In my opinion, the study of symbolism should be an important part of the education of any person that wants to understand our civilization. In this post I will focus on books and sources that deal with Western or European symbolism. The two big components of Western/European symbolism are the Greco-Roman derived symbolism and Christian symbolism.
I usually like to focus on visual symbolism or the symbolism that you see on sculptures, paintings, flags, churches, coins or other visual media. But symbolism can manifest itself also in numbers (see my post on the symbolism of number 40), words, metaphors, fables or parables (allegorical stories). So I hope to compile a list of books relevant to various forms of symbolism.
Iconologia by Cesare Ripa
I already did a review of Iconologia by Cesare Ripa in a previous post. Iconologia can be described as a dictionary of allegorical images. All the editions of Iconologia have textual description of hundreds of allegorical images. The text describes the visual elements of the allegorical image and it also describes the reason behind the visual elements. The original edition didn’t have images, but the later editions also incorporated images like the one above. Some editions have images, but they don’t have an image for every allegorical concept discussed.
Iconologia can be useful to people interested in symbolism in art. A few painters from the baroque era incorporated imagery from Iconologia. My favorite artists that made use of Iconologia are Laurent de la Hyre and Luca Giordano.
There is a big advantage if you know Italian, because some of the early Italian editions have longer explanations of the symbolism. The English edition from 1709 only has two paragraphs (for each image), and each paragraphs has around two or three sentences. However, even if you don’t understand another language, it’s useful to check various editions. One reason to check other editions is because the style of the images is different and there is at least one edition that has colored images. The second reason is that most editions don’t cover all the allegorical concepts. For example, some editions may cover the allegorical representation of grammar, while in some editions grammar is not discussed.
A bestiary is a compendium of descriptions of various animals (real or fantastical). In a bestiary, the description of an animal is usually accompanied by a moral or allegorical lesson. These moral lessons are connected to various Christian teachings. For example, the pelican was the symbol of Jesus, because it was believed that the mother pelican pierces her breast to revive her young with her blood (see this page for a full description).
The medieval people thought of nature as the book of God. They also probably believed that moral lessons can be extracted from the behavior of various animals. We have to remember that there were also allegorical interpretations of the Bible. The four basic methods of Bible interpretation were: literal, anagogic, typological and tropological (see this Wikipedia page). So it’s easy to see why an allegorical interpretation would be extended to nature, or the other book of God.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiaries is the 2nd century AD book called the Physiologus by an unknown author in Alexandria. The book Etymologies by Isidore of Seville also contains many descriptions of animals that were probably used in medieval bestiaries. However, today we are lucky to have a website that compiled and translated many of the bestiary related material. The website bestiary.ca has a lot of useful resources.
It is said that Euclid told Ptolemy 1st Soter that “there is no royal road to geometry”. The same can be said about symbolism. If you want to study western symbolism, you need to study the foundational books of the western civilization.
The Bible is the book that I already mentioned a few times, since it is the basis of Christianity and Christian symbolism. A lot of symbolism from Iconologia and the medieval bestiaries are directly connected to the Bible ( Old and the New Testament).
We still have a lot of Greco-Roman symbolism. We see it in art and architecture. For example, we can see Mercury, Minerva and Hercules in the sculpture Glory of Commerce by Jules-Félix Coutan, which is located at the Grand Central Terminal Station. The US Capitol Building has the painting The Apotheosis of Washington that incorporates many Greco-Roman deities.
Thus it’s a good idea to study Greco-Roman literature. This includes the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, the Aeneid by Virgil, the Metamorphoses by Ovid, the History of Rome by Livy, the Histories by Herodotus, the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. The fables of Aesop should also be on the list.
We should also mention Natural History by Pliny the Elder and the History of Animals by Aristotle. A lot of descriptions from Iconologia and the bestieries are probably derived from these two books
Of course, the study doesn’t stop with the antiquity. There is Norse mythology and cycles, Arthurian cycles, Shakespeare, the Golden Legend, Dante, Kalevala, the song of Roland, Slavic mythology and other national cycles, fables and mythology. It’s hard to delve deep in all of these materials, but at least you should try to be aware of many of them.
More Modern Material
Studying symbolism from modern books can be more convenient, especially for beginners. It’s also much easier to buy a physical copy of modern books.
My first recommendation is “Dictionary of Symbols” by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant (and translated by John Buchanan-Briwn). Like the title implies, this is a dictionary of symbolism. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order. The book doesn’t have images but it has a lot of entries and many of the entries have more than one page of textual description. It’s important to note that the book doesn’t cover only European symbolism, since it covers the symbolism of Asian, African and many other cultures.
For people interested in Christian symbolism I also recommend “Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture” by E. P. Evans and “Signs & Symbols in Christian Art” by George Ferguson. Both books also have images, especially the book by Ferguson.
I believe that that a lot of symbolism is ultimately derived from astronomical concepts. For example, a lot of people know that the traditional seven planets are named after seven Roman gods or goddesses. The number 7 can be connected to the seven planets but also to the phases of the moon. The number 12 can be connected to the 12 constellations that form the zodiac. Many of the numbers that are important in astronomy also appear in mythology and religions (also see my post about the symbolism number 40).
Brian R. Pellar came up with the theory that the alphabet is derived from the star patterns found in the 12 zodiac constellations. He wrote five papers that were published in the Sino-Platonic Papers. he also wrote two long papers about the origins of myths and their connection to seasonal cycles and the precession of the equinoxes.
The book “Hamlet’s Mill” by Giorgio Diaz de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend is a well known book on the connection between astronomy and mythology. The books by David Warner Mathisen are also relevant.
Many of the theories that connect astronomy to mythology are controversial and still speculative. Nonetheless, it’s useful to at least be aware of them and consider some of the possible connections. In the end these astronomical connections have the potential to lead us to a greater understanding of many important symbols.
In a future post I will write about my theory of how the first oligarchical families derived their powers from astronomical knowledge. Astronomy is connected to agriculture and navigation (and by extension to commerce), so it should not be hard to understand why the people with the best knowledge of astronomy became the rulers, the aristocrats or the oligarchs. It also makes sense that astronomy became incorporated in symbols or that symbols were derived from concepts related to astronomy.
Esoteric and Occult
A lot of people are probably interested in symbolism because they are interested in esoteric and occult subjects. Maybe some people are inspired by the character Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code and the other sequel movies. Some people may have seen Youtube videos about occult symbolism in Hollywood movies or in music videos. Some people are interested in Freemasonry and other secret societies. Alchemy is another esoteric subject that may attract some people.
In my opinion the symbolism related to the occult should not be taboo. I don’t necessary agree with many of the interpretations, but I like to get familiar with various symbols. For example, a book like 9/11 Occult Symbols can be useful as a compilation of imagery.
People interested in alchemical symbols should start here. The famous psychologist Carl Jung also wrote about alchemy. His interpretation of alchemical symbols can be found in the book “Psychology and Alchemy“.
I would also recommend “The Secret Teachings of All Ages” by Manly P. Hall. This book covers so many topics and it has many useful images. Some parts of the book are probably questionable, but it’s a very useful book if you want to familiarize with a lot of topics.
Semiotics, Iconography and Iconology
There is an academic field called semiotics that is about the study of signs and symbols and their role in communication. Personally, I am only superficially familiar with this field. However, I believe that people should be aware of this field. The study of semiotics may provide additional methods that can help us understand the historical symbols.
Of course, the focus of this post is more about the study of historic symbols. The focus is more on what can be described as iconography or iconology.
I think that I covered the most important important sources of western symbolism. We can see that the subject is pretty complex even if we only try to cover western or European symbolism.
I think that my personal journey of studying symbolism probably started with me reading from The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall (I also listened to many of his lectures). Only much later I heard about Iconologia by Cesare Ripa. In the end, I don’t think that there is a “right way” or “right order” of studying this subject. However, I would say that the serious student should get familiar early on with the foundational books of Western civilization.
Personally, I am very interested in the possible connections between astronomy and symbolism. I would bet that a lot of esoteric or occult symbolism is connected to astronomy. So a lot of symbolism is not just fancy imagery. It may have some practical application, especially for the elite people.