“Signs and symbols rule the world, not words or laws.”Confucius
Symbolism is an often overlooked but ancient language that is in essence a trigger for imparting sacred information or subliminal messages. It’s a catalyst for perceptions, beliefs and emotions. Similarly to body language, it transcends barriers of language, nationality, culture and religion. Symbols are similar to signs but unique in that they are more heavily cognitive and generally arouse a deeper emotional response. A sign is typically straight forward and simply conveying information while a symbol is an expression of a deeper belief structure, representation or simply holds multiple meanings. The word symbol derives from the Greek word sumbolon which is a mark of recognition. From this, the Latin word symbolum came into being meaning representation of something.
To early human kind and up into recent times, symbolism was incredibly nuanced and important. There were signs and symbols everywhere embedded in the living landscape and even in animals. We know symbols were also important to early humans simply because of the vast array of symbols on ancient cave art or other archaeological monuments. Humans have seemingly always had an enduring need to reflect on their natural surroundings and try to make sense of the chaos that surrounded them. Symbolism and storytelling likely developed somewhat side by side as a means to explain natural phenomena. As an example, there likely would have been stories told surrounding the movement of the sun, moon and stars. In conjunction with these stories, specific drawings may have been carved or etched into stone conveying the meaning of those collective stories within their communities. On some level, these drawings or carvings may have been signs as well in that they were placed on specific structures related to specific stories and therefore had a double meaning as both a sign and a symbol.
Belief systems in particular, notably religion and mythology typically tend to contain and promote a lot more symbolism. This could be that through these structures, humanity has simply tried to find solutions to difficult questions such as the phenomenon of existing at all or what we should truly be doing with our time while we’re here on earth. All religion and occult belief from astrology to the tarot has been built on symbolism and symbolic stories. Christianity and other monotheistic outcroppings were then subsequently built over top of what was in essence occult or pagan belief. These stories were and are not necessarily literal but sometimes may have been based on literal phenomenon and people. The stories often went on to become embellished or subtly changed, especially over time and as the story changed hands and cultures. One particularly popular motif the world wide over is of celebrating the underdog, the person least expected to succeed that ultimately ends up successful in the end. Cinderella is one popular and well known example of this very old motif. There is something captivating about our collective and individual human ability to overcome adversity.
This is possibly a function of survival of the fittest and the very real need to continue encouraging ourselves (also, collectively) to do, be and strive for our very best. No matter how bad the odds are stacked against us, surviving and thriving is possible. After all, life can be immensely hard and often we need as much encouragement as we can get. Another popular motif in mythology are the trickster tales, or stories told about the powers of good verses evil, or rather, I prefer to call them creative and destructive forces. We are captivated by stories where ‘good’ also triumphs against all odds. This is likely another function to increase our chances of survival, for often what we think, we believe more fully which ultimately can become our reality. This can lead to good things of course whereby a positive outlook truly leads to a positive outcome. However, when done to the level of what could be termed toxic positivity, it could lead to a bit of disillusionment in that we fail to act on real and genuine problems, taking an overly positive outlook that things will work out for the best on their own.
Although most of us might not admit it, somewhere deep within us is an unexplainable hope even when all might seem lost. It often isn’t until a particularly grim reality is staring us directly and unavoidably in the face that we will finally admit defeat. Often, even then it’s not considered a defeat, but rather, a surrender. Even in surrender, we often find peace and opportunities for growth, still looking at it from as positive of a perspective as we can. The famous psychologist Carl Jung was one of the first people to make sense of symbolism within the human unconsciousness or rather, collective unconsciousness since we cannot actively remember it. He formulated that there has to be a collective unconscious where universal archetypes have been present throughout human history. He set about to explain the phenomenon that similar stories and technologies seemingly developed during similar timeframes for vastly different human societies. This is also possibly due to reincarnation. It’s possible that as we move about the world, we carry bits and pieces of previous discoveries in our individual consciousness which becomes somehow animated and ‘discovered’ again in our new body, in another culture far away and seemingly unrelated geographically to our prior inhabitance. Regardless of whether the knowledge is passively carried within our ‘selves’ or stored in a collective unconscious bank of information that is able to be passively accessed, the effect is the same. One of my favorite symbols is that of the tree or tree of life. Carl Jung said of the tree…
“The tree is a symbol of the self in cross section… depicted in the process of growth. The roots represent the unconscious, whose trunk is the conscious and the branches represent individuation.”Carl Jung
Other popular symbols often have to do with universal primordial experiences, particularly regarding life, death and outside spiritual or psychic forces. One of the most prevalent symbols and popular with pagans and Christians alike is the cross. The early sun cross represented the sun or universal life force and would go on to represent Christ’s sacrifice. Early languages were likely very symbolic in that a symbol commonly represented multiple idealisms or concepts. It was only depending on its position in a line of other symbols could the reader then discern which meaning was being referred. Art is also another hugely important creative outlet for humans and some animals alike which is utterly full of symbolism. Our dreams and the language of the universe itself seemingly translates and reads best when understood as symbolism. Often when we dream, the dream is not to be taken literally, but there is a story to be gleaned where our brain and consciousness is making sense of our lived experiences and emotions. A dream of a relative dying is not necessarily a premonition of their death in the literal sense but merely a reflection of our fear of losing them. The impact of symbols and symbolic thought processes with a relation to understanding the universe and our physical world transcends the entire human experience and is embedded deeply within all cultures, languages and stories.
3 responses to “The Power of Symbolism”
What a great informative article. As a Druid and a designer by profession specialising in corporate image, I found this most interesting. Thank you.
Thank you Steve! That means a lot! 🙂
You are most welcome 😊