Many symbols exist as images. Because the Maori people of New Zealand were fishermen, for example, the fishhook became a symbol of prosperity and good health often worn around the neck. For many cultures the dove has been a symbol of peace. Visual symbols have been prevalent for as far as known human history, from the cave paintings of the ancients, to castles, flowers, and animals common in medieval crests, to the stars, leaves, stripes, and moons so commonly found on flags today.
The imagery can often be profound and deeply meaningful, but the meanings always absolutely require one thing: language. This goes without exception, for a visual symbol without its accompanying description is just a picture.
Only one of these pictures is a symbol, and the only thing that makes it a symbol is the description attached. The other one is merely a picture with a label. The thing is, though, that people often forget the language.
There are only two ways to understand the use of a symbol: 1) having it explained to you, using language; or 2) luck. Whenever one person understands the symbolism of something such as a painting or an album cover, and another person doesn’t, the non-understanding person sometimes receives the blame (often from him or herself) as if a more in-depth look, or the putting of more thought into it might be all that is in the way of understanding the creator’s intent. This is never the case. The first person has either gotten lucky, or has had the symbol explained. Now luck can be intensified, sure, by such things as knowing what the symbol’s creator has previously meant with similar symbols, but one still needs the creator’s explanation for verification.
The problem lies not just in visual symbolism either. Songs, religious texts, and literature are among other examples often bursting with symbolism. The writers of many nineties grunge songs often attempted to stuff so many symbols in their songs that they forgot the explanations, resulting in basically nothing more than gibberish. “Make your own meaning” is just not how symbolism works. The fact that so many of the Bible’s symbols have had various interpretations, without really knowing the author’s actual intent, has led to centuries of schisms and divisions. Again, symbols without explanations are not symbols – at least not ones with meaning, anyway.
I recently saw a travel show where after looking at a Polynesian drawing, the host asked, “What does it mean?” The images appeared so powerful and mysteriously captivating. His and my curiosities were piqued. Mystery seems a large part of symbolism’s allure. The answer came in a satisfying stream of words passed down from previous generations, demonstrating how symbols are like puzzles that can only be solved by answering their inherent questions – with language.