Symbolon - Why Meaning Is Important
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
Last week, we discussed the importance of symbols. Which got me thinking about where does the concept, or even the word for symbol, come from? The meaning of the word symbol varies a bit throughout the history of language; the original form of the word in Greek having some surprising connotations.
Merriam-Webster defines the word symbol as "something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance" (2019.) In the English language, the word symbol immediately inspires a representation of a logo or picture that means something else. In its basest form, every child in America knows that the Golden Arches mean McDonalds, the blue box with the white "f" stands for Facebook, and the monochromatic apple with a bite missing stand for Apple (which makes the laptop I am typing this blog post on.) Even people who cannot read know that a red octagon with white lettering means "STOP."
The modern use of the word symbol denotes a representation, usually graphic or pictorial, that signifies something else: a brand, a word of caution, an idea, or even another physical object. Symbols are oftentimes used to reinforce ideas or modes of conduct; in advertising they are used to crystallize concepts such as "you want this cheeseburger" or "buy this type of sneaker." The symbol is etched in the mind, and is associated with the idea behind it. The business of marketing would not exist if we could not associate pictures, songs, phrases, or other tangible items into abstract concepts.
Going a bit back in history, to the time when Latin was still a spoken language, the meaning of the word differed a bit. Symbolon meant "a physical object, intended as a material indication of identification or agreement," according to Oxford (2016.) Symbolons were transferable physical objects, that acted as physical manifestations of compacts or agreements, such as treaties or promises. Whereas the word still denotes replacing an abstract idea with a physical object, the meaning possessed a more targeted purpose.
The Latin word symbolon was derived from the Greek word for the same, symbolon or σύμβολον, which comes from two different words: syn which means "together" and ballo, which means to "put or throw." So, the original Greek word means to put something together. Interestingly enough, Smoley (2002) discusses the use of physical objects in parts (such as incomplete pieces of bone or pottery), which when put back together, mean something infinitely more.
This last meaning, I believe, is most relevant to us and the Craft. We discuss the physical objects, and define them as symbols. We teach new candidates that Freemasonry is replete with symbols, with many hidden meanings and imports. We discuss the use of symbols in Lodge meetings, and point out how the degrees contain a myriad of symbols, all with greater messages than the thing itself. Symbols adorn our walls, signs, buildings, aprons, bumper stickers, and lapels.
So where are all the meanings and teachings and explanations?!?
Are these mysteries contained within the multi-gallon containers of green beans which line our pantries? Are they at the bottom of the platter at the annual fish fry? Are they sent to members via snail-mail when they reach the requisite monetary donation to the charity of the year? Are they infused into the twenty-minute discussion on the electric bill at the last Stated meeting? Are they deftly-encoded, as if Dan Brown had written them, in the lauded pages of our meeting minutes?
My friends, they have been lost.
Lost to time, and indifference, and the replacement of a erudite school of enlightenment to a high-school lunch table for gossip and banal chit-chat (with tuxedos.)
It is our job, no let me rephrase, it is our DUTY, to rediscover what people a millennium ago knew, and bring that Light forward to this age of solitude and loneliness. It is the work of the Craft, in this 21st century of the modern era, to bring back the teachings which brought us closer to the mysteries of our both our hearts and the collective human consciousness.
So let's get to work, and learn together, what these symbols really mean.
~~ FDTL ~~