Witches and Sacred Symbols
Mythologist Joseph Campbell once stated, “anything that can be named and that can be regarded as a form….is also a symbol.” A symbol is a form that represents something else. In spiritual practices, a symbol typically represents an abstract principle, a philosophical point, or a religious concept. In Wicca, symbols are the distillation of spiritual insights and magical wisdom. Symbols are the essence of divine principles that are neatly summed up by images, artifacts, sounds, words, colors, movements, or even smells.
Anthropologist Adolf Bastian was first to recognize that certain basic principles reoccur as symbols through the world’s mythologies and religious systems. He called these reoccurring principles “elementary ideas.” If we were to translate the images of the symbol world into words, some of those most repeated symbolic motifs might be, for example, “life must feed on life,” or “life does not end with death.” Bastian went on to point out that although the elementary ideas are the same across religious systems, the basic axioms generated various costumes, expressions, applications, and interpretations from one culture to the next. He called the specific cultural expressions of elementary ideas “folk ideas” or “ethnic ideas.” Ethnic ideas can change from one setting to another, but elementary ideas always remain intact. Wicca taps into these elementary ideas through symbols and ideas common to all cultures. The sunrise, a circle, the change of season, and fire are examples of Wiccan symbols that transcend culture, time, and place. We all experience them as part of living in this world.
To understand symbols more clearly, let’s look at one familiar example. A dove can be more than a bird. In some cultures and religious systems it can represent peace. In Wicca, a seasonal tide, such as the Winter Solstice, is not only a celestial (and terrestrial) event. The days become shorter and darker until the Solstice. Then the tide changes and the light of the sun begins to grow from that point on in the year. It is a tide in which the seasonal darkness releases itself to the growth of solar light. This seasonal event can also represent the release of old, unwanted life patterns; it is a symbol of hope and promise. Another example can be the earth itself. If you consider the earth symbolically, it can be a universal representation of “mother” energy. After all, the earth gives birth to forms and futures those forms, just as a mother gives birth and futures her young.
Why are symbols important? In all spiritual paths, symbols represent truths that go beyond mere words. Symbols speak a poetic language of inference. That is because the extraordinary experiences to which they refer cannot be adequately, or directly, expressed in ordinary, linear words. For example, the term “god” is an ordinary word, but it refers to something extraordinary that would be difficult to capture through the limited venue of verbal expression. Deity is something that transcends the limits of words and ideas. When you interpret them correctly, the symbols of any spiritual path should be like a road map directing you to some immediate, personal experience.
In Witchcraft, symbols are the primary means for reaching and transforming the deep mind, known in psychoanalytic terms as the unconscious mind. It is from this deep mind that the arts of magic begin. Freud, Jung, and other pioneers of psychoanalysis discovered that the unconscious can only be reached and expressed in symbols – through art, myth, dream, and fantasy. In reaching the unconscious mind through symbols, the Witch’s practices result in psychological integration and spiritual empowerment.
Unfortunately our Western spiritual traditions are heavily influenced by Aristotelian philosophy with its emphasis on “facts” and rational cogitation. When the rational mind apprehends the fluidity and poetic eloquence of spiritual symbols, it renders them dull and lifeless. They become concrete. The critical mind erroneously interprets symbolic information as fact, as history and geography. Once we lose touch with the message behind symbols we start to cling to beliefs – sometimes irrational ones. For example, one might insist that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that he did ascend physically into heaven. From this concrete perspective, there is an insistence on unlikely historical events when all along the messages that underlie spiritual symbols always refer to processes that should be going on inside of us right now.
This deceptive Western style of handling symbols touches all of us, no matter what our spiritual path. Without diligent awareness, you can transplant this habit into the fertile soil of your new spiritual practice. Witches make use of hundreds of symbolic correspondences. It would be easy to become lost in these external forms and rob yourself of internal content. Under those circumstances, spirituality becomes a straightjacket of dogma, obsession, and compulsion. In order for symbols to transform your mind and spirit, in order for them to shine with the radiance of the divine, they must be transparent to immediate, internal, and highly personal experience.
Practice: Sunrise, Sunset, Symbols
Take time today to witness either the sunrise or the sunset. It is important that you don’t substitute an “imagined” sunrise or sunset – really go outside and engage in nature. As you experience either the sunrise or the sunset, take note of your feelings and your state of mind. After this, take time to commit your thoughts to paper regarding these questions:
- What did you experience internally as you witnessed this event?
- From this experience, what do you imagine this sunrise or sunset could symbolize?
- Now think about a symbol from a spiritual path from your past. Spend time contemplating this symbol’s meaning. What could this symbol mean for you today?