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Symbols of the Ages

“Why a book of images matters in a world as chaotic and complex as our own.”         Ami Ronnberg, Editor-in-Chief, The Book of Symbols

HAVE YOU EVER considered that something as minuscule as a tiny ink dot on a sheet of paper is actually a complex, multivalent symbol?

“We know it by a dozen names. . . . As the smallest, the beginning point. It can be seen as an image of infinity . . . which we can only represent in concrete terms as a visual pattern, as a dot. But it can also mean the very first material incarnation of such formlessness, the starting point from which all things arise. . . . As the center and source of everything, the dot is imagined as giving rise to all opposing tendencies: above and below, male and female, hot and cold. And it is also the place where they can be reconciled, the still place at the center of life’s multiplicity . . . the tiny mustard seed growing into a huge bush, which Jesus likened to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:31-2) . . . the potent spot of the divine within. . . . ” (The Book of Symbols, 706).

With respect to a different image, “What would the feast of life be like without the ‘flagrant crimson’ or the chaste simplicity, the playful exuberance, or the serene composure of the rose?” (162). In other words, when is a rose more than a rose, despite Gertrude Stein’s demur that “a rose is a rose is a rose”?

Or, what about a varied assortment of symbols acting as keys to the workings of the psyche? “Keys evoke the tension between seeking and finding, restricting and releasing, withholding and giving, prohibiting and admitting. . . Psyche offers keys to its conundrums in the form of symptoms and symbols” (562).

Meister Eckhart Portal of the Erfurt Church

Editor-in-chief Ami Ronnberg avows that “symbolic images are more than data; they are vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.” She cites Meister Eckhart—“when the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it”—believing that “Eckhart’s words also explain why a book of images matters in a world as chaotic and complex as our own” (6).

Behind The Book of Symbols lies a rich intellectual and bibliographic history dating to the 1930s, when a series of conferences called “Eranos” (Greek, “shared feast”) took place and persisted throughout most of the 20th century in Ascona, Switzerland. Diverse scholars from East and West gathered there in concert, Carl Jung among them, to mine the world’s vast wealth of symbolism. Thanks to Olga Froebe Kapteyn, who arranged these conferences and also “exhibited on the walls in the lecture hall” an enormous assembly of symbols constituting an archive of some 17,000 images with accompanying texts, we now have access to an abundance of interpreted iconography (www.aras.org).

The book’s visual images alone are worth the purchase price, enriched as they are by substantive narrative interpretations, comprising a “fine arts” collection of cultural “objets d’art” presented mostly in color “from around the world and from every era since human beings first depicted . . . psyche’s imaginal forms.”

The volume is arranged in thumb-indexed divisions entitled Creation and Cosmos, Animal World, Plant World, Human World, and Spirit World. Its 318 articles elucidate the ways “a given symbol reflects intrapsychic landscapes and field phenomena in which structures and functions, shifting, mercurial energies and processes of transformation participate.”

The cover design displays an antique rendition of the human hand, a cutout likely representing the “Hand of God” as crafted by the American Woodland Indians (200 B.C.E. – 400 C. E.). As an example of archetypal symbol, the palm and fingers extend beyond their physical attributes (a hand is a hand) into the trans-material sphere of mythic metaphor (behold, the hand of God).

The Book of Symbols is replete with a cache of metaphors that editor Kathleen Martin concludes can ”flow into each other in ways that mirror psyche’s unexpected convergences.” Its pages, like keys inserted into locks, open doors to what psyche’s imaginal eye can see that the physical eye cannot.

Garden Rose And Blue Forget Me Nots In A Vase by Gustave Caillebotte, France, 1848-1894

Case in point is the rose as an intoxicating symbol of attraction, its “flower’s fragrance, evoking both the seductive love magic of Cleopatra, and the ‘odour of sanctity’ of the Virgin Mary.”

The classic second-century novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius declares “roses are the antidote for the magic-gone-amuck that has transformed the hero Lucius into a donkey.” As the story unfolds, the enticement of the roses “are always just out of reach until strategically placed in a festive procession for the Egyptian goddess Isis, who subsequently calls Lucius to priestly service” (162).

Appropriating the symbolism of this ancient tale for a 21st century audience, we might do well to consider that roses signify the values and virtues of archetypal feminine powers. In that respect the collective energies and wisdom of women will proffer a far better chance to save the planet than the “magic-gone-amuck” of male testosterone donning dark suits and uniforms for breeding wars, famine, environmental degradation, and refugee migration.

Think for example of the positive hope and energy engendered by the National Women’s March of January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Here is the man who, not unlike his mythic counterpart Lucius, continues making a “golden ass” of himself!

Is it possible, as for Lucius, that Trump might regain his lost humanity by ingesting a bouquet of roses, which is to say, by digesting some feminine elixir? Instead of his infatuation with monuments to male dominance and aggression (“Trump Towers”), might a reintegration of his own feminine anima (as opposed to his lonely male animus) free him from his misogynistic, locker-room proclivity for demeaning women, among others, with predatory disdain?

Think, for instance, how the Virgin Mary might transform his numerous personal animosities during quiet moments of reflective solitude, should he ever grant her the opportunity to provide him with spiritual redemption. Yet, can you imagine Donald Trump—even for one still minute—praying the rose-ary? Thus in his case the career of the rose is “always just out of reach.”

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear Vincent van Gogh, 1889

This leads us to ponder another anthropomorphic symbol, the human “ear.”

“Antiquity suggests how important it is for us, not only the gods, to listen especially to the soft-spoken ‘sounds’ that religions hint at through their metaphor of the ear, and which are also a psychic reality” (358).

Just so, “medieval Christians claimed that Christ (as the Word of God) was conceived in his mother’s womb after a dove entered her ear.” This figurative portrayal of Mary’s conception challenges the limits of modern empirical rationality. It compels us to reckon with the incongruity between the ways we ordinarily interpret the everyday world and the antiquarian image of a dove entering the human ear as a sign of divine incarnation. Translated: Who among us is listening deeply and profoundly to the Word of God spoken to us in the Age of Google?

If not spoken by means of hobbled preachers and holy scriptures, then perhaps some other forms of artistry may open at least a narrow passageway into the pregnant imagination where more than gargoyles and goblins dwell. By that avenue, meditate for a season upon the proverbial “spiral.”

Picture the “archetypal path of growth, transformation and psychological or spiritual journey” embodied in Georgia O’Keefe’s Pink Shell with Seaweed. Here we encounter iconography that draws us into “the sacred way of commandment and prayer, the spiral voice of God and the sacred call to God.” For the icon “evokes one’s own center, divine source, ‘I am’ and seed of consciousness” (720).

Now juxtapose this with the “double spiral” visible in cosmic galaxies, working visual wonders by “the direction of its spin” by which we humans find ourselves caught in the contradictions of “growth or decay, ascent or descent, evolution or involution, waxing or waning . . . increasing or decreasing, offering or receiving, revealing or hiding” (718). Such paradoxes—are they not the subjects of our prayers? And, as with the ragged events that condition our prayers, do our dreams not contain within them symbols of veiled mysteries waiting to be revealed? “Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, ‘Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams'” (Numbers 12:5-6).

Georgia O’Keeffe

As for the myriad of archetypal images that accompany such dreams, you may want to check out a few of these and others from the pages of this book: waterfall, cloud, flower, mushroom, Ganesha, Dakini, ant, bear, baldness, heart, subway, gossip, stranger, sword, bow and arrow, net/web, earring, attic, mirror, butterfly/moth, fountain, school, drum, bridge, tunnel, Quetzalcoatl, Siren, Furies, dragon, incense, pearl, ancestor, chakras, crucifixion, and crossroads.

The Book of Symbols awakens within us an awareness of the artistic imagination whose “priestly service” acts as an intermediary between conscious and unconscious dimensions of life. Without the presence of archetypal metaphors, symbols, and dreams as lifelong companions, we would be bereft of their profound implications and ofttimes life-changing insights and meanings.

The splendid achievement of The Book of Symbols is its portrayal of the extraordinary magnitude and genius of the symbolic mind that belongs to all races and people. Ω

The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, Ami Ronnberg, Editor-in-Chief, and Kathleen Martin, Editor; Köln: Taschen, Pp 807, 2010, Hardcover (Amazon)

© 2017 Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.