Of Signs and Symbols

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I've started a new series, although I'm not quite sure where I found it. Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell is the first Mick Oberon "job" (story/book) and it's different enough to be intriguing. The book is an homage to the hard boiled dick novels of the early and mid-twentieth century coupled with faithful adherence to the traditional tropes of urban fantasy in the style of Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne, with language from my favorite Star Trek episode, A Piece of the Action thrown in for good measure. What could be bad?  Turns out, nothing. The book is a delightful discovery and my only disappointment is that there are only three books so far in the series. I am also indebted to the author for highlighting an oversight in my understanding of magic, which I've discussed before. I've always said that the formula for magic was focus, energy and intention. What I forgot, and Mick Oberon reminded me, is that the language of magic is symbolism.   One of the reasons I forgot about symbolism is that it is a dying language, kind of like Latin (cognates of which are a favorite among wizards, druids and magical beings everywhere—expelliarmus!). But signs and symbols have always been a part of spell casting and magic generally. Think about salt circles, pentagram, ruins and the symbolism of the Tarot deck—any deck, really, although Rider-Waite is the classic and it is heavily symbolic. Symbols often mark a hidden path; think The DaVinci Code, cairns along twisted forest trail, or any treasure map worth its name.

Symbolism is esoteric and implicit. It can be subtle and often requires thought and decoding to understand. We live in a world of instant gratification and spoon-fed opinions and entertainment. We have no patience for anything that isn't in-your-face obvious. It's supposed to be like that, otherwise, why use signs and symbols? The problem for the modern mind is that symbolism has depth and most of us think depth is overrated. 

Except, of course, it's not. Depth is there regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge it. Symbols and signs often constitute the pathway that leads us to our own depths, as well as deep places outside ourselves. And most esoteric spiritual and religious books and teachings use the language of symbols so that if a seeker really wants the knowledge, she has to work for it. Very little of what comes easily is valued. Those who illuminate an obscure path with symbolic clues know this.

Symbolism is the language of dreams and, as such, a gateway to our unconscious minds. When we dream about showing up naked to a test, it's not because we actually fear that we'll forget to dress. Those dreams are about vulnerability and exposure. The symbolism of dreams is so well documented, in fact, that one can read books (or Google) the symbolism of dreams. My mother-in-law taught a class on the subject some years ago. There is a lot there to explore in our dreams. And it's all about the symbols.  

Depth psychology is almost exclusively an illumination of symbols and what they point to in terms of our patterns and neuroses. By exposing that to which the symbols refer, we can begin to understand the motivations behind self-destructive or outwardly destructive behaviors. We peel the layers back one by one, digging deeper and deeper into the symbolism of the unconscious mind and this process is supposedly very healing to old wounds. 

Symbols are the language of both spirituality and religion. A cross is a symbol, the Star of David is a symbol, and a candle in a window is a symbol. We all know what they mean, although they can mean different things to different people. That's what makes them interesting and subtle and subject to interpretation. There is a great deal of symbolism in each of the western religions (I'm sure in the east as well, but I'm not as familiar with those traditions). The wafer in the mass, Elijah's cup, a Muslim woman's headscarf. These are all symbols of something else that point to the Divine and humanity's place in relation to the infinite. Fascinating stuff.

Symbols can stir deep emotions. Think about someone burning an American flag. It's just a piece of cloth. Except it's not. Think about Serrano's Immersion, otherwise known as the "Piss Christ." It's just a piece of plastic submerged in a cup of urine. Gross? Yes.  But unless we imbue that piece of plastic with some meaning beyond its constituent parts, it's not a big deal. If we see meaning beyond the explicit in that plastic crucifix, then yes, that changes the whole equation.

Finally, symbolism is the language of the imagination. Our creativity is fueled by signs and symbols. We draw and paint and write in symbols. My personal favorite, of course, is the writing part of creativity, and my very favorite thing to do is to write and read creative analogies, many of which involve symbolism and one thing pointing to another. In fact, I've always wanted to write a book with the best analogies and metaphors I've read in my many literary travels. Hot Lead, Cold Iron has oodles of them; I'm in analogy heaven, and my imagination is swirling.

I'm indebted to Ari Marmell for this imaginative, symbolic gambol through an alternate 1930s Chicago and some instruction on the necessary ingredients  of magic and mayhem. I love symbolism and I'm always looking for signs. I can find meaning in the random order of my iTunes playlist, completely sure I'm receiving messages from the Universe, as well as the specific positions of magazines in a doctor's waiting room. Needless to say, with this book, I'm in my element and having a rip-roaring good time.