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Symbolism and Derivations of Meaning )

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.magick,alt.tarot
From: tyagi@houseofkaos.abyss.com (nagasiva)
Subject: Symbolism and Derivations of Meaning (was Re: 'Real' vs. 'Nonhistorical, Intuitive' Meanings (was...))
Date: 15 May 1997 12:57:15 -0700

49970515 AA1  Hail Satan!

[uncited]
#>> I had asked where the meanings come from? I did not mean 
#>> neurologically, but rather symbologically. The comment 'I think 
#>> that meaning resides within the human mind' [from nagasiva] is
#>> about as responsive as saying that the dictionary 'resides' in 
#>> the human mind if I were to ask where the definitions of words 
#>> come from?

actually that is quite correct, and *both* responses are accurate given 
a particular meaning of 'come from'.  'the meanings' is a vague set of
descriptors which changes as human beings change.  'the dictionary' is
similarly vague in its meaning until someone decides to write one, and
even then this is only a snapshot of how people are using language (of
variable quality), as is indicated below by Mr. Vanderbeck.

if your question is 'where did traditional meanings come from?', then
this is a more particular question and requires that we look back in
time to the social origins of symbols and past associations.  neither
are they 'the meanings' (being a subset of possible meanings), nor is
it usually possible to be definitive, since unless we posit some First 
Cause everything comes from somewhere else receding into infinity.  if 
you identify this Cause as gods or human beings, then of course this is 
where you will (tautologically) find the origins of this meaning subset,
constrained to those gods or humans you can discern.


Philemon Vanderbeck :
#>The dictionary is nothing but a written document recording the meanings
#>of words as used by human beings.  The actual meanings reside in the
#>mind and are subject to change over the course of history.  That's why
#>dictionary makers are constantly adding new words and new meanings to
#>existing words.
#>
#>In much the same way, symbols exist first in the mind (and some could
#>argue that that's ONLY where they exist).  Everything else is just a
#>written record of a particular viewpoint.

I think that your analogy is slightly off here.  the WORDS of the 
dictionary existed prior to modern minds, though the meanings which we
associate with them have been derived of minds.  similarly, the symbols
themselves originated long ago in many cases, but the meanings which
are associated with them have changed over time and have always been
located in the minds of the viewers.


homer@sirius.com (Paul Mitchum) writes:
#First comes experience. Say, for instance, jumping off a cliff .

yes, or accidentally stepping off the cliff.  or watching someone jump or
step off, or hearing a story about someone doing any of these.


#Next comes memory. "Wow, I wish I'd listened to that little dog that tried
#to warn me.."

yes, or "I wonder what that little dog was doing there?" or "Gee, why did I
listen to that talking dog that told me the cliff was an illusion?" or "I'm
*so* glad I listened to that talking dog who revealed to me the illusory
nature of that cliff."  or  "Wow, why did that dog follow that crazy fool
of the cliff?"  or "What a strange little dog, talking and informing the
person of the nature of the cliff and (warning or) beckoning him on." etc.

we acquire expeirences in a variety of ways and then reflect on those
experience in as many more.


#Then comes the symbol. "I will draw a picture of a person jumping off a
#cliff, with a little dog warning it. Maybe someone will see this picture
#and know that they should always listen to the little dog."

or "I will draw a picture.  hmm, I draw this here, and this here, and this
here.  lovely."  i.e. no intended significance at all, just an inspired
piece of art.   or "I want to symbolize a particular thing I feel deeply.
a figure, yes, followed by a barking, rampant, dog.  excellent."  i.e. no
identified conceptual understanding verbalizable but so subtle that an 
artist of some depth can bring it to graphic expression.

art expresses a variety of possible, and in some cases, completely 
irrational elements of human experience.  tracing the experience of
the artist is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.  this is a
completely *separate* thing from experiencing the symbol first-hand.


#Now, something interesting happens when we create symbols, be they language
#(written or spoken), sounds, movements, pictures, or what have you. We
#attempt to bind experience, which is something that can't be done. 

sometimes.  sometimes the artist does not attempt to bind any particular
experience to their art.  that is, sometimes it is not a 'communication',
it is an expression without conceptual or intended meaning.  "you get from
my painting what you get from it, boyo." or "to ask what my painting 'means'
is entirely the wrong approach, sir.  one must experience the presence of
the piece and how it interacts with your *own* experience.  looking to me,
the artist, to provide you with your interpretation is the problem in
modern art-appreciation and modern life."  etc.


#In attempting to refer to previous experiences, we create new ones. Those 
#new experiences are called 'interpreting symbolic representations of old
#experiences,' otherwise known as 'sitting in a modern art gallery trying to
#figure out what those yellow splotches on the green canvas mean.'

and, as I have expressed above, in many cases this may be entirely the WRONG
way to go about appreciating a piece of art per the desires of the artist.
some will not wish this to occur.  some will want to communicate an
experience to you and some will want you to get your *own* experience from
the expression they made.  it isn't so clear-cut as you have painted it. ;>
who is to say that the artist knows best the meaning of hir art *or* the
beast means of coming that meaning?


#So. Meaning. The symbols, even though they have a history 
#which can be traced and understood in an objective sense, 
 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
this is an overstatement.  it is not always true that a given symbol
has some 'objectively understood meaning'.  there is a history of how
people understood or how they felt about the symbols.  this lies interior
to their experience and therefore can only be touched upon remotely, often
obscured by time and a change in language if they (1) had some meaning they
intended or thought was expressed and (2) tried to express what they meant
or thought they meant separately.

we are still left, when looking at ancient symbols (a variety of which are
integrated *into* tarot, providing it with significant depth), a very very
vague concept of what the artists who put the cards together (in the case
of the "Rider", Pamela Smith and Edward A. Waite; in the case of the Thoth,
Frieda Harris and Aleister Crowley) might have meant or thought they meant
in their artistic expression.  even then *they* may not have completely
understood (intellectually) what they meant either.  

to trace a symbol back to an artist's usage is not confirming.  they may
have procured the symbol from another source.  graphic symbols are in many
cases ancient with indeterminate origin, motific symbols are in many cases
oral prior to being presented in text or graphic illustration, and so are
difficult if not impossible to isolate for origin also.  both can easily
incorporate a depth of meaning which even the artist fails to grasp.


#have a meaning that is dependent on the nervous system of anyone who 
#perceives them. 

in the sense that the nervous system and the experiences of that system
bring out a response of meaning (not 'the meaning' but 'a meaning'), this
is often true.


#Do your dendrites know that the person (in the example above) wanted 
#to warn people about falling off of cliffs? If they don't, could those 
#dendrites, in their mysterious ways, come up with some other, radically 
#different meaning, like, for instance, that the little dog is telling 
#the person *to* jump off the cliff? I think the answer is 'yes.' 
#Different knowledge bases, different meanings.

a variety of interpretations, regardless of the possible artistic origin.


#Also, different methods of gaining knowledge bases, different knowledge
#bases, different meanings. Which is to say, if you studied dogs, and the
#way you studied dogs was to ask blind people about their seeing-eye dogs,
#then you'd learn that dogs are trusted companions who would never steer you
#wrong, and when dogs signal you in some way, you'd better do what they
#indicate. So jump off the cliff when the dog barks. Your theory is
#fulfilled.

you have not even begun to delve into the implied meanings of archetypal
symbolism.  let me take one example: dogs.  the source from which I'm
about to quote has an entry for 'Dog' which is probably 500 words long.
I'm only quoting the first half of it, which describes *general and
comparative* conceptual associations.  I leave out the latter half of the 
entry, which is descriptive of that within specific cultural contexts:

	_Dog_ Fidelity; watchfulness; nobility (dogs and falcons
	being emblems of the nobility); Plutarch says that dogs
	symbolize 'the conservative, watchful, philosophical
	principle of life'.  'The dog, raising its rought neck,
	his face alternately black and golden, denoted the
	messenger going hence and thence between the Higher and
	Infernal powers' (Apuleius).  A keeper of boundaries
	between this world and the next; guardian of the passage;
	guardian of the underworld; attendants on the dead; a
	psychopomp.  When a lunar animal, with the hare and
	lizard, the dog is an intermediary between moon deities;
	also solar in the Far East as a yang animal in the
	daytime, but yin at night.  In Egypt and Sumeria, it is
	solar.  It is associated with all messenger gods and
	gods of destruction and is an attribute of Anubis and
	Hermes/Mercury.  The dog and otter are special among the
	'clean' animals of Zoroastrianism; to kill them is a sin.
	Hecate has her dogs of war; the northern Garmr, 'the
	devourer', is often depicted as a dog and Brimo, as
	destroyer, is accompanied by a dog.  The dog sometimes
	accompanies the Good Shepherd and usually is the
	companion of healers, such as Aesculapius, and of all
	huntresses and Mother Goddesses, the Mother Goddess
	often being called 'the Bitch' and portrayed as a
	whelping bitch.  A black dog is sorcery, diabolical 
	powers, the damned, death.  Cats and dogs, as witches'
	familiars, can represent witches as rain-makers, hence
	'raining cats and dogs'.

	Dogs as winds can chase away the board of Winter or
	drought.  The cynocephalus destroys or imprisons the
	enemies of light.  The dog is often a culture hero or
	mythical ancestor.  Also, having been a companion in 
	lifeit continues as such after death and intercedes
	interprets between the dead and the gods of the
	underworld.  It has also the qualities of a
	fire-bringer and master of fire, having either invented
	fire by friction or, in some cultures, watched the 
	masculine secret of fire-making and then reported it
	to the women.  When associated with fire, it takes on
	a sexual symbolism, fire and sexual power being related.
	--------------------------------------------------------
	_An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols_,
	by J.C. Cooper, Thames and Hudson, 1990; p. 52.
	______________________________________________________

so, if you studied dogs, and the way you studied dogs was to observe
what dogs have meant to human beings from the beginning of time using
what remains to us, as both symbols and their role with humans, then
you would come to understand that 'dog' has an intensely rich and
variable significance which could be incorporated or reflected in a
tarot card.  you would understand that *depending on how you interpreted
the circumstance* a barking dog could indicate all manner of things,
from 'stop doing what you're doing!' to 'yippee!  isn't this FUN?!'

more than this, unless you have a friend who *is* a dog and have the
experience of it, then your 'theory' about what a dog means to a human
is just that, a theory, and cannot in the least be confirmed in the
manner you describe.  otherwise you might see that a dog is a very
BONDING being, who has pack-instincts, who responds to humans who feed
and care for hir as the Alpha Dog, who protects their Alpha against
possible intrusion, rarely understanding threats which move beyond the 
obvious (other living beings).  you may understand that a dog in modern
society is sometimes incredibly immature, barking when there is no need,
walking into danger for which she is unprepared, and yet at times
displaying an intelligence and emotional depth of interaction which is
astounding.  more than this, you may learn that dogs have incredible 
senses, that they are in some ways the epitome of carnality, of the 
enjoyment of dependent or scavenging life, sumptuously soaking up sun 
in the yard or roaming the back alleyways in search of scraps of food.

in all this we are no closer to the meaning which an artist might
incorporate into hir work.  to discern that we would have to get to
know the *artist* better with the BACKGROUND of comprehending the
symbolism she might have intended, this being a subset of what it
is possible for a symbol to mean.


#To get back to the historic understanding of symbols.. Symbols originate
#somewhere, 

this is again an overstatement.  while it may be true that the general
area (say, 'Earth' or 'Germany' or 'North America') can be discerned,
it is not the case that an exact location can be determined.  not only
this, but some symbols may have multiple origins, separated by time
and/or space.  this could reflect human psychic structure, the 
commonality of human experience, or even multiple contacts by alien 
intelligences.


#and have the flavor of that place of origin. 

this depends entirely on the symbol.  some symbols, like dogs, are
derived from a physical being or object, and thus can integrate into
the history of symbolism via a number of routes, taking on a variety
of 'flavors' depending on the lens through which humans viewed them.


#Once you know that history, 

as regards symbols themselves, such 'knowledge' is almost impossible
to attain, especially with the most common and/or rich symbols
available.  certainly with motific and/or geometric symbols there
are an infinite source of possible histories.  

if you are here only speaking of the history of a particular symbol's
meaning and the artist's intent as 'source', then even this is 
unclear as long as the artist does not make explicit hir intent in 
some conceptual form (and such a description is merely hir reflection
on the expression of the art and may be as much a conjecture as any
other critic -- sometimes artists make very poor analysts of symbols).


#the cat is out of the bag. It becomes part of your meaning-making

#process. 

if 'the cat is out of the bag' means that 'suddenly the truth becomes
clear' (which you seem to imply), then this is a misunderstanding of
the application of symbol and discernment between artist's intent and
possible relevance.  symbols don't have the kind of concrete objective 
meanings you seem to imply they do here.  this is demonstrable through
a cursory glance at any book on symbolism.  such books are ALWAYS
expanding just like dictionaries as people use symbols to imply a
variation in meaning or convincingly describe them as doing such.


#Once you learn that the guy fell off the cliff despite the warnings of 
#the dog, 

here you shift from symbol to some event or story and lose the train 
of logic.  it is not possible to learn such a concise 'meaning' about
a symbol except dogmatically and myopically.  it is possible to learn
that this is how the artist or some following student viewed the
symbol, in which case if you then presumed this to be 'the meaning'
you would then be constraining yourself to their understanding in a 
myopic way for your own reasons.


#all that research with blind folks will seem like wasted time.

only if you decide that the retained is 'correct' or 'more convincing'.
such decisions (esp. regarding what is 'more convincing') are made all
the time, which is possibly margaret's accurate criticism.  yet unless
we are limiting our research to an attempt to discern some 
communication via symbol, such assessments are made by individuals in 
reflective comparison of their own experience, what the symbol means 
*to them*.  just as no meaning ever cements to become 'the meaning' of
a living linguistic language, so too does not meaning ever cement to
a symbol in the course of symbolic expression (which ultimately can
transcend both language and culture).

tyagi
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