The HPedia: Symbol

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In Naturalistic Paganism, deities and magic are often interpreted symbolically in some sense.  Mirriam-Webster defines a symbol as:

something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially : a visible sign of something invisible

In common parlance, symbol might be used more or less synonymously with allegory or metaphor.  For example, Athena may be symbolic of wisdom, or Thor of thunder.  However, in Jungian psychology, symbols are distinguished against metaphors.  John Halstead explains:

The meaning of a metaphor is known.  But a symbol carries with it a surplus of meaning which cannot be conveyed through explanation.  A metaphor is a known quantity, but a symbol is practically inexhaustible.  Ritual uses symbolic words and actions to evoke this surplus of meaning.

I have heard the complaint by some atheists that we should just say what we mean and then symbolic language would be unnecessary.  But I believe this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of symbol.  Symbolic language is not representational language; it is evocative language.  If we can embrace this understanding of symbol, I think our rituals will become less wordy, more evocative, and potentially more likely to be transformative.

See also “Allegory” and “Metaphor.”

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5 Comments on “The HPedia: Symbol

  1. I suggest that as maps are to the external world, symbols are to the internal world. To use an overworked metaphor, they open doors of inner perception.

    To the person who thinks we should “just say what we mean,” the reason the spiritual realm cannot be formulated in denotative, linear schema, is that the denotative part of the psyche is part of the obstacle to the wholeness and centeredness that is part of the reward of living a spiritual life.

    The denotative part of the psyche can only provide schema (mappings of reality), and the aim of spirituality is to get to the full reality of being. To do that, the mappings must be left behind, if not burned to a crisp (light my fire!).

    Spiritual symbols, correctly understood, move us toward the center without getting in the way. The danger of the modern world is that we can pull spiritual symbols willy-nilly from the various traditions.

    Such symbols, uprooted from the traditions that gives them their depth, cease to be spiritual symbols. They do retain their aesthetic dimension, but mistaking the aesthetic for the spiritual is a characteristic failing in the spirituality of our time.

  2. I want add one more item to my first comment. The person who would say we should “just say what we mean,” implies that the burden of communication mainly falls on the speaker or presenter of the communication, rather than the listener.

    In spirituality, as in poetry, the opposite is true. The value of a spiritual symbol, like the value of a poem, is in the work we do upon it. The poet Wallace Stevens could have been quite explicit about what “the emperor of ice cream” is. But if he had, we would be deprived of the chuckle we get as we imagine ice cream on a hot summer day, as we remember the feel of melting ice cream roll across our hand, of being a young child wishing to preserve the ice cream but knowing that we have a limited amount of time to eat it before the emperor of ice cream claims it as his.

    The act of concentration and contemplation is not extraneous to either a poetic or a spiritual symbol, but is in a certain sense always part of the deepest meaning of the symbol. I would suggest that the contemplation of a spiritual symbol, carried on correctly, leads to a deep inner silence. In contrast, the contemplation of a artistic symbol, carried on correctly, should lead us to a deeper sense of the world about us. Both are valuable, and both come in proportion to the quality of the contemplation we bring to the symbol.

    • Thomas:

      I really like what you wrote here. Can you give an example or elaborate further on the distinction between spiritual and artistic symbols?

      • It’s a subtle distinction and to do it justice involves some detail. When I get a little free time, I’ll try to really address this and either post here or send you it.

        Some of my thinking on this topic is inspired by the book “Sacred Art in the East and West” by Titus Burchhardt, which is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the symbolism of religious art. Another book on this topic that I recommend is “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer, edited by Joseph Campbell.

  3. Pingback: DE NATURA DEORUM: “The Lord and Lady for the Non-Theist” by Rhys Chisnall | Humanistic Paganism

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