From the earliest days of humankind, symbols have played an important role in helping us make sense of our universe. Thore artifacts of our most primitive cultures show that we were struggling to identify the workings of this complex place in which we live, creating stories and visual elements to help us understand ourselves, our world, and our place.
The Venus of Willendorf, a famous sculpture that dates between 24,000 and 22,000 years ago, is evidence of early human desire to think symbolically. She dates to the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), and as our ancient ancestors were still very much fighting for survival, very few, if any, women looked like this.
Archaeologists and others who study ancient cultures think she is a fertility symbol, and that isn’t hard to imagine.
Primitive cultures used this type of sculpture, and also pictures to give them a sense of control over their destinies. The Lascaux cave paintings are evidence that our ancient ancestors used a symbolic and spiritual approach to securing a good hunt and the well-being of their families.
The Lascaux paintings were found in Lascaux, France and date to between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago.
How do we know that was the purpose of these primitive drawings? Because they are not found at the mouth of caves, they are found deep in the recesses of caves where light can’t reach. We see some of the paintings have arrowheads embedded in them, and “blood” has been painted pouring from the “wound” in the painting. Think of this like a Voodoo doll; the painting served as a substitute, and the hunters believed that by “killing” the painting, they would bring about luck with the real animal.
Ritual and symbol have been part of our existence since at least this time and perhaps much longer. Clearly, then, story has been a part of human life for this same amount of time. The symbolic representation of information is embedded in our DNA it seems. We look for meaning beyond the obvious, and that is clearly something we’ve done since beginnings as a species. It may be this, more than any other aspect of our “humanity” that sets us apart from the animal world: not the making of tools, but the making of symbols.
Great literature has used symbolism, too. Sophocles understood the power of symbol as he created plays for the Greeks. In Oedipus Rex he creates a plague that ravishes Oedipus’ kingdom. The plague symbolizes the evil that Oedipus himself has created. The fact that he isn’t aware he is the cause is not at issue.
The Greek audience already knows the story of Oedipus before they see the play. The plague comes to represent not only the failings of the king, but the risk associated with angering the gods through acts that defy their laws. This lesson is not lost on the Greeks. Sophocles is perhaps the most successful of the Greek play writes, and all the more so as we continue to study him even 2,500 years after his death.
Lest we think that only ancient cultures have benefited by symbolism (and because I know certain people who will say it was clearly used to brainwash our ancestors into certain belief structures), let’s look at more modern applications of symbolism.
Eudora Welty’s A Worn Pathappears at first read to be the story of a forgetful and superstitious old woman who makes her way from her back-woods home to the city along the Natchez trail. It was first published in 1941, before the Civil Rights movement. Welty worked as a photographer in the 1930s for the WPA project established by President Roosevelt. She documented the everyday life of people in her Native Mississippi. But to dismiss her story as something so trivial as a walk in the mountains dishonors Ms. Welty and the intent of the book.
Symbols abound in this story. The old woman’s name is Phoenix Jackson, and her name gives us the first clue as to the many symbols lying in wait. Early on, having walked a while and crossed a stream, Phoenix sits down on the bank and dozes off. She dreams of a young boy bringing her a slice of marble cake, to which she says, “That would be acceptable.”
Often when I teach this book to students, they dismiss this scene as a dream during her nap. When I ask them what marble cake is, they begin to see another symbol taking shape.
Then I ask students about Phoenix’s response – “That would be acceptable.” She doesn’t say “That looks good,” or “That looks delicious,” or even “That would be yummy.” Her response is to the cake, an even distribution of brown and white creating something lovely and harmonious. This is about when the light goes on for most of them. That moment of “ah ha!” that shows they’ve keyed into the symbolic element.
In my own work recently – though I am by NO MEANS putting myself in the same category with Eudora Welty or any other great writer – I have begun to play with symbolic elements. My new book, The Deepest Blue, comes out a year from now and uses symbolism to convey a story deeper than the initial story. Water is an important element in this book, both the ocean and the rain. The color blue is also a symbol that relates not only to water, but to life and to death.
Symbols are tricky buggers – if they are too heavy-handed, they seem preachy or overbearing. If they are too subtle, they’ll be lost in the text. I’ve been reading and rereading many excellent authors who use symbolism in their writing: Welty, William Faulkner, Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Nathanial Hawthorn, Joyce Carol Oates, and others. I love discovering the hidden messages, the subtle meanings, the pictures hidden in caves. It is that feeling of discovering truth, excavating it from its place within me that makes these stories so wonderful to read.
Thinking symbolically, using that innate need for story and symbol brings an aspect to writing that elevates it to divine for me.