An informal arrangement of symbols marking the sport where a young man murdered in front of a corner gas station.

“Symbols always matter. They always have mattered and they always will matter. They are proxies, a kind of shorthand. An image can say in an instant what hundreds of words can’t. They can speak softly and they sometimes project boldly. They are a reflection of us and our times for good or for ill. Regardless, these symbols … they matter.”

Steve May


Try to imagine a world without logos, flags, patches, labels, marks, codes, ciphers, tattoos, traffic signals, official seals, or the millions of symbols we see in movies, video games, cartoons, or advertising. We are surrounded by symbols, from the golden arches to the Golden Gate Bridge. Symbols shape how we think about ourselves, the companies we work for, the places we live, the faith we practice, and the things we value. In business, symbols are used to create corporate identity, rituals, culture as well as ideologies.  Symbols shape our worldview, create identities, impose authority, foster social cohesiveness and foment dissent.  Anything can be a symbol if we can make sense of the meaning associated with.  Symbols tie thought to action, regulate social experience, promote self-expression, shape individual and cultural identity, and represent power and authority.  To understand our culture, ideology, religion, media, education, math, science, music, and art we must take into consideration how signs and symbols act as a bridge between the material (our physical reality) to the production of meanings in the mind. Symbols tie thought to action, regulate social experience, promote self-expression, shape individual and cultural identity, foster bonds of cooperation as well as represent power and authority.

A symbol is an object, idea or action that is loaded with cultural meaning. Instead of being analyzed intellectually, a symbol’s intention is often felt.  For Robert Sapolsky, “Symbols serve as a simplifying stand-in for something complex. (A rectangle of cloth with stars and stripes represents all of American history and values.) And this is very useful. To see why, start by considering basic language—communication without a lot of symbolic content.” Carl G. Jung, one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis, referred to symbols found in dreams as “essential message carriers from the instinctive to the rational parts of the human mind.” Alfred North Whitehead also observes, “The human mind is functioning symbolically when some components of its experience elicit consciousness, beliefs, and usages, respecting other components of its experience.” Our distant ancestors evolved because they adapted to a wide range of environments as well as by developing the ability to communicate through gestures, mimic behavior, and express themselves in a unique way.

Understanding the importance of signs and symbols is complicated by many factors such as culture, history, ideology, and religious belief. The challenge in understanding symbolism extends beyond the “science of the concrete” and observable, the pitfalls of fallible historical assumptions, the formalism of aesthetic beauty, or the irrevocability of religious beliefs.

Prehistoric cultures believed the essential rhythms of life were found in daily routines, natural world, and on a spiritual level. Therefore, the use of symbols appears to be an essential step in the evolution of consciousness – one that afforded humans the capacity to express intangibles — the imagination. Symbols connect us to recognizing the world outside of our immediate selfness by evoking emotion and directing actions (Campbell) .

In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening scene shows a group of apes near a watering hole on the African plains several million years ago. Kubrick’s film hints at how evolution may have been aided by extraterrestrials, but he is careful not to give up the ending too soon.  After being driven from their home by interlopers, the apes encounter a large alien monolith – a large featureless stone. Soon after contact with the mysterious structure, one of the apes learns how to use a bone as a club. Armed with bones as weapons, the apes attack their enemy, killing the leader and restoring their dominance over the waterhole. As the apes celebrate, a bone is thrown into the air spinning in slow motion against a clear blue sky. As the bone reaches its apex, it is suddenly transformed into a space station, a million or more years later, surrounded by stars and blackness.  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is allegorical – a story loaded with hidden meanings, symbolic tropes and imagery. The director artfully explores the most elemental facets of human existence:  conception, birth, death and rebirth through the use of symbolic visual messages and language. Kubrick’s ideas interpretation of the ‘dawn’ of humankind came at time when important archaeological discoveries were being made.  In 1960 Belgian archaeologists, headed by Professor Jean de Heinzelin, discovered a bone tool with a series of marks on it resembling a numeric system. The markings reveal a pattern across the surface of the bone, which is only about 4 inches long. Researchers believe that the Ishango bone, named after an area between Uganda and what was once Belgian Congo, is a counting or tally stick. Carved on the bone, a baboon’s fibula, are columns of running marks or scratches. Some believe the Ishango finding represents the first mathematical tool made by humans. In other words, we were advancing the use of symbols to communicate the complex idea of counting.  Peltser contends, “Dating of the bone is somehow difficult and most likely indicates an age of 20,000 years (although other indications point toward an age of 90, 000 years), which makes it the first mathematical tool of Mankind.”  The discovery of the Ishango bone suggests that human beings have been creating and using symbols to communicate ideas as well express emotions for a very long time.

Canadian neuroanthropologist Merlin Donald contends, “Humans are the only minds in nature that have invented symbols. Some apes can be trained to use human symbols in a limited way, but they have never invented them in the wild; and most animals cannot even be taught to use them. Humans, on the other hand, created the first symbols from whole cloth.”  Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroendocrinology at Stanford University, believes humans are different from other species on the planet because we have the “capacity to think symbolically.” He argues, “Symbols serve as a simplifying stand-in for something complex.” Further,  “A rectangle of cloth with stars and stripes represents all of American history and values.” Symbols are invested with shared meaning that must be learned through social interactions and conventions such as language, gestures, and images.  Facial recognition is among the first forms of symbolic communication. We learned to read each other’s moods, desires and displeasures just by understanding the meaning of a smile of grimace. In recent studies, scientists have identified 21 unique facial expressions directly responding to different emotional states.

Gestures such as facial expressions are most likely to be the first symbols used by humans. This makes sense since imitation or mimesis is thought to be one of the first breakthroughs in the evolution of human consciousness. You smile and then I smile. You get angry and I laugh or get angry as well.  Eventually, over a million or more years, we learned to speak, invent languages, and develop the use of an external memory such as cave walls or rocks to express ourselves or communicate big ideas.  Rudolph Arnheim, an art historian, suggests the essence of symbols reside in the expressive form – images transmitted to the eye through perceptual patterns such as the contours of lines, the size of shapes, or the use of color.  In this way, a symbol is a short cut that acts as a bridge between the biological sensory experience of survival and our remarkable imagination. Further, symbols add a sense of permanence, belonging, identity, and meaning to an individual’s life. No other animal on the planet creates and uses symbols the way we do. Our distant ancestors evolved because they adapted to a wide range of environments as well as by developing the ability to communicate through gestures, mimicking behavior, and expressing emotions through what we call ‘art’. Understanding the origins and use of symbols brings cultural, ideological, economic, and even religious issues into focus.  This class addresses conventions in terms of conditions of knowing or the way people engage in making sense of symbols in the media through ideologies, contexts, and prior experience. In the text, symbols are categorized in five ways including archaic, adaptive, referential iconic, and sacred.

Symbolic consciousness means that we express concepts, ideas, emotions, dreams, fears, and desires through words and images. For theorist Ernst Cassirer, “The genesis of symbolic forms – verbal, religious, artistic, mathematical, or whatever modes of expression there maybe – is the odyssey of the mind.” Mircea Eliade in his book Rites and Symbols argues the function of symbols is multitudinal  – myth, initiation, rites and rituals, the complex expression of thought in music and mathematics – all these concepts point toward a existential conditioning; from transitional change to established order.” In other words, Eliade is suggesting that people developed self-determination and free will; therefore, symbols help to actualize the way people communicate. Since the beginning of human civilization, the way people use symbols to express abstract ideas such as love, loyalty, family, or anger has evolved. People learned to share stories through finding symbolic meaning in his or her everyday life. In mythology, rites of initiation, articles of faith, drama, science, astrology, mathematics, alchemy, and various types of media, symbols bridge the gap between experience and abstract ideas. Humans are sentient creatures with a highly developed consciousness who rely not only on sensory experience through vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, but also through subjective factors such as ego, propositions, arguments, personal truths and feelings, cultural tastes, beliefs, and memories. To be clear, as Peter Russell points out, “consciousness is not something that evolved with human beings, or with primates, mammals or any other particular degree of biological evolution. It has always existed. What emerged over the course of evolution were the various qualities and dimensions of conscious experience — the contents of consciousness.” In other words, consciousness, the capacity for self-awareness, emotion, communication, and more, varies a great deal between species.

Sunday dinner ( 1969) Cornwall, N.Y

All symbols have a past, a place of origin which are often overlooked or misunderstood. The distance between the memory and reality lies in the mind’s ability to store and retrieve patterns of information. Symbols are efficient this way. Merlin Donald believes, “The referential powers of symbols are derived from their positions in an organized system of other symbols. These allow the recognition of higher-order regularities, which in turn enable symbolic predictions. This process facilitates the construction (learning) of symbols and their deconstruction and use (interpreting them and thus communicating through them).” For Whitehead, “What you have experienced you have experienced. But symbolism is very fallible, in the sense that it may induce actions, feelings, emotions, and beliefs about things which are mere notions without that exemplification n the world which the symbolism leads us to presuppose.” The challenge of understanding symbolism goes beyond the “science of the concrete” and observable, the pitfalls of fallible historical assumptions, the formalism of aesthetic beauty, and an irrevocability of religious beliefs. We must learn to consider the many uses of symbols in our lives, some rational and logical, while other possessing a spiritual or religious nature.



Understanding symbols necessitates discovering the hidden meanings, historical circumstances, and cultural preferences of the world around us. Lowry (1964) observes,” Only from experience will we derive a knowledge that will enable us to act securely and confidently in the world of visual images” (p.15).

     To explore how symbols impact us personally merely examine the things we carry – things in our pockets, around our necks or on our fingers, on our ears –– and consider a treasured photograph or on more practical terms the clothing logos, caps, books, hairstyles, driver’s license, school identification, credit cards, and money we have.  All of these things hold symbolic meaning –– they all stand-in for or represent an idea: love, wealth, relationships, or keepsake. Many of the symbols we carry have been handed down from centuries ago, even the context and meaning have changed. Some symbols use geometric shapes such as circles, triangles, and arches or crosses to convey explain phenomena and express beliefs such as a crescent moon or the stars and stripe.  We know from neuroscience that the human eye recognizes, certain characteristics that serve as visual cues, grabbing our attention. For instance, the thickness, length and orientation of lines, or differences in color, scale, depth, contrast and graphical movement. What makes a symbol fundamental is the simplicity of form and its ability to transfer meaning from one context to another. For example, ancient symbols such as the cross, circle, and other natural elements such as the sun, moon, stars, fire, air, water, earth, male and female all convey abstract ideas that are grounded in reality.

Symbols have enduring psychological, emotional, and spiritual characteristics carried over from one culture to another.  This chapter examines how signs and symbols are defined as cultural objects. The goal is to provide the groundwork for how symbols function in society in the physical world and the human imagination. Ultimately, we will learn that symbols have physical and abstract properties. Human beings are the only animals on the planet to communicate using symbols extensively. Tens of thousands of years ago, people made the first symbols using gestures and painting their bodies. These symbolic acts transmit information by standing in for concepts, ideas, and values. Anthropologists and sociologists define symbols as “representative forms of thought. The original meaning of “symbols” comes from the Greek tradition of closing a contract between two people by using two halves of broken token called a symbolon. Each individual would take a portion of the token as proof of the agreement until complete. Symbols require two things: context and learned meaning. DeMichele observes, “Each symbol we use is like a shortcut. We don’t need to explain mass-energy equivalence each time we want to express the concept, we can just say “E = mc 2” and our science friend will know what we are talking about. Still, it isn’t “that simple”, as we often have to define symbols in conversation, using other symbols, each potentially adding complexity to our communication.”  



CREDIT: Oliviero Toscani, COLORS OF BENETTON, 1991.

In the 1990s, designer Oliviero Toscani shocked the advertising world while at creating ideologically-driven campaigns for the Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton. Toscani’s designs play symbols against each other to create “in-your-face” messages that confront many of our most cherished sensibilities such as the meaning of love.

The history of the heart is as enigmatic as love itself. When did human beings associate one of our strongest emotions with circulatory system? Why not the eyes or some other part of the human figure?

We have a tendency to accept the meaning of a symbol without exploring its origins beyond what we are told as we grow older.

The ♥ symbol has been associated affection since Eros began piercing hearts with a bow sometime during the 12th century B.C.E. to remind us of love’s mixed-bag of pleasure and pain. Moreover, the symbol evolved on multiple tiers of human consciousness from religion to popular contemporary culture.

In the 1970s, when tourism to New York City hit rock bottom, designer Milton Glaser came up with his I ♥ NY poster campaign to drum up traffic for the Big Apple.

In the popular first-person shooter online video game Destiny 2, players kill each other for the chance to snag special weapon, a bow called the Vow. Bungie, the game’s developer, launched its Crimson’s Days Valentine-week event recently featuring rose petals, pink hearts, and other symbols associated with love. However, it all appears ironic since the spectacle is a massive multi-player shoot-em-up. Basically, the more opponents you kill in a place called the crucible, the more prizes earned. In today’s video game culture, universal and archaic symbols such as the heart are often re-purposed to create a narrative designed to attract new players while keeping its based happy.

Bungie’s Destiny2 focuses on love in its Crimson Days Event. (Credit: Bungie)

In today’s video game culture, universal and archaic symbols such as the heart are often re-purposed to create a narrative designed to attract new players while keeping its based happy.



While completing graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, Genevive von Petziner knew she was on to something. For months she had been traveling throughout Western Europe, hopping from cave to cave, and taking note of what she saw. It was neither the beautiful 50,000 year-old cave paintings of horses at Lascaux in France nor the bison at Alta Mira in Spain, that captivated von Petzinger, but 32 types of similar markings, lines, dots, circles and zig zags found in 52 caves hundreds of miles from each other. The markings represent a type of proto-writing system, which has yet to be fully understood. What we do know, however, is that early human beings were a lot smarter than we give them credit for.


More than 22,000 years ago, early hominids had a very different way of expressing what the perfect female form should look like. The Venus of Willendorf is a hand carved figurine measuring a little less than 5 inches tall. The figurine is a totem – a – fertility symbol that could was carried about during migrations across Western Europe during the Paleolithic period. The image or likeness of the woman was discovered by a workman on an Archaeological excavation in 1908 near the town of Willendorf, Austria.  The Venus discovery represents one of the first works of symbolic art in the Western world. More importantly it supports a theory suggesting the evolution of human consciousness.

Painted in red ochre and made of limestone, the figurine shows a desirable female form, for its time – enlarged pelvis, legs and breasts. With no face or arms, The Venus of Willendorf was not created to stand in for reality, but instead represents the universal desires of the hunter and gatherer clan – fertility.  In the harsh climate following the ice age, human beings relied on natural instinct as well as their imagination to survive. The Venus figure was most likely as important to groups and individuals as was a spear or fire. It is unlikely that early humans differentiated their worldview into the natural and supernatural realms as we do today. A totem such as the Venus figurine seemed as important and practical as any tool. Anthropologist John Robb suggests, “Powerful symbols are not irrational and ethereal but are often highly rationalized and concrete.”  Such is the case of humans living during the Upper Paleolithic period – a time when reproduction was essential to the survival of the species. Some theorists believe that the Venus symbolizes a cult that worshipped Goddesses. Further, symbols represent a sacred and metaphysical bridge between the natural and supernatural world. Ernst Cassirer notes, “… mental processes fail to grasp reality itself, an in order to represent it, to hold it at all, they are driven to the use of symbols.” While the Venus of Willendorf may represent the remarkable workings of the human imagination in expressing desire, longing, hope, and fear, but the Ishango bone reveals how symbols could also be utilitarian in nature. Symbols functioned as a way of keeping track of things and human interactions.

When we perceive symbols we make inferences, educated guesses, or simply jump to a conclusion.  The distance between the memory and reality lies in the subconscious mind.

Prehistoric cultures believed the essential rhythms of life were found in daily routines, natural world, and on a spiritual level. Therefore, the use of symbols appears to be an essential step in the evolution of consciousness – one that afforded humans the capacity to express intangibles — the imagination. Symbols connect us to recognizing the world outside of our immediate selfness. For nearly 30 years, Alexander Marshack, documented the evolution of human consciousness during the Upper Paleolithic period by studying Marchack the astronomical and mathematical knowledge discoveries people made through the creation of star charts by marking lunar phases on bones. According to NASA, “The archaeological record’s earliest data that speaks to human awareness of the stars and ‘heavens’ dates to the Aurignacian Culture of Europe, c.32,000 B.C. Between 1964 and the early 1990s, Alexander Marshack published breakthrough research that documented the mathematical and astronomical knowledge in the Late Upper Paleolithic Cultures of Europe. Marshack deciphered sets of marks carved into animal bones, and occasionally on the walls of caves, as records of the lunar cycle. These marks are sets of crescents or lines. Artisans carefully controlled line thickness so that a correlation with lunar phases would be as easy as possible to perceive. Sets of marks were often laid out in a serpentine pattern that suggests a snake deity or streams and rivers.”

Marshack’s Discovery: A lunar calendar

Astronomical observation marked the beginnings of culture in many ways.

For Merlin Donald, “Cultures are made up of minds; they are by definition the products of individual minds in interaction, and therefore the form of the individual mind constrains the type of culture that any given species will produce. This is widely acknowledged in ethology, where the cognitive capacities of a given species are viewed as direct products of evolutionary forces acting simultaneously on the social and cognitive levels. The patterns of animal group behavior that some ethologists call “cultures” are direct reflections of the cognitive makeup of a species; for instance, the very different cognitive sensitivities of dogs and apes are precisely tailored to their unique patterns of social behavior, and vice versa. So must it be with humans; our special mental features shape our social interactions and cultural artifacts. And as our peculiar type of mind evolved, our cultures changed, in fundamental ways, from the apelike cultures that preceded them.”

Natural elements tool then became symbolic and sacred because they offered a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic world. Richard Heath observes for example, “The variations of the Moon become an interesting and important phenomenon to people who live largely outdoors…The fact that the human female reproductive cycle has a natural synchronization to the Moon’s phases…” (p. 30). During this era, around 50,000 years ago, human beings began to mark the solar cycle, the rising and setting of the sun and the orbit of the moon, on bone — our ancestors began to count the passage of time.  Symbolically, such acts demonstrate the evolution of human consciousness. For example, because they represented such different characteristics, the sun and moon were no longer merely physical objects in the sky, but possessed a duality symbolized by opposition — male/female. In some places during Neolithic time, stone ceremonial sites emerged were eventually placed strategically to create solar calendars as an aide memoire of the cosmic universe (Heath, p. 37). Symbols often coincide with our fascination in the origins of life.