THE POWER OF SYMBOLS
‘Signs and symbols rule the world, Not Words nor Laws.’ Confucius
I found this quote fascinating from the moment I stumbled upon it. That symbols and signs can evoke such powerful reactions illustrates the depth of their importance. That they rule the world is quite profound but I think there is an element of truth in this.
I think of the swastika or the sickle and hammer – symbols that represent to most totalitarian control and terrible evil. Yet for the Hindus, the swastika is a good luck charm – the second most sacred symbol in Hinduism. The Cross is the ultimate symbol of death, suffering and sacrifice. Yet for Christians, it is also a symbol of hope and new beginnings. No words are needed to convey this. This most simple of symbols – two pieces of wood – convey a message that ended up changing the world.
When I see a rainbow, I am reminded of the story of Noah. I think that there is always hope despite the storms. I find the fig a most erotic of fruits and can understand why they have become a symbol of sexual desire!
Symbols can mean many things to many people however. A forest in the western tradition has been associated with something dark and sinister, an abode of strange creatures. I think of the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter. Yet for others, the forest is a symbol of the unity that is to be achieved with their deity.
The dolphin was linked to the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and was seen as the messenger of love. Yet for the early Christians, the Dolphin became the symbol of how the church guided the Christians towards Christ. Even the humble ladybug has been imbued with layers upon layers of symbolic meaning; an unlikely love symbol, Asian traditions teach that the ladybug has the potential to lead you to your destined one.
Of course, there are those symbols that are universal. Water as a symbol of cleansing and regeneration; the earth as symbolic of the feminine, the butterfly as symbolic of new beginnings and transformations. We always seek symbols to explain what is essentially a mystery. Life is a mystery, the world around us is a mystery yet we are intrinsically connected to this mysterious world.
As an avid reader and novelist, I appreciate the power of images to create pictures in our minds, and the importance of symbols to enhance themes and help explain deep mysteries and meanings that mere words cannot always explain. Most would have heard of the Sirens, seductive mermaids that tried to lure the great adventurer Odysseus thousands of years ago. Hear the word Siren today, and you know they have come to symbolise feminine temptation that can ensnare a man. Ithaka, the island home of Odysseus, has come to symbolise the journey of life with all its trials and temptations, and this idea has been beautifully captured by the poet Cavafy in his poem Ithaka.
The symbols associated with weddings and christenings are rich and varied. After all, love is central to life. It unites man and woman, thereby providing the foundation of our civilization. The force that is love also leads many to religion where they seek a union with God – the Living Flame of Fire (the divine itself associated with ‘fire’ across all cultures). Religious rites have been with us since time immemorial. Baptism, the most common religious rite in the Western World, uses the cleansing power of water (and in the Orthodox tradition, oil) to symbolise a rebirth – a new life in Christ. In fact, water is the most ancient of religious symbols and it is no coincidence that water is connected to purity, creation and life eternal in many religions.
We are surrounded by symbols. We are surrounded by our ancestor’s desire to find meaning and truth and beauty. It is our task to understand this and continue their stories.