Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Symbolism?

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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Why Symbolism?

symbol: 1. a material object representing something...immaterial.  2. a letter, figure, or combination of letters used to represent an object or idea.

connotation: the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression

--The Random House Dictionary, Concise Edition

Explain Yourself!

Why does this article begin with a question? What might this type of title indicate about its purpose? The question-form of the title is, in itself, a symbol. You are reading this because you seek knowledge and insight, and in your seeking you question many things. What further symbolism does the question-form contain?

In order to discuss symbolism we must first understand two terms: denotation and connotation. Denotation is simply the dictionary definition of a word or phrase - its explicit meaning. The denotation for the word circle is “a closed plane curve of which all points are at an equal distance from the center.” Connotation, in contrast, is the meaning which goes beyond the definition. Connotations are usually ascribed to words, objects and figures by the culture or society that uses them. In the pagan realm, the connotation for circle includes the connectedness of all people (such as when they join hands in a circle) and the never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The Flower of Life

Consider the denotations and connotations of the following images and items:

pentagram           eagle           snow

black           wine           moon

U.S. flag           fountain pen           yardstick

As you can see, a simple word can carry multiple, often contradictory connotations. Remember: a word is a power. There is great power in words because of their connotations, not because of their dictionary definitions. A word or image that takes on a great deal of power and whose connotations become so thoroughly ingrained as to be almost subconscious has become a symbol. A symbol, then, is the image or word which embodies a concept on a very basic psychological and cultural level.

The difference between symbol and connotation lies in the level at which we perceive the meaning. A connotation is a mostly conscious perception of the secondary meaning of a word or image. We recognize on a conscious level the connotations of the words and images we see displayed in advertising, scrawled on city walls, and bandied about by politicians. But we perceive symbolism on a nearly subconscious level. We don’t often think consciously about what the pentagram or cross or Thor’s hammer means. But we FEEL what it means. The level or place of perception is what makes symbolism such a powerful tool.

Inverted pentagram from  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's Libri tres de occulta philosophia

You’re Only as Jung as You Feel

An object or image used in the same context over and over again becomes numinous, that is, charged with emotional meaning and significance. This emotional significance distinguishes a symbol from the mere image from which it derives.

The most powerful symbols of all are those that appeal to the subconscious and which tend to evoke the same reaction across many different cultures. The philosopher/psychologist Carl Jung termed these symbols archetypes, from the Greek (arkhe = principal or basic + tupiai = pattern or concept). St. Augustine describes his ideae principales (principal ideas=archetypes) in the following terms: “For the principal ideas are certain forms, or stable and unchangeable reasons for things, themselves not formed, and so continuing eternal and always after the same manner, which are contained in the divine understanding.” (St. Augustine, Liber de Diversis Quaestionibus, trans. Alan Glover)

Jung suggested that the archetypes are symbols whose inherent meaning and significance remains the same throughout all generations of the human race. Each individual inherits the same archetypes, deeply rooted in his or her psyche, and these archetypes remain the same regardless of culture, religion or family influence. Since Jung expressed his ideas far better than I can, let me quote here his introduction to Esther Harding’s book Woman’s Mysteries:
“The term archetype is not meant to denote an inherited idea, but rather an inherited mode of psychic other words, it is a ‘pattern of behavior.’ This aspect of the archetype is the biological one - it is the concern of scientific psychology. But the picture changes at once when looked at from the inside, that is from within the realm of the subjective psyche. Here the archetype presents itself as numinous, that is, it appears as an experience of fundamental importance. Whenever it clothes itself with adequate takes hold of the individual in a startling way, creating a condition of “being deeply moved” the consequences of which may be immeasurable. It is for this reason that the archetype is so important for the psychology of religion. All religions and all metaphysical concepts rest upon archetypal foundations and, to the extent that we are able to explore them, we succeed in gaining at least a superficial glance behind the scenes of world history, and can lift a little the veil of mystery which hides the meaning of metaphysical ideas.”
Triple spiral based on carvings at Newgrange, Ireland

Answer the Bloody Question, Already

Jung’s description of the archetype touches on the title question for this class: Why symbolism? Symbolism in religion is both a process and a tool. With symbols we can reach a part of the psyche that daily life never touches. We achieve, almost effortlessly, a deeper level of understanding and meaning with the symbols of a religious service. How often have you been deeply moved by a symbol? What sort of symbol was it - a flag, a photo, a wedding ring, a cup of wine, car keys, a lighted candle? Often these images and items are part of a ritual, formalized or not, overtly religious or not. Let us consider a few of the more common neo-pagan symbols and their various levels of meaning.

The Sacred Blade: This tool (referred to in some traditions as the athame) is usually seen as an extension of the individual’s will. As with so many neo-Pagan symbols, its elemental and gender affiliations change from one tradition to another. It is usually interpreted as a masculine symbol/tool, both because of its shape and because of its association with the classical elements of Fire and Air. The actual object is a personal tool so the symbolism surrounding the blade is that of personal power and initiative. We can contrast this level of personal symbolism with the communal symbolism embodied in the sword.

The Sword: The sword is most often a Wiccan tool and symbol. When it is used, its presence suggests the power of the officiant (priest or priestess) and/or the power of the group as a whole. In Wiccan ceremonies the placement and use of the sword also shows the participants whether the male or female deity holds the greater power, given the time of year. In this way the sword carries both gender associations, as opposed to the solely masculine symbolism of the sacred blade. How does this level of symbolism provide a different effect on ritual participants than the personal symbolism of an athame?

Flame: The flame of a single candle or a blazing bonfire has a marked effect on those doing reverence in its presence. Fire as a metaphysical element is a powerful symbol, perhaps residing in the psyche at an archetypal level. It represents, among other things, life, power, passion, enlightenment....what else can you think of? It is interesting to note which traditions and cultures consider fire masculine and which consider it feminine. What is your experience with these associations?

The Cup or Bowl: This is the quintessential cross-cultural womb symbol. Thus it also symbolizes fertility, generation, the feminine and creativity. It appears on Tarot cards, in school and university emblems, and in religious services around the world. Some of its many forms include the chalice and the cauldron. Which versions are you familiar with and what traditions or cultures do they come from? How do the different image forms alter your response to the overall symbol? Compare your gut reaction to the Catholic communion chalice and the goddess' cauldron of rebirth.

The Tree: The long-lived, ever-growing tree is a powerful symbol in many varieties of neo-paganism. For the Druids the tree, and often specific species of trees, carries magickal meaning and power relating to the cycles of the solar and lunar year. The Norse envision a tree (the great ash Yggdrassil) as the “backbone” of worldly creation, linking the heavens at the treetop through the earth to the underworld at its roots. In modern pagan meditation the tree can symbolize the human spinal column and its flow of energy, as we saw in the grounding and centering meditation.

What other symbols are common to various neo-pagan traditions and practices? How have you experienced these symbols and how did their use affect you?

Grave chalice of bishop Adalvard the Elder of Skara (died c.1064)


The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images by The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them by Hans Biedermann

Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J.C. Cooper