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Symbols are a powerful influence in our lives. We attach all sorts of significance to all sorts of things. Dates, animals, places, numbers, food, gestures, rituals… The list is endless. It has been said that the use (and misuse) of symbols is what defines us from the rest of the the animal realm.

Symbols carry meaning for us. Part of the reason that they are so powerful is that symbols can bypass our critical judgement. We see (or hear) the symbol and accept the meaning without having to appraise it’s relevance to us personally, or to weigh the value of the meaning implied by the symbol. The red light on a traffic signal means ‘stop’, we all know this without question (whether we act on it or not is another matter); a flag at half-mast, an eighteenth birthday, a fire alarm….

Symbols and symbolic acts carry layers of meaning and reference. It’s impossible to fully plumb all the inferences, nor should we. Symbols exist as a kind of shorthand to save us the trouble of constant analysis and interpretation.

Another factor in the efficacy of symbols is that we don’t have to accept or believe in them to be affected by them. We have just passed through the most symbol-laden moments in the year and – albeit that many of them have commercial undertones – whatever our faith or inclinations, those symbols will have affected us.

And so we have arrived at one of the most symbolically potent points in the annual calendar. You may agree or not agree, but that doesn’t alter that it is what it is.

Happy New Year.

3 Responses to “Symbols and Symbolism”

  1. Symbolism could be understood as an extension of language given that is also a communicator of meaning. It is, however, a more sophisticated form of communication that a traffic light which is more like a mere sign. As you suggest, symbols carry meaning at different levels which are cognitive, affective and simply associative with other strands within their particular cultural context. For a good read and explanation of symbols and symbolism, I go to Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythologies where symbolism forms a major part.

  2. At last I have managed to see the responses! Does that mean I have the green light?

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