An Instance of Applying an Anthropological Approach Towards the Interpretation of Foreign Symbols

Symbols: they are found etched among the petroglyphs of Stone Age artistry, neatly printed within the yellowed-pages of sacred religious texts, or plastered upon the rear bumpers of candy-colored cars. They are responsible for signifying either the commencement of an ancient tradition, the occurrence of a miracle, or the presence of pestilence and death. They are, in their most simplest forms, products of a universal human process: symbolization.

In absence of a specific context, a symbol is defined as any medium, such as an object, sound, or gesture that either directly or indirectly relates a meaning that has been established through human consensus. An unbiased assessment of the instituted significance of a symbol then serves to resolve the issue of disjunction, which describes the differentiation of an overt action and its definite, underlying connotation.

Within one’s own society, the misunderstanding between an action and its essential symbolic meaning may not seem a true detriment, but when approached on a cross-cultural scale, such a miscommunication may have horrific consequences.

It is therefore of vast importance for an unbiased approach to be comparative, observationalist, functionalist, and neutralist. Through the application of these methods, the association of symbolism with a specific social structure or event can be attained.

Raymond Firth, author of “An Anthropologist’s Reflections on Symbolic Usage” presents a mild scenario, wherein cultural differences resulted in a misinterpretation of a symbolic ritual. This occurrence involved the head chief of a Tikopia society - situated among the Solomon Islands- who commenced to bathing a great centre post of a temple with coconut oil. While doing so, he muttered the words “May your body be washed with power”.

Without employing an unbiased analysis of this event, the visible action of rubbing the centre post in addition to the invisible action of his utterance would perhaps translate to a chemically unbalanced leader treating a pole in a fairly intimate manner. Yet, when the cultural significance is considered, the aforementioned actions become incredibly familiar. The timber stands in representation of a body, while the oil serves as a decorative medium meant to symbolize anointment.

In Western culture, anointment is also a crucial element between the recognition of the status of Jesus Christ by his disciples. Furthermore, the wooden cross of Christendom has a similar symbolic value as the timber post in Tikopia culture. The manifestation in said post may also be comparable to the Eucharist and its representation of the mystical body of Christ. So, while the people of the Solomon Islands may appear completely alien to the Western eye, the symbolic parallels between these cultures is undisputable.

Keeping this short explication in mind, consider the ways in which ordinary persons think about symbols, and behave symbolically in every-day scenarios.

What symbolic significance is invoked in you personally by the images below? A selection of explanations is provided beneath each photo.

Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Most commonly associated with the staff of Hermes, the astrological symbol for the planet Mercury, and as the representation for modern medicine.
Most commonly associated with the staff of Hermes, the astrological symbol for the planet Mercury, and as the representation for modern medicine. | Source
Representations include the eye of Horus, spiritual insight, inner vision, higher knowledge, DARPA (government agency for total info awareness surveillance system), and the Illuminati.
Representations include the eye of Horus, spiritual insight, inner vision, higher knowledge, DARPA (government agency for total info awareness surveillance system), and the Illuminati. | Source
Mathematical symbol signifying infinity in number, time, or space.In India and Tibet, it is the representation of perfection, dualism, and unity between male and female. In the occult it stands for equilibrium of various forces.
Mathematical symbol signifying infinity in number, time, or space.In India and Tibet, it is the representation of perfection, dualism, and unity between male and female. In the occult it stands for equilibrium of various forces. | Source
Used by Nero, who termed it Nero's Cross, which served as his emblem during his tyrannical rule. After WW II it was found on the tombstones of Hitler's SS troops and became associated with "The Dead Man's Rune". It was revived in the 60s as peace.
Used by Nero, who termed it Nero's Cross, which served as his emblem during his tyrannical rule. After WW II it was found on the tombstones of Hitler's SS troops and became associated with "The Dead Man's Rune". It was revived in the 60s as peace. | Source
For Native Americans, the labyrinth serves to represent birth and rebirth/transition from one world to the next. Philosophically, the meaning is as complex as the symbol itself. Other meanings: passage of time, enlightenment, initiation and progress.
For Native Americans, the labyrinth serves to represent birth and rebirth/transition from one world to the next. Philosophically, the meaning is as complex as the symbol itself. Other meanings: passage of time, enlightenment, initiation and progress. | Source

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Comments 11 comments

Craig Suits profile image

Craig Suits 5 years ago from Florida

Very interesting. A subject I never gave much thought to before if you don't count bumper stickers and nasty hand jesturtes.

Good grief, now that you bring it up we're loaded with all kinds of symbols, forgien and domestic. Even ancient symbols still abound.

Neat read....


Lilith Eden profile image

Lilith Eden 5 years ago from Memphis, TN Author

The origins of even the most mainstream symbols is mind-blowing, including the spectacular history of the infamous middle finger. How fun of a follow up article would that one be?


Craig Suits profile image

Craig Suits 5 years ago from Florida

If you read my dumb chicken episode, the guy in the back seat, Ralph Mastrandria, was working on his PHD thesis when he died. He was at that time the head of The Riverside Research Labrotories in NYC and at the time was developing Star Wars technology for our missle defence systems. Many years ago he was also responcible for developing and overseeing the installation of our low altitude radar defence warning system throughout the country. In other words, a very very intelligent fellow.

BUT! All one had to do anytime is mention "Toga Party" and ol Ralphi would be the first one on the guest list. A giggling, fun loving, scotch drinking, Italian guy with a great sense of humor which is pretty rare with intellectuals of his level.

That's why I get a kick out of talking with you. You guys have the same personalities and obviously the same level of intelligents. I'm even writing a scifi book with real people I've know as the characters and Ralph is the technical guy that helps decypher a small but live flying sauser I found one day while treasure hunting in the Poccano Mountains. I'll have to squeeze you in there somewhere. I know! You could be an associate of Ralphi's from Columbia Univercity where he attended that he brings into the story because of your Anthropological knowledge....And lets not forget your pretty face. Ol Ralphi loved the ladies too. Especially after a few scotch's. He was only in his late forties when he died from brain cancer. I really miss that guy with his electronics knowledge and fun loving ways.


Lilith Eden profile image

Lilith Eden 5 years ago from Memphis, TN Author

Wow, what an incredible individual he must have been! My heart goes out to you for such a loss; he seems to have had a big impact on you, and it is a shame that he went on to the next great adventure at such an early age.

While my intelligence is far below that of your dear friend, I am glad that my quirky personality has provided a nostalgic type effect for you. And of course he would have loved the ladies, Italian that he was :) !

I hope to hear more about this sci-fi book as well. Do you know, that I have attempted multiple times to write a book, but am simply not imaginative enough to do so? Maybe a career in ghostwriting is in my future, who knows?


Craig Suits profile image

Craig Suits 5 years ago from Florida

You'll find your niche before long. As for writing, I simply write the way I speak like I was talking to a friend. Once you find a subject you appreciate, you absolutly need to do some demographis to find out if the subject has an (at the moment) market of not.

Let me know if you deside to try one. You can self publish a small book for as little as 399.00 and you'll get a dozen or so free copies to boot.

"Etymology interests me as well".

Did you know where the expression "Mind your P's and Q's" came from?

I'm not sure when but somewhere around 100 or so years ago in Great Britain, the bartenders in pubs would keep tally of how much ale everyone drank on a blackboard behind the bar. "P's" stood for pints and "Q's" stood for quarts. If a customer was getting a little out of hand with his consumption or his tab, the bartender would tell him to "Mind your P's and Q's.........

Geeze...Now that you know that, you can get a cup of coffee at Starbucks for $4.50...


Lilith Eden profile image

Lilith Eden 5 years ago from Memphis, TN Author

How neat!

And thanks for the publishing tips. They may prove useful in the future. *fingers crossed*


Craig Suits profile image

Craig Suits 5 years ago from Florida

I'll send you a free copy (of course) of my book when I get your Chinese gadget.


Lilith Eden profile image

Lilith Eden 5 years ago from Memphis, TN Author

I will only accept the book if it contains a handwritten, delightful, personalized note to me on the first page!

With great humility,

-Lilith


Craig Suits profile image

Craig Suits 5 years ago from Florida

Of course. That's what authors do...

I life long friend of mine in Maine was trying to buy a copy online for months so he said but he's the worst computer operator on the planet. Anyway, he never got one so eventually I sent him a copy and autographed it something like: "To Butch Mertz. Here's your free copy you cheap bastard". Who ever reads it 50 years from now should get a chuckle out of it. I didn't want his money but a month later he sent me exactally 22.99 in the mail anyway. You'd like him he's a fun guy too.


Lilith Eden profile image

Lilith Eden 5 years ago from Memphis, TN Author

Craig,

your comment literally made me laugh out loud!! How hilarious. I'm sure that his signed copy is now a coffee table center piece.

And sign me up for a payment plan, dear friend.

-Lilith


Craig Suits profile image

Craig Suits 5 years ago from Florida

A small smile, even just a grin, and my long day has not been in vain. Thank you.....

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