Some science behind the scenes

Symbol degradation

Our whole lives are filled with spiritual symbolism though we may not realise it, but much of that symbolism is both degraded and its meaning has been lost. Do you know the meaning of the Christmas tree?  The wedding cake with its multi-tiers? Our wedding with its man in black and the woman in white [see Darkness and Light ]?  No, well behind all these symbols is a symbolic spiritual meaning.

Today we blithely say that it is ‘unlucky’ to walk under ladders and some people  actually go out of their way to avoid walking under real ladders.  But do you know why?  No?  The original symbolism has lost its meaning and in fact the superstitious avoidance of walking under a real one is actually exceptionally silly.

This is a good example of how the original symbolism of a ladder [stairway to heaven] and the concept of under [the underworld or hell]  has been lost – so instead of going ‘upwards’ towards the celestial realm, the person is going ‘downwards’ on the spiritual path – descent and not ascent!  He has lost his way in the spiritual world – which I guess you might call unlucky, but others might call careless [and avoidable].

Mircea Eliade called the process whereby symbols lose their meaning over time   ‘symbol degeneration’.  It can be gradual, almost imperceptible, but eventually it makes the symbol meaningless.  We may live our lives using it, but don’t know why.

First, the symbol may be rationalised, which means its spiritual context is lost.  Then it may degenerate further in meaning with a more literal interpretation of the symbolism.  Finally it may become what Mircea Eliade called ‘infantilised’.  Eliade defined ‘infantilisation’, as ‘the symbol is taken in a childish way, over concreting and apart from the system it belongs to’.

The simpler and more ‘primitive’ the people using the symbol, the quicker infantilisation can occur. [Note that ‘primitive’ in this context equates to lack of wisdom rather than the trappings of wealth.  ‘Primitive’ people occur as often -  if not more often - in so-called civilised society than they do in tribal or third world countries].

Our western society is absolutely rife with superstitions born of infantilisation.

A superstition is defined as an unreasonable or excessive belief in fear or magic -  a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.  It can include all sorts of actions or practises which are simply repeated as though their action were a ‘magic charm’.  But ask the person why they are doing this and they haven’t a clue.

We and other nations have some almost laughable superstitions. In Western folklore, superstitions associated with bad luck include Friday the 13th. Some believe that if you were to step on a crack, your mother would break her back or ‘bears’ would get you. Often people will throw salt over their shoulder after they spill it, in order to blind the devil, who according to the superstition ‘sits at your left shoulder’. Breaking a mirror is considered to cause 7 years of bad luck.  In India, there is a superstition that a pregnant woman should avoid going outside during an eclipse in order to prevent her baby being born with a facial birthmark.. In Korea, there is a superstition that leaving a fan on in a closed room will suffocate the occupants!

None of these have any foundation in truth, they are all infantilisations, but quite a number have origins in a spiritual symbolism long since lost.  Mirrors, moons and eclipses, even cracks in pavements [boundaries/walls] have spiritual significance. 

Mircea Eliade – The Structure of symbols

In India, for instance, diamonds were an emblem of [the Higher spirit].  The word for diamond – vajra – also meant lightning, the symbol of Indra, an emblem of the incorruptible. 

In this pattern of ideas – power, incorruptibility, lightning, cosmic expression or virility – the diamond was sacred in as much as, in the mineralogical order, it embodied these things.

In a different framework of ideas where the cosmos is guarded by a serpent or dragon [ouroboros ] … the diamond was then associated with first serpents and then, incorrectly, snakes.

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By then it was sinking to lower and lower levels which conferred upon diamonds their magic and medicinal properties; they were a protection against snakebite.

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There is no doubt that a great many legends and superstitions are derived not from the primeval mythological formula itself, but from innumerable lateral or corrupt variants to which it gave birth.

Another good example of the slow corruption of a symbol has occurred with the pearl.

Mircea Eliade – The Structure of symbols

At one time pearls and shells had magico religious significance everywhere; bit by bit their use became restricted to sorcery and medicine  - the similarity between the pearl in its shell and the foetus endowed it with generative and obstetrical properties, the final degeneration had taken place – it was believed to help childbirth.

Now the pearl has only an economic and aesthetic value [thus] lowering the metaphysical significance from cosmological to the aesthetic …..

As you can see, sometimes the degeneration is harmless, but sometimes it can be immensely harmful.  If someone takes one of these substances believing it has ‘magic properties’ they could die or be very ill.

Symbol degeneration is largely the result of applying false logic.  The misapplied logic can compound one error with another.  For example, the moon is associated in people’s minds with illnesses of ‘lunar’ origin – lunacy, this can be compounded by a further false assumption that one of the symbols used to represent the moon can cure the illnesses because it is a ‘magical thing’.  Hence the pearl starts to be used in medicine, when it clearly has no medicinal value at all.

Although Chinese medicine contains much of real value, it is worth noting that it also contains much of no value at all, because of infantilisations.  It is good that the Chinese are currently embarked on a number of research programmes to sort the wheat from the chaff.

I am dwelling a little longer on this topic than on the others because it is clear that literal interpretation, rationalisation and infantilisation of symbol systems, although a problem for me in my analysis, represent a far greater problem to society as a whole.  Over time the degeneration of symbol systems has led to

  • ‘false worship’ of non-existent deities
  • debasing of the entities that are being described
  • a block on the spiritual progress of people

Human sacrifice and animal sacrifice is a result of the infantilisation – the literal interpretation - of a form of spiritual ‘sacrifice,  the creation of new species.  In effect, what was once a spiritually inspired description of how new species were formed and old species died out, became a ritual in which innocent animals and people died.

This problem at the moment appears to bedevil the institutionalised religious community and its followers.  The number of people, for example, who read the Bible literally and who then take the stories as literal truths must be enormous.  The fact that people are searching for evidence of the garden of Eden is alarming.  The vast majority of the stories are symbolic visions, as was demonstrated several hundred years ago by people like Emmanuel Swedenborg.

There are people who expect that there will be a judgement day with trumpets, people who believe that snakes are blessed and have magic powers, people who believe in the story of Adam and Eve, people who believe in the story of the flood and Noah’s ark.

And who is it that takes things literally?

It is normally those who have had no waking spiritual experience, those who cannot conceive of there being a spiritual world, those who do not understand the nature of visions and those who never give a thought to what their dreams mean …...

Emerson – The Poet

The inwardness and mystery of this attachment [to spirit] drives men of every class to the use of emblems.. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. 

See the great ball [egg] which they roll from Baltimore to Bunker Hill.  In the political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe and Salem in a ship, witness the cider barrel, the log cabin, the hickory stick, the palmetto and all the cognisances of party. 

See the power of national emblems. 

Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest or the most conventional exterior. 

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics.