Your police badge – it’s just a star, just another symbol. Your talisman. It can’t stop criminals in their tracks, can it? It has power because you believe it does.
This is what Sally Owens tells the cop she fancies in the movie Practical Magic (1998), when she’s trying to explain the power of belief and how a star, or a cross, or any other symbol we deem important, can ward off evil.
Symbols are hard to define. A symbol can be an object – like a Valentine’s card for example, which could be a symbol of love. It can also be a person, like Queen Elizabeth for example. The current Monarch of Britain is a symbol of England for many people. Likewise, the Maltese flag is a symbol of this country and its history.
On the other hand, a simple string of written symbols on a page can have different meanings attached to them, depending on their sound and language. The way symbols can influence our lives and perception is truly never ending, especially when keeping in mind the fact that the same symbol could mean different things to different people, depending on their culture and personal experiences.
Ancient religions and cultures believed that symbols had special and meaningful powers, which is why they crafted and carried talismans for protection or as spells or charms. Today, this belief has waned, however we still, in a way, hold on to this thought. It’s why we gift each other with rings when we marry, why we hold on to our crosses to give us courage in difficult times. It’s the feeling a child holds when they grab and hugs their teddy-bear in bed. Symbols give us comfort and hope.
Here are some of the most common and well known symbols around the world:
Religious symbols – Be it the Christian Cross, the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, the Hinduist Om, or the Jewish Star of David, religious symbols are iconic representations of faith and belief in a higher order of being. They give us strength in time of need, and even just holding them makes us more hopeful.
Symbols of Friendship – Do you remember when we were children and used to gift our special friends with friendship bracelets made out of coloured beads and threads? The Irish have the claddagh, a crowned heart held by two hands, symbolising friendship, loyalty and love. The Middle East has the popular symbol known as the hamsa – an open five-fingered hand – known as a sign of protection and good luck. The idea is an ongoing and popular one, that of commemorating or showing strong feelings through symbols of connection.
Symbols of Love – The most well-known of these are surely the marriage rings which couples gift each other when they promise to stand together throughout their lives. In Chinese philosophy, this emotion is also symbolised through the sign of the Yin and Yang – a perfect circle of light and darkness complementing each other; a sign of the male and female energy.
Symbols of Ideals or Ideas – Each industrial company has its sign or logo. Be it a car company like Volkswagen or BMW, a fashion house such as Gucci or Dior, or even an appliance company like Hoover or Samsung… Each group of people seem to need a common symbol, an icon to represent its ideals and to remind people that a specific product or idea originated with them.
There are as many symbols as there are grains of sand on a beach. Some of them are well-known, like the Facebook logo or a Stop sign, while others less so. The need for the human mind to process an idea based on a visual representation of it is as old, perhaps, as we are. Human beings drew pictures in caves, pictograms on papyrus, ideograms in stone. We need such signs to communicate and find links between our thought processes and those belonging to others. Symbols are a way of connecting, of sharing, of being individuals. They are ways of representing a concept, which can be both personal and collective.
Who of us doesn’t have a special item which means something specific and which only we can understand? Isn’t that a symbol too? It can be a photograph, a locket, an old toy – it can be something quite unimportant, except that, for us, it would be infinitely precious and meaningful.