Religious Symbolism


symbol, sign representing something that has an independent existence. The most important use of symbols is in language. To say so, however, does not solve the perennial philosophical questions as to the nature of the linguistic sign. Signs are usually iconic, or related to what they signify, whereas linguistic signs are generally arbitrary. The question remains whether the word chair stands for any chair, for a particular chair, or for the idea of a chair—a problem often involved in philosophical arguments for nominalism and realism. A secondary linguistic symbolism is writing. Another, still connected with language, appears in systems of logic and mathematics (see also number).

Modern science has in its development profited from the conciseness provided by many symbols. In chemical symbols, for example, each element is represented by one or two letters (e.g., carbon, C; zinc, Zn). Some symbols are derived from non-English names, e.g., Ag for silver (Latin argentum). A chemical formula is written in chemical symbols.

In art a distinction of terms is introduced that modifies the term symbol. Although the drawings at Altamira are considered symbolic in one sense (i.e., a drawn reindeer is the symbol for a live reindeer), they are said not to be symbols in another more common sense, since they are partially iconic. If the artist had merely drawn two horns to represent an entire reindeer, the two horns might be said to be a symbol for a reindeer. Such symbolism is all-pervasive in every kind of art, especially because it lends itself to rapid, comprehensive, and compact use.

Religious symbolism is best known in its more ancient form from the discoveries of archaeologists; this is especially important in the study of Egyptian religion, in which the symbol of the god often appeared more frequently than the likeness of the god himself. Greek religion, on the contrary, seemed to eliminate symbols of gods in favor of actual images. In Judaism and Christianity religious symbolism is important, notably in the prophetic passages in the Bible and in the uses of public worship (see, for example, candle; incense; liturgy; sacrament; see also iconography).

Modern patriotism, particularly in the United States, has found a revered symbol in the flag, which began, like all heraldry, as a means of recognition. Trade symbols are sometimes quite widespread; although the wooden Indian signifying the tobacco shop has disappeared, barber poles are still common. The investigations of Sir James Frazer in comparative religion and those of Sigmund Freud in psychology, extreme though they may be, have shown that human beings tend always to use a wide symbolism, even in thinking itself, to cover ideas they avoid out of fear, propriety, or some other motive.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Religious Symbolism: Selected full-text books and articles

Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism By Mircea Eliade; Philip Mairet Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1961
Christian Symbol and Ritual: An Introduction By Bernard Cooke; Gary Macy Oxford University Press, 2005
Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art By James Hall; Chris Puleston IconEditions, 1996
Librarian's tip: Includes religious symbols
FREE! Art & Religion By Von Ogden Vogt Yale University Press, 1921
Librarian's tip: Chap. XI "Symbols and Sacraments"
Symbolism in Liturgical Art By Leroy H. Appleton; Stephen Bridges Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959
Early Rabbinic Judaism: Historical Studies in Religion, Literature and Art By Jacob Neusner E.J. Brill, 1975
Librarian's tip: Part 3 "Glosses on Goodenough's Jewish Symbols"
Sacred Hindu Symbols By Gautam Chatterjee Abhinav, 2001
A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image By Barbara Bert; Lee Preedy Brill, 2004
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
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