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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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