FOUR KINDS OF SYMBOLS.
Before we begin our study of the book of Revelation I felt that it would be helpful to first distinguish between four different kinds of symbols. This will aid us in our interpretation of the sometimes bizarre imagery we are confronted with in the book of Revelation.
First of all however, what do we mean when we use the word “symbol”? When we turn to a dictionary in order to find out how the word “symbol” is defined we discover that there are a number of definitions. In this book however, we will be working with reference to the following definition:
“something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; esp: a visible sign of something invisible (the lion is a symbol of courage.)”
Thus having stated our working definition, let us now look at four different kinds of symbols.
1. National and Secular Symbols.
Examples of these kinds of symbols are often very obvious. From the flags of different nations to those symbols which act as visual representations of the guiding philosophies of certain nations, such as the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle, or which represent in a purely abstract form the dominant ideology of a particular nation, such as Nazi Germany’s swastika.
Besides these, there are other kinds of national symbols which were not created as such but which have become such with time, such as New York’s “Statue of Liberty” or Paris’ “Eiffel Tower.” And then there are the various animal symbols, such as America’s eagle or China’s dragon. And in the American political arena we have the Democrat’s donkey and the Republican’s elephant.
The above merely hints at the various kinds of national symbols. And, beyond these there are numerous secular symbols which are used within a nation. From restroom facility markers to road signs to symbols used as logos for various businesses and organizations. In all of these instances the appearance of any one of these symbols brings to mind the concept or even a whole ideology behind that for which the symbol stands and thus it functions in a way similar to shorthand.
2. Religious Symbols.
Examples of these kinds of symbols are easily recognizable. From those symbols which act as visual representations of the guiding philosophies of certain world religions, such as Christianities cross or Taoism’s “yin and Yang”, to those symbols which abstractly represent the religion, such as Judaism’s Star of David.
Besides these, there are other kinds of religious symbols which are utilized in various rituals, such as the Eucharistic elements used in Christianity’s reenactment of Christ’s Last Supper.
Beyond this, many religions even possess certain “graven images” which symbolize various deities or divine beings. Again, in all of these instances the appearance of any one of these symbols brings to mind those ideas for which the symbol stands and thus acts as a kind of religious shorthand.
3. Personal Symbols.
Examples of what I refer to as “personal symbols” differ from one individual to another and thus hold purely subjective meanings. The meaning of personal symbols, though in most cases emotionally powerful, operate at a subconscious level and may oftentimes not be consciously recognized. Through self-reflection however one can begin to understand which characters, objects and situations act as personal symbols in one’s life.
For instance, my daughter some time ago had a dream that she had gone to Sunday School and found a refrigerator in the class room. In talking with her I found that she had only positive associations with refrigerators—seeing them as a place where she could get food. With this in mind I told her that the appearance of a refrigerator in her Sunday School room in this dream would suggest that she was her Sunday School as a place where she could partake of “spiritual food”—“food for the soul.”
This interpretation of the “refrigerator symbol” however is an individual interpretation based on personal associations. If for instance, my daughter had climbed into a refrigerator as a child and had become trapped, the appearance of a refrigerator in her Sunday School room in a dream would have instead functioned as an object of fear, suggesting more than likely that she felt trapped or suffocated in Sunday School.
And besides objects such as refrigerators—personal symbols can also be formed through various associations with animals, certain people, places and situations. Thus the content of any meaningful, intense or exceptional experience can become an acquisition into the individual’s library of symbols—each symbol in turn standing for a certain emotional association and thus acting as a kind of emotional shorthand.
4. Archetypal or Universal Symbols.
Since the time of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)—psychologists, students of mythology and others have seen that there are certain symbols which are common to the entire race. These symbols appear in myths, legends, fairy tales and fold stories as well as in dreams. Because certain characters, themes and images recur throughout the thought and feeling life of all cultures, these are considered to be archetypal or universal symbols.
Examples of these kinds of symbols on the “dark side” would be the various monsters and demons which portray our inner fears and the stranger who most often depicts the dark or hidden side of ourselves. These symbols often warn us of the need to deal with certain issues in our lives. While on the positive side, the wise old man, the magical child or the eternal mother suggest various nurturing themes.
Then there are certain activities in our dreams such as flying which suggest transcending difficulties or sexual union—suggesting integration of certain qualities. While fleeing or falling often suggests avoidance of certain problems or feelings of victimization. And there are also other kinds of symbols such as the tree which symbolizes growth, the rainbow which represents hope or promise, or the dove which represents peace.
Of course these are only generalizations for when we are dealing with any of these symbols we must always take into consideration any personal associations with the image, the mood or feeling which is conveyed by the image and the situation under which the image came to the person. For instance, for a child, the appearance of a bear in a dream (here acting as a kind of archetypal monster) would in most cases function as an expression or embodiment of certain inner fears, while for a zoologist who had been unsuccessful in tracking a bear for a certain study—the appearance of a bear in a dream would more than likely be an expression of wish fulfillment. Thus, though these symbols have archetypal and universal meanings, we must always consider them within the total context of the circumstances of their origin.