Symbols

(I should really point out that I’m not an expert on anything. This essay is part personal experience, part faded memories of books read both recently and long ago, and part stuff I found on the internet while looking for public domain images to use. Any correction or discussion is most welcome.)

I’ve always liked symbols, sigils, and signs. My mother tells me that before I started preschool she would sit with me and point out car company emblems in the newspaper, teaching me to recognize them. She thought it would be good preparation for reading. Perhaps my lifelong love of symbols stems from that game, perhaps not, but I’ve always liked the idea that a shape can mean something, can represent a concept, complex or simple, if only you know what the person who made it had in mind.

Anyway, since I need to write more and I’m sick of stuff that makes me angry or depressed, I’m going to write about symbols. Maybe I’ll make a series out of it, there are certainly enough interesting symbols to keep going for a long time. We’ll see.

Right now I’m going to discuss my personal favorite, the pentagram.

As symbols go, this one has some serious history. Variations of this basic shape have been in use for at least five thousand years. It has been a pictogram, standing for the Sumerian word UB meaning angle or corner. It has been a symbol of peace and protection, and also of pain and death. It’s been a part of magic and mathematics. Secret societies and sovereign governments have both used it.  In fact so many different and diverse groups have used it in so many different ways that any given pentagram could be intended to mean almost anything.

In ancient Babylon it represented the five planets known at the time, while the Greeks associated it with the four classical elements plus ether or spirit, a symbolism still in use by many modern pagans. In Eastern Asia it’s connected to the five classical Chinese elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The early Christians used it to represent the five senses, while medieval Christians associated it with the five wounds of Christ.

Put a circle around it and you have a pentacle, (though I seem to dimly recall a pentacle also being a generic term for any five-sided star) the circle representing unity. In Wiccan and related traditions this symbol is very common, using the old Greek symbolism of the classical elements within the unifying circle to show the integration of body and spirit.

In the 19th century Eliphas Levi was the first to claim the left-hand pentagram, with two points at the top, was evil. Modern occultists take a more nuanced interpretation that it’s not necessarily evil, but dangerous. The right-hand, with a single point exalted, remains a protective sign.

Whether it was assimilated from Levi’s books, or simply a reaction to the spiritualism & occult interest of the late 19th century, Christians began to associate pentagrams, especially left-hand pentagrams, with the devil. Where Christianity goes, Satanism must follow, and in a Christian context the left-hand symbol can generally be assumed to mean Satan. I understand that the lower three points represent the rejected Christian trinity, while the upper two are the horns of the devil. LaVeyan Satanism seems to use it more as a symbol of rebellion, a sort of elegant middle finger.

The geometry of the pentagram has intrigued mathematicians and philosophers since, well, probably since such people existed. The Pythagorean cult considered it mathematically perfect.

The golden ratio is in the shape multiple times. Single out a triangle, obtuse or acute, from the lines and the ratio of the longer sides to the shorter ones will be a golden ratio. Furthermore, the short lines of the large obtuse triangles are a golden ratio to the long sides of the small acute ones.

(Yeah, I could have just copied the color-coded picture from Wikipedia, but I was curious how clearly I could express that in words. Click that link if you’re still confused. While I’m digressing, it’s very handy to be able to look things up on the internet, but it can have an annoying tendency to color your writing. This sounds a lot more like a wiki entry than what I started with, before I decided I needed pictures.)

Unsurprisingly, in most fiction with magic, and in every example of the “urban fantasy” genre I’ve ever encountered the pentagram is a powerful magical sigil. The pentacle is often not only used in spellcasting, but the symbol of magic itself. This is most striking, to me at least, in the Dresden Files. But then those books do sort of dominate the niche, at least in my mind. Wizard Harry Dresden uses his mother’s silver pentacle to repel vampires, fight werewolves, and… er, light up dark spaces. Hey, not all wizardry has to be dramatic, and it beats carrying a flashlight!

With such a rich history and so many layers of symbolism, cultural significance, and neat geometry, (seriously, I barely scratched the surface here) how could you not love this sign? But if I’m going to be honest, the real reason it’s my favorite, out above many other symbols with similar rich histories, is just that I think it’s pretty. From the most ornate jewelry of silver and gold covered in other symbols and Celtic knot in intricate detail to the most simple basic shape, I just find it aesthetically pleasing.

Anyway, I’m not sure if this is terribly boring or not, but at least I got some writing done. I’m going to get the hang of this “literacy” thing if it kills me!

Have a great night everyone.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on June 4, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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