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Innocence (1893) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Both young children and lambs are symbols of innocence
Innocence (1893) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Both young children and lambs are symbols of innocence
Iconologia  (1593) by Cesare Ripa was an emblem book highly influential on Baroque imagery
Iconologia (1593) by Cesare Ripa was an emblem book highly influential on Baroque imagery

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A symbol is something that represents an idea, a process, or a physical entity. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for numbers. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. A red rose symbolizes love and compassion.

Psychology has found that people, and even animals, can respond to symbols as if they were the objects they represent. Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard a sound which they associated with food, even if there was no food.



The word symbol came to the English language by way of Middle English, from Old French, from Latin, from the Greek σύμβολον (sýmbolon) from the root words συν- (syn-), meaning "together," and βολή (bolē), "a throw", having the approximate meaning of "to throw together", literally a "co-incidence", also "sign, ticket, or contract". The earliest attestation of the term is in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes where Hermes on seeing the tortoise exclaims σύμβολον ἤδη μοι μέγ᾽ ὀνήσιμον "symbolon [symbol/sign/portent/encounter/chance find?] of joy to me!" before turning it into a lyre.

Psychoanalysis and archetypes

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who studied archetypes, proposed an alternative definition of symbol, distinguishing it from the term sign. In Jung's view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise. An example of a symbol in this sense is Christ as a symbol of the archetype called self. For example, written languages are composed of a variety of different symbols that create words. Through these written words, humans communicate with each other. Kenneth Burke described Homo sapiens as a "symbol-using, symbol making, and symbol misusing animal" to indicate that a person creates symbols in her or his life as well as misuses them. One example he uses to indicate his meaning behind symbol misuse is the story of a man who, when told a particular food item was whale blubber, could barely keep from throwing it up. Later, his friend discovered it was actually just a dumpling. But the man's reaction was a direct consequence of the symbol of "blubber" representing something inedible in his mind. In addition, the symbol of "blubber" for the man was created by him through various kinds of learning. Burke emphasizes that humans gain this type of learning that helps us create symbols by seeing various print sources, our life experiences, and symbols about the past.

Burke goes on to describe symbols as also being derived from Sigmund Freud's work on condensation and displacement further stating that they are not just relevant to the theory of dreams, but also to "normal symbol systems". He says they are related through "substitution" where one word, phrase, or symbol is substituted for another in order to change the meaning. In other words, if a person does not understand a certain word or phrase, another person may substitute a synonym or symbol in order to get the meaning of the original word or phrase across. However, when faced with that new way of interpreting a specific symbol, a person may change their already formed ideas to incorporate the new information based on how the symbol is expressed to the person.

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich argued that while signs are invented and forgotten, symbols are born and die. There are therefore dead and living symbols. A living symbol can reveal hidden levels of meaning, and transcendent or religious realities to an individual. For Tillich, a symbol always "points beyond itself" to something that is unquantifiable and mysterious. This is the symbol's "depth dimension". Symbols are complex and their meanings can evolve as the individual or culture evolves. When a symbol loses its meaning and power for an individual or culture, it becomes a dead symbol. The Greek Gods might be an example of dead symbols that were once living for the ancient Greeks but whose meaning and power is now gone.

When a symbol becomes identified with the deeper reality to which it refers, it becomes idolatrous as the "symbol is taken for reality." Here, the symbol itself is substituted for the deeper meaning it intends to convey. The unique nature of the symbol is that it gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible.

Role of context in symbolism

A symbol's meaning may be modified by various factors including popular usage, history, and contextual intent.

Historical meaning

This history of a symbol is one of many factors in determining a particular symbol's apparent meaning. Consequently, symbols with emotive power carry problems analogous to false etymologies.


The context of a symbol may change its meaning. Similar five–pointed stars might signify a law enforcement officer or a member of the armed services, depending the uniform.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Symbol" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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