by David Powell

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Symbols. In a sense our society is grounded on them - not just our souciety but even the way we think. We think and talk in symbols. Two very common examples can illustrate my point here - "The Quest" and "The Holy Grail". In themselves these two are symbols of much that is human, the search and striving for the attainable and the unattainable, to boldly go where no one/man has gone before ... Even in language they have great influence. How many times have you heard of something being described as a holy grail? In science, politics, sport, art the term is common. To win the Nobel prize, become America's next president, to win an Olympic medal. Holy Grails. Then there is the famous "quest", the quest for knowledge, for adventure, for romance, for fame, wealth and glory. Not quite what Homer had in mind when he used the word, but we all know what I mean when I say the quest for knowledge. Symbols are very powerful, they are found in all areas of life, they influence people, they motivate. People willingly die for their symbols. Not just in religion, but in politics too.

Many things can be symbols, they can be physical things or abstracts. They can be religious or secular. "Bible" itself is now a symbol, how many times have you heard of a book being described as the fisherman's bible? The cook's bible? It means more than just a religious book, it is a symbol of the ultimate reference source for a certain subject. Wealth and fame, symbols of success. Modern and ancient symbols about in advertising. Just stop and watch a tv advert, or a printed one. There is even a tv advert currently showing for a certain upmarket car that consists entirely of symbols, until at the very end when the name flashes onto the screen.

So just what is a symbol? The word comes from the ancient Greek symbola. Agreements were often made and sealed by breaking something in half, with each person keeping their half as a symbol of the agreement. Should one of them wish to have the agreement honoured they they would match the two halves. The matching was called symballein and the pieces symbola. The word gradually gained a wider meaning as a recognition sign, but one recognised only by those in the "know". Very useful for secret societies or persecuted minorities (such as the early Christian church and its symbols the fish and the cross). Originally thus meaning a sign, an object or even a word with a hidden meaning, symbol has come to mean anything that represents a concept, an idea, a creed. There are even literary symbols, allegories.

What follows is mostly from a book, Symbols Around Us by Sven Achen, and covers some of the many symbols around us.


Red:-Red is associated with blood (in Sanskrit blood is rudhira, in Norse it is rodra) and thus symbolises life, emotion and, of course, danger. In a strange dichotomy, on one hand red is the symbol of love in every sense of the word - just think of the red rose, in Russian kra sivy (beautiful) comes from kra sny (red). Yet, on the other hand, red is also the symbol of war. The Vikings used a red shield when they were intending to attack, military uniforms (in pre-camoflage days) were often red and of course Mars, the god of war, is red. In more recent times red has come to symbolise revolution, such as in the French and communist revolutions of Russia and China.

Blue:- Heaven is the abode of the gods in most religions, so naturally the colour blue is symbolic of heavenly dwelling gods. Zeus, Jupiter and Odin all wore blue. The early Roman Catholics also depicted Mary as being dressed in blue. Not unsurprising thus that European royalty later took the colour blue as their symbol, perhaps as a sign of their "divine authority to rule" or perhaps as an attempt to appropiate some of the gods' divine aspects in their subjects eyes. Hence the saying "blue blood" to denote royalty. More recently blue has come to symbolise excellence or outstanding quality - cordon bleu for instance. From its divine origin blue has also symbolised wisdom, truth, faith and honesty. People with blue eyes were once considered to be honest. From the blue of the oceans, the colour also symbolises distance, wanderlust and melancholy - the "blues".

Yellow:- Like red, yellow has opposite meanings. The colour comes from the sun and the gall. The ancient Greeks thought that one's personality depended on body fluids and the yellow colour of gall came to symbolise envy, jealousy, malice and other such negative emotions. It came to be a symbol of disgrace. In the middle ages and under Nazi Germany Jews were forced to wear the colour yellow. Calling someone "yellow" means they are a coward. Yet from the sun yellow also stands for divinity, it was the colour of Apollo and is also one of the pope's colours. From the colour of gold it came to mean wealth.

Green:- The word green comes from the same root as "grow" and originally just meant "growing". From there green has come to symbolise life, growth and fertility. In the desert green is particularly associated with life, for obvious reasons, and it became the colour of Mohammed and thus a sacred colour to Islam. Linked to growth, green symbolises spring, rebirth, the renewal of life. The Protestant Reformation took green as its colour. With life there is hope and so green is also seen as the colour of hope (and so evergreen plants, which is the basis of the Christmas tree).

Black:- The absence of light is black. Black has long stood for fear, misfortune and death. The gods associated with death were all linked to the colour black. Satan, Pluto. Their abode, be it Hell or the Underworld is also black. With its link to death, black became the colour of mourning. As far back as Alexander the Great, mourners wore black. In a curious twist black was also taken by the Christian church as a symbol of devotion, piety and respectibility - as seen in the black in the robes of the priests (along with white). Black also symbolises lawlessness, "blackmail", the black of a pirates flag or the "blackmarket". Naturally, this symbolism of black is strongest amongst the paler skinned races.

White:- White is the only colour that does not have shades. It is absolute, pure (to the eye at least, in reality light is a mixture of all colours). Hence, naturally enough, white has come to symbolise purity. What is pure is also holy and so white is often the colour of priests, be they Christian, Druids or Classical. White animals were held to be sacred, amongst the Germanic peoples it was the white horse. In Biblical terms white symbolises divinity and purity, hence the white colour for brides (and baptisms). As a symbol of innocence, white also came to symbolise peace. Throughout recored history white was the colour borne by negotiators, the sign of truce - more recently a white flag. In latin white is candidus, which also meant honesty. Aspiring Roman politicians wore white robes as a symbol of their supposed honesty and loyalty.

The Wreath:

Following instructions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, ancient pharaohs were generally buring with a wreath on the tomb. According to the Book the wreath was a symbol of the promise of an eternal afterlife. However it probably meant not just that but also as the pharaoh's link with life and the "forces of life". Ankh means both wreath and life. The concept was that in touching a plant or a tree (and its growing forces) would protect you from evil forces. Hence the popular superstition of "touch wood". This concept also applied to the remission of sins and is thought to be the reason behind the pharaohs' wreaths. As for the shape, it is easy to make, practical to use and combined with the symbolic benifits of the ring.

The Greeks used wreaths in ceremonies, especially religious ones, but also weddings and funerals. The wreath was made of a plant(s) sacred to the relevant deity. Myrtle, the plant of Venus for weddings, ivy (for Bacchus, god of wine) for banquets and cypress (Pluto) for funerals. The original Greek "Olympic" games were in commemoration of ancient heroes and so the winners were awarded wreaths of olive and oak, sacred to Zeus. Other games had different wreaths, the Pythian Games used laurel wreaths (Apollo) not just for atheletic champions but also for music, poetry and the like. Hence the word laureate (as in Nobel). The laurel wreath came to symbolise the arts and intellectual achievement. The Romans later extended the concept to military achievements.

The Greeks also presented wreaths to visiting dignitaries, particularly heads of state, much like the Pacific Islanders used to do for visitors there. In time this wreath came to be a symbol of royalty. A rulers divinity and soverignity. Of course a plant wreath was not very "royal" and the plant was replaced with precious metals and gems, to become what today we call a crown. By Roman times wreath and crown were the same word, corona. Hence the crucifixion of Christ with a "crown of thorns", which was actually a wreath.

The signs of the Zodiac:

The twelve signs of the Zodiac are perhaps the oldest collection of symbols and yet, despite their antiquity, they can be found almost everywhere in the western world, and much of the rest. Certainly they are the most widely recognised symbols in the western world. The twelve figures were originally devised to map the sun's journey through the sky over the course of a year, each figure representing a constellation through which the sun passed through at the appropiate time. The system operated as a calendar and examples are known from China, Egypt, India and South America. The "Zodiac", as it is known today, comes from that devised in ancient Babylon (and, incidently, is the origin of our 12 month calendar).

Most of the symbols date back to 1900 to 1700 BC, although some predated this and came from the Sumerians (before 2000 BC). The zodiac, in it's present form dates from the 7th century BC, when the Babylonian empire was at its peak. Through trade and, more significantly, military conquest (such as Alexander the Great) the concept reached Greece, there it gained it's name (zodiac is Greek for "wheel of animals"). In fact, the oldest complete zodiac dates to 5th century BC Greece. And while the symbols are Babylonian, or Sumerian, their meanings today are from the Greeks, even if the names are from the Romans.

Like many today, the Babylonians were not just interested in the motion of the stars so they could tell the date, but because they believed that the celestial bodies influenced people and so they invented the art of astrology. While the Babylonians were interested in the fate and fortune of individuals, as "predicted" from the positions at birth, the Greeks went further, using the "stars" to predict everything from weather to horoscopes to whom one should marry.

The survival, not just of the zodiacal symbols, but the concept of horoscopes and the influence they have today would not have happened without the power of symbolism, especially the visual symbols of the twelve signs. Even in the time of the Greeks it was known that the basis of the zodiac calendar was wrong, it assumed that the sun orbited the Earth. The "motion" of the sun through the stars over the year was not real, merely an illusion of the movement of the Earth on its rotation axis (wobbling). They were also aware that this "wobble" gradually changed with time, enough so that in about 2000 years the sun at a given date would have moved into the next zodiacal zone. Consequently, except for a period around 2350 BC, the zodiac has been "out of phase", moreso every year. Yet, despite the testimony of science and the exhortations of religions, the zodiacal signs and horoscopes still strongly survive today, if for no other reason that the power of symbolism.

The Unicorn:

Along with the colour white, the Unicorn has long been associated with purity - it is no wonder that unicorns are often depicted as being white. The earliest mention of the unicorn was in the writings of Ctesias, a Greek scholar in 400 BC, who wrote of a horned beast from India, the horn of which would neutralise all poisons. A cup and platter of unicorn horn were a guarentee against poisoning and so were in great demand among the rulers of latter ages. In time the powers and attributes of the unicorn grew, its horn could purify polluted water, it was untamable and so pure that only a virgin could catch it.

Death and the Scythe:

Most, if not all, ancient societies and religions had gods (of powers, at least) that were associated with death. Chronos, Satan and Pluto are the most obvious examples. However the figure that is identified with death in popular mythology today, Death, is a recent creation, a mutation, if you like, of the previous gods of time.

The Greek god Kronos represented time, but that was not his first role - he appears to have originally been the god of agriculture and harvesting. This makes sense, given the importance of time with agriculture, when to sow, when to reap and so on. Kronos' sickle was a hangover from his more agarian days, tho' he now used it as a weapon. The Romas then had Saturn, god of agriculture and time who, like Kronos, bore a sickle.

During the centuries after the Dark Ages, when Europe was redisovering civilisation, there was a renewed interest in classical mythology. Saturn was "resurrected", but since the scythe was now the more important farming tool, he was shown with that instead. The image of Saturn quickly changed into the Middle Age "god" known as Tempus or Father Time, complete with scythe. He was generally depicted as an elderly man. It was then only a short step to Tempus' role with time's harvest, just as he previously was involved with havresting the fields, he was now seen as harvesting people, the scythe became death's attribute. Tempus, or Death as he was then know became increasingly emaciated until he gained the skeletal figure that he is known for, the Grim Reaper. This symbolism for death is still strong today, as evidenced by a recent AIDS advert on tv here.

The hourglass, while also "traditionally" another symbol for time, is also a recent invention. Literally. It was not invented until the 8th century AD. But following the plagues in the 14th century, the hourglass quickly became Death's tool, a measure of one's life. It became a symbol of the certainty of death and the shortness of life, but also it was the symbol for sorrow, the futility of life. The hourglass figure was often used by priests of the time in their registers to denote a burial.

The arrow:

Throughout most of history, the arrow was the fastest thing known. It was also noiseless. It is not surprising that it came to be the symbol of speed, haste and zeal. But also surprise, the unexpected. The most popular use as a symbol would, undoubtedly, be in its connection with love. In classical times an arrow came to symbolise love and suddenly fallng in love. The Greeks and Romans provided all of their gods of love with arrows. Cupid, Eros, Amor. Cupid's arrow has become a part of every western language. How often have you seen the arrowed heart graffiti? In another aspect, the arrow also became a symbol of death, sudden and when you least expect it. Along with Cupid, Death also had arrows in his armory. Epidemics, the wrath of God, the inevitable.

The staff:

From the earliest times, the staff or stick has been a tool of power, be it the small boy using it to annoy small animals, the parent using it on a child (or an overseer on a slave) or for use in defense. It was inevitable that the staff would come to be a symbol of power, authority and obedience. Under its Greek name, skeptron (scepter), it became a symbol of soverignity, together with the crown it was the sign of kings, emperors and the like. Along with kings, others in positions of authority bore a scepter, be they religious leaders, law givers or guild masters. A broken staff was a symbol of lost power. The staff also became the symbol of delegated authority. The king might have his scepter, but his ambassadors, heralds and representatives throughout the land would have their staffs, evidence of their authority form the king. Even before this, the staff was a symbol of the messenger, no doubt because it was a light and adaptable weapon. Not just the messengers of rulers, but also gods. Biblical angels frequently bore a staff, as did Mercury and Hermes, who were the messengers of the classical gods.

The staff also had military connections, as the marshal's baton it was a symbol of rank. In time "marshal" came to be replaced by the name of his symbol, hence the use of staff to refer to administrative personel as in "office staff". The marshall's baton also evolved into such diverse items as the "swagger stick" born by British officers to the conductor's baton.

The staff also has magical and divine implications. Moses and his staff, Bacchus' staff that brought pleasure. Homer's Circe, who used her wand to turn Odyssesus' men into pigs, Aesculapius, the god of healing, had his staff. From Moses' staff came the staff or rod of the magicians. Priests carried staffs, from many religions. Prophets, oracles and the like, those today in D&D terms would be called clerics. The traditional phrase of the conjurer, hocus pocus, is actually from the latin, Hoc est corpus ("This is the body", from the Catholic Mass).

A staff is also a symbol of the wanderer, it is a wanderer's commonest and most useful tool. So naturally the staff came to symbolise the pilgrim, the beggar as well, a "special" type of wanderers. The need for a walking staff is also symbolic of frailty and old age. And while this may seem to be the opposite of its symbolism for power, it in fact also stands for the wisdom and knowledge that is often found in the old. Sire and sir both come from the latin senior, which means older. The staff symbolises not just authority through might, but also through wisdom and experience.

Star of David:

The hexagram, consisting of two superimposed triangles, known as the Star of David, has a long history apart from that of the Jewish. Africa, the Orient and Europe all had versions of it, be it for religious, ornamental or magical purposes. To the Muslims it was called Solomon's seal. Europe's alchemists and goldsmiths considered it to have magical properties, it symbolised the soul. Its Jewish usage dates back at least to the 7th century BC and they have used it ever since.

The Cross:

Perhaps one of the most instantly recognised symbols, almost anywhere in the world is the cross. The symbol of Christianity. But it has more history than just that. The cross with four equal arms is one of the oldest symbols in the world, it was common in 2000 BC Mesopotamia and from Asia to Africa to the America's it heavily featured. Pre-Christian Celts used the symbol, so did bronze age Scandinavians as far back as 1500 BC. To these people the cross was seen as magical, a charm that would give protection, ward off evil. Even today crosses are used in exorcisms and the cross is marked on a baptised child - originally just to ward off evil.

But what did the cross originally mean? While it was easy to make and, presumably "looked" magical, its importance lay in that it was seen as the symbol for the whole world, the arms were the "four corners of the world". It stood for the cosmos and cosmic powers and gods.

But it is without doubt Christianity that gave the cross it's present day meaning. Even the name "cross" comes from the latin crux which meant not the cross-shape but instead the device on which the Romans crucified people. The crux had no fixed shape, it may have been a "T" or a stake, not just the traditional from. Yet it was not until the 4th century that the cross came to be associated as a symbol of Christianity. In the 400 years prior to that it was considered a "pagan" symbol. From that time on a myraid of varieties emerged, some simple some incredibly complex, but all with the same meaning. More than 300 variations are known. To Christianity it symbolised Christ's death, His resurrection and for the hope of salvation. To the individual Christian is was (and still is) a symbol of faith, a statement that one is a believer.

As the cross was a sign of spiritual victory to the believers, to the earthly powers it came to be a sign of victory, of good fortune, while at the same time it came to stand for death. Tombstones are often either in the shape of a cross or bear one.

That's just a few of the many symbols that surround us, there are many more. And, of course, there are all the modern symbols. Coca Cola is one of this century's most pervasive symbols, symbolising health, youth and success in life. A car is the symbol of freedom, while a house is of security. Our lives are surrounded and unconsciously controlled by symbols, that is the power they have.

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