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In this essay I will argue that symbols cannot be studied in and of themselves, but their meaning is directly tied with their associated culture’s way of living, beliefs systems and values. I will go on to explain that even certain symbols might evoke fears, represent well-being and certain emotions/feelings but how a culture’s take on it produces a completely different meaning even if the visual symbol is the same cross culturally. I will then go on to show how symbols can vary in meaning within a culture and even more so cross culturally but this is not always a given. I will analyses two controversial symbols which are the snake and swastika. Looking at how and why these two symbols have certain connotations strung with them.
Around 50, 000 years ago, the use of symbols started developing which then turned into a ‘symbolic explosion’ that spread across the world which included symbols in the form of art, dance, song and ritual. Symbolism is an activity of enunciation which essentially assigns, categorizes and gives meaning to the many elements which make up a narrative. This also goes according to Pierre Bourdieu (1977) who said “In sense, symbols aims at providing a meaning in reality, constructing reality”. Now that reality, would be made for the culture that created the symbol of course. Symbols are the basic building blocks of culture. The definition of a symbol would be anything that carries a certain meaning which is recognised by people who share culture. The use of symbols to indicate qualities and ideas by assigning them symbolic definitions which are different from their literal recognition. Symbols exist in different forms but usually it is an object representing something else which gives it a totally different definition which is a lot deeper and significant. The expression of mystical or abstract ideas are done through the symbolic use of images. It is the special human ability to use complex symbols which include language, gestures etc. It can be said these symbols are the result of social processes but then later took on to represent the social process itself after a strong idea/meaning was developed over time. Hence humans are symbolic creatures. This is what essentially separates us from the animals. In our brain’s we have representations of things in the real world.
According to Sherry Ortner (1979) who said anything by definition can be a symbol, a vehicle for cultural meaning. Symbols put together are then used to communicate with language. “A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” – Clifford Geertz. Now coming to my argument that the symbolic meaning behind things can have different/multiple meanings amongst the different people within and outside the same cultures. The beliefs of one culture can instantly place judgements upon another with making references to certain symbols which they interpret from their own culture/religion. For example the symbolism of the snake in various cultures. Snakes play a huge role in many religions and cultures. In western religions such a Christianity snakes have a negative connotation which comes from the story of Adam and Eve, where the snake/devil tempted them to eat the forbidden fruit. The snake in Christianity vs. Hinduism has two completely different views. This has caused conflict and dislike amongst these religions but this is more of a misunderstanding essentially. Which I can speak from personal experience were Christians may refer to Hindus as being “evil or conduct devil worship activities” since the snake is the form the devil has taken in Bible narratives. In old Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Ancient Egypt snakes have positive symbolism and are experienced as spiritual animals which as scared e. g. represent heightened senses, rejuvenation, keepers of spiritual realms, keepers of knowledge, celestial beings in disguise etc. This is a great difference in the symbolic meaning of the snake across Eastern and Western cultures.
Today in the western culture snakes represent a mixed bag of motifs because now the westerners are more aware and involved with Eastern religions and practises like yoga and meditation. The ideas of the snake being the evil serpent is changing but also the negative connotation is still used in society like in movies such as Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane which makes use of snakes being absolutely dangerous creatures which bring death to humans in the end they leave people with negative thoughts and ideas about snakes. Also in the film and TV industry documentaries about snakes and religions offer people more information about these topics and what lens they are viewed through and why they represent what they do for those cultures. This brings in understanding and awareness to more people which is now connecting the world to a further extend but still not entirely at the present moment.
Now I shall analyse the contentious symbol of the swastika in depth. What makes it such an interesting symbol is because it represented the same meaning cross culturally in the ancient world until World War Two when the German Nazi Party started using it for their own purposes which I will explain further in this section. The swastika (卐) (Sanskrit: स्वस्तिक) is found across all continents, a part of all religions for many thousands of years across hundreds of cultures this symbol conveyed and still conveys wholly positive sentiments. Found worldwide integrated in ancient buildings, churches, temples, pottery, armoury, coins, clothing etc. It is one of the world’s oldest sacred symbols which represents good fortune, peace and light. The majority of people across the world are more likely to associate this symbol with Hindus, Jains and Buddhist more specially the billions of people who live in Asia itself. This symbols actually dates back to about 10, 000 B. C. no particular creator is known but as seen above the English name used comes from its Sanskrit “su” (good), “asti” (exists, there is, to be) and “ka” (make) and has meant a “making of goodness” or “marker of goodness”. But also it is uniting in the case of the original and true meaning of the swastika were it connected people in a way because it was a shared symbol which meant represented the same thing but with slightly different visual variations but overall had the general same shape. Interesting fact is that these cultures which many were continents apart and had no direct historical contact with each other but used this symbol but that itself is a different topic. The modern negative connotation of this symbol has come about in the western culture since Adolf Hitler hijacked the swastika all those years ago. This does bring up conflict when the east meets west today when this symbol is brought up or revealed in public. This has left Easterners frustrated especially those living in countries like the United States of America. Activities such as rallies, marches, workshops haven been held to educate the majority of western cultured people about the true meaning of this symbol but this still remains a very sensitive issue. People have been arrested during these worldwide marches for acts like simply carrying the symbol around on a poster and not committing any violence.
In Germany the symbol has been totally banned. Majority of the modern European and American citizens are not knowledgeable in terms of ancient history, ancient civilizations and other cultures in general so they directly link the swastika symbol with originating in the Nazi party and assume it was a symbol representing fascism, racism and overall Nazi beliefs. Just to recap this symbol represents good fortune, long life, love, prosperity. Even though ancient warriors like the Japanese Samurai whose armoury was decorated with the swastika warriors were not peaceful in that sense they did partake in bloodshed which is a sort of overall contradiction of the sign but assuming that in that situation it was associated with good fortune in the favour of themselves which I say was the idea behind Hitler applying it to the Nazi Party. In the mind of the villain he is the hero it was probably the same situation wishing good fortune upon themselves and their mission whilst believing that killing certain groups of people to be good in a sense to carry out their purpose.
As Sherry Ortner (1979) explained there are two categories of Key symbols which are summarizing symbols (sum up, represent powerful emotions and very important ideas within a culture) and elaborating symbols. According to her reading I would classify both the snake and the swastika (original meaning) to be summarizing symbols because they are used as important sacred (not scared in Christianity but represents as important aspect of the religion which is the devil) symbols in the sense of tradition and culture.
In this essay I have provided reasons why symbols cannot stand alone and how their meaning are products of the certain cultures being the way they are. I have used examples to show how symbolic definitions can vary within a culture and cross-culturally. I believe this is enough information to back up my main argument of symbols being representative product of a culture’s beliefs, values and traditions.
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