Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art

By James Hall; Chris Puleston | Go to book overview
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tongue', in other words, spoke the universe into existence. 7 In the Rig-Veda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures, brahman denoted the creative power of the spoken word (see BRAHMA). Greeks and Romans believed in the magical power of names. Thus it was an offence to pronounce the names of priests who celebrated the Eleusinian mysteries, while priests in Rome kept secret the name of the city's guardian deity for fear that enemies might lure him away. The ritual of pronouncing magical formulae, or mantras [i:'om mani padme hum', 'Ranja characters', 7th cent. AD], by followers of the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism, was intended to force the gods to comply with the devotee's will and grant his desires. (See further JEWEL; A.) The Hebrew name of God, Yahveh, 'I am that I am', became the symbol of monotheism for the Israelites and is so sacred it is not uttered (is 'ineffable') except on the Day of Atonement. The word of the Hebrews' God had, like Ptah's, the power to create: 'The Lord's word made the heavens ... Let the whole world fear the Lord ... for he spoke and it was'. 8 In Christian theology the 'Word' (Gk. logos) is a metaphysical concept developed from Greek speculative thought and only remotely descended from primitive magic. It came to denote the Second Person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, which is generally represented in Christian art as a DOVE.

Yin and Yang (Jap. In, Yo). Ancient Chinese cosmology, later transmitted to Japan, postulated a dualistic universe based on negative and positive principles, yin and yang, which pervade all things. The words originally meant the contrasting shaded and sunlit slopes of mountain or valley. Yin is female, the earth, darkness, the moon, passivity; yang is male, heaven, light, the sun, the active principle in nature, etc. Yin and yang feature in two of the oldest Chinese classics, the I Ching (Book of Changes, c. 10th cent. BC, with later accretions) 9 and the Shih Ching (Book of Songs, or Book of Odes, c. 6th cent. BC). 10 They are represented by the T'ai chi, a diagram of an egg in which dark and light stand for yolk and white [ii]. It symbolizes the origin of all creation. From the egg was hatched the first man, P'an Ku (Jap. Hanko). For more about him, see HAMMER. See also TRIGRAM.

2. Animals

Ant. Symbol of industry and an example to the sluggard. When contrasted with a large animal, especially a camel, it has since antiquity symbolized the inequality of the human condition. It also illustrates a classical saying, 'Through concord small things may grow greater, through discord the greatest are destroyed' 2 which was made into a rebus in the Renaissance that depicted an ant devouring an elephant and vice versa [iii]. 3

Antelope. A typical attribute of SHIVA, held in one of his left hands


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Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art


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