How do they speak to us? - Michigan State University

Universal symbols
 Iconic symbols
 Metaphoric symbols
All symbols speak to human beings on a level beyond
words. When we encounter a symbol, we understand
the meaning. And, once we understand some
mechanics of symbols, we can gain a deeper
understanding of how they impact us.
Universal symbols are symbols that have the same meaning to all people in the world, in all times,
even the past. These are symbols that are understood by humans on a conscious, or subconscious,
level due to their inherent relativity to the human experience of life.
What do you think is the meaning of this universal symbol, the mountain?
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Accomplishing a goal?
Getting closer to the Sacred?
All of the above?
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A mountain can represent several different aspects relating to humanity. The
important idea to keep in mind is that this is true for all people of all times
and all ages. A mountain is a universal symbol of struggle, as it is difficult
work climbing a mountain. It also serves as a symbol of accomplishing a goal
as reaching the top of a mountain is quite an accomplishment. Also, a
mountain serves as a symbol of a sacred place as we as humans associate
the mountain as a place closer to God, the Divine, or the Sacred World. In
Greek mythology, the gods even lived on Mt. Olympus.
When a mountain appears in a myth, painting or as part of a metaphor in a
piece of literature, you can think of how the mountain contributes to the
communication of one of these circumstances and how it relates to what the
author is attempting to convey to the audience. Writings, myths and visual
images incorporating mountains appeal to the deeper levels of human
consciousness, whether a person was born in 6,000 B.C.E, or 1995 C.E. All
people will interpret this symbol in the same manner.
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Think about water. It is essential for life.
Humanity could not survive without it.
We are water, and we cannot remain in
our current form if we don’t continually
take in water.
How do we use water, symbolically?
To clean our souls?
To clean our bodies?
To flood the world?
When you have visited all
the links, learn about
iconic symbols.
We use water in religious ceremonies in hopes of cleaning the dirt, sin or
impurities from the spiritual part of ourselves. All people use water to clean
themselves, or other objects, so we know that water serves as a mechanism
to cleanse. Removing soil restores our bodies, or an object, to their natural,
untainted glory. What wonders a hot shower can do for the mind, not just
the body.
Therefore, we use water in religious ceremonies to clean our souls. When
we perform an act in the physical sense, we can then transform that act to
the less tangible parts of us, like our spirit, removing the impurities there as
well. The water ceremonies are an outward action taken to cleanse our
inward selves.
Again, keep in mind that water used in this way is symbolic, universally,
meaning this symbol can be understood by any person in the past, present
and future…at any place on the planet.
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We do use water to clean our bodies, I’m glad to say, because refraining
from doing so would be less than pleasant, especially in a crowded venue.
However, having a shower in the morning doesn’t really involve any
symbolism, generally. In religious ceremonies, such as Christian baptism,
water is used symbolically to clean deeper than the skin. These ceremonial
acts attempt to cleanse souls; restoring them to the pure state of
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People didn’t flood the world, but there are many religious myths that relate that God, or the Divine, did flood the
world because humanity was not living up to its potential. God cleansed the world of its impurities.
You may be familiar with the myth of Noah and the Ark, present in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which God
wiped out all of creation, with the exception of Noah and his family, and the animals, of course, because creation
became impure. God cleaned the planet of the impurities, using water, in order to start fresh.
A myth you may not be familiar with is a Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh in which the hero of the story, Gilgamesh,
encounters the only man to survive the great flood, whose name is Utnapishtim. In this myth, you can read a very
similar story to that of Noah and the Ark. The gods produced rain that fell to the planet creating a great flood that
cleansed the Earth of the impure human race.
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Iconic symbols are those which provide information in a picture, or icon, in order to convey a
complex message to the audience, in a single glance. Universal symbols are often incorporated
into iconic symbols as this is a way to communicate consciously, or subconsciously, on a
human to human level.
What are the names of the iconic religious symbols below?
From what religions did they originate?
Click the image to reveal if you are correct. When finished viewing all the links,
learn about
Balance & Harmony
The yinyang is a symbol of the universe as a single, whole entity. The universe consists of two opposites: yin and yang. The dark half of
the symbol is yin while the light half is yang.
Yin = dark, cold, female, wet and night. Yin is also the sole aspect of the Earth and moon. The Earth and moon contain no yang.
Yang = light, heat, male, dry and day. Heaven and the sun are entities which possess only yang without yin. With the exception of the
Earth, moon, Heaven and the sun, all objects in the universe are comprised of both yin and yang. This is indicated in the symbol with
the use of the dots. There is a dot of yin in the yang and a dot of yang in the yin, meaning that even yin contains yang and yang
contains yin. In terms of the whole universe, these dots symbolize that each object in the universe (which is whole) contains both yin
and yang.
Yin and yang are not competitive. Yin and yang together constitute balance and harmony. Together they complete the whole, which is
the universe. An example of this follows: without the concept of light, there would be no concept of darkness and without darkness,
there would be no concept of light. If only one existed, it wouldn't be labeled and its existence would probably go unnoticed as there
would be nothing to which it could be compared. In contrast, if only darkness existed, something other than darkness would go
unnoticed because the human mind could not even fathom its opposite. Therefore, the complete opposite concepts need one
another to exist at all. This is called interdependence. Everything in the universe is interdependent.
A portion of this material is taken from: Chinese Religions, by Christian Jochim: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; 1986.
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The cross is actually a pre-Christian symbol that was well known well before the birth of
Christianity. The cross is representative of the intersection of two lines. The horizontal line
represents humanity, while the vertical line represents God. The most significant area of the
cross symbol is the area where the intersection of the two lines occurs. Thusly, the cross is a
powerful symbol illustrating the coming together of God and humanity. Isn’t that the point of all
religion? Prior to Christianity, the cross was used to convey
the idea that the quest of humanity in religion is to find
the point at which a person can intersect with God.
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The evil eye is a stare that is thought to have the power to cause misfortune, illness and even death. Many
religions of the world have an amulet to protect a person against such a stare. This is the case with Islam,
which has the Hand of Fatimah. We see similar amulets in Judaism and Buddhism.
The five fingers of the Hand of Fatimah are thought to represent the five pillars of Islam, the five important
leaders of Islam after Prophet Muhammad, and the five daily prayers. The color blue is thought to have
special properties for warding off evil.
The eye in the middle of the hand can block the stare from a person sending the evil eye to another, keeping
the owner of the hand safe and free of misfortune.
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The swastika is a symbol that has been used for centuries before it was adopted by
the Nazis, who in a very short time, ruined its good name.
The swastika has been used, arguably, for more than 10,000 years. The absolute
origin of the symbol is not known, but it is a prominent symbol used in Hinduism and
Buddhism, as well as traditional Native American religions. The symbol is a cross
with 90 degree angled arms. It is thought to represent the universe and the turning
of the universe. The word, “swastika”, carries a connotation of goodness and good
luck. It is often used as a charm to bring good fortune and keep away misfortune. It
is theorized that the arms of the cross represent the seasons, or good health.
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Please view this video about the
swastika. I realize that near the end
of the video, it is a little opinionated,
but nothing that is really offensive. I
found the video to be a nice general
introduction as to how the swastika
is used in religion, which is why I
think it is valuable to view.
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You are a rock star! Life is a journey. The United States is a melting pot. That dude
is a pig. Don’t date a snake like that! My mother is a saint.
These are metaphors. A metaphor is a statement that uses an object to help
describe something beyond the object itself. Often the most significant aspects of
life are difficult to explain using words, therefore, we need to create pictures with
words that will help to make a point more poignantly.
I bet you use metaphors often when you are speaking about all kinds of people,
events, feelings and the like. What are your favorites?
Let’s look at some metaphors in the well-known myth of Adam and Eve. We’ll use
the example from the Jewish text, Genesis 3, as our reference point.
Please watch, Genesis 3 - The Twisted Story, which is an interesting You Tube video
that retells the myth in a modern manner…just to get you in the mood for metaphors.
The Tree of Knowledge, as it is labeled in the book of Genesis, obviously, isn’t an
ordinary tree, right? It is a Tree …of Knowledge. Already that is extraordinary. What
kind of knowledge?...the knowledge of good and evil.
Hmmmmmm. Have you ever seen a tree stand as a symbol before, say, oh, I don’t
know…maybe at an institution of higher learning, like…HFCC? The tree that serves
as a symbol of our College is located on our campus. Many of you sit under it on the
deck outside the Student Center. How can a tree serve as a metaphor of
knowledge? How do the parts of a tree stand for something beyond themselves?
Consider this and then click the tree parts below to compare your conclusions to
mine. Maybe your understanding will be more refined than mine.
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Once you have viewed
all the links, click
The roots of a tree are what keeps it
standing firm. Without the roots, a
tree couldn’t live because the roots
collect nutrients and water from the
Earth to nourish the tree.
How can this be translated in a Tree
of Knowledge? What do the roots of
the Tree of Knowledge collect? How
do the substances that the roots
collect help nourish a Tree of
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tree links
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and
Evil has roots that dig deep into the
Earth and supply the tree with that
which can be learned. The world
consists of opposites: hot/cold;
night/day; in/out; God/humanity;
Heaven/Hell, and good/evil. In the
case of the Genesis tree, we can say
that the roots supply the tree with
knowledge about goodness and evil,
and all the opposing forces, in the
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Why does a tree need branches? The
branches serve to expand the width of
the tree. When the tree attains
enough nutrients, it can grow long
arms that reach out into the world.
How can this be translated
symbolically to the Tree of Knowledge
of Good and Evil?
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tree links
When the tree absorbs the
knowledge of the opposing forces
within the world, because it is rooted
in the Earth, it becomes bigger as
the tree “drinks” in the essence of
the planet. Once it consumes these
forces or elements of the world, it
grows bigger and bigger. The more
of the Earth that it ingests, the more
it can extend itself into the world by
branching out. The branches then
provide a space for the leaves, which
can gather more nutrients from the
Earth, feeding the tree more worldly
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What can the fruit from the Tree of
Knowledge represent, other than fruit
itself? What meaning can the fruit
attribute to the story?
And they lived happily
ever after…
The fruit is the produce from the tree. It is
the product the tree produces as a result
of it’s maturity and growth. Because the
tree took in enough nutrients, it can
produce something unique that can
provide nutrients to those that consume
In the case of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,
the fruit can be a symbol of something other than itself.
The fruit can represent knowledge that can be
understood by those that eat the fruit. Eating of an
object in a story can be a symbol of internalizing it, or
making it a part of one’s general knowledge, as it is
then “digested” by a person, or known.
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Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they didn’t know
about the opposite nature of the universe, but after
eating it, they became like God and knew about the
dual nature of the universe; that it contains good and
evil, Heaven and Hell, nakedness and being clothed,
etc. Prior to the eating of the fruit, they had no
knowledge of such duality in the world…they only knew
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The End
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