The Importance of Understanding Symbols

Philosophies from around the world draw on a vast source of symbolism for a variety of reasons. The nature of the symbols varies greatly and includes movements, objects and images. There is a wealth of literature and folklore relating to the importance, interpretation and use of various symbols. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “A symbol is an energy evoking and directing agent.”

In almost all African cultures, symbols are used as a fundamental part of the art, decoration and ceremonies that mark major milestones in life such as birth, puberty or marriage. Due to these reasons most tribes believe they have magical powers and the ability to protect from evil people. In western psychology, figures such as Freud and Jung have written and posted several theories about symbols, their use and interpretation. But to truly gain understanding, it is important to trace ancient symbols to their pre-colonial origins.

Adinkra symbols.

Some of the most famous symbols in history come from ancient Africa and were used to convey messages and values in society.  Popular symbols from Ancient Egypt are hieroglyphics like the Anka. , known to many as the symbol if Life. These symbols can be found in ancient tombs and art.

The Akan and Asante tribes in West Africa use Adinkra symbols. They are on clothing, wall decorations and on pottery. Adinkra seals made from seeds were used to create important concepts for expression. Aya ( or fern) is a plant known in West Africa that can grow in hard-to-reach places. It is resilient to dry land and climate change. So to the Ghanaian people the Aya adinkra symbol represents endurance and resourcefulness.

Ancient cultures such as Huna have rich symbolic systems that draw on Hawaiian tradition. Huna is a philosophy of life, philosophy of understanding and philosophy of knowing. These are the Hawaiian people’s ideas that were passed down for centuries. Although Huna originally came from the Polynesian islands of Hawaii, it has spread around the world in one form or another.

It is important to understand symbols because they are displayed everywhere – in advertisements, in television shows, on apparel, buildings and even in books. Once you understand the originals, you can both understand why a symbol is being used, and what a particular symbol means to you.

Interested in learning more symbols on their ancient origins?  Check out “The Secret History of Popular Symbols Used in Everyday Life: An Interactive Coloring Workbook.

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