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Readings: Symbolism

A symbol is the embodiment of a concept, distilled and condensed and stripped of its inessentials. It may be of many kinds. It may be a physical artefact (or its pictoral representation), such as a Calvary cross, an ankh, a pentagram or a national flag. It may be an imaginary creature, such as a mermaid or centaur. Overlapping with the last, it may be a visible image giving a graspable form to a non-physical entity, such as a human-bodied angel with wings or a Horned God. It may be a natural object in our environment whose behaviour evokes the concept it has come to symbolise, such as the Sun as a fertilising and life-giving God and the Moon as a many-aspected Goddess who illumines the dark side of the psyche; or as the lotus, which symbolises the integrated psyche by having its roots in the dark mud and its blossom in the bright air. It may be a piece of music, such as the national anthem or a revolutionary song. It may even be a living person, by the process known as "projection" - either communally, as when a community projects its sense of national identity onto a sovereign or its sense of mission onto a charismatic leader, or individually, as when you project your own self-contempt onto an acquaintance and treat him accordingly with rational dislike, or when a husband projects his anima onto his wife (or a wife her anima onto her husband) and so treats the partner unrealistically. It may be a colour, such as red for blood, danger or life, or black for death, the unconscious, malicious magic or civil rights in America (colour is perhaps the supreme example of how symbols can be ambivalent, their meaning changing according to context). It may be a simple device like an exclamation mark or a dollar sign, which started off merely as a convenient bit of humanly devised shorthand, but which through long use became "numinous" -i.e., charged with emotional significance, which is what distinguishes a symbol from a mere sign. It may be a number; in Christian thinking, 3 represents pure abstracted spirit while in all cultures 4 represents psychic wholeness, pure spirit enhanced and fulfilled by manifestation; and significantly, odd numbers appear repeatedly as masculine symbols, and even ones as feminine.

All these, and many more, are symbols - some obvious to the conscious Ego, and some more subtle and hard to interpret; and myth, ritual and dreams, by dramatizing their action, can present complex and vitally important messages.

(Farrar, J & S (1985), The Witches Way, Principles, Rituals and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft 151-2)


Ritual provides a greater degree of abstraction than does a game, since its rules, rhythms, and repetitions are more definite and demand a more exact observance. Historical, anthropological, and sociological investigations point to ritual as formalised play. It marks the key moments of the seasons and life, it manages order and chaos in times of change, and is one of the necessities of social ordering and behaviour. Sometimes, what is called °primitive» ritual is associated with magic, since observers think that the intention of such ritual is to influence the powers that control life. This is not exact, however, for ritual is more an expression of harmony with, perception into, and conformity with the patterns of bios and cosmos.

(Power, D. N. (1984), Unsearchable Riches: The Symbolic Nature of Liturgy, New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 85)


The value of myth and symbol, ritual and ceremony, has been largely distorted in our culture... At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, it can be said that the Christian Churches have failed to make a crucial distinction between the truths of history and the truths of myth. They have dismissed the myths of others as superstition and proclaimed the mythic in their own religion as historically true...

Again we live in the shadow of Puritan iconoclasm which coupled religious fanaticism with a rationalistic rejection of ritual. Myths and fairy tales were for the enjoyment of children and savages. Enjoyment itself was ungodly, so all exuberance was curbed. Later, more °scientificƒ rationalism explained and interpreted myths and rituals of °primitiveƒ and ancient peoples without appreciating their relevance to modern humanity. In more recent times, the role of the mythic in human psychology has been more clearly recognised and accepted, and there are many modern studies of myth and symbol in art and literature and in the psychology of individuals.

Myths tap the deepest unconscious forces of the human psyche. Many layers of meaning are compressed into a single story by a myth, into a single image by a symbol. Far more of our being can respond to them than to a merely rational explication... Myths and symbols have tremendous power to motivate: they involke and direct the immense reserves of emotional energy within us.

(Subhuti, Buddhism for Today, Glasgow: Windhorse, 62.)