[Author's Note: One of the things that interests me about patches from black projects has to do with artistic traditions that try to represent things that cannot, or must not, be represented. Here's a short text about that question that didn't make it into the book's final edit.
The visual language of patches and symbols from black projects ? its symbology ? recalls other symbolic systems that have surprisingly long traditions. For millennia, artists and mystics have pondered the question of how to represent that, which by definition, cannot or must not be represented.
Religions have always adopted rich symbolic languages to signify the different aspects of their respective forms of faith and mythology. In religion, symbols have always played a iconographic and ritualistic role. Different symbols might represent different theological ideas. In Christianity, the symbol of the lamb represents Jesus Christ, whose death is seen as being akin to a sacrificial lamb. In Buddhism, the Lotus flower represents the growth and blossoming of spiritual enlightenment. For adherents of these religions, an understanding of symbols goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of the faith's theological tenets, and a deeper understanding of its "mysteries."
Before Christianity became the Roman Empire's official religion in the 4th Century, "mystery religions" organized around a central canon of secret knowledge were widespread. Membership in such religions was limited to people who had passed through secret initiation rituals, and had begun to learn a body of hidden knowledge. Because they were forbidden to speak to outsiders about the religion's secrets, initiates of these religions were called mysteria, meaning "initiate" or "to keep silent." The Greco-Roman world was home to numerous mystery religions: Eleusinian Mysteries, Orphism, the Cult of Isis, Orphism, Manichaeism, the Cult of Dionysys, the Cult of Tammuz, and Mithraism. All were surrounded by an intricate symbolic language that spoke to a respective mystery.
Take Mithraism, whose symbolic language was organized around the figure of Mithras slitting a bull's throat ? called a tauroctony ? and accompanied by various figures from the zodiac. Today we have almost no information about Mithraic theology, or its tenets. Its secrets seem to have died with the religion itself. But we do have a wealth of visual culture surviving from the religion, whose shrines, frescoes, and artifacts remain littered throughout the former Roman Empire. As one scholar lamented, the legacy of Mithraism is "like a book of pictures with the text missing."
Nonetheless, the symbolic language of Mithraism holds enormous clues about the secret knowledge at the religion's core. According to religious studies scholar David Ulansay, Mithraic symbolism represented an elaborate system of star charts, whose arrangement seems to suggest that the Mithraists had discovered a very powerful secret indeed. By projecting Mithraic symbolism onto the night sky, then taking into account the changes in the night sky over thousands of years, Ulansay showed that the Mithraists had discovered the precession of the equinoxes. By decoding Mithraisms symbols, Ulansay showed that the tauroctony represents the god Mithras (based on the constellation Perseus) ending the astrological age of Taurus by slitting the bull's throat, thereby inaugurating the Age of Aries (which began around 1658 BC and lasted until the Sixth Century AD). In an ancient world where people believed that destiny was written into the stars, a God capable of shifting the stars' axis held tremendous power, and was indeed worthy of worship. Although it took Ulansay many years to decode the Mithraic symbols, the key to understanding its mysteries had been hidden in plain sight all along.
Mithraism was far from alone in its use of a symbolic language that both revealed and protected its mysteries. Early Christians had a similarly complicated and secret visual language that meant something to the initiated, but remained obscure to outsiders. Take the image of the fish. In Greek, the word ??T?S (Ichthys), was an acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Legend holds that in the early days of the religion (when being a Christian was illegal) if a devotee encountered someone they suspected of sharing the faith, they would draw the top half of the fish. If the other person completed the image, they both knew that they had a spiritual kinship. Of course, the fish symbol also resonated with a number of stories in the New Testament. The Christian religion used other symbols to connote that various aspects of its "mysteries" (and Christianity was very much influenced by the mystery religions surrounding it) that have been handed down to us: the chalice and host signifying the communion; the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) representing Jesus' role as a sacrificial lamb; and the trefoil representing the Trinity.
One can turn today to the rich visual language of Freemasonry, or to Scientology (whose symbols are trademarked and therefore cannot be reproduced here). One need look no further than a dollar bill (particularly the back side) to see the use of esoteric symbols in everyday life.