Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Symbol clash

"What does it all mean?"

It's a question you hear posed an awful lot.  The search for meaning is behind most of the world's religions.  It is a major driver for science as well; perhaps the only common ground science and religion share is that both stem from a quest to find connections, and explanations for what we see around us.  Humans are always looking for patterns and correlations.  It is one of the things we do the best.

Like any behavior, however, it can be applied too broadly, or in the wrong context.  The phenomenon of pareidolia that was the subject of this blog two days ago is one example.  I stumbled upon another one just this morning -- in an article that claims that thousands of companies deliberately include "occult witchcraft symbols" in their logos and advertisements.  (Source)

The article starts out reasonably enough, describing the use of symbols in various historical contexts, such as the use of the fish by early Christians to mark households who belonged.  Then, the author, Gabrielle Pickard, gets a little closer to the central point of her article by describing the use of the star-inscribed-within-a-circle symbol by Wiccans, and quotes one Wiccan source as stating that this symbol "cannot be mistaken as belonging to any other religion or deity."

Seriously?  No other culture could have, at some point, drawn a star within a circle, and used it to mean something entirely different?  At this point, we have crossed the line between symbols being used by certain people to mean something, and the symbol somehow having inherent meaning -- a contention that is ridiculous.  Just as language is defined as "arbitrary symbolic communication" -- with the exception of a few onomatopoeic words, there is no particular connection between a word's sound and its meaning -- symbols gain meaning only through context.  Outside of that context, the same symbol can mean something entirely different -- or nothing at all.

However, this doesn't stop Pickard from imbuing a whole bunch of corporate logos with sinister undertones.  The winged disc, she states, is an Egyptian symbol that connotes life after death, and has now been used in the logos for Bentley, Mini, Harley Davidson, Chrysler, Aston Martin and Chevrolet.  She also says that the symbol shows up in the "seemingly unrelated" contexts of Freemasonry and the Rosicrucians.

"Seemingly."  *cue sinister music*

But she still hasn't gone quite as far off the deep end as she's going to, because the next thing she introduces is the symbol of the "Vesica Piscis," consisting of two interlocking circles.  This symbol is part of "sacred geometry," she says, where it represents the vagina of the Goddess, and thus has "sexual associations."  And (horrors!) this symbol has worked its way into a number of logos, including Chanel, Gucci... and MasterCard!

Yes, people, next time you look at the two interlocking circles on your MasterCard, just remember that you are gazing at the Sacred Vagina of the Goddess.  I think I might switch to Visa.

At first, I thought she might just be commenting upon how ancient symbols have been co-opted by corporations, and have lost their meanings -- which would be an interesting observation.  As context changes, meaning changes.  But no -- she seems to be saying that the symbols all retain their original meanings, even for people who didn't know what those meanings were.  For example, until reading this article, I'd never heard of the "Vesica Piscis."  So, you'd think, any sexual connotations of the Gucci logo would have been lost on me.  But no, she says; she quotes one of her sources, The Vigilant Citizen, as stating that these symbols are "magically charged to focus the subconscious to perform particular tasks," and she goes on to say, "these logos are much more powerful than we may think...  It is only when we stop to look more closely that we can reveal more sinister and hidden ancient meanings behind those symbols."

It was a common claim amongst our ancestors that symbols and words had inherent meaning -- this is the basis of a lot of magical practice, where drawings, patterns, or even spoken words were thought to carry a sort of psychic charge.  (This is the origin of the magician's stock chant, "abracadabra" -- a word once thought to be imbued with tremendous power, and now usually laughed at.)  Of course, there's no inherent anything in symbols.  Symbols can mean one thing in one culture and something completely different in another -- witness the way the sentiment behind the one-finger salute is expressed.  In America, it's a raised middle finger; in France, it's done with the same finger, but palm upward; in some cultures, the equivalent is the thumbs-up gesture or the peace sign, which has led to some unfortunate misunderstandings!

So the idea that corporations are attempting to infiltrate our brains with magical symbols for some sort of malign purpose is ridiculous.  They choose their logos for a lot of reasons -- some historical, some cultural, and some just because they look cool.  Undoubtedly, a few do come originally from associations with the occult (such as the crowned snake in the Alfa Romeo logo), but as the context shifts, any sinister meaning that the symbol had gets lost.  The vast majority, however, are just there to be eye-catching and memorable, and as such are no more sinister than commercial jingles.  The bottom line is that unfortunately for the magical thinkers, everything doesn't have to "mean something."

So relax; you are not invoking sexual magic when you wear Gucci, and I am not summoning up Egyptian sun gods when I drive my wife's Mini Cooper.  To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pair of interlocking circles is just a pair of interlocking circles.


  1. Of course, the occult symbol of the Christian fish is frequently used in advertising with full knowledge and expectation that the target audience will understand its meaning -- that they're a God-friendly merchant. Rather tasteless, in my opinion. Though not as much so as the store in my home town that would put up on its movable sign sayings such as, "Shop here, saith the Lord."

  2. What I have found interesting is not that similar symbols show up in different ancient cultures with different meanings associated with them, but how occasionally the opposite occurs. The same symbol showing up in different cultures with the same meaning associated with it. The only example that I can think of at the moment is the symbol that was modified by the Nazis to make the swastika. In cultures as distant as the Western Native Americans and parts of Asia, it represented a star, probably a falling star. Does this mean there was a sharing of an idea between these cultures through trade, etc.? Or was it the result of what Freud called "archaic remnants” and Jung called the “collective unconscious”, that part of the unconscious that possesses the shared experiences of the entire human race that allowed for a sharing of an common assigned meaning for a symbol? It’s just one of those things that make me go hmmm?