Books and other sources for symbol studies

Discussions of the arcane symbols of Tarot and other decks
Forum rules
Symbols appear on each and every tarot card - visual signs that convey meaning. Some of them are highly individual and personal, others time-honored and traditional. Some are easy to understand, others difficult and multivalent. In this forum, we want to study symbols from different decks, traditions and cultures together using books, websites, lwbs and our own intuition.
User avatar
Nemia
Global Moderator
Posts: 1673
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 05:02
Location: between the mountains and the sea
Contact:

Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Nemia » 26 Sep 2017, 13:58

Let's start some book recommendations for students of symbolism! Just for fun, I'll scan the pomegranate pages - or, if there is nothing to be found about pomegranates, another page.

THE classic book is without a doubt Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols. You can see that this books is very matter-of-fact. No pictures on the pages! There are some illustration pages inserted, but most of the book is text, text, text. It's easy to find on Amazon, Book Depository and your local bookstore - there are many different editions, I have this one.

Image

For German readers, Udo Becker's Lexikon der Symbole is a cheaper and more approachable alternative.

Image

He's especially interested in magical and fantastic creatures, and so am I, win-win! His book is illustrated with simple b-w-illustration and graphics throughout, which makes it nice to read.

Both books are scholarly. I guess you can get everything that's in there also on the Internet... but I'm oldfashioned and like to check in books.

And although I'm a huge fan of e-books and read nearly only on my Kindle, there are books you simply cannot replace with an electronic device - art books with detailed and colourful illustrations.

Image

I have only the German version of Matilde Battistini's Bildlexikon der Kunst - Astrologie, Magie und Alchemie, but I found an English book by that author - if you find it, check it out. It's a pleasure to look at!

Alexander Roob's wonderful rotund volume Alchemy and Mysticism is well-known, and like in Battistini's book, the pictures are the focus of the book. The text explains what the pictures show.

Image

The book is structured very cleverly and if you read it systematically, you actually get a short course in esoteric symbols and theories.

This book is especially useful if you wish to study Robert Place's Alchemical Tarot and Christine Payne-Towler's Holy Light Tarot. You will recognize a number of images that inspired these scholars and artists.

These books don't focus on tarot at all, and that makes any discovery of tarot-related information a bit exciting.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Nemia
Global Moderator
Posts: 1673
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 05:02
Location: between the mountains and the sea
Contact:

Tarot-focused books

Post by Nemia » 26 Sep 2017, 14:53

There are of course books especially for students of the tarot. Confession: to my huge regret, I didn't yet hunt down an affordable version of Robert O'Neill's legendary Tarot Symbolism. I cherish the hope that this book will be published as e-book one day and THEN!!!

Robert M. Place's The Fool's Journey - The History, Art, and Symbolism of the Tarot is a highly interesting book, and I bought it directly from him or on lulu.com - I don't remember. (Can't read it on my Kindle but it's okay to read it with a pdf reader). It's an exhibition catalogue, and it walks us through the trumps and explains the symbols where we meet them. The illustrations are beautiful - from historical art works and tarot cards, but also contemporary tarot art (Legacy of the Divine, Deviant Moon). This is an in-depth study book. Some of the material returns in other Place books - but that doesn't disturb me, I always like to get my Gebelins and Eliphas Levis and Etteillas nicely sorted again :icon_lol:

Place's book The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination covers some of the same ground but focuses on the RWS deck in chapter 5.

A very simple guide to symbols in the tarot is Corrine Kenner's Symbolist; you can read the pdf on the Internet when necessary. She doesn't give sources or complicated explanations - either you believe her that the octagon means spiritual renewal or you don't ;-) No, seriously, you can always think about what she says and decide whether it makes sense.

It's nearly impossible to cover the embarras du richesse of symbol dictionaries on the Internet; let's check them again with the pomegranate.

Symboldictionary: following the pomegranate entry, it looks short but sound. It's called a Visual Glossary of Religious Symbolism which is fine since most symbols were developed before humans invented a worldview without religion ;-) and tarot, our focus, is highly influenced by Judea-Christian iconography.

Symbols includes non-religious symbols, too; again, let's make the highly scientific pomegranate test: nice!

But really, you can look stuff up on the Internet without old Aunt Nemia!

My last recommendation: in your tarot journal, keep track of symbols that appear on the cards you draw.

Every really powerful symbol is multivalent. It doesn't only say ONE thing, it says many things. The more concepts a symbol touches upon, the more powerful it is spiritually. And one of the things it can say is something personal.

If you draw cards from different decks, or different cards from one deck, but a symbol returns - note it and try to see what it means for YOU.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Abrac
Posts: 27
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 07:01

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Abrac » 27 Sep 2017, 08:42

I'm not sure a symbol that says many things makes it more powerful; it seems to me that could reduce and weaken it. But it all depends on what you mean by "says many things."

Take the word "dog" for example; the word is merely a symbol that represents the actual thing. If "dog" means many things like "fish," bird" or "desk," to me that's an example of faulty logic which only serves to degrade the symbol. But dogs can be understood on many different levels; there are different breeds, colors, internal makeups, etc. "Dog" can be understood on many different levels, but a dog can't be a fish. In this example I'm talking about interpreting symbols within a certain context. A symbol might mean vastly different things from culture to culture, or group to group. The context within which a symbol is used holds the key to understanding the concept its creator is trying to convey. Aleister Crowley's meaning of an eagle will have quite a different meaning than, say, the eagle used as a symbol for the United States.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Nemia
Global Moderator
Posts: 1673
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 05:02
Location: between the mountains and the sea
Contact:

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Nemia » 27 Sep 2017, 10:50

"Many things". I've written about this already somewhere. My favorite example is the apple. It's Rosh HaShana now and we dunk apple slices and honey "so that next year may be sweet".

Image

That's a very tasty symbol but only the beginning of what apples "mean".

Apples can look like a face with a reddish cheek (depending on the sort of course). Apples can reminds us of human breasts or body shape.

Image

The Beatles founded a company called Apple.

Image

They also had their Apple Store in London with the legendary mural by Kroeger and Posthuma.

Image

Everybody knows the Apple logo and everything associated with it.

Image

New York is often called the Big Apple (I think that went a bit out of fashion :-)

Image

My first perfume was Max Factor's Green Apple (I'm old!)

Image

I LOVED it! And I was crazy enough to use it after washing my hair with apple shampoo!

Image

The Seventies were big on apples. My mother and I had cute apple shaped brooches in all colours.

Image

Apples were printed on absolutely everything.

Image

And why were and are all the commercial uses of apples so successful? Because apples are such a strong and powerful symbol, which their commercial in use in turn reinforces. It's a perpetuum mobile.

In Germany, we have children's songs about the nuts and apples we eat before Christmas - nice winter apples.

Image

This is such an emotional picture of a certain season, like apples and honey for Jews.

Image

Mythology is full with apples. The golden apples of the Hesperides that grow in the West - probably a sun symbol.

Image

How did Hippomenes win victory over Atlanta when running against her? By throwing golden apples which she picked up.

Image

The most famous (or infamous) golden apple was thrown by Eris, the goddess of Discord, at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. "To the most beautiful" was written on it.

Image

Poor Paris was the judge who was the most beautiful goddess - and by his choice (Aphrodite, who promised him Helena as prize) triggered the Trojan War.

Image

And did I mention Pomona, the Roman goddess of orchard fruit, whose name appears in the French word for apple, pomme?

Image

Pomona green was very popular in the Regency era - just read a novel by Georgette Heyer. Regency and the 1970s loved the apple green colour!

Image

Pomona, the good wholesome fruit, was also the name of Sophie de la Roche's famous magazine "for Germany's daughters", one of the first proto-feminist enterprises following the age of Enlightenment.

Oh, and did I mention the apple of paradise yet?

Image

In the orignal Hebrew text of the Bible, there is no mention of תפוח or apple, it's called the פרי עץ הדעת the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It was the Latin translation that introducted the pun of calling this fruit apple since malum means both evil and apple in Latin.

Image

Since then, the apple has this tempting, evil subtext and can even become a symbol of death.

Image

Now take an apple and cut it crosswise.

Image

Ancient civilizations knew already that if we trace the path of Venus as seen from our earth, this is what we get:

Image

So the five-pointed star, the goddess Venus, the planet Venus, Eve and Eris and the witch in Snow White - they're all connected in this net of associations.

Yes, we eat apples because they taste good with nuts or honey, and they're used to market all kind of stuff to us, but the symbolism of the apple is old and powerful. And I focused here only on the most well-known Western examples!

Otl Aicher's pictograms for the Munich Olympic Games are great works of graphic design but they're so specific that they are here my examples for weak symbols.

Image

They're just graphic symbols and are not supposed to evoke anything but the different kinds of athletic. That's their power - they're totally understandable and mean ONE specific thing.

The apple, on the other hand, means so many things at once. That's why the choice of the Apple logo was so intelligent.

Image

Somebody has bitten into the apple - damaged the perfect shape, enjoyed the taste, without fear of the knowledge that this fruit brings.

Don't tell me I'm over-interpreting it ;-) Look at that apple and imagine it without the bite. It's the bite that makes this logo so great.

So, the apple is a multivalent symbol. It's wholesome, but it's also dangerous. It's universal, like the star of Venus, culturally shaped, like the Rosh HaShana apple, and it's also highly personal, like my apple shampoo. And yet, in all its incarnations, you can always recognize the apple that you have in your fridge and will go and eat now.

I hope it's clearer now what I meant.

ETA: the word DOG is no symbol, it's a morpheme. A picture of a dog or the dog as concept has of course many symbolic meanings: faithfulness in Western culture (Odysseus' dog, Venus of Urbino's sleeping dog) or negative associations in Arab cultures.

The use of the eagle as symbol is interesting; the US eagle is a specific animal whose habitat is in the US, and the general symbol of eagle draws on the astronomical/astrological eagle and its many uses in culture. They're connected way back, but the "genealogical table" of the eagle symbol opened up. Heraldry, alchemy - no I can't go into that now. But if you really analyze seriously where a symbol comes from, you will see that Crowley's eagle and the heraldic eagle are not so far apart. The use of the eagle as national symbol of the US is very young, of course, but definitely echoes the many heraldic eagles in Europe, some of them double headed.

In short, symbols and how to read them is a tricky business but very worthwhile.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Abrac
Posts: 27
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 07:01

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Abrac » 27 Sep 2017, 11:04

Honestly, it's not clearer, it's more confusing.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Nemia
Global Moderator
Posts: 1673
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 05:02
Location: between the mountains and the sea
Contact:

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Nemia » 27 Sep 2017, 11:16

:icon_e_confused:

Sorry.

I'm talking about tarot -relevant symbols here, not semiotics, i.e., visual symbols, not the use of language. I won't go into the signifier and signified ;-) of your dog example. Let's stay in the visual sphere please.

And a visual symbol has many layers of meanings, a net of associations - otherwise it's just a sign, like Otl Aicher's pictograms.

And whenever we use that symbol, we touch that net of associations. Not every viewer will recognize all the associations, but most will at least recognize a few.

That makes symbols powerful in a way that mere signs are not. They get more powerful over time as more and more people use them, the perpetuum mobile I mentioned above.

And that's why I'm suspicious against simplistic lists like Kenner's Symbolist. Because a real symbol means so much more than just two or three keywords.

Not every apple means the fruit of paradise or the golden apples of Freia. It can mean the memory of Mother's apple brooch on her apple green coat. When we interpret symbols, we have to keep our options open. The simple question "what does it mean" doesn't have a simple answer like "it means X".

Oh well, I said too much already, sorry I'm so incoherent.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Abrac
Posts: 27
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 07:01

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Abrac » 27 Sep 2017, 11:36

My approach to symbols is from an interpretive angle. I'm not really concerned with the "net of associations." My interest is in getting behind the symbols, be they visual or linguistic, to the concepts that are being communicated. Getting drawn away by every association is just, for lack of a better word, masturbation. I'm getting the feeling that my approach and the approach you're advocating, nemia, probably aren't simpatico, but good luck.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Nemia
Global Moderator
Posts: 1673
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 05:02
Location: between the mountains and the sea
Contact:

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Nemia » 27 Sep 2017, 12:07

What a nice way of putting it. :icon_rolleyes:

I'm an art historian and interpret symbols, too.

But I won't waste more words here.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
2dogs
Global Moderator
Posts: 876
Joined: 05 Jul 2017, 11:05

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by 2dogs » 27 Sep 2017, 13:16

I'm not great with symbols. I might use a few basic meanings but I'm much happier interpreting a fact card for example talking about a moon with such weak gravity that you could jump off it as meaning the querent is only loosely atached to something and can escape, or a metal used to concentrate magnetic force as meaning concentration. It just seems easier to me :icon_rolleyes: .
If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on creation thus, I should have recommended something simpler. Alfonso X (the Wise)

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

User avatar
Barleywine
Posts: 465
Joined: 15 Aug 2017, 07:19
Location: New Hampshire, USA
Contact:

Re: Books and other sources for symbol studies

Post by Barleywine » 28 Sep 2017, 13:07

I'm a big fan of Cirlot's Dictionary and always have it within reach. I get a lot of mileage out of Manly P. Hall's Secret Teachings of All Ages too. I tried a few times to penetrate Frazer's Golden Bough because Crowley seemed to think so highly of it, but it always tires me out. Sometimes I dip into the Three Books of Occult Philosophy as well, mostly for number stuff. Joseph Maxwell is my main man on esoteric number theory, but I intend to get a few more books on it: Thomas Taylor, Iamblichus, possibly a new copy of Numerology and the Divine Triangle since I can't find mine.

I tend not to use symbols at full strength in my reading; for story-telling purposes I like those that I can segue into metaphors or analogies built around shared cultural, social and historical experiences. These aren't usually planned insights, they come to me in a flash of inspiration, imagination or ingenuity.

Link:
BBcode:
HTML:
Hide post links
Show post links

Post Reply

Return to “History & Symbolism”