ladder by which one may ascend to the Heavens. As shamans from many cultures shoot arrows into the Sun, so the Phurba becomes an instrument by which they ascend to the celestial realms.
The Chaldean Oracles are an inspired text dictated by the Goddess Hekate and fundamental to the practice of divine ascent taught by Pythagoras’ Neoplatonic successors. In the Oracles the theurgist is told to invoke the Three-barbed Strength in their spirit and soul to assist in the ascent on the rays of the Ineffable One.
Riding the Phurba to ascend the rays of the spiritual Sun is equivalent to allowing it to carry you into the depths of your soul, to pierce your inmost heart, which Pythagoreans call the Central Fire, around which your psyche orbits.
I will mention briefly some ways to use the Phurba in ritual and spiritual practice. However, I’m obliged to mention some cautions. Abusing the powers of the Phurba will be at best ineffective, but can rebound seven-fold against the Phurba’s wielder, and even against their family, friends, and the wider community. This is why, in Tibetan Buddhism, practice with the physical Phurba is built on three prerequisite Phurba practices: the awareness-wisdom Phurba, the immeasurable-compassion Phurba, and the bodhichitta Phurba (bodhichitta being the enlightened heart, uniting love and compassion). Without a solid spiritual and ethical foundation, practicing magic is foolhardy.
As cosmic tent stake, world pillar, and nail to immobilize demons, the Phurba is a tool of stable awareness and one-pointed concentration. Hold the Phurba, point downward, between your palms in “prayer position.” Meditate on its stability and ability to fix consciousness, anchoring it at the world axis. Vajrakilaya may bring you awareness of the non-dual ground of everything.
The Phurba may be used more actively to banish obstructions on the path to enlightenment. Holding it like a dagger, but with just the thumb and middle two fingers (like the “horns sign”), use it to ensnare all impediments on the blade, and to transform them into emptiness at the point, which you can plunge into the ground or into a basket or bowl of rice. The Phurba can be used for other kinds of healing, manipulating vital energies and subtle bodies, grounding out malignant forces. The top of the pommel, which represents supreme wisdom and compassion, is used for blessing.
In traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice, negative spirits (especially ignorance) are invited to accept generous offerings of primordial wisdom, in order to transmute them to positive spirits. They are banished if they are too strong to be transmuted at that time. Then, a protective boundary or wheel (Tib. sung khor) is cast. The five wind-energies, which correspond to the five elements, are projected as the layers of a protective tent, each contributing its characteristic power of protection.
In a Tibetan Vajrakilaya visualization, the practitioner identifies with Vajrakilaya in order to banish the four demons (concerned with the aggregates, the emotions, death, and the Gods). The palace of Vajrakilaya arises out of the undifferentiated ground of being, which is represented by the Tibetan or Sanskrit letter for E, since Eka is the Sanskrit word for “One.” Interestingly, Apollo’s temple at Delphi had the Greek letter E on it, which the ancients were at a loss to explain; perhaps it referred to the ineffable One (Grk. EN, pronounced hen). Next, the visualization follows an upward 4-3-2-1 pattern reminiscent of the Pythagorean sacred symbol, the Tetractys (a triangular arrangement of ten dots, 4-3-2-1 from bottom to top). In the center of the palace is a four-spoke wheel, like a throwing-star. The four spokes are the “great gate keepers,” the boundless meditations on love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Above the wheel is a triangular platform, representing the “three doors of liberation” (basis, path, and result). Above this are symbols of duality: sun and moon disks and male and female demons; the male represents anger and the female attachment. Above them is Vajrakumara (Tib. Dorje Zhönu), whose name means Indestructible Youth. This is an alter ego of Vajrakilaya, and recalls Apollo’s ancient and regular representation as a youth. Vajrakumara’s right hand holds a Vajra scepter upward (skillful means), and his left a Phurba downward (wisdom). With his wings he can fly everywhere and penetrate any obstacle. Joined with him in sexual union is his consort Diptachakra (Tib. Khorlo Gyedeb), who represents Secret Wisdom (Grk. Sophia or Gnôsis), which complements his Awareness; her knife severs ego-clinging and neurosis. The Phurba is the nail of primordial wisdom, which makes the visualization stable and firm.
The Kilaya Tantra says that the universe and everything in it has the form of the Phurba, which is thus a universal symbol; it has a head, body, and feet, just like a person. When shamans are about to journey, they hold the Phurba and identify with it; they become the Phurba. Then they can journey, like the dart, wherever required, swiftly penetrating all obstacles to reach their goal. Shaman and arrow are both called Skywalker, because they are one.
That is enough for now. As the Tibetans’ Guru Rinpoche asked, “Now that you know what the Phurba is, where will you put it?”