Monday, August 12, 2019

A Beginner’s Guide to Symbolism

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By: Emma B.

Dictionary.com defines Symbology, as the study of symbols and their meanings.  These symbols often have defined our pop-culture and can help people understand the media and other art.
I think a basic knowledge of symbolism can not only be helpful, but also grow your own arsenal of knowledge.

Basic Tips & Tricks:
Most people have a basic understanding of symbolism, but problems might arise when it comes to identifying symbols. The following is a common rule of thumb is that symbolism is when one thing or object that is repeated in a story.
However, symbols do have various identifiers. According to PenAndThePad.com, symbols can often be identified by examining key moments within the plot of a story, like an important scene.
Another question many people often have is why authors put symbolism in their stories in the first place? According toYourDictionary.com, symbolism is often used when “an author wants to suggest a certain [theme], mood or emotion,” without “blatantly stating it.” For example, the bright light in The Great Gatsby is symbolic of Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy Buchanan which is always just out of his reach. This “light” enhances the theme of the book, that being that as people often strive for things we can’t have.
Symbols can also change from culture to culture. For example, in the U.S., the number 13 is a sign of bad luck. Meanwhile, in Japan, the number four is a sign of bad luck.

Symbolism Vs. Allegory:
When one is dissecting symbolism, it is important not to mistake allegory for symbolism. Allegory is when the narrative of a story is used to teach a lesson, without stating it directly. An example of this is in the movie Zootopia, where the predators in the film are an allegory for various minorities and the conflict of the movie as a whole is an allegory for discrimination.
This is different from symbolism. Symbolism is used in small doses not for an entire story. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, gold and silver are used as symbols for the vanities of the court of Verona.

Famous Symbols and their Origins:
            Symbols have existed since the beginning of storytelling. Because of this many popular symbols have come and gone through the years. Despite the passage of time, some symbols, still have clear-cut origins or meanings. Here are a few.

#1: The Raven -
Ravens have been one of the most common symbols of death in the last two centuries, however, this wasn’t always the case.
The Norse god Odin is often paired with ravens, and Welsh folklore paints them as birds of prophecy. African and Japanese folklore has ravens as messengers. Scottish and Greek cultures saw them as doomed omens.
These mixed messages came to a head with the 1845 poem, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem toyed deeply with themes of death and insanity, causing ravens to be associated with horror in the process.

#2: The Dove -
The dove is the opposite of the raven. While ravens are omens of death, the dove is the bird of peace. Spiritualray.com says, “white doves are associated with love and romance,” and were often in paintings of the goddess Aphrodite.
In art, the dove is pictured with Jesus or The Holy Spirit, further tying the dove to peace, harmony, and redemption.

#3 The Butterfly-
The butterfly is a symbol of rebirth. The biological ability of a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly has made them iconic symbols of growth and change.
 However, in multiple religions throughout the world, butterflies are also associated with the soul. For example, butterflies were often etched onto ancient Christian tombs.

#4: Diamonds and Roses -
Diamonds are often associated with wealth and overwhelming love. Ties to diamonds as engagement rings go back as far as Ancient Rome. Tibetan culture, by contrast, holds a philosophy known as “The Diamond Way,” which explains human growth through the process of polishing a diamond.
Diamonds also have different symbolic meanings based on their colors. For example, pink diamonds symbolize joyful energy, blue diamonds often symbolize respect and black diamonds symbolize sorrow.
Roses function similarly, with red roses symbolizing love and beauty while the blue rose symbolizes heaven and the afterlife.

My Favorite Symbols:
Though many symbols exist, I have selected some personal favorites for further discussion. These aren’t necessarily the most widely used symbols. I’ve picked them either for their unique meanings or origins:

#1: Snowflakes:
The snowflake is symbolic of a contradiction. There is a Chinese Zen proverb that states “no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.” This is used in storytelling to reflect how every snowflake is unique but so is every person.
Snowflakes are also associated with heaven and peace.
However, snowflakes are also symbols of death, hardship, and grief as they represent the end of the harvest. These two contradicting ideas make the snowflake different.

#2: The Emerald:
The emerald represents healing. Many ancient Romans, for example, claimed their souls were restored when they wore emeralds. Emeralds were also associated with fertility, with expecting mothers being given emeralds to help them through childbirth.
Hindu cultures also see an emerald as a symbol of immortality. The emerald is also associated with great wealth, as some of history’s most famous leaders wore them, such as Cleopatra.

#3: The Grim Reaper:
The Grim Reaper has vastly different interpretations depending on time period and culture. The image of a cloaked man with a scythe has its origins with the Greek Titan Kronos, this image eventually changing into a traditional Germanic role. This image grew especially popular during the Black Plague and was used frequently in various forms of medieval art.
Today, this image is associated with games, cartoons, books and everything else in between and can even be a character unto himself.
As a symbol, the Grim Reaper is often used in political cartoons or satire.

Analyzing Symbolism:
The messages shared though symbolism can be subjective, symbolism can be the backbone of storytelling. It is used everywhere and often a source of debate. What does the symbol mean? Readers can often come to their own interpretations by asking some simple questions:
  • What is happening in the narrative when you think a symbol appears?
  • Why is the symbol here?
  • Is the author paying special attention to something?

These questions and more can help the aspiring symbolist better identify symbols and their meanings.

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