The Veiled Speech of the Symbol (2)


Last month I blogged about a book on symbols that I had just started reading ( I have finished it now and, while I got some inspiration from it, it did not satisfy me fully. Nevertheless, the nuggets that I have gleaned from his book, I am very happy to share here. All subsequent quotes come from this book, unless otherwise indicated.

I. The word “symbol” in ancient Greek

The oldest Greek meaning of sumbola was “the assembly of the waters,” a place where various rivers, streams and other waterways meet and flow together. The word sumballein meant “to throw or cast together” and also “to exchange words with someone.” Its meaning entailed comparing two things, interpreting one thing by means of another. Aristotle used sumballein kresmon to denote “interpreting an oracle.”


Rob Gonsalves, Tributaries

I was familiar with the etymology of the word “symbol,” but this in-depth delineation inspired me further to marvel at the beauty of this word. The process of symbolization entails throwing together and creating a link between the manifested and the unmanifested, the visible and the invisible: between here and beyond. Symbols are instruments of sacred dialogue, “the living and instantaneous revelation of the inexplorable,” as Goethe said. By means of symbols we dialogue with our deeper selves. Symbols take us back to the primordial source waters; they possess an oracular function and wisdom. They connect us with our souls and are the only language that the soul understands. Symbols give us “inner powers of a purely experiential order, and not an intellectual and abstract conception of the world.” They go much deeper than culture and lie deeper than socialization. The chapter on etymology finishes with a beautiful thought:

“For those of vision, the symbol restores the spectacle of a universe in the nascent state – that universe which has become crystallized, solidified, opaque, and closed or off-limits to those of thought.”


Rob Gonsalves, In Search of Sea

II. Symbols are not abstract concepts

The roots of symbolism are simultaneously in spirit and in the body – in physical experience. James Hillman, whom the author sadly does not quote anywhere, was a firm proponent of that thought. Observing nature is indispensable to developing a symbolic sense. Also Jung always emphasized his own rootedness in mother earth: he trained as a stonemason to build his refuge – the structure known as Bollingen Tower.


“The universal language of analogy and symbols is not only the language of the gods, but also the language of nature, of the suprahuman and the infrahuman, the language of the spirit, but also of the depths of the body.”

III. The inseparability of myth and symbol

“… myths… are like those rough, uncarved stones that are not the attributes of the deity, but rather the deity itself in its immediate and sensible opacity…. A myth is nothing other than the mutation that it brings about in us when we let ourselves dissolve into it.”

Symbols and myths are experienced and lived concretely in our everyday experiences. In most of us it happens on the unconscious level but in ancient times this was the obvious truth experienced by everyone. Myths have always been inextricably connected with rituals and transformative rites. They sprung from the nourishing soil of the times immemorial: they were born with humanity, or maybe earlier. The loss of a conscious connection with myth, ritual and symbol must have resulted in the feeling of barrenness and meaninglessness typical of our times. We may be more at the mercy of symbolic forces because we do not consciously acknowledge their power.


Ancient stone in Sapa, Vietnam

IV. Understanding of symbols can put an end to the battle between nature and spirit

Symbols are great mediators between the concrete physical reality, from which their meaning sprang, and the spiritual realm of archetypes. Alleau writes: “The transfiguration of nature is … inseparable from the incarnation of the spirit.” We have lost the symbolic ear because we have alienated ourselves from the earth, from the physical realm. We have lost our concrete foundations in “the increasing abstraction of the economic process,” asserts the author of the book. Who understands symbols is free from the social and political repression and close to the ever-creative source of life. This is why those in power and obsessed with control obstinately strive to devalue any form of symbolic expression and define myth as “fiction, untruth.” Deep down they know and fear that the power of symbols is not within their grasp.


Erik Johannson, Fishy Island, via

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28 Responses to The Veiled Speech of the Symbol (2)

  1. Lehua says:

    Erik Johannson’s Fishy Island is magical! I’ve never seen it before and it’s made the overcast day here very bright indeed 🙂


  2. ~Felicia~ says:

    Wow…. absolutely awesome!!!
    I need that book!


  3. ptero9 says:

    I must admit that there is something that fascinates me about that bond between the depths of nature and our human experience of it, even, or especially as it is unspeakable. The way in which we know through nurturing a connection between ourselves the vast, mysterious nature of the world propels us to create, or is it recreate?…so symbols and metaphors, by way of their pointing, rather than declaring, say more by opening us. The image itself opens us up.
    “Who understands symbols is free from the social and political repression and close to the ever-creative source of life.”
    Yes, and I think that the freedom of “seeing through” or seeing metaphorically, brings contentment as we ourselves become that creative source, yes?
    To lose the sense of alienation from others and from the world we inhabit is knowing that we are each of us, just as the flowers, the trees, the snake, the tiger are, all in our own human way.
    Perhaps this is why Jung spent most of his time engrossed in “play” in his later years.


  4. shreejacob says:

    I feel artists, poets and to some extent writers dabble with symbolism all the time. It’s also a process of emptying as they create their work allowing for more of what is deep within the unconscious to come up into consciousness (a Jung concept if I’m not mistaken).

    I want to ask a question, with regards to symbols. Do you feel that symbolism doesn’t have to be complex? That their power lies with it’s simplicity of interpretation. That the true power of symbols is not so much a universal and complex interpretation BUT that it is able to transcend all that and show the observer only what it’s spirit / soul requires it to see….much like art.

    Would love to know your thoughts on this 🙂


    • Yes, I agree, an interpretation should first and foremost speak to your soul, engage your intuition, lead you to your own inner truth because deep down you know it all. It should be like art. I for one am ok with complex interpretations, though, because the subject is vast. I am ok with footnotes if they add something interesting, like in Jung.


  5. I like Shree’s question so I will be awaiitng your response. Also enjoyed the imagery, especially In Search of Sea. It’s reminsicent of Dali.


  6. “We may be more at the mercy of symbolic forces because we do not consciously acknowledge their power.” — “May”? PR campaigns count on it and thereby drive symbolism even further from our conscious mind by separating us even further from physical reality like some nightmare mise en abime. Meanwhile, few people will acknowledge that they are in any way affected by ads. But they *may* acknowledge mental illness. No connection is made. Ugh. I’m feeling dark.


  7. I enjoyed reading your take on the book — thanks!


  8. bostaj says:

    wonderfully written. Thank you. It made me think and ponder 🙂


  9. Hi Monika. Great post! I was not familiar with the etymology of the word “symbol,” so that was nice to learn. It evokes an image of symbols being fluid, as morphing as we move down our individual rivers. Inspiring, as usual. Cheers!!


  10. archecotech says:

    I have always loved symbolism, now I know why. It connects my “w’s”, what we see with our eyes are not the same as what we see with our soul/spirit. When we look with this second eye the things of this realm can become much more real then what we see here. Thanks.


  11. Every quote is an invocation to the symbols within one’s mind. The Goethe one makes my cells ring. And yes, as someone else remarked, the Fishy Island is the perfect end note! Great article, Monika.


  12. H3nry J3kyll says:

    Any thoughts on the overwhelming influence of print media within modern society having an impact on our ability to perceive the significance of symbols? Words are symbols but the unnecessary verbosity of our expression often confuses meaning.


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