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A Dictionary of Symbols

A Dictionary of Symbols

by J. E. Cirlot, Herbert Read (Introduction)

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In this important work, originally published in 1962, author J. E. Cirlot presents an extensive study of symbolism in all of its aspects. While the book acts as a general reference for symbological studies by clarifying the essential meaning of every symbol, many of the entries - such as Cross, Dragon, Graphics, Numbers, Serpent, Tree, Water, and Zodiac - can


In this important work, originally published in 1962, author J. E. Cirlot presents an extensive study of symbolism in all of its aspects. While the book acts as a general reference for symbological studies by clarifying the essential meaning of every symbol, many of the entries - such as Cross, Dragon, Graphics, Numbers, Serpent, Tree, Water, and Zodiac - can likewise be read as independent essays.

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ISBN: 978-0-486-13266-2



Abandonment The symbolism of abandonment has a similar range of reference to that of the 'lost object', and they are both parallel to the symbolism of death and resurrection (31). To feel abandoned is, essentially, to feel forsaken by the 'god within us', that is, to lose sight of the eternal light in the human spirit. This imparts to the individual's existence a sense of estrangement-to which the labyrinth theme is also related.

Ablution To quote Oswald Wirth: 'In alchemy, the subject, having undergone nigredo (blackness) followed by death and putrefaction, is subjected to ablution, an operation which makes use of the slow dripping of condensation from the vapours that rise from the carcass when a moderate flame applied externally is alternately raised and lowered in intensity. These continual drops serve to bring about the progressive washing of the material, which changes from black to grey and then gradually to white. The whiteness is an indication of the success of the first part of the Magnum Opus. The adept worker achieves this only by purifying his soul of all that commonly agitates it' (59). Washing, then, symbolizes the purification not so much of objective and external evil as of subjective and inner evils, which we might call 'private'. It is hardly necessary to add that the latter kind of purification is much more difficult and painful than the former, since what it sets out to destroy is something which is bonded to existence itself with all its vital urges. The principle involved in this alchemic process is that implied in the maxim 'Deny thyself ...', and an indispensable precept for true moral progress.

Abnormality In primitive cultures, maimed beings, as well as madmen, were believed to possess supernatural powers-the shamans, for example. In primitive magico-religious thinking, the outstanding ability of physically abnormal individuals is not regarded, as it is in modern psychology, as having been developed in compensation for the abnormality, but rather the other way round: the maiming, the abnormality, the tragic destiny were the price the individual had to pay for some inborn extraordinary gift-often the gift of prophecy. This belief was universal (9). In some mythologies, maimed beings are connected with the moon and its phases; there are mythic lunar beings, with only one hand or one foot, who have the magic power to cure disease, bring rain, and so on (17). This conception of abnormality is not restricted to animate beings, but applies equally to objects. According to Cola Alberich, abnormal objects have always been considered as particularly useful in warding off malignant influences. Such objects are: stones with embedded fossils; amulets shaped like a six-fingered or a four-fingered hand; double almonds in one shell; unusually shaped grains of corn, etc. (12). There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between the spontaneous interest evinced by Primitive Man in strange or abnormal objects, and the more deliberate, 'poetic' treatment bestowed by surrealists upon such objects as elements in the symbolic process. The belief in the magic powers of abnormal objects is connected with the symbolism of the jester (that is, the inverted king, the sacrificial victim) and with the symbolism of the moon.

Abracadabra Many words and phrases relating to rituals, talismans and pentacles have a symbolic meaning, either in themselves or in the way they are used, which is expressed either phonetically or, more frequently, graphically. This word was in frequent use during the Middle Ages as a magic formula. It is derived from the Hebrew phrase abreq ad hâbra, meaning 'hurl your thunderbolt even unto death'. It was usually inscribed inside an inverted triangle, or was set out so that it formed a triangle (39) thus:


This magic word has also been related to the Abracax (Abraxas, Abrasax) of the Gnostics. It is in reality one of the names of the sun-god, Mithras (4).

Abyss The abyss in any form has a fascinating dual significance. On the one hand, it is a symbol of depth in general; on the other, a symbol of inferiority. The attraction of the abyss lies in the fact that these two aspects are inextricably linked together. Most ancient or primitive peoples have at one time or another identified certain breaks in the earth's surface or marine depths with the abyss. Among the Celts and other peoples, the abyss was inside mountains; in Ireland, Japan and the South Sea islands, it was at the bottom of seas and lakes; among Mediterranean peoples it was just beyond the horizon; for the Australian aborigines, the Milky Way is the abyss par excellence. The abyss is usually identified with the 'land of the dead', the underworld, and is hence, though not always, associated with the Great Mother and earth-god cults (35). The association between the nether world and the bottom of seas or lakes explains many aspects of legends in which palaces or beings emerge from an abyss of water. After King Arthur's death, his sword, thrown into the lake by his command, is caught as it falls and, before being drawn down to the bottom, flourished by a hand which emerges from the waters.

Acacia This shrub, which bears white or pink blooms, was considered sacred by the Egyptians, partly, no doubt, because of its dual coloration and also because of the great mystic importance of the white-red principle (8). In Hermetic doctrine, according to Gérard de Nerval in his Voyage en Orient (9), it symbolizes the testament of Hiram which teaches that 'one must know how to die in order to live again in eternity'. It occurs with this particular symbolic meaning (that is, the soul and immortality) in Christian art, especially the Romanesque (20).

Acanthus The acanthus leaf, a very common ornamental motif in architecture, was, during the Middle Ages, invested with a definite symbolism derived from its two essential characteristics: its growth, and its thorns. The latter is a symbol of solicitude about lowly things. According to Bishop Melito of Sardis, they signify the awareness and the pain of sin. We may mention here that in the Diary of Weininger, there is no difference between guilt and punishment. A more generalized symbolism, alluding perhaps to natural life itself, with its tendency towards regression or at least towards stunting, appears in the Gospels in the parable of the sower (Luke viii, 7), where we read that some of the seed (of spiritual principles and of salvation) fell amongst thorns and was choked. And in the Old Testament (Genesis iii, 18) the Lord tells man that the earth will yield to him thorns and thistles (46).

Acrobat Because of his acrobatics, which often involve reversing the normal position of the human body by standing on his hands, the acrobat is a living symbol of inversion or reversal, that is to say, of that need which always arises in time of crisis (personal, social or collective historical crises) to upset and reverse the established order: idealism turns into materialism; meekness into aggressiveness; serenity into tragedy; order into disorder, or vice versa. Acrobats are related to other aspects of the circus and, in particular, to the mystery of the Hanged Man in the Tarot pack, which has a similar significance.

Activity In the mystic sense, there is no activity other than spiritual movement towards evolution and salvation ; any other form of activity is merely agitation and not true activity. On this point, the West is in full accord with the East, for, according to the doctrine of Yoga, the highest state (sattva) characterized by outward calm, is that of greatest activity (the activé subjugation of the lower impulses and their subsequent sublimation). Thus, it is not surprising that Cesare Ripa, in his Iconologia, through a process of assimilation with the exalted images of the Archangel St. Michael and of St. George, represents Virtuous Action' as a warrior armed in a gilt cuirass, holding a book in one hand and in the other a lance poised ready to be thrust into the head of a huge serpent which he has just vanquished. The head of Vice, crushed under his left foot, completes the allegory. Hence, every struggle or victory on the material plane has its counterpart in the realm of the spirit. Thus, according to Islamic tradition, the 'Holy War' (the struggle against the infidel, depicted with weapons held at the ready) is simply an image of the 'Great Holy War' (the struggle of the faithful against the Powers of Evil).

Adam Primordial Man. The name is derived from the Hebrew adama (= earth). G. G. Scholem, in On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (London, 1965), states that, initially, Adam is conceived as 'a vast representation of the power of the universe', which is concentrated in him. Hence the equation macrocosm = microcosm. In both the Bible and the platonic doctrine of the androgyne, Eve appears as an excision of the first being, which integrated sexual duality. Do the tree and the serpent reproduce the same duality on another symbolic plane? Or do they express a different duality to that contained in the first human couple, which is the symbol of the internal and external excision of the living being ? Eve, in the rôle of persuader, appears as a mediator between the serpent (the source of evil, which William Blake likened to energy) and man, who would have been free and indifferent, and who would have 'fallen' only under pressure.

Aerolite A symbol of spiritual life which has descended upon earth. A symbol of revelation ; of the 'other world' made accessible; and of the heavenly fire in its creative aspect, i.e. as seed. Tradition has it that, just as there are 'upper waters', there is also 'upper fire'. The stars symbolize the unattainable aspect of this fire; aerolites and meteorites are its messengers, and hence they are sometimes associated with angels and other heavenly hierarchies (37). It must be remembered that the iron first used by man was meteoric (which may account for the common root of the word sidereal and other words beginning with the prefix sidero-). The belief in a symbiotic relationship between the heavenly and the terrestrial worlds lies at the root of the idea of the 'cosmic marriage', a concept with which primitive astrobiological thought sought to explain the analogy, as well as the tangential relationship, between the antithetical worlds of heaven and earth.

Ages, The For the purposes of the morphology of symbols, an age is exactly the same as a phase. The lunar 'model' of the four phases (of waxing, fullness, waning and disappearance) has sometimes been reduced to two or three phases, and sometimes increased to five. The phases in the span of human life have undergone similar fluctuations, but in general they are four, with death either omitted or combined with the final phase of old age. The division into four parts quite apart from the importance of its relationship with the four phases of the moon-coincides with the solar process and the annual cycle of the seasons as well as with the spatial arrangement of the four points of the compass on the conceptual plane. The cosmic ages have been applied to the era of human existence, and also to the life of a race or an empire. In Hindu tradition, the Manvantara, also called Mahâ-Yuga (or the Great Cycle), comprises four yuga or secondary periods, which were said to be the same as the four ages in Greco-Roman antiquity. In India, these same ages are called after four throws in the game of dice : krita, tretâ, dvâpara and kali. In classical times, the ages are associated with the symbolism of metals, giving the 'golden age', 'silver age', 'bronze age' and 'iron age'. The same symbolic pattern-which in itself is an interpretation is found in the famous dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel ii) as well as in the figure of the 'Old Man of Crete' in Dante's Commedia (Inferno, XIV, 11. 94-120) (60, 27). Progress from the purest metal to the most malleable—from gold to iron—implies involution. For this reason René Guénon comments that the successive ages, as they 'moved away from the Beginning', have brought about a gradual materialization (28). And for this reason, too, William Blake observed that 'Progress is the punishment of God. So that progress in life—in an individual's existence—is tantamount to gradual surrender of the golden values of childhood, up to the point in which the process of growing old is terminated by death. The myths concerning the 'Golden Age' find their origin, according to Jung, in an analogy with childhood—that period when nature heaps gifts upon the child without any effort on his part, for he gets all he wants. But in addition, and in a deeper sense, the Golden Age stands for life in unconsciousness, for unawareness of death and of all the problems of existence, for the 'Centre' which precedes time, or which, within the limitations of existence, seems to bear the closest resemblance to paradise. Ignorance of the world of existence creates a kind of golden haze, but with the growing understanding of concepts of duty, the father-principle and rational thinking, the world can again be apprehended (31). The aims of surrealism are nothing short of reintegrating, as far as is practicable, this state of emotional irrationality characteristic of primigenial peoples.

Agriculture Its allegorical representation is the figure of a goddess, like Ceres in appearance (with whom it may be identified), but with a plough and a plant bearing its first blossom. Sometimes, the allegorical figure carries a cornucopia full of fruits and flowers, or has both hands leaning on a spade or a hoe. The Zodiac is also included, to indicate the importance of the yearly cycle and the sequence of the seasons and the work that each season implies (8).

Air Of the four Elements, air and fire are regarded as active and male; water and earth as passive and female. In some elemental cosmogonies, fire is given pride of place and considered the origin of all things, but the more general belief is that air is the primary element. Compression or concentration of air creates heat or fire, from which all forms of life are then derived. Air is essentially related to three sets of ideas: the creative breath of life, and, hence, speech; the stormy wind, connected in many mythologies with the idea of creation; and, finally, space as a medium for movement and for the emergence of life-processes. Light, flight, lightness, as well as scent and smell, are all related to the general symbolism of air (3). Gaston Bachelard says that for one of its eminent worshippers, Nietzsche, air was a kind of higher, subtler matter, the very stuff of human freedom. And he adds that the distinguishing characteristic of aerial nature is that it is based on the dynamics of dematerialization. Thoughts, feelings and memories concerning heat and cold, dryness and humidity and, in general, all aspects of climate and atmosphere, are also closely related to the concept of air. According to Nietzsche, air should be cold and aggressive like the air of mountain tops. Bachelard relates scent to memory, and by way of example points to Shelley's characteristic lingering over reminiscences of smell.


Excerpted from A DICTIONARY OF SYMBOLS by J.E. CIRLOT, JACK SAGE. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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