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Image: Sign or Symbol?

June 19, 2016

by Tony Willis     

Are all images symbolic? Clearly not. This image


recognizable to all, carries a simple, unambiguous message: it says ‘Men’s Room’. Its female equivalent


says ‘Women’s Room’. So unmistakable are the meanings that airport lounges across the globe have dispensed with written notifications, which can only be read by those familiar with the language they are written in, in favor of images. This has been done because images transcend language.



is a Sign; it has no symbolic content. A sign could be presented in word-form – in this case, ‘Men’s Room’. A Symbol cannot be so precisely pinned down. On the one hand, symbols are more profound; on the other, they can be ambiguous. A looking-glass


may symbolize vanity; but whereas, if a person is made to wear a badge reading ‘Liar’, the message given out is ‘This is a liar’, a looking-glass doesn’t merely indicate ‘This person is vain’; it is loaded with innumerable undertones, from the Biblical “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” to Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”. To complicate matters further, a looking-glass is also a symbol of clairvoyance, and the student of symbolism has to determine from the context in which the looking-glass is found which of the two meanings it bears.

Physical objects can come by their symbolic connotations by a variety of means. For instance: A fish is a symbol of Christianity; it took on that meaning because the letters of the Greek word for fish happened to be the initial letters of the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Symbologists have to be aware of these quirks and particularities, otherwise their calculations will go awry and their conclusions will miss the mark.

Many images act as signs and as symbols. This image


which biologists use to signify the female gender, is the astrological symbol for the planet Venus. To an astrologer, however, the image is not just a label or piece of shorthand substituting for the noun ‘Venus’; it is more an aide memoire, triggering thoughts of gentleness, grace and everything pertaining to the emotions and the affections, as well as particular colors, materials, places, herbs, etc.

The trump cards of the Marseille’s tarot are also endowed with this dual function, being at once signs and symbols. Anyone seeking to divine using the tarot will focus on the cards’ symbolic aspect; but, as there is a symbiotic relationship between symbol and sign, the latter’s significance should always be kept in mind while ever one is making preliminary explorations of the trumps’ meanings, outer and inner, exoteric or esoteric.

to be continued

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