The Importance of Symbols
Responsible Eclecticism

Symbols. We see them everywhere, every day. Stop signs, mile markers, displaying cautions and helping you avoid dangers. Every language, every culture – every belief – has their set of symbols which are important and recognizable to that culture. They speak to our subconscious in providing patterns which are instantly recognizable. They are the gates and the keys… they form links from the mundane world to the subconscious and to the spiritual. They need to be understood, and explored – and respected.

We live in a society which is a “melting pot” of many different cultures. It is our habit to borrow pieces from these cultures and make them our own. However, in doing so, we often twist, warp and corrupt the meanings inherent in the symbols. We often mean no harm or disrespect – but in this throw-away world, we hold no traditions as sacred. We see similarities and see sameness, and ignore the differences in the cultural portrayals which make them unique.

One example could be the elemental systems. There are many different elemental systems. The one used most often by Western neo-Pagans is the five elements represented by the pentacle – earth, air, fire, water, spirit. We have our own ideas of what these elements are. However, there are many different systems. The neo-Druidic system of Land, Sea and Sky, borrowed from fragments of the Druids culture. The Chinese system of five being Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. There are similarities, indeed, but the mistake comes when people assume that the Chinese meaning of water is the same as it is in the West, or vice versa.

Many people tend to interpret things from cultures other than their own based on their own preconceptions. They start with assumptions and theories, and then work to place other culture’s systems and beliefs within their initial theories. But this is not learning about those cultures – this is twisting the cultures so that they fit in with our preconceived ideals, and it is the height of disrespect. When you are reading a people’s myths and learning their symbols, you need to understand them within the context of that culture.

There is one woman who has published books which are based on distorting and twisting myths to fit in with her theory of a Pre-Historic Matriarchy. She not only reinterprets the myths – which would be acceptable to a certain extent, as all myth in open to interpretation – but she rewrites them. And she has no regard for the cultural context from which she ‘borrows’. This woman is Barbara Walker, and people would do well to stay away from her books, in my opinion.

An example of her perversion deals with Odhinn, the Nordic All-Father. She says that his reference as One-Eyed God is really analogous with ‘one-eyed snake’, a euphemism for the penis, and that the myth is clearly about sexual mysteries and the like. But Odhinn lost his eye as a sacrifice for wisdom. Even if you want to read in some sexual interpretation (and this woman would make Freud proud with the multitude of places she sees sexual references), you can not take away the fact that the symbolism for giving up the eye represents the sacrifices that must be made in order to gain knowledge and wisdom… because nothing comes without a price. This is the meaning honored by those who follow it – and he is their god, after all…

Another example is the oft used Moon symbolism for Goddesses, particularly the ‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’ phases of the moon which is prolific in the neo-pagan community. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this figure. I do, however, have a problem when people claim that all moon symbolisms and deities were feminine – because this is not true, and one example would be the Sumerian Nanna who was a god. Another problem I have is when neo-pagans cram every known goddess into this construct of Maiden, Mother and Crone – sometimes changing the myths around to make a maiden a mother and vice versa… and changing or ignoring other attributes and symbolisms, just so that everything fits into their preordained criteria. This is a particularly annoying gripe of mine, being a servant of the Silver Lady to whom I owe allegiance and honor. Ignoring pieces that you don’t like doesn’t make it true, nor does changing the myths…

It would take an entire book to correct all of her foibles – and luckily enough for me, there is such a book in the making. Bit I digress…

If you are going to study a cultures beliefs… if you are going to adopt some of their practices and symbols, then be respectful and understand the cultural use of it. Don’t assume that these things are interchangeable – because they’re not. And even groupings that I use, like Celtic and Native American, are misleading because the Celtic tribes were diverse as are the Native American tribes, and each tribes has it’s own gods and beliefs and symbolisms and meanings.

I’m not saying you can’t be eclectic and borrow from other cultures. I would be a hypocrite of the worst order, being very eclectic myself. But there’s two different kind of eclecticism that you see in the word. The first kind is the kind that I can’t abide by, and that’s the “grab-bag” eclectics. They pull things from all over the place, because it’s the latest trend, or because it sounds cool. They give no regard to the cultures or the symbols. Things are the way they want them to be, and no one will tell them differently, because “it’s whatever it is you want it to be” – so how can you tell them they’re wrong?

The second kind is the kind that I strive to be: a responsible eclectic. I study and I learn. If I come across something that interests me, then I read everything I can get my hands on about it trying to understand it from the perspective in which it is written, or from the culture from where it comes. Then, and only then, do I see if it fits into my cosmology and work it into my worldview.
I also do not claim to represent the cultures, nor do I claim to be a true follower of their Ways. I have many influences, but I belong to no group and can neither claim belonging nor representation. This differs from the grab-bag eclectics who read a book and a week later declare themselves High Priestesses and Shamans and Druids and the highest order…
And, first and foremost, I respect the symbols and the cultures and do not change their meanings to fit into my worldview. They are sacred things, and need to be treated as such.

"All true symbols are children of the First,
All true symbols are the great will made manifest,
All true symbols are maps... of the Soul."
~ Rodenchilde, "First Thesis"