What's Behind a Symbol?
Article ID: 11304
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: March 11th. 2007
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There has been quite a furor of late over the right for Pagan soldiers to be buried with the symbol of their faith to mark their graves, a cause which all free minded individuals should support, and which has led me to wonder about the importance of symbols in religion in general and as a Pagan.
Would I die for the right to wear a pentagram or triskell?
My answer: probably not -- because the symbol is nothing more then that, a symbol.
We use symbols to represent more complex ideas that we could not otherwise readily express in one quick glimpse. They allow us to identify ourselves with the tribe to which we belong. I know of very few Witches who do not own a piece of pentagram jewelry.
Where these symbols fail us is when they become more important than the idea that lies behind them. Have you ever met a young beginner who thinks that just by wearing the pentagram they have become a witch?
When I was younger I used to know quite a few and they were those who would allow any inkling of faith to fall by the wayside because they didn’t really understand the symbol or the beliefs that give it power.
Lets just look into the origins of the pentacle. In my studies I have come across a lot of different meanings and they varied depending on whether the point was up or down but they all stated that the pentacle originated in the Middle East as a symbol of power, normally to amplify power, and as a ward against evil.
It is also used to represent various goddesses in ancient religions of the middle-east and North Africa. Hermetic magi and Pythagorean philosophers, who may have been responsible for its transmittal to Western Europe, adopted it and it was eventually used by renaissance alchemists.
How and when Witchcraft became synonymous with the Pentacle remains a bit of a mystery to me, though it could be the connection with Astarte/Inanna and Ishtar that came with it from its ancient religious meanings.
More importantly is the meaning we now attribute to the pentagram,
I have heard explanations that it represents the five elements of life or the five steps to enlightenment. It is a sacred symbol to practitioners of magic, its form representing both the complexity and the oneness of the world around us.
As a Celtic Pagan, I find the triskell more poignant, representing the three domains of land, sea and air and connecting directly to the Celtic way of thinking. I wear both the pentagram and the triskell on the same cord on either side of a pendant. This is to show first that I am a Pagan, second that my path is Celtic, and third that I am proud of both.
Why do I feel the need to wear these? To tell the world who and what I am without having to convey it in words.
Humans are visual animals who process more from one glance than might be thought possible. We go through an instant process of analysis when we look at another individual and one of the factors weighed is whether we are from the same pack or tribe. Wearing a symbol allows for an instant recognition that we are in some way connected -- be it football strip, a band logo or a pentagram. They all speak of belonging to a certain mind set or social group that helps to put others at ease, which is why it makes us uneasy to go somewhere where there are a lot of uniform individuals if we ourselves are ‘non-uniform’.
In short, the symbols we wear say ‘I am like you’ and allow us to differentiate between members of our tribe and members of other tribes.
Using symbols is inherent in any magic you would learn because they allow for quick understanding amongst those involved and can of course obfuscate meaning for those who are outside and need not understand.
I do not think a single Pagan would not understand the relevance of casting the circle even if they do not do it themselves, or the importance of the chalice and athame however one might represent them. These symbols also allow a focus for all present to concentrate on. What such ritual and ceremonial symbols might stand for is almost unending.
It has to also be remembered that symbols have been used throughout history to mark out and alienate others and to inspire hatred by saying they are different; they are not like us.
When a symbol is used in such a way it becomes invested with negative connotations that do not easily fade. How many of us experience an uneasy feeling when we see a swastika, another symbol of power from the middle east, despite the fact that it is just a symbol with only as much meaning as we allow it to have?
While we continue to see a symbol of oppression and anger as such, we feed the thoughts that went behind it. Racists still use the swastika because of the connotations that surround it and feed their own beliefs. They use that symbol knowing and enjoying the fact that it will offend others. (One thing to remember if you ever have the misfortune to come across a white supremacist wearing a swastika is that the symbol is backwards meaning weakness, powerlessness and everything but what it was intended to mean.)
We give power to symbols by investing our emotions in them and by doing that we grant those who would use them a degree of power over the way we act and feel.
Should a Wiccan soldier be allowed to have a pentagram gravestone? Yes. When he/she died, he/she did not pray to the god of the Israelites and he/she did not seek solace in Catholic last rites. His/her thoughts and prayers would have been to his or her Gods and Goddesses.
Would he or she want a cross over his/her resting place? I would think not. He or she gave his/her life for the political whims of his/her nation. He/she deserves the respect to have his/her own religious symbol mark his/her grave in the same way that Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists deserve the right for their grave markers to bear the symbols that they see appropriate.
Next time you are performing a ritual or ceremony, think on the symbols you use. Does your athame have to be something spectacular that you found in your local esoteric shop? Does your chalice need to be silver? Might you use an old bread knife and a chipped cup and invest them with the same energies? It is nice to have the bright and shiny trappings but as symbols we can invest our energies into anything and get the same results.
After this essay on the importance of symbols and how they might be used, why wouldn’t I die for a symbol? Because a symbol can be changed or replaced or altered to suit the need of the moment.
What is important is the ideals behind the symbol, the power of the thought that created the symbol and the emotions invested in the symbol.
I would die for those.
And for the right to believe in my own faith unhindered, to think without boundaries and to have passion in a cause.
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