Introduction: Any essay on symbols or symbolism needs to begin with a definition of what the author means by "symbol." This word, symbol, has been used to mean any thing from a simple mark to complex and arcane images through convoluted stories, and even to philosophic arguments. Unfortunately, most tomes claiming to discuss or collect symbols try to ingore this ambiguity, making any effort to categorize books and other sources a highly subjective, not to mention tremendously intricate task, if not an impossible one. Further, there are all the similar and related terms: symbolize, symbolism, symbolic, signs, signals, significance, myths, mythology, images, and so forth. (See the Glossary for quick definitions, (most of which are explained within this Introduction) as well as for other people's definitions of the terms.)
Moreover, a study of symbols necessarily ranges across broad categories such as the religious, psychological, anthropological, literary, artistic, linguistic, and related fields. Each of these fields of study tends to approach symbols, signs, myths, and related concepts from its own perspective. This broad interest is derived from the simple fact that symbols form part of our individual mentalities as well as being integral to our cultures. But what is a "symbol"? Sometimes the word is used to mean an item that stimulates deeply rooted emotions, at other times it is used to mean an arbitrary design that an individual or an authoritative body has designated to have a specific meaning within specific contexts. There are even those who seek a middle ground by saying that a symbol is anything which points to another, greater thing. One lexiconic compiler defined symbols and metaphors as "wherever a 'signifier' communicates anything beyond its own superficial exterior." This author includes, among other examples of symbols, traffic signals. (Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbols, vii) So, for any particular item, one writer calls it a symbol, another says it is a sign, while a third may denigrate it as a signal. It all depends on how the individual writer is using the terms--and this, in turn, is often dependent upon how the author's colleagues use the terms within their intellectual discipline.Because of this confusion, this lack of distinction across the interdisciplinary field of symbolism, this essay will take a broad approach in its definition of sources to be included. This is necessary, for many collections of signs include, by definition, symbols. Many writers who talk about symbols conflate sign and symbol to mean the same thing. In order to adequately cover the topic of symbolism, that which represents or points to something else, works dealing with signs (as this essay's author uses the term, defined below) must be included. (For a different, anthropological definition of symbolism, see Mary LeCron Foster's definition in her introduction to Foster, Mary LeCron and Botscharow, Lucy Jayne, ed. The Life of Symbols, p. 5.) Nonetheless, the author of this essay will use the terms according to specific meanings, except, of course, when quoting other authors. Therefore, the term "symbol" will be used in this essay to include graphic designs, myths, events, even people and places. Further, the distinction between "symbols" and "signs" as defined by Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith, 42), a theologian, and C. G. Jung (Man and His Symbols, 41), a psychiatrist, will be followed by the author. According to Tillich and Jung, a symbol, in some manner, partakes or participates in the reality towards which it points, whereas a sign simply points to something greater. Rollo May, an American psychologist, defines symbols and myths, as opposed to signs and tales, as retaining their original power to stir emotions, "to grasp us," "to demand some stand from us." (The Significance of Symbols, 17) Although this definition emphasizes the affective domain, it focusses on the same point as Jung and Tillich. Thus, for this essay, an image is anything that creates for the audience a mental concept, a very broad definition. An image can, thus, be almost anything, as concrete as my wooden, #2 pencil, the landscape viewed through a window, or as broad as an abstract concept such as freedom and its many facets. A specific type of image is the graphic, which is any 2-dimensional image that is reproduced by a human agency through any means or process. A sign is anything that points to something beyond itself, and may do so because someone or some organization has so designated its meaning or because it has a cultural or traditional significance. A symbol is any sign which also has an inherent connection to that greater thing or image to which it points, A myth is a symbolic image, usually a story or other narrative and without regard to whether it is fact or fiction, that points to a greater truth and gives us a deeper understanding of that truth.
Consider this graphic as an illustration of the difference between signs and symbols.
This is a road sign. By its shape, we know it is a warning. We know the yellow, diamond-shaped road sign is a warning, because the authorities have arbitrarily designated yellow, diamond-shaped road signs as warnings. Warning signs could just as easily have been designated to be blue and circular, green and octagonal, or red and "X" shaped (which, being shaped like a barrier, might approach to being a symbol itself.) Any shape so designated would have the same impact, because its significance is solely dependent upon an arbitrary designation. Because the diamond shape has been arbitrarily chosen, its meaning is clearly but arbitrarily defined. It is a "sign", pointing to some type of warning concerning road conditions. However, in general, diamonds and diamond shapes have no such inherent meaning in our culture. Baseball diamonds and diamond-encrusted jewelry are rarely, if ever, viewed as warnings.
The curved arrow on the sign, on the other hand, has immediate significance. Almost anyone from Western culture immediately realizes the basic significance: "Curves in the road are ahead of you." In most places, the number of curves and the direction of the first curve are also significant. Thus, the illustration would indicate 2 curves ahead, with the first curve to the left, followed by a curve to the right. By its curved shape, by the arrow head indicating direction, by the number of curves, this symbol participates in the reality by its mimicry of the curves ahead, as well as giving warning of them. It tells, without arbitrarily assigned meaning, about that to which it points. This is what is meant by "participation in that to which it points." There are inherent connections between the symbol and the reality it partially represents. I learned to drive in the panhandle of Florida, where roads are long, fairly flat, and curve only due to swamps and ponds. When I noticed such signs on my first trip driving outside Florida, going away to college in the Appalachian Mountains, I easily and quickly understood their meaning.
Sometimes these connections are limited to the understanding within a single, local culture. In other cases the connections that make something a symbol may be broader, provincial, national, regional, even world-wide. To persons from outside a particular culture, the culture's symbols may seem to be as arbitrary as any sign, but history, tradition, the arts, something in that particular culture has established a connection between the symbol and that which it represents to those people indigenous to the culture. Further, a symbol may be shared among different cultures but have slightly or even greatly differing meanings among the cultures, much like the dragon. (See Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbols, pp. 102-3, for a comparison of how the West and China view dragons very differently.) Jung used the term "archetype" to refer to any significant symbol that seemed to have identical meanings across cultures.
Symbols pervade human existence, from dreams to propaganda, from literature, music, and artistic works to massive constructions of engineers to games played by children. Symbols are used (and abused) by the political correctness movements of both conservatives and liberals as they attempt to "remake" images and culture, especially by denial of the significance of the symbols or their meanings. The terrorist group who attacked the World Trade towers and the Pentagon did so because those buildings were symbolic to them of two types of America's abuse of power. Those attacks also, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor to an earlier generation of Americans, transformed, for Americans and many other people, the World Trade towers into a symbol of the attack and its cowardly perpetrators. Thus we see that even one real thing/event can have different significances for different people or different times. Such symbols speak directly to the emotions and those deeper feelings or commitments we have. Understanding symbols is the first step to communicating more deeply than just relating stale facts. As David Fontana put it, "symbols are more than just cultural artefacts: in their correct context, they still speak powerfully to us, simultaneously addressing our intellect, emotions, and spirit." (The Secret Language of Symbols, 1993, 8.) This is perhaps what makes symbols so valuable; they deal with our whole person, not just one aspect. In an age of meaningless materialism, symbols can still focus our attention, our being. (Especially, see: Jung, C. G. Mandala Symbolism and his related Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth.)In this essay, myths are also included as symbols, and as a major category thereof, because they signify more than the story they tell. Indeed, in the context of the essay, I am not using "myth" in its popular, connotative meaning, that is, to mean "fictitious story," not even "fictitious story illustrating a truth." Myth is any story, thing, or person which points to something greater than itself, in which it partakes or with which it has a common, inherent nature. Thus, a church building is a symbol of the church of people who meet within it; even more, it is a symbol of the Church Universal, that union of all Christians of all ages, races, and places. That does not mean a church building cannot be studied as an example of a certain type of architecture, used as a shelter and gathering place, referred to as a point in giving directions elsewhere. It is real, and there are many perspectives from which to study a church building, and many different styles of church buildings. Yet each church building is still a symbol, and each and all are still also part of the myth of the Church Universal, which yet exists and yet points beyond itself to the God it serves. No person can see the "Church Universal"--but Christians of all ages believe themselves a part of it. Thus it is real, it is a fact. But it is still a myth and, thus, a symbol which tells of the unity of Christians of all ages and places and conditions, which connects all Christians together even when they disagree, and, even more important, it points to their standing before God as a congregation, even when the individual may be isolated and far from others of his faith.
Symbols, including myths, do break down over time, especially if the truth to which they once pointed ceases to be of concern to those who know the story or image. Thus they descend into simple folklore, legends, tall tales, and condescending "mythology." For instance, Classical mythology deals with the stories of gods and mortals which once inspired the Greek and other Mediterranean cultures to make great efforts, including the original Olympic Games. In their day, they pointed to greater cultural beliefs and experiences than the stories contained. Yet they have been kept alive since the demise of the cultures in which they were created because they still speak of great truths that many people, especially in the West, find meaningful and relevant, even today, more than 3 millenia after whatever events inspired the mythological stories that have come down to us.  Another quality of myths is that they change. "Symbols are not static but change through use." (Foster & Botscharow, The Life of Symbols, vii) For many graphic symbols, there are limitations on how much they can change and still be meaningful, rather than becoming just pretty graphics. However, as with the Classical myths, myths can adapt to the needs to the hearers, the tellers adapt them to make them more meaningful to their audience, and so the stories maintain a relevance, a power that lifts them above just good story telling.
Another characteristic of myths is that they often generate the individual symbols our societies then use, whether for clichés, religious mysteries, or some form of communication in between. Some of the sources described within these pages talk about how symbols form and how they come to be more than just stories, more than just cute or complex graphics. Some sources say that no symbol, much less a myth, can be deliberately created, because it takes an acceptance by the community. That is, the community develops its symbols, not individuals. However, one source included in this essay reports graphics that approach symbolic status in their popularity and understood significance, yet have been commercially, thereby deliberately, created within the last century. (Thompson & Davenport, The Dictionary of Graphic Images, 1990) These images and their related "publicity campaigns" which have given them meaning and significance beyond the obvious provide a counterpoint to, and, perhaps, even an explication of, Mary LeCron Foster's comment on the function of symbolism as a network that constrains yet guides changes to the symbols it contains. (Foster, Life of Symbols, 5) This definition of symbolism (as opposed to symbols) further points out that symbols must be viewed in the context of their network of symbolism, as well as in the individual context in which they may be used or found.
In a similar manner, each source yields its own perspective within its own context. Sometimes these contexts are defined, in other sources they are presumed obvious. The more useful sources of symbols and their meaning may eventually approach the realm of symbols, in and of themselves. Of course, the opposite is more often true; the source is superceded by better or more "relevant" or more "current" sources, and becomes ignored and considered irrelevant. The sources included or just mentioned in this review will change in terms of popularity, will change in terms of relevancy. While some are designed for general purpose, others are intended for very specific and limited audiences. I have tried to organize the essays by general fields, but there is inevitable overlap in many fields. The Annotated Bibliography contains a list by main entry (usually author's or editor's surname) of all the sources, with publication data and a brief description.
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