The Power Of Symbolism — For Good and Bad

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

I don’t think that I’m putting it too strongly if I say that it is a tragedy that many modern people are losing the ability to understand symbols, and therefore to think symbolically. It is a tragedy because, as Paul Levy says: “The universe is itself a primordial revelation that is speaking in the language of symbols, a living symbolic scripture, the literal and symbolic book of life. The whole of creation is a cosmic text thirsting for interpretation” ¹. Levy is a follower of Carl Jung, and says that “because of the extremely therapeutic and healing benefit of symbolic awareness, Jung spent his entire life fighting for the reactivation of symbolic thinking” ². We need to continue that fight because the loss of symbolic thinking has become part of a modern sickness — the loss of connection with our roots in nature, in the unconscious psyche, and with the universe as a whole.

Two obvious manifestations are the inability of most people to interpret their dreams, and the obsession with reading myths and religious texts literally, when they are clearly intended to be understood allegorically and symbolically. There is, however, a strange side to all this, because people’s behaviour is often strongly controlled by symbols, even when they seem in general incapable of understanding symbolism.

A simple example would be that Hindus are forbidden to kill cows or eat beef, because cows are symbols of the Great Mother goddess, the source of food and symbol of life — not because the goddess is actually incarnated in their flesh, or anything like that. Indian cows are presumably very grateful, and I don’t suppose the Great Mother, creatress of the material universe, is especially grateful for this respect, is bothered much one way or the other. It does, however, demonstrate the enormous power of symbols to rule the lives of humans.

I’ll look in more detail at another very powerful symbol in the lives of humans, hair.

Samson and Delilah by Jose Etxenagusia

I’m sure everyone is aware of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. This begins in Judges chapter 13, where an angel tells the wife of Manoah that she will bear a son and that “no razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth” (v5). His uncut hair is a source of great strength for him, because he is later able to kill a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey (15.15), and to pull up the doors of a city gate and two posts with his bare hands and carry them up a hill (16.3).

Unfortunately for him, he then falls in love with Delilah, who is instructed by the enemy Philistines to discover the source of his strength. He eventually gives away the secret that it is his uncut hair (16.17). His hair is shaved while he is asleep, and the Philistines are then able to subdue him.

Image by Jackie Ramirez from Pixabay

Rastafarians wear their hair in long dreadlocks. According to an online source, one of the reasons is that this gives “the appearance of a lion’s mane, representing strength, Africa, Ethiopia, and the Lion of Judah” ³.

I would be extremely surprised if there were any scientific evidence connecting loss of hair with lack of strength, yet we persist in believing something along these lines because of the power of hair as a symbol.

Long hair is most obviously symbolic of rebellion, teenagers against the authority of their teachers and parents, and for rock stars it is de rigueur. The rebellious, anti-Establishment 1960s hippy musical was actually called Hair; the writers obviously thought that this was the most suitable choice to express the underlying sentiments. (The lyrics to the title song are worth checking out, if you don’t know them already, since they endorse the point I’m making — and are very funny.)

I once heard a radio presenter describe hair as “an integral part of your identity and self-worth” ⁴. I don’t dispute what she said; having a good head of hair offers much opportunity for individuality and styling. But does being bald really diminish your sense of identity? Authorities certainly seem to think so. When the American government imprisoned captives in Guantanamo Bay, one of the first things they did was shave their heads, clearly intended as a humiliation, an attack on their sense of identity. From a different point of view, certain Buddhist sects require a shaved head at joining, as a sign of submission, of surrendering one’s individuality.

Image by Honey Kochphon Onshawee from Pixabay

This way of thinking can assume grotesque levels. Robert Temple reports the following: “However, although life became better under the early Qing Dynasty than it had been during the end of the Ming Dynasty, there was another problem. That problem was that the Manchus, as foreigners, wished to enslave the Han people. All Han Chinese males were required to have their heads shaved as a sign of their status as slaves. In the early Qing Dynasty, official barbers toured the countryside shaving the heads of all the Han Chinese, and these barbers were given the power of life and death. If any Han Chinese man refused to let a barber shave his head, the barber had the legal right to execute him immediately without a trial” ⁵.

Is it true that losing one’s hair involves an actual loss of identity? Has someone with a shaven head in reality submitted to authority? I doubt it, but if the person in question feels that this is true, then that merely goes to show how extraordinarily powerful symbols can be.

So, are we all now convinced that having a healthy head of hair is believed to indicate genuine strength? Perversely, the opposite can also be considered true. Being bald is sometimes considered to be symbolic of power, virility, rebellion, aggression, the most obvious example being the skinheads.

Image by nick gibbs from Pixabay

On a more humorous note, the English cricketer Chris Lewis once shaved his head, so that he would appear harder, more aggressive, when bowling during a tour of the West Indies. Ironically, he then suffered from sunstroke, and was confined to his bed for two days. This earned him the nickname ‘the prat without a hat’ ⁶. Perhaps he should have modelled himself on Samson instead.

Even though most people don’t seem able to understand symbols, isn’t it strange the extent to which they allow them to control their lives?

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website www.spiritualityinpolitics.com (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Dispelling Wetiko, North Atlantic Books, 2013, p79

2. ibid., p80

3. http://www.religionfacts.com/rastafarianism/dreadlocks

4. Clare McDonnell, BBC Radio5live, May 9th 2018

5. from an article on his website entitled ‘The Modern World: a Joint Creation of China and the West’

6. https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/_/id/22840732/the-prat-hat