For the Symbolminded
(This post is dedicated to George Carlin, who coined the term.)
Simply speaking, symbols are things that stand for other things. They help us to navigate our lives, from walk/don’t walk signs, to maps, to our TV remotes. As I hope to show, they can be more than just substitutes, and can lead us to deeper context and meaning.
I’ve always liked the symbols for male and female, simple yet powerful in imagery. The female is a circle with a plus sign beneath, suggesting a pregnant woman and the womb. It’s also the astrological sign for the planet Venus, Roman goddess of love. The male is also a circle, but with an arrow pointing upward, diagonally. Is that an erect penis, or a weapon? Whoa, metaphor alert! The masculine principle is equated with power and aggression, and historically, patriarchal societies are much more warlike than matriarchal ones. So maybe it’s no accident that this is also the astrological symbol for Mars, the Roman god of war. The late comic genius George Carlin may have been the first to observe that most weapons of war, from arrows and spears to bullets and missles, are all phallic shaped.
The Christian cross, Muslim crescent, and Jewish Star of David, are familiar to all of us. Christian iconography is rich in symbols; the lamb, dove, and fish figure prominently in its mythology. The one that’s always bothered me, though, is the crucifix with the dead Jesus. Is this some kind of death cult? If you look at history, you could certainly make an argument for that. No other force or movement has been responsible for more death, torture, bloodshed and mayhem. No, no, they say, it stands for His sacrifice and victory over death. Then why isn’t he standing with arms upraised, eyes heavenward, in triumph? If you want to emphasize the positive aspect of what Jesus stood for, that would seem to make more sense. But okay, it’s a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice.
Here’s a symbol that I find deeply disturbing. Somewhere between the Supreme Court’s decision to appoint George W. Bush as President on Dec. 12, 2000, and when he was inaugurated the following month, a change was made. The official Republican Party logo, the elephant, had its three stars inverted. The five-pointed star is emblematic of man. The point on top is the head, the next two his outspread arms, and the bottom two are his feet. That’s how the star appears on the American Flag as well as on military vehicles and planes. The inverted star “is a symbol of the infernal as used in black magic” (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, Philosophical Library, NY, 1962, referencing Eliphas Levi’s Les Mysteres de la Kabbale, Paris, 1920). The top two points are the goat’s horns, the next two its ears, and the bottom is its beard. Why did they do this? Whose idea was it? Does it mean anything? Well, look at what that party has come to stand for since then. They’re against women, gay people, the poor, immigrants, environmental and food regulations, workers’ rights, and public education. They’re all for voter suppression of minorities who might vote against them, and tax breaks for giant corporations and the wealthy, who are their main supporters. In fact, they seem to have an antipathy for the democratic process itself. That seems pretty devilish to me.
There are acts or events full of symbolic meaning. The first ever black American President in the White House, built by black slaves, has powerful resonance. It shows that we’ve made some progress, but unfortunately, it also revealed the deep undercurrents of racism that still plague the nation.
There’s the famous statue of Lady Justice. In one hand she holds the scales, and she wears a blindfold, symbolizing that justice is blind, available to all. I think she needs a makeover, to reflect modern times. The blindfold needs to be removed, and one side of the scales should be weighed down with bricks, representing wealth and power. This would more accurately reflect justice as it exists today.
Of all things symbolic, I find most compelling another American icon, the Liberty Bell. “Let freedom ring,” right? Not so fast. The first bell was cast in 1752, and bore an inscription from Leviticus 25:10: “PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF.” Twenty-four years before the Declaration of Independence, we were already getting ideas, eh? One month later the bell was cracked by a stroke of its clapper. Another one was cast in 1753 and delivered to the State House in Philadelphia, where it was hung by a chain of thirteen links, for the original colonies (isn’t 13 an unlucky number?). This one has a crack too, its cause the subject of controversy. Hmmm, a crack (twice!) in a bell proclaiming liberty to all its people. That’s odd, isn’t it? I would submit to you that the crack is in fact the USA Patriot Act of 2001, along with the other laws eroding our liberties since 9/11. Symbolism as prophecy? That the crack is nearly 250 years before the Patriot Act needn’t concern us if, as modern physics suggests, the arrow of time may be an illusion. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
How many humans have walked on the moon? Twelve. Cirlot, in the dictionary mentioned above, writes that the number 12 is “symbolic of cosmic order and salvation. Linked to it are the notions of space and time, and the wheel or circle.” This makes me think of both the Zodiac and the Twelve Apostles.
So now maybe you’ll look at some things with a little more discernment and depth. It’s quite possible that God, the universe, or the greater reality, is speaking to us. Perhaps we should listen. Still, I offer an advisory from Gareth Knight, in his preface to A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism: “It must be stressed that symbolism is a good servant but a bad master, and that undue concern with it can serve to conceal truth rather than reveal it.” Or, as Sigmund Freud observed, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.
— Lawrence Ferlinghetti