Thursday, November 10, 2016

What's In A Symbol?

cave painting
Horse from Peche-Merle cave, France.
Note continuation of dotted sequence out-with the stylised form. 

Lascaux caves
Dotted sequence from Lascaux, France.

In these posts I’ve been busy explaining a few symbols… but exactly what is a symbol? How does it function? In this post I’m going to attempt to explain this. 

30,000 years ago Palaeolithic peoples decorated portable objects with sequences of incisions and dots. That’s 20,000 years before the first recognised forms of writing appeared! Natural forms were translated from the realistic to line drawings, these were pared down, in time some evolved into language, the Chinese language being a great example that exists today - though strictly speaking Chinese characters are logograms, the symbols representing phrases, evolving from ideograms (even the Latin alphabet may still retain elements of its pictorial correspondences). Others take on deeper significance.

Palaeolithic artists left intriguing symbols in the  caves throughout Europe. Some tantalising glimpses of the development of pictograms are evident from these sites: such as the horse painting from Perch-Merle in France - or  sequences of dots found at other sites including Lascaux (see pics). Such instances (and the frequent repetition of  such motifs) point to their existence being more than mere decoration;  imparting other significance to images they might accompany (or significance in their own right). Some prehistorians postulate that a coherent system of meaning once underpinned these designs. Perhaps they imparted hunting information - though the general academic consensus these days is that Palaeolithic cave art was religious in function - the designs were likely relaying mythological ideas.  

Lascaux cave
Vagina in symbolic form, Chauvet Cave
In the above picture it is obvious that the motif represents the idea of a vagina, but it is no naturalistic image. The female reproduction organs have been singled out, streamlined: it has become a symbol! We can only speculate as to its 'then' meaning (possibly fertility, the miracle of birth, or sex - though it reminds me of a headless little goddess figurine from the period).   

We know a lot more about Neolithic symbols and those from the Iron-age, yet our full understanding is still sketchy (Christianity had a propensity to zealously obliterate pagan religion, thus much has been lost to us). With the arrival of the monotheistic religions older symbols were utilised, but new layers of significance were often attached or older concepts were updated to suit (the easiest way to destroy another faith it to incorporate it into the corpus of your own - albeit in a mute and powerless form). 

Maori facial tattoo
Maori traditional Tā Moko, sacred facial tattoos.
In ancient civilisations where little distinction was drawn between the profane and supernatural worlds, we can glimpse the power that symbols can possess. For example Maori tattoos  not only display lineage, rank, but also spiritual and moral leanings.  

Thus, given that symbols are enduring and many remain through the ages, let me point this out: a symbol is no single thing, it is a multi-layered concept.  They can be  devices invested with emotive and conceptual values, reflections of mythology, or religion. But to the viewer who is aware of their significance the symbol is an element that reflects some deeper meaning or paradigm. 

Sure, there are symbols that are purely utilitarian and functional, especially in our modern consumerist, rational biased society. Those symbols that denote an object, or are just trademarks, describe or associate some corporation/product with a logo,  are little more than references that have acquired a recognised association (the loo sign). Jung did not see these as true symbols. To this famous psychoanalyst a symbol  possessed, in addition to its conventional connotation, ‘something else’, something hidden, vague or unknown to us. So a symbolic image “is one that implies something other than its immediate and obvious meaning.”

For Romanian historian,  Mircea Eliade, symbols revealed aspects of reality. Eliade did not see symbols and myths as blind creations of the psyche but systems of thought that corresponded to necessary function, bringing light to the hidden modalities of being. Symbols and myth enable people to elevate themselves into a spiritual world that is beyond the historic present and therefore offers great richness. He believed that the study of symbolism could enable people to gain a more comprehensive knowledge of themselves.

bollingen stone
In the Bolligen Stone, which Jung carved,
alchemical influence is apparent.

In these posts I’ve covered some ground, some more deeply that other topics, but each time I believe I have shown that symbols, especially those from the distant past, are layered with meaning. Symbols bear significance on multiple layers, like archaeological strata. For instance  the triskele, or the nature of triplism (see blog). Modern symbolism has its roots in this distant past (extending as far back as the later Palaeolithic period). So-called primitive humankind was, to a large extent,  inspired/moved and driven into awe by natural phenomena: mountains, storms, hurricanes, floods, the constellations… inspiring common mythological themes that are enduring and lasting, perhaps even embedded in the collective psyche of our race. 

Alchemy sought to make spiritual ’truths’ manifest in material. It was a blend of the esoteric and material. Every element, every motion, every instrument  and process  was symbolised; intellectually and spiritually. Later psychoanalysts (most famously Jung), saw alchemy as “possessing psychological precision,” as Bachelard put it. Jung recognised in alchemy a stimulant for the deepest regions of the psyche. He thought that the symbolism inherent in his psychoanalytical method offered a universal theory and a destiny for the soul: “Symbolism is thinking in symbols, the crystallisation of the inner life. Uniting the material with the supernatural/magical/mythical.” 

hermetic symbol
Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, 1617.

Alchemical Garden 17th c.

This Hermetic page is laden with symbolism.

In those magical realms a symbol can be thought of as a “condenser of consciousness”, “a practical link between objective and  subjective existence". In modern magical thought a magical symbol is seen as a concept for energy-exchanges between different levels/worlds of living. 

Others say that symbols only exist within, like the idea of archetypes and myth being something that envelops the collective consciousness, while others point out that macrocosm = microcosm - therefore the symbol is something that transcends the boundaries of ordinary reality, binding the natural to mythological/magical/metaphysical ‘truths'. 

To a large part I see symbols as trigger mechanisms. When you buy a Celtic ring made in China and the shop has some guff written about how it means spiritual growth, it doesn’t matter (of course these new-age meanings are like a cheap veneer on older symbols, but it's  all part of the course). The fact is you believe it and therefore you invest that object with the significance (no matter how tepid the symbolism might be). To you that is what the object means. But if you delve into the history of symbols things change and the symbols that you see hold deeper significance as you decode them. 

Perhaps, as the psychoanalysts say the symbol then affects us deep in the unconscious. Or maybe as trigger mechanisms the designs shunt the beholder into a certain 'frame-of-mind'.  Or, perhaps, when I carve stones with symbolic designs something external occurs, the old gods nod their heads and smile. 

stone mad crafts
Pictish symbols carved by me.

stone Mad Crafts
Pictish symbol, another by me.


Eliade Mircea - Patterns In Comparative Religion
Eliade Mircea - Images And Symbols 
C.G. Jung - Man And His Symbols  
William G. Gray - Magical Ritual Methods  
Georges Jean - Signs Symbols And Ciphers, Decoding The Message -  

J.E Cirlot - A Dictionary Of Symbols  

No comments:

Post a Comment