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Symbolism of Hope

Updated on October 27, 2009
A winning entry in a contest put on by MANIFESTHOPE: DC in honor of President Obama's inauguration.
A winning entry in a contest put on by MANIFESTHOPE: DC in honor of President Obama's inauguration.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

Emily Dickinson

There are plenty of symbols for things that are hoped for, but few for hope itself. The rooster and the morning star signify hope via the dawn.  Hope chests at least use the word hope, but the practice of girls storing up household goods in beautiful wooden chests was specifically in hopes of a good marriage. As far as I can tell, there are only two basic symbols for hope: a bird and an anchor.

The dove and the olive branch are both recognized as symbols of hope. This comes from the story of Noah. The dove was the first bird to return to the ark with proof that the flood waters were receding, an olive branch. It's interesting that they have both become symbols of peace. I'm not sure why that should be. I think this is an instance of a symbol of hope becoming a symbol of what is hoped for. But I digress. In the story of Pandora's Box, Hope is the very last thing to escape. All of the evil things burst out of the box before Pandora could stop them. Hope was well beyond the others, and when it is described it is described as white and fluttering. It seems fragile, but it survived being trapped in a box with all the most horrible things mankind has to suffer.

When hope is a bird, it is not usually a particular kind of bird. It's important features are that it flies, it sings, it is white, and it is feathery. It is strong enough to fly, to lift itself off the earth and to go places we can not follow. It sings because it engages our passions and emotions. We hope for things that we need. Hope is white because it is usually thought of as pure. We hope for good things. It is feathered and fluttering because for all it's superhuman power, to us it seems so easy to crush.

Anchors are a newer, more Christian symbol for hope. When the early Church was being persecuted, a couple of extra lines turned a cross into an anchor. The cross is the ultimate source of hope for Christians. The New Testament is also the source of the quote, "faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love." Why is love greater than faith and hope? The biblical explanation is that one day everything we hope for and have faith in will come to pass. We won't need faith or hope, and only love will endure forever. In this context, hope is a steadying force in one's life, but it could possibly be an obstruction, a way to hide and a reason to put off action.

These ideas about hope secularize quite well. I first became acquainted with the idea of hope as an anchor through Diana Wynne Jones' wonderful fantasy novel The Homeward Bounders. In Ms. Jones' book, the villains use hope to force our heroes into indirectly serving them. An anchor is not so far from a chain. Hope can be a touchstone in a shifting landscape, but it can also hold you back, drag you down, and drown you in despair. It all depends on what you hope for and how much you trust that anchor. You give a lot of power to that one vision of your future. There is another reason why faith and hope are lesser than love. Love, if done properly, can never be wrong. But you can put your faith in things that fail you. Likewise, you can hope for things that would hurt you and waste your time and energy hoping for the impossible.

A bird and an anchor. Fragile and steadfast. Exhilarating and despairing. Always a deep-seated need. That's hope.


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    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      In my mind sunrises are a symbol of hope -- a new day dawning with all its potential before it, and the past vanishing into the black of the past night.