Some science behind the scenes
Grammar of the symbol systems
The choice of symbol is governed in spiritual description by two basic things:
- Whether the symbol adequately conveys the thing’s attributes or properties
- Whether the symbol adequately conveys something of its activities - the processes it performs
In effect there is a grammar of symbolism – some symbols represent verbs and some represent adjectives or properties.
Attributes or properties
Let us imagine all the attributes of heaven – gentle, powerful, loving, faithful, strong, swift, beautiful and so on. A person has a vision which seems to show a gentle, meek, loving little spirit. What is gentle, meek and loving – a lamb, so the vision is described using the symbol of a lamb.
Next he sees an enormously strong, powerful and rather dangerous sort of spirit. What is strong, powerful and dangerous? A lion.
Now he sees a similarly strong powerful spirit but one which appears to be really fast. What is strong, powerful and fast? A cheetah.
This is how symbolism develops, you need to know the attributes of the thing being described to understand the symbolism.
‘Authority’, for example, even today still seems to be something we regard as being a largely male thing, as does ‘power’, so any vision which wishes to convey the idea of a software program which has ‘authority’ and ‘power’ still shows men. But for those people who have dismissed the idea of power and authority being male only attributes we also see big figures used – giants and elongated figures, which stand over you, [tower over you in fact – as I have experienced!].
A dog may be used because it is ‘faithful’, ‘obedient’ and ‘loyal’. So people may have ‘seen’ a dog in their visions, who leads them to a spiritual place where they can learn something. The spirit world may be trying to convey the fact they have a faithful and loyal guide who is a teacher. The key to understanding the grammar of the symbol system is thus understanding correctly what the properties of the thing are, or alternatively what it is most noted for.
Oliver Sacks in his study of deaf people found that those deaf from birth evolve symbolism with nouns occurring first, followed by adjectives and finally verbs. In order to symbolically describe an adjective or set of adjectives, nouns may be used with those properties. Sacks uses as an example, a Frenchman called Massieu who was deaf from birth and wrote a biography of his experiences. He was at first taught nouns by being shown objects and the words for them. But he himself started to develop adjectives by using the names of objects.
Oliver Sacks – Seeing Voices
Massieu did not wait for the adjective but made use of names of objects in which he found the salient quality he wanted to affirm of another object … to express the swiftness of one of his comrades in a race, he said ‘Albert is bird’; to express strength he said ‘Paul is lion’ for gentleness he said ‘Deslyons is lamb’.
Another example of the use of a noun to represent adjectives or properties.
Levy-Bruhl – How natives think
The Tasmanians had no words to represent abstract ideas, could not express qualities such as hard, soft, round, tall, short, etc. To signify ‘hard’ they would say ‘like a stone’, for tall ‘big legs’, round ‘like a ball’,’ like the moon’ and so on.
Verbs and functions
Quite subtle differences can mark whether the symbol is describing a verb or adjective. Perhaps the symbol is slightly moving denoting that it is an activity rather than a noun with specific properties. There is a difference, for example, between a moving flame [activity] and a static flame [property].
Interestingly, subtlety of symbolism also exists in the Sign language used by deaf people. It implies that there is a real need to learn the language and that every detail counts in interpretation and equally importantly when recording the observation.
Every detail counts – miss a detail and you could lose the meaning. Another aspect of considerable importance and at times dismay, because detail was often not recorded in visions, is that every little detail is important when you are trying to understand the symbolism.
If we compare the symbolism of the spiritual world with the symbolism used in Sign we can see why.
Oliver Sacks – Seeing Voices
In 1960, William Stokes published ‘Sign Language Structure’ and in 1965 ‘A Dictionary of American Sign Language’. ……..
Stokes was convinced that Signs were not pictures but complex abstract symbols with a complex inner structure. Very early he proposed that each sign had at least 3 independent parts – location, shape and movement and each part had a limited number of combinations.
If spiritual and sign are similar, [and since they are both symbol systems we can assume at least some commonality] we can see that location, shape and movement are key to the understanding of symbols. Is the symbol large or small, how does it move, where does it move to, where is it positioned with respect to other symbols and so on. Every detail is important.
Oliver Sacks – Seeing Voices
Sign at every level, lexical, grammatical, syntactic – [is a ] linguistic use of space. [This use] is amazingly complex, for much of what occurs linearly, sequentially, temporally in speech becomes simultaneous, concurrent multi-levelled in Sign. The surface of Sign may appear simple to the eye, like that of gesture or mime, but one soon finds that this is an illusion and what looks so simple is extraordinarily complex and consists of innumerable spatial patterns nested, three dimensionally in each other.
And so it is in spiritual symbolism.
In three dimensional space [which tends to be the space we see in vision] positional and shape characteristics as well as the movements through that space are key details.
There are synonyms in symbolism
A synonym in this context means that a different image or symbol is used to describe the same thing.
Let us imagine all the attributes of heaven again, with symbols chosen to collections of attributes.
In one culture, mice are well known [gentle, timid, meek] but lambs aren’t, in yet another culture horses [intelligent, strong, large] are well known but elephants aren’t and so on.
The cultural differences have produced synonyms – different symbolic objects and names for the same attributes or properties. And of course the same may be true of the verbs as well.
Another example. A person having a vision may come up against a spiritual block, a protector of something in the spirit world which prevents him from going any further. But after a bit of ‘travelling’ he may then come across what appears to be a well-guarded entrance. The first may see it as a locked gate, but another person may see it as a whirlwind or a vortex or a spiralling whirlpool or a huge chasm. All are entrances and all are difficult entrances - portals. But what has been created are synonyms.
That is one type of synonym – the spiritual world using synonyms, but there can be other synonyms.
The spiritual world is extremely precise in its use of symbols with consistent application and definite meaning. But synonyms can also be created ironically by people in art and poetry.
Suppose for example that a culture wants to use a symbol on a flag, or in a temple, in a painting or wall drawing or sculpture or on clothes or other artifacts as a reminder of the symbolism. What then happens?
Artists, poets and writers the world over tend to freely interpret symbolism. Artistic interpretation adds great richness to life and often provides a sense of wonder to the experience of trying to understand the spiritual world, but it can also confuse. The new symbolism can progressively become more and more obscure and divergent from the original until eventually the abstraction obtained becomes too obscure for interpretation and you’ve lost the significance.
Perhaps worse, the artists invent their own symbolism which then results in a network of related symbols. Perhaps they have an inspiration and they want to portray it. What they have been given is not a vision, but an idea. They can use the existing symbol system as did the Symbolists for example, who appear artistically to have been very true to the universal symbols, but there are artists who are intent on being different and off they go - ‘well a chyrysanthemum is a bit like a lotus’ - and eventually there can be hundreds of synonymous symbols.
So some synonyms exist because the spiritual world has provided them, when people do not have the same knowledge of symbols, but we ourselves may have muddied the picture by inventing far more.
The problem of ‘best fit’
Occasionally the spirit world chooses a ‘best fit’ option for what it is trying to convey. A symbol is chosen but it actually has some irrelevant attributes. This is shown in the example below. The spirit world wants us to understand attributes C and D, but there is nothing in the physical world that is just C and D, so it has to compromise and it may do so by showing us two symbols simultaneously, so a raven and a monkey, from which we have to work out the common attributes.
This form of ‘best fit’ symbolism can cause real confusion [and it did to me until I realised what was happening], because finding the common attributes of paired objects can be quite complex.
The problem of homonyms
A homonym in this context is when the same symbol is used, but means different things in different symbol systems.
Thus a cow in one symbol system may be representative of domestication, sustenance and docility, whilst in another symbol system it may mean strength, usefulness and obedience.
Similarly, the squirrel in one system may signify intelligence, cunning and a verminous nature , whilst in another system it may signify agility, playfulness and speed.
Homonyms are a particularly knotty problem in symbol systems, because the automatic reaction at first is to be pleased you have found two or more symbols in two systems which appear to match. You have to be on your guard.
Perhaps of some interest is the fact that homonyms in the world of computing are also a particularly knotty problem. Systems analysts, whose job it is to find out what the processes, attributes and entities are in a system, can spend hours discussing the semantics of things in the system… ‘but by customer do you mean’......
Major computer systems have failed on the problems caused by homonyms – thinking, for example, that a product is a product, whereas in reality it may be a product to be sold and a product which needs to be bought in. This is why systems analysts are paid more than programmers, their job is a very difficult one and crucially important.
You have to know your symbol system, you have to know which one is being used.
Obscure symbolism may be used
It is not uncommon in visions to see terrifying, obscure, ugly or truly awful images, and the natural reaction of most people who have these dreams or visions is ‘what on earth is that meant to mean’. Or even ‘what have I done to deserve this’.
Occasionally they do mean exactly what we see, but it is not unknown for the spirit world to come up with a startling image which on further reflection has a specific but actually helpful and harmless meaning.
Both Dionysius and Emerson also posited the view that occasionally we may be given opposites – that is an attribute may be represented by its opposite, to bring home the message more strongly. By ‘stimulating us to think higher through the ugliness of the images’ as Dionysius said, we are more likely to seek out the real meaning of what has been given to us.
Emerson – The Poet
Small and mean things serve as well as great symbols. The meaner the type by which a law is expressed, the more pungent it is and the more lasting in the memories of men… We [can] use defects and deformities to a sacred purpose – so expressing our sense that the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye. In the old mythology … defects are ascribed to divine natures, as lameness to Vulcan, blindness to Cupid, to signify exuberances.
Other obscure symbolism may also be formed by combining a whole host of ‘similitudes’ – that is symbols which are direct representations of the attribute or process being described, but where the end result of this combination is frightening or alien to us.
Dionysius – the Celestial Hierarchies
Incongruous similitudes can be fashioned from material things to symbolise that which is intelligible and intellectual.
For example, not at all what it seems …………..
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems [crown] on its horns ….. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne … One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.
Some concepts are incapable of being symbolised.
In the spiritual realm, it is clear that there are numerous ‘things’ - attributes properties and entities that have no parallel in our physical realm.
We may ‘see’ them, be given an image, but we would be hard pressed to describe them.
If you see something which has no parallel symbolically in the physical realm, it has no parallel full stop.
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