symbol An object or visual image that expresses a concept or idea beyond the object or image itself. It translates the human situation into cosmological terms by both concealing and revealing with an element of mystery. Symbols are the language of the unconscious, especially the collective unconscious, where reside the accumulated archetypal images of humankind. The beginnings of symbolistic thought date to the late Paleolithic Age, when nomadic hunter/gatherer societies expressed their magicosupernatural beliefs in rock carvings and paintings. As civilization developed, symbols became integral to Magic, Alchemy, and all esoteric teachings for they contain secret wisdom accessible only to the initiated. In all mystical, magical, and religious traditions, symbols play an important role in the alteration and transformation of consciousness. Anything can become a symbol: natural and manufactured objects, numbers, the elements, animals, the Earth, the sky, the heavenly objects, deities, myths, folk tales, and even words. According to Carl G. Jung, the whole cosmos is a potential symbol. The circle is a universal symbol of great power, representing the Sun, illumination, wholeness, the wheel of life-death-rebirth, the Word of God, Truth, the Christ, and the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy. In Jungian thought the circle represents the Self, the totality of the psyche. Philosopher MANLY P. HALL said that the human is the oldest, most profound, and universal symbol, as found in the ancient Mysteries, which taught that the macrocosm of the universe was symbolized by humans, the microcosm. Hall said symbols comprise the language of the Mysteries, and of philosophy, mysticism, and all Nature. Symbols both conceal (to the uninitiated) and reveal (to the initiated). In magic, symbols are the keys to raising within the magician the qualities or abilities expressed by the symbols. The poet William Butler Yeats, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, said of the magical power of symbols, “I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the master of magic or half unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the artist.” (See SIGIL.) Alchemy cannot be pursued or understood without delving into symbols. Alchemists veiled the secrets of their work in symbolic images, the meanings of which must be interpreted and intuited by others. The MUTUS LIBER is perhaps the most famous example of an entire work in pictorial symbolism. Other such noteworthy works are Atalanta Fugiens by MICHAEL MEIER; the Splendor Solis by Saloman Trismosin; The Book of Lambsprinck; and the book obtained by NICHOLAS FLAMEL. For the most part, alchemical symbols are allegorical and thus are open to broad interpretation. Beyond a few consistencies, alchemists often invented their own sym- 300 sword bolic shorthand without regard for others. Planetary symbols are used for the primary metals of alchemy. The four Elements have fairly consistent symbols in downwardpointing triangles (earth and water) and upward pointing triangles (air and fire). The 12 steps of the Great Work are associated with the 12 signs of the zodiac and their symbols. Alchemists also employed literary symbolisms, or “cover names,” for aspects of the GREAT WORK. For example, the Philosopher’s Stone has well more than 100 cover names. Crow could mean lead, and CELESTIAL DEW could refer to MERCURY. Alchemical recipes sometimes were written entirely in such code, to the point where they were inscrutable to all but the original author. Jung, who devoted a great deal of his life to studying symbols, said that objects and forms that are transformed into symbols become endowed with a great psychological and redeeming power. Jung said that the human mind has its own history, expressed in symbols, specifically archetypes, or models. Symbols surface in dreams, but some have become completely unfamiliar to many people. In his practice, he noticed that archetypal and alchemical symbols appear in dreams, even when dreamers are not knowledgeable about either. He said that the religious dogma of the Christian Church tends to pull human consciousness away from its roots in the unconscious and that the symbols of Astrology help to keep the two connected. Jung lamented the deterioration of the symbolic nature of Christianity. He said Christian symbols died of the same disease that felled the classical gods: People discovered that they had no thoughts on the subject. Jung also lamented Western efforts to adopt symbols from Eastern religions, which he did not think could be assimilated meaningfully into Western culture. Better to admit that Christianity suffered from a poverty of symbols than to attempt to possess foreign symbols to which the West could not be the spiritual heir. Symbols become degraded if their original meanings are lost and replaced by lesser values. Jung said that symbols that are not constantly renewed lose their redeeming power. Symbols which become too well known also lose their power, becoming mere signs. See also TAROT.


Eliade, Mircea. Symbolism, the Sacred, & the Arts. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1988. Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. 1928. Reprint, Los Angeles: The Philosophic Research Society, 1977. Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957. Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. 2d ed. From The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 12. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. Jung, Carl G. (ed.). Man and His Symbols. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1988.

The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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