A review of The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images by the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images
Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)
Taschen, 2010
ISBN: 9783836514484

Some 350 symbols are presented and discussed in this brobdingnagian book, a treasure trove for all with an interest in how human beings have used myth and metaphor as a way of making sense of existence.

Symbols acquire their power because we have never been literal-minded as a species; everything around us, no matter how specific and concrete, has been a stimulus for the imagination to take flight. And even scientists, despite a much vaunted objectivity, need metaphor, as the philosopher Mary Hesse’s work attests. The heart is best understood as a pump, the mind is viewed by cognitive scientists as a computer, etc. We can only truly understand one thing in terms of another, the unknown in terms of the known.

The structure of the book is as follows. There are 5 main sections: ‘Creation and Cosmos’, ‘Plant World’, ‘Animal World’, ‘Human World’ and ‘Spirit World’. These sections are then further subdivided, for example ‘Human World’ has 8 sections, including ‘Human Body’, ‘Movement and Expression’, ‘Fundamentals of Work and Society’ and ‘Tools and Other Objects’. It is within these sections that the individual entries on particular symbols, consisting of an essay and one or a few images, occur. Take ‘Tools and Other Objects’; there are 32 entries here, among them discussions of ‘Sword’, ‘Compass’, ‘Net/Web’, ‘Veil’, ‘Ring’ and ‘Telephone’.

Most essays take a vivid and telling image as their point of departure, but then range more widely. On the whole, the essays are provocative and richly suggestive, rather than exhaustive; and it is unlikely anyway, to my way of understanding, that the meanings and resonances inherent in a symbol can ever be fully enumerated. That is why they remain vital as symbols, able to intrigue, fascinate and transport.

Let us take the crescent of the moon as an example, if only because The Crescent is a pub that I frequent. In shape, it suggests a ship or sickle or the horns of a beast or a devil. As something ephemeral or transient, it is like beauty or talent or street art or even life itself. Since it stands at the beginning of a process, it is also very much like a seed – for soon the moon will ripen into fullness. It’s a kind of chrysalis… and more. As a pub, it’s in the Good Beer Guide and with good reason. The meanings multiply unceasingly; and, appropriately enough, the word crescent derives from the Latin verb crescere, meaning to increase.

Bert Kupferman, A Bird, pen and ink drawing on watercolor paper, 2008, United States

When it comes to the 800 or so images that glitteringly adorn the book throughout, the key word is diversity. The artworks come from virtually every country and culture, every religion and artistic movement, every period and age. Not 5 years ago, Bert Kupferman drew the bird above, while about 30 thousand years before him an unknown artist drew this image of an owl on the wall of a cave:

The earliest known rendering of an owl from a cave in southern France, discovered in 1994. Ca. 30,000–32,000 years old, Chauvet Cave, France. Courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication

As the term ‘archetypal’ indicates, the book’s approach has been greatly influenced by Jung; but the writers have not been constrained by his thinking. It is not clear to me, actually, whether Jung would include man-made objects, and in particular recent ones (say, the telephone) under the ambit of ‘archetypal symbols’, since these relate to the collective unconscious. But perhaps he would.

In the preface, editor-in-chief Ami Ronnberg says that this book took over 13 years to complete – and it shows. It is an absolutely gorgeous book, beautifully produced and intelligently designed. A joy to browse through, the images being stunning, yet also a substantive resource. The essays will repay diligent study.

The website of the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism is here.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com