Sacred Texts  Symbolism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Migration of Symbols, by Goblet d'Alviella, [1894], at

p. 1


Few words have acquired such a wide signification as the word symbol. 1 Originally applied, amongst the Greeks, to the two halves of the tablet they divided between themselves as a pledge of hospitality—in the manner of our contract forms, detached along a line of perforations from the counterfoil record—it was gradually extended to the engraved shells by which those initiated in the mysteries made themselves known to each other; and even to the more or less esoteric formulas and sacramental rites that may be said to have constituted the visible bond of their fellowship. At the same time its meaning was so amplified as to include on the one hand oracles, omens, and every extraordinary phenomenon that could be passed off as a warning from the gods, and on the other, military pass-words, badges of corporate bodies, tokens of attendance, and pledges of every kind, from the wedding ring, to the ring deposited before partaking of a banquet as an earnest for the due payment of one's share of it. In short the term came to gradually mean everything that, whether by general agreement or by analogy, conventionally represented something or somebody.

A symbol might be defined as a representation which does not aim at being a reproduction. A reproduction implies if not identity with, at least

p. 2

similitude to, the original; but a symbol only requires that it shall have certain features in common with the object represented, so that, by its presence alone, it may evoke the conception of the latter, as is the case with a missile weapon and lightning, a sickle and harvest-time, a ring and marriage, a pair of scales and the idea of justice, kneeling and the sentiment of submission, and so forth.

By symbolism the simplest, the commonest objects are transformed, idealized, and acquire a new and, so to say, an illimitable value. In the Eleusinian mysteries, the author of Philosophoumena relates that, at the initiation to the higher degree, "there was exhibited as the great, the admirable, the most perfect object of mystic contemplation, an ear of corn that had been reaped in silence." 1 The scrap of cloth which, in ordinary circumstances, we discard as a rag, at the top of a staff sums up all the aspirations included in the idea of one's country; and two crossed lines suffice to recall to millions of Christians the redemption of the world by the voluntary sacrifice of a god.

We live in the midst of symbolical representations, from the ceremonies celebrating a birth to the funereal emblems adorning the tomb; from the shaking of hands all round of a morning to the applause with which we gratify the actor, or lecturer, of the evening; from the impressions figuring on the seal of our letters to the bank notes in our pocket-book. The pictorial and plastic arts are naught else but symbolism, even when they claim to adhere to the servile imitation of reality. We write, as we speak, in symbols; and it is in symbols again that we think, if those schools of philosophy are to be believed which affirm our powerlessness to perceive things in themselves. The philosophy

p. 3

of evolution goes the length of proclaiming, through the organ of its founder, that the conception of force, to which it refers all phenomena, is simply the symbol of an unknown and unknowable Reality. Herbert Spencer even adds, in the most explicit terms, that it will always be permissible for us to picture to ourselves that Reality by concrete symbols, so long as we do not regard them as resemblances of that for which they stand. 1

In this sense we may apply to the symbol what Professor Sabatier has written of the myth:—"To create a myth, that is to say, to catch a glimpse of a higher truth behind a palpable reality, is the most manifest sign of the greatness of the human soul, and the proof of its faculty of infinite growth and development." 2 Without doubt the symbols that have attracted in the highest degree the veneration of the multitude have been the representative signs of gods, often uncouth and indecent; but what have the gods themselves ever been, except the more or less imperfect symbols of the Being transcending all definition Whom the human conscience has more and more clearly divined through and above all these gods?

It is sentiment, and above all, religious sentiment, that resorts largely to symbolism; and in order to place itself in more intimate communication with the being, or abstraction, it desires to approach. To that end men are everywhere seen either choosing natural, or artificial, objects to remind them of the Great Hidden One, or themselves imitating in a systematic manner the acts and deeds they attribute to Him—which is a way of participating in His life—

p. 4

or again rendering objective by acts, as various as they are significant, all the gradations of the sentiments with which He inspires them, from the most profound humility to the most ardent love. Hence the extreme diversity of symbols; which may be divided into two classes, according as they consist of acts or rites, and of objects or emblems. We will here occupy ourselves exclusively with this second category, or rather with the figured representations it suggests, and which past generations have transmitted to us as so many material vestiges of their beliefs. Even thus restricted, the field of investigation is vast enough to make one fearful of wandering from the right way.

Studies in comparative symbolism have fallen, during the latter half of this century, into a discredit which their former vicissitudes sufficiently explain. To the syntheses no less premature than brilliant, constructed with insufficient and imperfect materials by the rationalistic school, whose most illustrious representative was the French Dupuis, there succeeded, more than fifty years ago, the system, more philosophical than historical, of Creuzer and his followers, who claimed to discover in all the religious practices of antiquity the disguised or disfigured reflection of a profound primitive wisdom. All these theories, after having successively captivated the learned, have been slowly overthrown by the accumulated objections afforded by later discoveries in archæology, ethnography, philology, and history; and, as so often happens, the reaction against them has been in proportion to the first infatuation in their favour.

Even the more recent attempts of MM. Lajard and Emile Burnouf, although keeping more closely to facts, were not of such a nature as to cause us to retrace our steps. It seemed as if comparative archæology must definitely sacrifice all imagination

p. 5

that could profit critical research, and to-day certain scientists would even attempt nothing less than the proscription of all hypothesis in investigations relating to the origin and signification of symbolism; as if hypothesis was not in every sort of study a necessary factor of scientific progress, provided it be not enunciated as an ascertained fact.

Meanwhile, for anyone who would wish to resume this kind of investigation, the situation has greatly changed within the last thirty-five years. Documents which allow us to compare, under all the desirable conditions of authenticity, the symbolic representations of different nations, have accumulated to such a degree, that henceforth the principal bar to their utilization lies in their number and their dissemination. It is not so many years ago that the transactions of the Academies founded in the principal capitals of Europe, and the new-born annals of a few archæological societies, constituted, together with certain great publications relating to the monuments of classical antiquity and of Egypt, the only collections to which the historian of symbolism could turn. To-day we have everywhere at hand, in publications which will never be surpassed in importance and in accuracy, the result of excavations carried on simultaneously in Chaldæa, Assyria, Persia, Asia Minor, Phœnicia, Egypt and Libya, not forgetting the reproduction of memorials discovered or studied anew in Greece, Italy, India, the extreme East, and even in the two Americas. Archæological reviews and special collections, which have rendered so much service to the study of ancient art, have multiplied even in the smallest states of Europe. There is no branch of archæology, from the study of seals to numismatics, which has not its organs and societies. Thanks specially to the liberality of

p. 6

the different governments, not only have museums been enriched in proportion to the discoveries made, but the more important collections form the subject of descriptive catalogues which allow of the utilization of materials at a distance. Lastly, the joint labours of many workers, planned from the most various points of view, are centralizing all these documents, thus lightening the task of those who desire to restore the traces and elucidate the meaning of the principal symbols of the world.

Moreover the deciphering of inscriptions, the classification and interpretation of written documents, the general advancement of the study of history, more especially religious history, whilst enlightening us on the creeds of nations, enable us the better to establish the connection between their symbols and their myths; at the same time that a more exact knowledge of the social and geographical centres whence these symbols originated aids us to discover in many cases the origins of the image which has furnished a body to the idea.

Henceforth there is no longer any reason why in the study of symbols we may not arrive at results as positive as in the study of myths. The comparative examination of myths long ago entered upon a scientific phase, whether, with Professor Max Müller and the philological school, we are content to compare the traditions of nations speaking allied languages; or, with Mr. Andrew Lang and the majority of ethnographers, we do not scruple to compare the mythology of all known peoples. Now, the myth, which may be defined as a dramatization of natural phenomena, or of abstract events, offers more than one feature in common with the symbol. Both depend upon reasoning by analogy, which in the one case creates an imaginary tale, in the other a material image.

p. 7

[paragraph continues] Doubtless there is this difference, somewhat ignored by those who have obscured the idea of religious symbolism by blending it with mythology, that in the symbol we must be conscious of a distinction between the image and the object, or being, thus represented, whilst an essential feature of the myth is to believe the narration to be in conformity with the reality. But it is easy to understand that both are frequently formed by the help of the same mental operations, and above all are transmitted through the same channels.

In any case, there are religions which we cannot understand if we do not endeavour to supplement the insufficiency of the texts by the study of the monuments. A significant symptom in this connection is the growing tendency among savants to utilize, in the study of particular religions, the texts to verify the symbols, and the symbols to verify the texts; as may be seen in the recent works of Senart on the history of Buddhism, Gaidoz and Bertrand on the symbols of ancient Gaul, J. Menant on the sculptured stones of Central Asia, and Fr. Lenormant, Clermont-Ganneau, Ledrain, and Ph. Berger on the symbols of the Semitic religions. These works are the best proofs of the services which the interpretation of symbols can render to the history of religions when strictly scientific methods are rigidly followed.

It is not merely a question of avoiding preconceived ideas and hasty generalizations. What is needed above all is to provisionally substitute analysis for synthesis, the history of symbols for the history of symbolism; in other words, to take the principal symbolical figures one by one, in order to establish their respective history, first among each people, and then over the whole area of countries where they are found. It may

p. 8

happen that we may succeed., after repeated and patient investigations of this kind, if not in establishing the laws of symbolism, as has been done for comparative grammar, at least in collecting together the materials for a general history of symbolism, as has been already accomplished for almost every other branch of knowledge.

My aim is simply to furnish a contribution to this history, by investigating the limits within which certain symbolical representations have been transmitted from people to people, and how far in the. course of their migrations their meaning and their form may have been modified. I have here applied myself particularly to figures which, by the importance and the very complexity of their rôle, have seemed to me the most capable of throwing some light on the general conditions of symbolical transmission, such as the gammadion or tétrascèle and the triscèle, the Paradisaical Tree, or rather the special type it assumed amongst the Assyrians, the Sacred Cone of the western Semitic nations, the Winged Globe of Egypt, the Caduceus of the Phœnicians, and the trisula of the Buddhists. This selection will further permit me to bring into prominence one of the most curious and perhaps least explored sides of comparative symbolism. I speak here of the attraction which analogous symbols exercise on one another, or rather of the tendency they display to coalesce and lose themselves in intermediate types.

Most of the observations which I have brought together in the following chapters have already appeared during the last three years in the Bulletins de l’Académie royale de Belgique, the Revue des Deux-Mondes, and in the Revue de l’Histoire des Religions. In recasting them as a whole I have fully considered the remarks which their first publication elicited from sympathetic critics, as well as the modifications produced in my own views by subsequent

p. 9

researches. I have also added a variety of illustrations calculated to show more strongly the cases of symbolical filiation and fusion of which I have endeavoured to verify the existence and elucidate the theory.

Goblet d’Alviella.

Court Saint Etienne, Brabant,
       March, 1891.


1:1 Σύμβολον, from σύν and βάλλειν, to throw together.

2:1 Philosophoumena, v. i., ed. Cruyce. Paris, 1860, p. 171.

3:1 First Principles. Lond. 1862, § 32.

3:2 A. Sabatier. Mémoire sur la notion hébraïque de l’esprit. Paris, 1879.

Next: Chapter I. On Symbols Common to Different Races