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Script Symbology: What Are Symbols?

The simple definition of a symbol is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible. For example, a lion is a symbol for courage, and a flag a symbol of patriotism.

But simple definitions have never served to adequately describe symbols. For instance, in consideration of their effect on the psyche, Joseph Campbell in A Symbol Without Meaning proposed symbols are energy evoking and directing agents. The Indian scholar Heinrich Zimmer provides a broad definition of symbols noting that “Concepts and words are symbols, just as rituals, and images are; so too are the manners and customs of daily life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored.”

Some even suggest symbols are beyond definition altogether. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung proposed an alternate definition of symbols distinguishing them from “signs.” In Jung’s view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for a referent. In contrast, Jung observed that symbols stand for unknown things that cannot be made clear or precise. As an example, he offered Christ as a symbol for the archetype symbol of self.


Even if a definition of symbol can be obtained, this definition can vary with different periods of time and cultures. Jung states this well in The Psychology of Transference (1946) noting:

“Eternal truth needs a human language that varies with the spirit of the times. The primordial images undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in a new form can they be understood anew. Always they require a new interpretation if, as each formulation becomes obsolete, they are not to lose their spellbinding power.”

And too, symbols are used as a means to express specific ideologies, social structures and represent characteristics of specific cultures. Thus, symbols carry different meaning depending upon one’s cultural background. The meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself. Rather, it is culturally learned.

Whatever definition or meaning of symbols one arrives at, it is important to point out that they are much more than elements of an ancient, esoteric language but rather the basis for all human culture and knowledge. Rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke recognized this overwhelming power and importance of symbols on people’s thoughts and actions leading him to describe humans as “symbol-using animals.” In this way, people use symbols not only to make sense of the world around them, but also to identify and cooperate in society.

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The world is full of thousands of symbols and there are many dictionaries and lexicons that define individual symbols. A few of the best dictionaries are A Dictionary of Symbols by JE Cirlot, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by JC Cooper and The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tressider.

While one can learn much about symbols from reading definitions in dictionaries and lexicons, perhaps the best way to understand symbols so they might be applied (within scripts) is by organizing them in classifications, categories and systems.

Symbol Classifications

The greatest contemporary classification of symbols was undertaken by The Archive for Research In Archetypal Symbolism or ARAS. The ARAS database contains over 17,000 images and commentaries spanning human eras and cultures as well as the meaning of symbols in dreams. While the online site is a subscription only site, the ARAS materials have been published in The Book of Symbols by Taschen a book that should be in the library of every script symbologist.

The ARAS archive organizes symbols under five major classifications:

  1. creation & cosmos
  2. plants
  3. animals
  4. humans and
  5. spirit.

A short outline of these classifications is represented below:

Creation & Cosmos
Creation & Cosmos
Air, Wind & Weather
Fire, Light & Darkness
Plant World
Magical Plants & Flowers
Animal World
Primordial Creatures
Water Creatures
Arachnids & Insects
Wild Animals
Domestic Animals
Human World
Human Body
Movement & Expression
Fundamentals of Work & Society
Tools & Other Objects
House & Home
Buildings & Monuments
Spirit World
Mythical Beings
Rituals & Sacred Systems
Sickness & Death
Soul & Psyche

A script symbologist doesn’t necessarily have to understand all the ARAS symbols. Like most everything today, research into symbols is readily available and inexpensive. But it is important to at least be aware of these classifications and the major symbols within them.

Symbol Systems

Many symbols are members of symbol systems that are similar to genres in films in that members of symbol systems have common elements. Some examples of symbol systems are colors, numbers and astrology.

In general, symbol systems demonstrate a spectrum of symbols with symbols at the ends of the spectrum serving as opposition symbols with a sequence of symbols between the two. For instance, consider the symbol system of color and the color spectrum moving from violet at one end of the spectrum to blue, green, yellow, orange and red at the other end of the spectrum. Or consider the symbol system of numbers and the basic duality symbols of one and two.

Symbol systems can be used to show drama in scripts by presenting members of the system in a sequence from the beginning of the script to the end of the script. For example, a logical sequence might contain a dominance of violet objects at the beginning of a script and a dominance of red objects at the end of the script.

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Returning to the basic definition of a symbol as something visible representing something invisible, it is not difficult to see why film has become a leading symbolic medium. Unlike non-linear types of art like painting, films possess the unique quality of showing symbols in action as they present a sequence of visible things representing invisible things.

The major visible things a film has to work with are settings, objects, actions, characters and dialogue. The major invisible things these visible things refer to are the invisible aspects of internal character states such as moods, feelings and states.

(Note: The subject of symbols is explored in greater length in our book Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication. It can be found in the Books section on our symbolism site.)

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