Tag Archives: symbolism

Got Symbol?

symbolsWhat EXACTLY is a symbol and how is it different from a metaphor? And what purpose do symbols serve?
A symbol is the conscious and artful use of:
  • other symbols ( see photo for some common examples)
  • objects
  • characters
  • actions/events

that represent something greater and more complex than that which is obvious.

symbolsThe SparkNotes definition: Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Metaphor, on the other hand, is an implied analogy whereby one thing is compared to another. A metaphor “stands for” something else.

The BIG difference. A metaphor means ONE thing…SYMBOLS have many layers of meaning. (I tell my students if they can’t find and explain 3 levels of meaning, they need to call it a metaphor.)

A few concepts to remember:
  • are multi-layed, like an onion (that’s a simile. “Symbols are onions” is a metaphor.)
  • may change over time. For example, the swastika is a symbol of the Nazi party, evil, and a belief in white supremacy. It’s actually an ancient symbol for the sun and the cycle of birth and rebirth. It means “aspicious ” in India. Another example is the rainbow. In Judeo-Christian religions the rainbow signifies God’s promise to never again destroy the earth with water. Then leprechauns got involved with the whole pot of gold thing. Now it’s a symbol of gay pride, I would say the rainbow symbol has changed a helluva lot!
  • are ingrained in our collective conscious. The sun is universally considered to be  giver of life. Most cultures have one or two sun gods.Tomes have been written detailing the how, where, when and why symbols emerged from ancient civilizations.
  • are shared among cultures: Early symbols like the sun, rainbow, stars, and circles stem from early civilizations concern for food and shelter. Conquering civilizations brought their religions and symbols with them, thereby spreading, adding to, or forcing the Defeated to assimilate them.
  • may be culture/religion specific. The color red in western cultures is linked to love and sexual passion. Red in eastern cultures is symbolic of pure love and good luck.

Symbols add depth, sophistication, and chew-worthy deliciousness to a novel. It makes a reader stop reading ( briefly) to ponder the profound meaning of the object/action/person. That makes for a memorable yummy read.

Symbols in literature are complex! Any object, character, place, action may be  symbolic, having several layers or meaning within the text .Peel away the symbolic layers and the author may be making a statement about:

  • culture
  • mental health of character(s)
  • technology
  • emotional health of character(s)
  • business
  • aesthetics/beauty
  • government/politics
  • natural world
  • education
  • morals/values/protocols
  • wealth/socio-economic status /class
  • situation/problems/dilemmas/conundrums/risks/struggles
  • religion/ beliefs/dogmas/spirituality
  • physical health
  • country/state/city
  • family
  • society
  • group affiliation ( from Boy Scouts to nerds to the Free Masons to military units)
  • Age/ age group (toddler, youth adolescent, teen, middle age, elderly)
  • race
  • gender
  • sexuality ( because gender and sexuality are not synonymous)
  • ideals ( or lack thereof)

Another important thing to understand about symbols: Each person understands  symbols a little bit differently because each person brings their own unique life/gender/age/culture/religious/personal experiences to anything they read ( or watch or hear).

Remember, when READING or WRITING  to place the symbol in context of setting, history, and culture OR the symbol will not be understandable.

Examples of symbolism you might remember from high school:
  • Piggy’s glasses in the Lord of the Flies
  • the shark in Old Man and the Sea. ( actually, everything in that novella is a symbol, making the tale an allegory–I’ll save that for another blog)
  • the pearl in The Pearl
  • the veil in Persepolis
  • the green light in The Great Gatsby
  • soma in Brave New World

In the novel, The Merkabah Recruit, I have a few symbols. The merkabah, of course, is an ancient symbol. There is also an action that takes place several times during the course of the story: The protagonist’s attempt to put her key into the locked door in the dark. As you may have guessed, keys, doors, locks, and darkness are equally chock full of symbolic chewy goodness. Folks who have read both novels always ask, “Who is Jack, really ?” Readers know there is more to that character than meets the eye.( I lOVE when that happens!)

Related Links:  Rock Your Writing; Symbols and more symbols ( from birds to food to animals to trees–the symbolism behind the natural world);Click  Amazon link to novels.

By the way,  the images used in my Rock Your Writing series are always symbolic of the topic I’m blogging about.

 Have fun with symbols!  

Related Links:  Rock Your WritingSymbolism & more symbols
Click  Amazon link for novels.

website redendcap

Wild & Tame #2

hyenaa summer of symbolism continues…

As you noticed in the previous Wild & Tame blog, the symbolism of animals  varies with culture–and often changes over  centuries. And yet some have stood the test of time.

Note: This is a down and dirty animal symbolism list—-blog-sized. If you’re reading or writing about a particular animal additional research is suggested.

Animal Symbolism: F-J

Fox: “Crafty like a fox.” No doubt the saying comes from the fox’s symbolic heritage. Sneaky, crafty, sly, treacherous–another Trickster figure. In both Native American and eastern cultures, the fox is a shape-shifter. In Japanese folklore, Kitsune can be either good or bad ( I go into a bit more detail in The Merkabah Recruit)

Gazelle: The fleet of foot creature is symbolic of grace, goodwill, and swiftness.

Goat: The  beast symbolizes fertility and lust—that’s where we get the saying “horny old goat.”  The goat is also associated with Bacchus (party sex god), Pan, and Zeus. In art, devils  or demons are  often depicted with hooves and/or horns.  But the goat has some positive aspects too–determination and nimbleness (climbing rocky mountains is difficult).

Hare: A trickster figure ( of The Tortoise  and the Hare  fame). The hare is also a symbol of fertility ( as my daughter might say “you think?”). Once a manifestation of the Buddha.

Hedgehog: Early Christians deemed the furry roll-up-in-ball critter evil. Irish lore contends that witches changed into a hedgehog so they could drink milk from cows. Native Americans saw the critter as a symbol for self-preservation.

Hippopotamus: To ancient Egyptians, the hippo was a symbol of rebirth and renewal. hippoTawaret, goddess of childbirth, was depicted as a pregnant hippo (well, if that ain’t the perfect metaphor).

Horse: Beauty, speed, nobility, freedom–the horse is associated with the sun and sky gods. The color of the horse is also symbolic. White horses are symbols of spiritual  rebirth ( Knight on White Horse). The winged-horse Pegasus is connected to the sun and represents spiritual aspects.

Hyena: Eater of dead flesh, scavenger–and, no doubt, with its weird laugh/bark—the hyena is associated with uncleanliness, avarice, and cowardice. It was once thought that the hyena could change sexes and so it became a symbol  for sexual abnormality.

jackalJackal: The desert scavenger is symbolic of evil and  destruction in India. The regal-looking creature, however, was worshiped as the god Anubis in Egypt. In the Bible, the jackal is associated with desolation.

Coming soon! Animal symbolism K-Z 

 I teach literary analysis ( must pay the bills) and remind my students to look closely at the symbolism in a novel. Why did the author include that fruit? Or name the character Neil? Why is the protagonist sitting under a pear tree? Why is her dress blue? Before jumping to any symbolic conclusions however, we look at the symbol in context of setting, history, and culture.

For more information on literary analysis click On Writing/For Teachers/ to see Elements of a novel. The Art of Fiction, and How to Read Like a Literature Professor.

Related LinksBugsFruit of the Gods; Tree of LifeSacred Spices; Foods of LifeBirds of a Feather #1; Birds of a Feather #2Gems & Jewels #1Gems & Jewels #2Lucky CharmsDemonic Animals; Wild & Tame;