As above, so below
As without, so within
early 15c., “creed, summary, religious belief,” from Late Latin symbolum “creed, token, mark,” from Greek symbolon “token, watchword, sign by which one infers; ticket, a permit, license” (the word was applied c.250 by Cyprian of Carthage to the Apostles’ Creed, on the notion of the “mark” that distinguishes Christians from pagans), literally “that which is thrown or cast together,” from assimilated form of syn- “together” (see syn-) + bole “a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, beam,” from bol-, nominative stem of ballein “to throw”
Symbols are simple – they are the essence of a thing, an object, an idea, a reality.
Yet they are infinitely complex because of the whole of life, of human experience, of existence that they contain.
The symbol is simple, but the associations, resonances and depths contained in the symbol are never ending.
A symbol is something charged with energy, with power, subjective psychological significance
Symbols are magical images, realities
Symbols stand for something, but as opposed to a sign which stands for something concrete, physical. A symbol stands for something formless, the essential form of a thing, the archetype. A symbol represents a formless Idea, this idea is the ineffable, a universal truth or aspect of reality. A symbol also can have many and various associations with completely different meaning and significance.
A sign is known, while a symbol remains forever impenetrable.
Symbols are archetypal – we experience it so much in our life, in our Mythos, in our art, the human experience that it becomes a pattern, a focus of energy, meaning, association on an object/idea
Symbols reveal the infinite depth and meaning of one simple object, they reveal meanings which cannot be expressed in words, in thought -meanings which can only be experienced in the living interaction with the image itself and alone.
Symbols are the language of the poet, they are the medium of the poet. Letters themselves are meaningless, just signs; but when organized into an order, into words with symbolic significance the words become living. They become transparent and go beyond words. Through the use of symbols the poet can use words, language to launch the reader beyond words, language, thought. Through symbolism a poet gives you the EXPERIENCE of something, makes it real, alive, present in your experience, makes you feel it in your gut, existentially, in your very being.
The interaction of symbols in the container of a narrative is the lifeblood of a Mythos.
Symbols render a simple story infinitely deep, infinitely resonant, a universality, a mystery, an eternal
Symbols are the language of dreams and the key to interpreting them.
The symbol is the basis upon which all of our knowledge rests, they are the basis for all human understanding. They are the containers and the vehicles upon which we learn to make sense of the world and ourselves.
The fundamental necessity of symbols in our life began with our beginnings. In the womb and as a baby, the mother came to represent Home, security, wholeness, safety.
And as a species, the use and fascination with symbols is one of the most important aspects of our growth beyond the animal. We began to be entranced by certain symbols which we perceived to be expressions and representations of fundamental truths and realities. We saw cosmic harmony and the fabric of existence itself in symbols.
Symbols are inherently subjective. They will effect different people in slightly different ways according to a persons past and the their experience and associations. However, as the human being is fundamentally the same and we partake in a collective Mythos, symbols will have archetypal identities across cultures.
In his essay The Symbol without Meaning Joseph Campbell defines the symbol as an energy evoking, and directing, agent.
- “a symbol, like everything else, shows a double aspect. We must distinguish, therefore between the ‘sense’ and the ‘meaning’ of the symbol. It seems to me perfectly clear that all the great and little symbolical systems of the past functioned simultaneously on three levels: the corporeal of waking consciousness, the spiritual of dream, and the ineffable of the absolutely unknowable. The term ‘meaning’ can refer only to the first two but these, today, are in the charge of science – which is the province as we have said, not of symbols but of signs. The ineffable, the absolutely unknowable, can be only sensed. It is the province of art which is not ‘expression’ merely, or even primarily, but a quest for, and formulation of, experience evoking, energy-waking images: yielding what Sir Herbert Read has aptly termed a ‘sensuous apprehension of being’.
Heinrich Zimmer gives a concise overview of the nature, and perennial relevance, of symbols.
- “Concepts and words are symbols, just as visions, rituals, and images are; so too are the manners and customs of daily life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored. They are so many metaphors reflecting and implying something which, though thus variously expressed, is ineffable, though thus rendered multiform, remains inscrutable. Symbols hold the mind to truth but are not themselves the truth, hence it is delusory to borrow them. Each civilization, every age, must bring forth its own.”
4 thoughts on “Symbols”
first off, my apologies for causing undue effort on your part and i appreciate how you have put it quite nicely; however, i think it’s my oversight of not being clear enough, so let me try one more time… i only wanted to ask if my grouping of [symbolic+figurative] makes sense as a contrasting pair to the group [concrete+literal], or that ‘symbolic’ and ‘figurative’ should not be grouped together (and ‘concrete’ and ‘literal’ as well)…
No apologies needed! My sense, although I may be missing something, is that there is a slight difference between symbolic and figurative whereas the terms concrete and literal mean essentially the same thing.
Perhaps the difference is only in that a symbol doesn’t use words to convey something,but is primarily visual – the word is just used to communicate the symbol and then the symbol is allowed to act and take on significance and meaning on its own due to our past experiences with that symbol . Figurative language is primarily linguistic and uses words – metaphors,similes, etc. to convey something abstract through relating something unknown to something known. So I would say that figurative language is a linguistic/literal device and symbolism can be used as a linguistic/literal device; but also is much simpler, more immediate, and older than language and writing.
So I am inclined to say that concrete and literal are the same thing and that symbolism can be a form of figurative language, but also is more fundamental than figurative language, it is pre-language. But really for all intents and purposes can be grouped together as the same.
Hopefully this was actually addressing your question this time! I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Reblogged this on wrsurya and commented:
wow! i like the way you explained the word “symbol”… in my mind, however, i just can’t easily separate the pair ‘symbolic-figurative’ as a contrast for ‘concrete-literal’… not that i’m saying ‘symbolic’ is equal to ‘figurative’… any thoughts?
As I see it(and this may not be the accepted, by the book definition); literal means exactly what it says and no more, it is a way of looking at something in that when you say “moon” and are talking about the moon you mean merely the satellite in the sky. We refer to the moon in a concrete-literal way in our everyday conversations and in the sciences.
A symbol, however, uses the image as a gateway to a vast pool of associations to that image that are present in the human psyche due to our collective human experience, culture, mythology, art, etc..
So when the moon is present in a mythological story or a poem the object refers beyond itself. The moon brings associations with femininity and passivity(because it reflects the light of the sun and is smaller in size), the night, rebirth(crescent moon growing out of new moon), as well as many others.(Also, femininity, night, and rebirth each have nearly infinite associations, and so on and so on)))))
It seems the key difference between the two is not the object – because an inherently symbolically charged item/image like the moon, a key, or an eye can also be used in a purely concrete and literal way. The deciding factor that transforms an object into a symbol is the atmosphere or the environment it is presented in. A poem, a myth, a parable pitches the experiencer of it into a different sphere of reference to reality. Ordinarily we live a life of prose, of the concrete-literal, wherein things are what they are on the surface and that is all they are. Symbols are the language of myth and are pure poetry. Myth is the medium through which someone tries to communicate the transcendent and the mystery of Being.
Literal is apparent, tangible; symbolic is a formless idea which is associated with a form or image.
Prose is objective, Poetry is subjective.
Prose is fact, Poetry is Truth.
Hope this helps and isn’t too vague… but vagueness is unavoidable when talking of symbols which are by their nature mysterious, subjective and the stuff of imagination.