The Nature of Symbols
by Wald Amberstone
In an earlier article on the nature of magick, I broke an old habit of not writing. (Normally I don't even take notes.) I wrote a few words on a subject I feel very close to, and in doing so gave a little form and focus to some misty thoughts that had been floating in my mind for a long time. And my friends, a well-armed bunch of intellectual anarchists, got a chance to have some fun with an interesting idea. Prodding me with questions, objections and suggestions they have provided the incentive and material for another article.
What got my attention most was the request to clarify what I mean by the word Symbol, which is central to my concept of magick. And since symbols are at the heart of all spirituality, to open a discussion on their meaning should be generally helpful. Once again I need to answer the question "What do I mean when I say...?"
To begin with, let's eliminate from our discussion those graphics that condense a bit of common information into a kind of visual shorthand. Not what I'm talking about at all.
So, what do I mean when I say the word "Symbol"?
A symbol is a reminder, something that evokes the echo of an inner experience in the beholder. The deeper and more significant the experience, the more powerful the symbol. It may take the form of an image, a sound, a word, an action, an object, anything that has a concrete existence in the physical world. It is important to note the physicality of symbols; ideas and concepts may arise from symbols but cannot be called symbols themselves.
The experience evoked by a symbol may remain solely in the memory of the experiencer and have a purely personal significance. Or it may be taught or transmitted, becoming the common property of many, possessing significance for individuals according to the understanding of each.
A symbol possesses power, either personal or historical; personal by virtue of its ability to evoke deep feelings in an individual, historical though the grant of authority to an institution to interpret it for many. In either case, the closer in time the physical symbol is to the original experience, the clearer and more direct is its message, the more powerful and compelling its voice. The further in time from the experience the more remote and inaccessible its message, the more muted and mysterious its voice. Because of the effect of time on its impact, a symbol undergoes an organic process or life cycle that is as immutable and inevitable for it as for other living things.
Beginning with its birth as the embodiment of an inner experience it declines through a succession of stages. The first of these stages of decline I describe as Understanding. To those who were not included in the original experience, a chance to enter the heart of that experience is granted through a combination of personal effort and the grace of a teacher. A symbol can be maintained at this level as long as the torch of understanding is passed from teacher to disciple in an unbroken lineage.
The second stage of decline I call Interpretation. In this stage the continuity of Understanding fails, the original experience passes into the realm of idea and concept, and its significance is a subject of debate. In this stage the symbol is still regarded with awe and treated with reverence.
In the final stage of decline, Interpretation becomes Opinion. The profound early debate over a symbol's meaning eventually descends to the level of casual argument and personal opinion. The symbol falls into disuse as a significant tool of the spirit and becomes an entry in an encyclopedia.
Symbols frequently undergo a kind of rebirth as a vehicle for a later understanding but in such a case there is little connection with the original. An example of this occurs in the world of the occult which is largely built of such reconstituted symbols. These are made to serve modern agendas that bear little or no relationship to the original experiences which gave them birth. That these latter-day revivals have their own energy and value is undeniable. But they can lay no legitimate claim to the ancient power and potency long lost in the organic processes of history.
Now, one of the attractions of magick for practitioners and public alike is that it is very old, and that the old understanding and the old formulas still work somehow. But all this wonderful antiquity masks a living process that goes all but unrecognized.
At the beginning of this article is a description of the nature of symbols. Within this understanding is implicit the primary function and distinguishing quality of magick. For magick makes the experience of truth, in the form of symbols, into tools to be applied directly to all perceivable worlds with practical effect.
But how does it happen that a symbol, old or new, is invested with this experiential truth? Clearly a deep experience must precede a deep understanding, which in turn must precede a powerful practicum.
My intuition and all my experience with such things tells me that a primal experience can only be had face to face, as it were, alone with an undefined universe, without mediation by prior knowledge or learned systems of thought. Anyone who stands in a forest glade or on a mountaintop at night looking at the moon will know what I mean. Nature has the power to speak directly to the soul. So too do the works and words of human beings long dead, if the chemistry between observer and ancient artifact is just right. Sometimes a shiver of recognition will pass through one while standing among the stones of a temple ruin or holding a fragment of manuscript from a forgotten time.
No symbol may be born or remain alive without this spark of contact between a living individual and the living universe. No intellectual construct, no archaeology of ancient formulations can accomplish this.
So there must be, and is, the creation of new symbols to constantly re-express perennial truths that are constantly forgotten. It is only this progression of the living confronting the fathomless wonder of creation that gives magick or any other symbolic enterprise its vitality and power.
A last thought before I finish. Any time poor in symbols of its own making is at the end of an age. Is this such a time?
Wald Amberstone is a founder and director of The Tarot School. To contact him, call 800-804-2184 or email.