Major Spiritual Symbols
Here is a glossary of universal symbols that appear in dreams or stories about change and renewal, Knowing about them enlarges your frame of reference so that you can better interpret their meaning for you. My book contains more.
Vessel—The vessel is the womb, from which all birth proceeds. The female body is such a container. The uterus and the oven are both vessels. Pottery/vessels used for the gathering of food and water from early cultures had breasts. The funereal urn is also a vessel. Projected outward, it symbolizes the world, the cosmos.
In Christianity, the vessel became the baptismal font and the chalice of the Last Supper.
Belly—The darkness in which most transformation takes place. The belly is a holding place, where growth can safely occur. Synonyms include cauldron, nest, chrysalis, or cave.
Fire—used to create vessels and tools, to fry/broil/roast food; hence it is an instrument of transformation. Emotions and conflicts, religious and sensual desire, heat our temperature; containing them allows inner fires to work their changes.
Egg—The incubator and newly born, the container of life. In Egyptian cosmogony the cosmic egg or golden womb contains all the never-ending changing universes.
Seed—In the cycle of life or inner transformation, life begins in the spring with the seed; the seed puts forth tender shoots (while many die or get trampled on); with luck the seed blooms; it then must wither and die and endure the cold dark winter in order to be regenerated. Inner growth follows the same cycle: first we are lit up by the seed of inspiration; then we struggle to make a project a reality; we all like success or the blossoming stage, but equally important is the passing away of the bloom and facing the empty unknowingness before the new seed can be born.
Moon, Sun—In their phases humans project change. Each day the sun courses through our sky, bringing life-giving light and warmth. As the sun leaves, we experience the cooling darkness of night, also important to growth. The phases of the moon—from crescent to full to gibbous—are a frequent metaphor for change.
Lotus—The many-petalled lotus begins as a seed at the bottom of a murky pond and rises to float on the top, opening in the morning and closing in the evening. For the Egyptians, it was the first flower of the universe, representing the Goddess’ vulva, from which sprang the first gods. Many of the ancient pillars in Egypt were sculpted like bunches of lotuses. Worshipers of Vishnu portrayed the World Lotus as growing from his navel. For Buddhists, the murky water represents the material world of the senses; the struggle through the chakras is the quest for enlightenment; and the blossom represents the attainment of nirvana. The Buddha is often shown seated on a lotus flower. The Hindu Padma-Lakshmi, goddess of happiness, health, fertility, and good fortune, is shown openly displaying her lotus genitals. Attaining sexual and cosmic union leads to rebirth.
Rose—The Western equivalent of the lotus is the mystic rose. Ancient Rome knew the rose as the Flower of Venus. Red roses belonged to full-blown maternal sexuality; the white rose to the Virgin Goddess. Christians transferred both to the virgin Mary and called her the Holy Rose. In Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” she had a bower of bliss, a mystical and erotic allusion. In Dante’s Divine Comedy in Dante’s Paradiso, the poet perceives paradise as a vast white rose on whose petals are enthroned the Angels, the Redeemed, the Virgin, the Christian saints, and children (“In form, then, of a radiant white rose/That sacred soldiery before mine eyes appeared.” [p.528, Canto XXXI]). He then lifts eyes to the sun, symbol of the overpowering light of the divine, shining down upon the rose; the sun gives life and the rose manifests the sun’s power and glory. A river of pure light and love lies beyond time and space.
Mandala—The root word “manda” means essence, and “la” means container. The mandala contains the spiritual essences of life. The pictures express order, balance, and wholeness. Mandalas are usually circular or spherical, may be elaborated into a flower or wheel; the center contains a sun, star, cross, eye of the self; sometimes the circle is squared by being contained within a square, such as a castle, city, or courtyard; around the center circle may be triangles or squares.
Many religions have used them as healing rituals, including Native American, Christian, Islam, aboriginal Australians, Hinduism, and Buddhists.
Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung used mandalas as a centering tool for his clients and in his own Red Book to help with the process of change. For him it was key that they be spontaneous creations. He found that the unconscious would formulate mandalas to bring order to an inner chaos especially in states of disorientation or panic. He said:
The fact that images of this kind have under certain circumstances a considerable therapeutic effect on their authors is empirically proved and also readily understandable, in that they often represent very bold attempts to see and put together apparently irreconcilable opposites and bridge over apparently hopeless splits. Even the mere attempt in this direction usually has a healing effect, but only when done spontaneously. Nothing can be expected from an artificial repletion of a deliberate imitation of such images. (p.5, Mandala Symbolism)
Lightning—signifies a sudden, unepected , and overpowering change of psychic condition.
Cave—The cave is a dark protected place, where inner vision and change can manifest. The bear is a classic example. Bears hibernate throughout the winter; the females in gestating their cubs, emerge with tangible new growth. Native Americans used caves for vision quests.
Goddesses—represent the Feminine guides of spiritual transformation: aka the Great Mother, in Greece Demeter and Artemis, in Egypt Ishtar, China Kwan Yin. Also, the Hebrew Shekinah and Christian Mary.
Gods—associated with creation and transformation: Zeus, Pan, Shiva, Krishna, Bodhisattva, Great Spirit, Almighty, Yahweh, Christ, Allah.
Labyrinth—there is no path in finding one’s way to the center when one is dying to the old and trying to find the source of new life. In many sacred rites the labyrinth is situated at the entrance of a cave. Walking the spiral labyrinth signifies movement from what is outside to what is inside and invisible. The journey may be regarded as a return to the soul’s source, a descent into the unconscious, or a journey to the center of the world. It is often connected with initiation. Symbolically the initiate is confused and lost; yet through the journey a transformation takes place.
Darkness—in countless mythologies, whether the source of life is the primordial ocean or earth or heaven, they begin in darkness. In it shine the light as moon, stars, and sun. In the dark night of the soul, we feel lost and miserable. Darkness is symbol of the unconscious, the unknown. From there the next steps or dawn emerge.
Light—Spiritual radiance, transcendence, conscious insight, inspiration
Tree of knowledge and the cross—The tree of life shows the evolutionary paths of all species. Because the primary line is the vertical, the tree of life has been portrayed as a cross. The cross has taken many forms; one is the vertical line as a phallus with a circle around it, signifying the female yoni. Christ hangs on the cross/tree. The wooden cross is also the bed upon which one is born and dies. The caduceus, the international symbol for healing, is the cross with the serpents of change wrapped around it, like the genetic double helix.
Divine Child—symbolizes pre-consciousness and post-conscious essence after death; naked and vulnerable. The child is the new creation coming into being with powers greater than our own.