A rag on a poll!
“Sharpe: Do you really believe men will fight and die for a rag on a pole, sir?
Hogan: You do, Richard, you do”
The quote, for a book by Bernard Cornwall, clearly shows both the power and danger of symbols. Now Shape, a fictional soldier in the British army fighting Napoleon during the peninsular wars, was referring to a flag but one with religious meaning to the local people who it was hoped would rise up if the flag was flown. What that simple quote shows is that symbols, especially those that embody religious meaning, can inspire fanatical loyalty and deep reverence in people. It also shows how difficult we find it to understand why others feel the same way about their symbols.
Part of this dichotomy is probably in the way that symbols, particularly religious ones, are given their meaning. Possibly the most powerful part of religious symbology is that it provides the wearer a way of identifying with the group that they belong to. This feeling of group identity is very powerful, as can be seen with the way that groups will behave in a way totally different to that of any of the individual members. This group dynamic can be seen in the football fans following their team or in the ‘esprit de corps’ developed by military groupings.
When the symbol allows one member of the group to identify another, possibly where the group is either actually persecuted or feels that it is, such as with early Christians or more recently some neo-pagan groups, then the symbol becomes even more powerful. Such symbols become more than group identification they take on aspects of the belief structure behind the group. Where the group, that the symbol is used by, is based around a religious theology then it is easy for the symbol to begin to take on, not just symbolic power, but real power and meaning in itself.
Such symbols are quite naturally going to inspire loyalty and reverence in members of the group. However to people outside the group who share neither the binding forces of a common theology, the group dynamic or understand the inherent power that the symbol has developed, then the symbol has very little meaning beyond a means of identification or superstition.
We can see this difference in operation clearly today.
The Christian cross, either in its plain form or the more ornate Catholic crucifix, has long been a sacred symbol. It has been used on flags, shields and even the cruciform shape of the broad sword was used by the crusader knights as a symbol of the cross. Today however, the cross has become something of a fashion item with large gold crosses encrusted with gems being worn by celebrities.
Such is the misuse of religious symbols, through the de-sanctification process, deliberate or unintentional, that in 2004 one UN organisation responsible for cultural issues proposed a decision that in part read
In recent times we have witnessed an increasing trend in the use of religious images and expressions in commercial items and other non-religious contexts. This unfortunate phenomenon, where the images, symbols and expressions that are sacred to religions of the world are being used as marketing tools in items of clothing, music, brands of food and beverage with callous disregard to religious and cultural sensitivities has caused justifiable outrage.
Depicting the images, symbols or expressions of any religion in instances such as these is not only offensive to those practicing the religion, but also culturally disparaging and is something that needs to be condemned by the international community. Particularly in today’s context, where there is an indisputable need for intercultural and interreligious dialogue, respect and understanding, it is our undeniable moral obligation to foster a society which comprehends and respects the sensitivities of all peoples worldwide.”
An interesting example of this de-sanctification of a symbol by others is a recent decision by a school in Derby to ban the wearing of the crucifix as being a piece of jewellery but to allow the religious symbols of other faiths.
We can see this sort of attitude to religious symbols, but taken much further, in the French and US governments trying, and generally succeeding, to ban religious symbols from public life and buildings. In France even wearing clothes that have a religious overtone, such as the Islamic hijab, is banned from public buildings such as schools.
Secular nations seem to fail to understand the importance of these symbols to believers or possibly realise their importance and feel that that is all the more reason for attempting to limit them and their power. A good and recent example, of this is the depiction of the Prophet Mohamed by certain newspapers in a cartoon. Now for a Muslim any portrait of the Prophet is sacrilegious such is his power as a symbol, and remember a symbol can be conceptual as well as physical. The governments of many nations allowed these cartoons to be reprinted on the basis that they put their secular belief in the freedom of the press over and above the religious belief of the Muslim community.
It is this deliberate reaction against other peoples symbols that the dichotomy between members of the group and outsiders that leads to the misuse of symbols or their suppression. It needs to be remembered that it isn’t just non-believers that react in this way but believers from other groups.
Many Christians see the Pentagram as a diabolic symbol rather than the symbol of the five elements that most pagans understand it to be. Now given the history of early Christianity this isn’t too surprising but when a nation state seems to be complicit in maintaining such a negative
Association rather than acknowledging its legitimate importance to many Pagans you have to ask why.
Such a case, where the pentagram has apparently be treated differently, has recently arisen in the US where a fallen soldier, who had won a medal for bravery, was denied the pentacle symbol on the local war memorial. This despite many other faiths being allowed their symbols the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel, the Mormon angel, the nine-pointed star of Bahai and something that looks like an atomic symbol for atheists.
The negative attitude of the locals can be seen in this quote. When asked whether or not the pentacle should be allowed one American responded.
“I don’t see how anything that supports witchcraft and Satanism can legitimately be called a religion,”
This not only showed a total lack of knowledge of Wicca but using the assumption that if they didn’t accept the faith of the person as a religion then it wasn’t worthy of having its symbol on the memorial. Again this is a prime example of those who are not members of the group failing to see and understand the power and importance of the symbol to the group itself.
An interesting example of how religious symbolism, or even the perception of such, can impact on ‘real world’ issues can be seen in the use of the Red Cross as a symbol. Originally this symbol was nothing more or less than the national flag of Switzerland, a white cross on a red background, reversed to form the symbol we know today. However many Muslim countries found the cross symbol objectionable, reminding them of the Red Cross carried by the crusaders. Even though the symbol had, and indeed has no religious message they were unable to divorce their preconceptions about the symbolism and accept it, instead they developed, and now use, the Red Crescent. This difficulty in accepting a humanitarian symbol simply on the basis of perceived religious symbolism isn’t confined to the past. Indeed it is only in recent months that the Israeli version of the Red Cross has felt able to join the international red cross grouping with the introduction of the ‘red diamond’ which is seen as totally secular.
Such is the power of religious symbols, many societies have used existing symbols to reinforce the power of a new group or institution. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the adoption of the egg symbol into Christian imagery as the Easter egg. What is perhaps less well known, is the systematic adoption of pre-existing pagan ritual, symbols and sacred places into Christian worship and practice. Pope Gregory well understood the importance of retaining symbols familiar to the people when attempting to convert the early English. In his letter to Bishop Mellitus he suggests
“The temples of idols in that nation should not be destroyed, If these same temples are well built, it is needful that they should be transferred from the worship of idols to the service of the true God; that, when the people themselves see that these temples are not destroyed, they may put away error from their heart, and, knowing and adoring the true God, may have recourse with the more familiarity to the places they have been accustomed to.”
He goes on to explain that it is hard for people to simply ‘cut away’ from symbols they know and relate to and that a gradual process of assimilation is required.
“For it is undoubtedly impossible to cut away everything at once from hard hearts, since one who strives to ascend to the highest place must needs rise by steps or paces, and not by leaps.”
This lesson has unfortunately been learnt only too well and we can find many examples of where a symbol sacred to one group has been turned against them, either with the aim of converting them or even as part of a plan to demonise them. Perhaps the most graphic of this was the use by the Nazis in Germany of the Star of David to identify, negatively, the Jewish population of the occupied countries and even Jewish but native Germans.
Not all use of pre-existing symbols is part of such evil intent, indeed as mentioned above many groups will simply not understand the significance that another group places on its symbols, they simply don’t share the same mind set. So it isn’t surprising that with the acceptance that you can re-use another faiths symbols, and even temples and rituals as we saw above, that early Christians, for example, took the Triquetra for their own despite it being almost certainly used by pre-Christian pagans
The triquetra has been found on runestones in northern Europe, and it also appears on early Scandinavian coins. It presumably had pagan religious meaning, and it bears a resemblance to the Odin Knot or Valknut. It may well be that like the valknut, triquetrae may have been a symbol of Odin
It is known that it was definitely later used by Christians as a symbol of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). This appropriation was particularly easy because the triquetra conveniently incorporated three shapes that could be interpreted as Christian Ιχθυς symbols.
Within the Messianic/Hebrew-roots Movement, a knotted form of the triquetra, in which a circle and a triquetra are knotted together to form a continuous shape, is used as a representative symbol of Gilghad (Gilead).
Notwithstanding the comments of Pope Gregory there is no evidence that this reuse was anything other than simply using a ‘nice’ symbol that fitted the early Christians theology but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt in making pagans feel ‘at home’ with the new faith
Given the problems and issues around reuse of symbols we need to ask ourselves whether or not it is acceptable for modern pagans to re-use symbols that were sacred to our ancient ancestors. Is it OK to reinterpret the means and power of ancient symbols knowing that we can in no way fully understand their original meaning and importance?
I believe that where the faith / religious practice is no longer existent in its original form then as long as we use the symbols of past faiths with due reverence and respect for its previous use and maintain that respect for the faith that it originally belonged to then yes it is acceptable for us to reinterpret the symbol for our own modern understanding of the faith.
In re-using these symbols we must make sure that we bring new honour and power to them and not try to replace the original meaning. But it isn’t just in using ancient symbols that we need to take care. If we are to show respect to the symbols of the ancients we need to also be very aware of the uses and abuses of religious symbols today. We must always, and in all things, be conscious of the use of symbols that others may hold sacred. Use them with respect even if we don’t understand or approve of the faith that they are part of.
Where we see symbols being misused, ours or others, then we should make our displeasure known. It is in showing respect for all religious symbols that we bring honour to our own symbols and begin to build the ethos where symbols of others are respected more generally.
 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/12/06/ njewel06.xml&sSheet=/news/2005/12/06/ixhome.html
 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/03/ AR2006070300968_pf.html