Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/September 1890/The Migration of Symbols I

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MEN, to communicate their thoughts, address themselves sometimes to the ear, by speech, song, or music; sometimes to the eye, by gesture, drawing, and the plastic arts generally, including writing. These modes of expression may have an imitative character, as when a savage describes an animal by its cry, or as in a photograph; but even then they have a symbolical bearing, in that they recall only some of the features of the original, and leave the rest to the imagination or to memory. We might define a symbol as a representation which does not aim to be a reproduction. Reproduction supposes that the representative sign is identical with, or at least like, the object represented; symbolism demands only that one may recall the other, by a natural or conventional association of ideas. In this sense there is nothing that may not furnish matter for a symbol. We live among symbolical representations, from the flags over our public buildings to the bank-note in our strong-box; symbolism is mingled with all our intellectual and social life, from the morning hand-shaking to the applause we give to the actor in the evening. Our arts are symbolical, even when they are believed to be only servile imitations of nature. We speak and write in symbols—and even think in them, according to the philosophical systems that are based on our impotency to grasp the reality of nature.

Sentiment, particularly religious sentiment, recurs most largely to symbolism in order to enter into a more intimate communication with the being or abstraction which it desires to approach. Hence we everywhere see men either adopting natural or artificial objects that remind them of the great absent one; imitating systematically the acts and gestures they assign to it; or objectizing, by processes as various as significant, all the shades of feeling which it inspires in them, from the deepest humility to the most ardent love. Hence the extreme diversity of symbols, which may be divided into two classes, as they consist in acts or rites, or in objects and emblems. We shall occupy ourselves here with the second category, or rather with the figured representations which it has inspired, and which past generations have transmitted to us as material vestiges of their faiths. Studies in comparative symbology fell, toward the second half of the century, into a discredit which is accounted for by their previous history. Syntheses premature as they were brilliant, built up with insufficient and defective materials by the rationalistic school, were succeeded, about fifty years ago, by the system, more philosophical than historical, which found, in all the religious practices of antiquity, the disguised or transfigured reflection of a profound primitive wisdom. These theories all having given way under the contradictions brought against them by discoveries in archæology, ethnography, linguistics, etc., a reaction ensued as extreme as the former infatuation. A disposition appeared to banish hypothesis entirely from all research into the origin and significance of symbols; as if hypothesis—provided it is not treated as an assured fact—were not an essential factor of all scientific progress.

But the situation has greatly changed within thirty-five years. Data permitting comparison under all desirable conditions of authenticity, of the figured representations of different peoples, have accumulated in such proportions that the principal obstacle will lie hereafter in their multiplicity and dissemination. Excavations of ancient monuments in Asia and Africa, the archæological collections of even the smallest states, the societies devoted to every special branch of the subject, and the studies of the whole, directed from the most varied points of view, have made the tasks relatively easy of students who would follow the traces and elucidate the meaning of the principal symbols. On the other hand, the deciphering of inscriptions, the classification and interpretation of written documents, and the general advance of history, of religious history in particular, by informing us concerning the beliefs of peoples, enable us the better to define the relation of their symbols with their myths and their ceremonies, at the same time that a more exact knowledge of the social and geographical medium in which the symbols originated assists us in tracing the origin of the images which have given body to the ideas.

After this there are no reasons why we should not reach as positive results in the study of symbols as in the study of myths. The comparative examination of myths long ago assumed a scientific phase, both with Mr. Max Müller and the linguistic school that is correlating the traditions of nations speaking allied languages, and with Mr. Andrew Lang and his fellow ethnographers who are comparing the mythologies of all known peoples. Now, the myth, which we may define as a dramatization of natural phenomena or of abstract events, offers more than one common trait with the symbol. Both rest on reasoning by analogy, which in the one case creates a figurative story, and in the other a material image. There is, however, the difference that in the symbol we are aware of a distinction between the image and the being or object represented by it, while an essential character of the myth is that the story shall be supposed to be conformable to the reality. But it is easy to see that both are frequently formed by the aid of the same processes and are transmitted by the same ways.

At all events, there are religions that we can not explain unless we endeavor to supplement the insufficiency of the texts by the study of the figured monuments; and there is an increasing disposition among students of particular religions to make use of the texts to prove the symbols, and of the symbols to prove the texts—as in M. Senart's recent works on the history of Buddhism; MM. Gaidoz's and Al. Bertrand's on the symbols of ancient Gaul; those of M. J. Menant on the engraved stones of upper Asia; and those of M. Ch. Lenormant, Clermont-Ganneau, Ledrain, and Ph. Berger on the figured representations of the Semitic religions. These labors are the best demonstration of the services which the interpretation of symbols can render to the history of religions, provided we observe all the rigor of scientific methods.

It is not necessary to insist here upon the interest which the study of symbolism offers, aside from the services which it may be called upon to render to archæological science. Representation by symbolism is, in literature, religion, and art, a necessity of the human mind, which has never been able to content itself with pure abstractions, or to restrict itself to the external shape of things. Under the material and often incoherent forms by which past generations have expressed their aspirations and their faith, we can discern the beating of a heart, the appeal of a soul to other souls, a mind that seeks to embrace the infinite in the finite, to objectize, under features furnished by Nature or the imagination, its conceptions most approaching a reality indiscernible in its plenitude. The symbols which have attracted in the highest degree the veneration of multitudes have often been indeed absurd and gross representations of gods; but what have the gods themselves ever been, except symbols more or less imperfect of the Being, superior to all definition, which the human mind has discerned more clearly according to its development, through and above them all?

It seems as if the variety of symbols should be without limits, as are the combinations of the human imagination. But we not rarely find the same symbolical figures among the most distant peoples. Such coincidences can hardly be explained as matters of chance, like the combinations of the kaleidoscope. Aside from the case of symbols found among peoples belonging to the same race, which can be traced back to the common cradle, there are only two possible explanations of them. The images have either been conceived separately, by virtue of some law of the human mind, or they have passed from one country to another by borrowing.

There is a symbolism so natural that, like certain implements peculiar to the Stone age, it does not belong to any particular race, but constitutes a characteristic trait of mankind at a certain phase of its development. Of this class are representations of the sun by a disk or radiating face, of the moon by a crescent, of the air by birds, of water by fishes or a broken line, of thunder by an arrow or a club, etc. We ought, perhaps, to add a few more complicated analogies, as those which lead to symbolizing the different phases of human life by the growth of a tree, the generative forces of nature by phallic emblems, the divine triads by an equilateral triangle or, in general, by any triple combination the members of which are equal, and the four principal directions of space by a cross. How many theories have been built up on the presence of the cross as an object of veneration among nearly all the peoples of the Old and New Worlds! Roman Catholic writers have justly protested, in recent years, against attributing a pagan origin to the cross of the Christians because there were cruciform signs in the symbolism of religions anterior to Christianity. It is also right by the same reason to refuse to accept the attempts to seek for infiltrations of Christianity in foreign religions because they also possess the sign of redemption.

When the Spaniards seized Central America, they found in the native temples crosses which passed for the symbol sometimes of a deity at once terrible and beneficent, Tlaloc; at other times of a civilizing hero, white and bearded, Quetzacoatl, who, according to the tradition, came from the East. They concluded that the cross had been brought to the Toltecs by Christian missionaries of whom the trace had been lost; and, as there must always be some known name to a legend, they gave the honor to St. Thomas, the legendary apostle of all the Indies. Although there were men to defend this theory in the last Congress of Americanists, it may be regarded as definitely rejected. It is now established that the pre-Columbian cross is a wind-rose representing the four principal directions from which rain comes, and is thus the symbol of the god dispenser of the celestial waters. If the Toltec cross could be related with a similar figure of the Old World, it would rather be the cross of ancient Mesopotamia—where that sign was also adopted to symbolize the four directions of space, and by extension the sky, or the god of the sky, Anou. But it would have to be established first that direct or indirect relations could have existed between the religious art of Mesopotamia and that of ancient America. To remove this hypothesis—even if we refuse to admit the development of a pre-Columbian civilization—it is only necessary to reflect upon the number of centuries that separate the American races from the great empires of the Euphrates and the Tigris. It would be wiser to see in the coincidence the simple result of two courses of reasoning identical in their simplicity.

On the other hand, we can not contest the facility with which symbols have been transmitted. Current products of industry, favorite themes of artists, they have passed continually from one country to another with articles of exchange and objects of adornment: witness the specimens of Hindoo, Chinese, and Japanese symbolical works and iconography which have come to us with the potteries, ivories, cloths, and all the curiosities of the extreme East. Soldiers, sailors, and travelers of every profession in former days could not start on a journey without taking in some form or another their symbols and gods, of which they carried the knowledge to a distance, bringing back in return those of the foreigner. Slavery would likewise favor the importation of symbols by the intervention of innumerable captives whom the fortunes of war or the hazards of piracy brought and caused to flow in from the most distant regions without taking away from them the remembrance of their gods or their worship. Coins, also, have never been wanting to carry to enormous distances the symbols of the nations which issued them: Gallic pieces are only counterparts of the Greek coinage of Philip and Alexander; and pieces rudely imitating Bactrian money have been found in the tumuli of Scandinavia.

Nothing, except perhaps a superstition, is as contagious as a symbol; much more contageous should both be when they are united—as they usually were with the people of antiquity, who seldom adopted a symbol without attaching to it the value of a talisman. Even now there are tourists who come back from Naples with a coral charm hung, according to their sex, from the bracelet or the watch-chain. Do they really believe that they find a defence against the evil eye in this Italian survival of an ancient Chaldean symbol? To many among them it is certainly only a local curiosity, a souvenir; but there are some in v the number who allow themselves to be influenced, unconsciously perhaps, by the Neapolitan superstition. "It can do no harm, and may do some good," they might be tempted to reply to you, as some gamblers do when you jest with them concerning their fetiches. This kind of reasoning is quite general among polytheistic populations, where every one thinks it good to do homage to other peoples' gods, and to unknown gods as well as his own; for who knows which one he may not need in this world or the next? Egyptian scarabs are found by the thousand, from Mesopotamia to Sardinia, wherever the armies of the Pharaohs or Phoenician ships have gone. Everywhere, also, in these regions, native scarabs have been collected, made in imitation of those of Egypt, and reproducing with greater or less exactness the symbols which the engravers of the valley of the Nile lavished upon the faces of their amulets. So also, long before the diffusion of coins, pottery, and jewels, the figurines of Greece and Etruria furnished all central and western Europe with divine types and symbolical images.

Are there any indications that permit us to distinguish whether like symbols have been engendered separately or are derived from the same source? The complexity and oddness of the forms, when they exceed certain limits, go to sustain the second of these hypotheses. The double-headed eagle of the old German Empire has now passed into the arms of Austria and Russia. The Englishmen Barthe and Hamilton were surprised when, traveling in Asia Minor some fifty years ago, they discovered a two-headed eagle of the same pattern engraved among religious scenes in the basreliefs of Pteria, which went back to the ancient Hittites. It is hard to suppose that a representation identical in features, so contrary to the laws of nature, was spontaneously imagined in both instances. M. Longperier furnished a solution to the riddle when he pointed out that the two-headed eagle did not replace the oneheaded eagle on the arms of the empire till after the expedition of Frederick II to the East; that it figured at the beginning of the thirteenth century on the coins and banners of the Turkoman princes, then masters of Asia Minor. The latter adopted it as the symbol of all power, perhaps to figure the hamca, the fabulous bird of the Mussulman traditions, which carries off buffaloes and elephants as the kite carries off mice. Thus the Turkish race, M. Perrot observes, saw the entrance to the West closed at Lepanto and Belgrade by the eagle which had led it triumphantly on the banks of the Euphrates, and the image of which it also had borrowed from the sculptures cut by its predecessors on the rocks of Eniuk and Jasilikaïa.

If sufficient indications can not be drawn from the form, identity of signification and use may give strong presumptions respecting the affiliation of symbols. It is not surprising that the Hindoos and Egyptians should both have adopted as the symbol of the sun the lotus-flower, which opens its petals to the dawn and infolds them on the approach of night, and which seems to be born of itself on the surface of the still waters. But the hypothesis of a borrowing becomes much more probable when, in the iconography of both peoples, we see the flower at once serving as a support to the solar gods—as Horus or Vishnu—and figuring in the hands of the goddesses associated with those gods—Hathor or Lakshmi, the Venuses of Egypt and India. The probability at last changes into a half-certainty when we find the lotus employed on both sides to render the same shade of thought in the rather indirect applications of solar symbolism. With either, the plant represents less the sun itself than the solar matrix, the mysterious sanctuary to which the sun retires every night to draw from it a new life.

We do not know and shall probably never know how the first communications of ideas were made between Egypt and India, But we can, by comparing monuments, discover some of the intermediate steps of the route which the symbolism of the lotus followed toward the East. Thus, in the sculptures of Phoenicia we find goddesses holding lotus-cups in their hands, and in the Persian bas-relief of Tak-i-Bustan the solar god Mithra is seated on the opened flower of the plant. Among the Mesopotamians and the Persians it is not rare to see this flower adorning tall trees, in which it is easy to recognize the sacred tree of the Semites or the Iranian tree that secretes the liquor of immortality. On a patera of Phoenician workmanship, found at Anathontis, the flowers of the lotus, borne by these conventional trees, are gathered in one hand by persons clothed in the Assyrian style, holding a key of life in the other hand. While the rosy lotus of the Egyptian monuments does not now grow wild anywhere in the valley of the Nile, it is, by a curious coincidence, preserved in the flora as well as in the symbolism of India.

One of the most frequent forms of the cross is called the gamma cross, because its four arms are bent at a right angle so as to form a figure like that of four Greek gammas turned in the same direction and joined at the base. We meet it among all the peoples of the Old World, from Japan to Iceland, and it is found in the two Americas. There is nothing to prevent us from supposing that in the first instance it was spontaneously conceived everywhere, like the equilateral crosses, circles, triangles, chevrons, and other geometrical ornaments so frequent in primitive decoration. But when we see it, at least among the peoples of the Old Continent, invariably passing for a talisman, appearing in the funeral scenes or on the tombstones of Greece, Scandinavia, Numidia, and Thibet, and adorning the breasts of divine personages—of Apollo and Buddha—without forgetting certain representations of the Good Shepherd in the Catacombs, we can not escape the conviction that, in significance if not in form, it proceeds from a single source. This assertion seems to be confirmed in the class of monuments in which it is met. It appears, in fact, from prehistoric times among the people originating in the basin of the Danube, who colonized on either hand the shores of the Troad and of northern Italy; thence it extends, with the products of that ancient civilization, on one side to the Greeks, Etruscans, Latins, Gauls, Germans, Bretons, and Scandinavians, and on the other side to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, Persia, India, and finally to China and Japan.

It is not always necessary, for two figures to have the same origin, that they should have the same primitive signification. Sometimes it happens that a symbol changes its meaning in changing its country. It may possibly preserve only a general value as a talisman or amulet, like those crucifixes, degraded into fetiches, which are the only vestiges of the Christianity left among certain tribes of the Congo by the Portuguese domination of the last century. Sometimes, again—especially in the case of an image proper—its new possessors will seek to explain it to themselves by some more or less ingenious interpretation, and will thus restore to it a symbolical bearing, although by means of a new conception. The rising sun has often been compared to a newborn child. The comparison led the Egyptians to represent Horus as a child sucking its finger. The Greeks fancied that he was putting his finger to his lips to admonish the initiated to be discreet, and made of the representation a figure of Harpocrates, the god of silence.

Such changes of sense may also be reconciled with knowledge of the primitive significance. It is a pleasant thing to find everywhere the image or idea we are fond of. The Neo-Platonists believed in good faith that they could distinguish representations of their own doctrines in the symbols as well as in the myths of all the contemporary religions. The early Christians saw a cross in every figure that presented an intersection of lines—in the anchor, the mast and its yard, the standard, the plow, the man swimming, the bird flying, the praying man with outstretched arms, the paschal lamb on the spit, and the human face, where the line of the nose is crossed by that of the eyes. When the Serapeum at Alexandria was demolished, the Christian authors of the time related that a number of ansated crosses were found. They themselves observed that the figures were the same as the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, but that did not keep them from seeing in them a prophetic allusion to the sign of the redemption. Sozomenus adds that the fact provoked numerous conversions among the pagans.

It may also happen that the significance of a foreign symbol is knowingly modified, in order to adapt it to an idea or a faith previously destitute of all material expression or restricted to a few rudimentary representations. When the Persians had possessed themselves of Mesopotamia, they appropriated to themselves nearly all the imagery of the conquerors, in order to give form to their own religious conceptions, which the absence of a national art had left without any well-defined plastic representations. So, when the Christians began to reproduce on the walls of the Catacombs the scenes of the Old Testament and the parables of the New, they borrowed their primary models from classical and mythological art. Mercury Criophorus furnished the type of the Good Shepherd. Orpheus taming the wild beasts became a symbol of Christ and his preaching. The Christian holding to a cross to overcome temptation was represented by Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship, in order to resist the songs of the sirens. By an ingenious application of a myth which paganism has already spiritualized, Psyche offered the figure of a human soul to Love, whose place was taken by an angel. The religions of Gaul and India furnished examples of like assimilations from the time they came in contact with the symbolism of more advanced nations.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.