Symbols and Rites

1. “At the dawn of history, the whole world – animate and inanimate, natural and supernatural – was interpreted symbolically. Life, death and rebirth were in constant close proximity, and these unceasing transformations were explained through stories and symbols: the passage between this world and the next, the rebirth of each new day and each spring. Such stories were symbolically relieved through ritual, art, dance, sacrifice, masks, hieroglyphs, talismans, fetishes, architecture and music. They served to keep a community in close connection with its defining narratives, above all its creation myths and stories of origin.”
Sacred Symbols: Peoples, Religions, Mysteries, edited by Robert Adkinson

image: John White - Indian ritual dance from the village of Secoton, via

image: John White – Indian ritual dance from the village of Secoton, via

2. “Rites and symbols, both of which are essential elements of every initiation, and, more generally are associated with everything traditional, are in fact closely linked by their very nature. All the constituent elements of a rite necessarily have a symbolic sense, whereas, inversely, a symbol produces — and this indeed is its essential purpose — in one who meditates upon it with the requisite aptitudes and disposition, effects rigorously comparable to those of rites properly speaking, with the reservation of course that when this meditation is undertaken there be, as a preliminary condition, that regular initiatic transmission failing which the rites would be in any case nothing more than a vain counterfeit, as with their pseudo-initiatic parodies. We must also add that the origin of authentic rites and symbols (anything less does not deserve the name, since it amounts in the end to entirely profane and fraudulent imitations) is likewise ‘non-human’. Thus the impossibility of assigning to them any definite author or maker is not due to a lack of information, as profane historians suppose (that is, if for want of a better solution they have not been driven to look on them as the product of a sort of “collective consciousness”, which, even if it existed, would in any case be quite incapable of producing things of a transcendent order, such as these), but is a necessary consequence of that very origin, something that can only be contested by those who completely misunderstand the true nature of tradition and of all its integral parts, as is evidently the case with rites and symbols.

… (E)very word is nothing more than a symbol of the idea it is intended to express. Thus all language, whether spoken or written, is truly a body of symbols, and it is precisely for this reason that language, despite all the “naturalistic” theories contrived in modern times to explain it, cannot be a more or less artificial human creation nor a simple product of man’s individual faculties.

… (E)very rite is literally made up of a group of symbols which include not only the objects used or the figures represented, as we might be tempted to think if we

stopped at the most superficial meaning, but also the gestures effected and the words pronounced (the latter, as we have said, really constituting moreover only a particular case of the former); in a word, all the elements of the rite without exception; and these elements then have a symbolic value by their very nature and not by virtue of any superadded meaning that might attach to them from outward circumstances without really being inherent to them. Again, it might be said that rites are symbols ‘put into action’, or that every ritual gesture is a symbol ‘enacted,’ but this is only another way of saying the same thing. Highlighting more particularly the rite’s characteristic that, like every action, it is something necessarily accomplished in time, whereas the symbol as such can be envisioned from a timeless point of view. In this sense one could speak of a certain pre-eminence of symbols over rites; but rites and symbols are fundamentally only two aspects of a single reality, which is, after all, none other than the “correspondence” that binds together all the degrees of universal Existence in such a way that by means of it our human state can enter into communication with the higher states of being.”

Rene Guenon,The Essential Rene Guenon: Metaphysics Tradition and the Crisis of Modernity, edited by John Herlihy, 2009 World Wisdom. Pp. 226-230

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9 Responses to Symbols and Rites

  1. Pingback: Symbols and Rites | symbolreader | radupopescublog

  2. Initiation rites make for very interesting study. Great post, Monika.

  3. This is fascinating Monica. I’m cross-referencing it (in my mind) with the ‘3 Pots Action’ of Joseph Beuys at the (former) poorhouse in Edinburgh. Want to digest this more thoroughly, thinking about the source material you reference, and will return. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Symbols and Rites | lampmagician

  5. I’ve always viewed rites as methods of shifting one’s awareness in order to perceive the ineffable often expressed through symbols. Another great post. Thanks Monika!

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