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The Meaning of Symbols

What are symbols? Do the symbols from our past have any explicit significance for us in this day and age? Could ancient symbols be a form of complex communication with multiple levels of meaning? Can we even assign specific meaning to ancient symbols?

The general accepted definition for symbols is that they provide a visual representation of a concept. Symbols can stand for material objects, abstract ideas, metaphors, beliefs, rituals and sounds. Think of the symbol for love, the alphabet for sounds/words or a stop sign. The meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is agreed on by the society of that time. Symbols help us understand and make sense of the world around us. But what about symbols from a past long ago? Is there possibly a more universal interpretation or truth?

Many people have explored the significance and terminology of symbols but none have considered the effect of a symbol on the psyche more deeply than Joseph Campbell. In his essay “The symbol without meaning”, he proposes the following definition: “ A symbol is an energy evoking, and directing agent.” Campbell distinguishes between the “sense” and the “meaning” of symbols. The meaning of symbols is nowadays decided by men of science but the “absolutely unknowable can only be sensed.” The unknowable “is the province of art which is not ‘expression’ merely, …but a quest for, and formulation of, experience evoking, energy-waking images”. So perhaps we need not know the assigned meaning of symbols but simply appreciate them for their intrinsic value.


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