Irresistible images

Ariadne's Clue
December 11, 1998

In 1939, 30 caged finches were sent from the Galapagos Islands to California. They were direct descendants of the finches studied by Darwin, which had flourished in the absence of any birds of prey on the islands, and had evolved into 14 different species. For hundreds of thousands of years they had never had occasion to cringe or emit cries of alarm, unlike their remote ancestors, at the sight of large short-necked birds overhead. Yet in California that is precisely what they did whenever a hawk came in sight. It was as if the archetypal image of the predator had lain dormant through countless generations, only to be reactivated when the appropriate stimulus was present.

Archetypal images are the stuff of which symbolism is made. Perhaps the collective unconscious, in which such archetypes are said to reside, has after all a biological basis, and symbolism more than merely cultural origins. If so, then the exploration of symbols may be a way of reconnecting ourselves with the deep roots of our human nature, not as an indulgence in fantasy, but as part of the business of becoming whole.

Anthony Stevens is a Jungian analyst and psychiatrist who has already written extensively on the relation between Jungian psychology and behavioural biology. These studies have now come together in the rapidly developing field of evolutionary psychology, and this latest book can be described as a layman's guide to the subject, in the form of a thesaurus of symbols. It makes no claim to comprehensiveness, which would in any case be impossible given the huge wealth and variety of symbolism and its personal connotations. It does, however, aim to provide clues to the origin, meaning and development of some of the most common symbols and, like Ariadne's thread, to trace connections between different parts of what seems like an impenetrable maze. Underlying this complexity, it is claimed, are a relatively small number of centrally important life-themes, responses to which have been imprinted in our genes, and which have been elaborated in different cultural and personal contexts. The similarity between symbolic systems and mythologies in hugely divergent cultures suggests common origins in the earliest experiences of evolving humanity.

Symbols differ from words in that their meanings are not fully determinate. A dictionary of symbols is in some sense a contradiction in terms, since when a symbol is described in words it loses precisely that sense of immediacy and its ability to communicate at a primitive emotional level, which gives it its power. Symbols are thus in danger of trivialisation by being explained away, or of dismissal as an unworthy form of communication in a supposedly scientific age. If Stevens is right though, and I believe he is, we neglect them at our peril because the level of consciousness to which they belong remains part of what we are. There is a psychic task to be done in assimilating and reworking some of these ancient patterns of thought and feeling, not just as a means of therapy, but as a creative resource without which life is impoverished.

Some of the connections have intriguing ramifications. As one who has many times laid hands on other people's heads as part of a solemn ritual, I find the suggestion that the practice originated as a form of grooming and searching for parasites, adds a new dimension to the ordination of clergy. One of the most potent of ancient symbols, the uroboros, the snake eating its own tail, represents the eternal cycle of nature, and inspired Kekule in his discovery of the molecular formula of benzene. It also symbolises the ideas of self-sufficiency, self-containment and self-completion, with their strong overtones of what the theologian Paul Tillich called "dreaming innocence", that state of primitive bliss before the separation between the individual and the whole. Uncoiled to meet various cultural heroes, it tells of how the cyclical time of primordial subsistence gave place to the linear time of the civilised world. If all this seems too ridiculously irrelevant to present-day concerns, we need to ask ourselves why the uroboros still recurs in dreams, and whether there may be a deep level at which it still speaks of human fulfilment.

Religion depends on symbolism to convey meaning that lies deeper than the words and rituals actually used. A lack of symbolic understanding is frequently at the basis of religious insensitivity or the crasser forms of literalism. Stevens devotes much space to religion as what he calls "the species-specific characteristic of humankind". Its neglect by many behavioural scientists has been due, he says, to "their insistence that each culture should be studied as an autonomous system entirely peculiar to itself." But if the persistence and ubiquity of religion is taken seriously, and if its common themes, cutting across cultural differences, are explored at the symbolic level, there seems to emerge a propensity for religious beliefs and behaviour as "innately 'prepared for', like the propensity for speech. The particular set of religious beliefs and rites practised in a given society has to be learned by each generation in the same way as its language. But the idea that there will be a religious system and a language which will have to be learned appears to exist in all growing individuals as an a priori assumption."

If this is so, then to lose the language of religious symbolism, as seems to have been happening within many parts of western culture, is a peculiarly gross form of deprivation. There is nothing left to represent the archetypal potential of the collective unconscious, the whole of things, the givenness of the moral order, and "to ensure that a balance is maintained between the traditional forces of conservation and the progressive forces of change: (the gods) enshrine the principle of homeostasis. In the recurring conflict between the generations, it is crucial that there should be no outright winner." Gods, in other words, are socially and psychologically necessary, but to understand why this is so leads to a dilemma. If they are to be effective, they must actually be believed in as existing and real. But is this possible if they are also known to embody projected facets of human nature? It is not the kind of dilemma a psychiatrist can resolve, and the author wisely does not try.

This is a fascinating book, packed with ideas and out-of-the-way information. The alphabetically arranged parts of the thesaurus occupy only about half of it, the remainder being more discursive essays on the nature of symbolism itself, and a number of major symbolic themes, mostly religious, as well as some illuminating exegesis of ancient mythology. As the author himself says, it is a book to browse in - but only as an invitation to go on browsing elsewhere.

The Rt Revd Lord Habgood was formerly archbishop of York.

Ariadne's Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind

Author - Anthony Stevens
ISBN - 0 713 992 1
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 464

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