Question of the Week: Flags and symbols

Another fun one this week, although it might make a few of you think I’m trying to start my own cult. (Well, I am kinda tired of being poor…)

In his 1957 book “Symbols of Faith”, American theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “Man’s ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.” From there he described six properties of symbols which distinguish them from mere signs. They are:

1. Symbols point beyond themselves to something else. (Well, so do signs.)

2. Symbols (unlike signs) participate in the reality of that to which they point.

3. Symbols open up levels of reality which are otherwise closed to us.

4. Symbols also open up dimensions and elements of the soul.

5. Symbols cannot be produced intentionally; they grow from the individual or collective unconscious.

6. Symbols cannot be invented: like living beings, they grow and they die.

So my question for this week concerns the power of symbols. Furthermore, as I read Tillich’s discussion here, I was particularly intrigued by his use of national flags as the example which makes his point. In his description of the second property of symbols, he says:

The flag participates in the power and dignity of the nation for which it stands. Therefore, it cannot be replaced except after an historic catastrophe that changes the reality of the nation which it symbolizes…

So I’m also curious to ask about your views on the power of flags as symbols for our most ultimate spiritual ideas, and our most important social commitments. A community, a government, even a nation, not just an individual, asserts its presence with a flag in a political as well as existential sense. The flag also carries the implicit presence of that nation’s history, origin, priorities, laws, political structures, and so on. Thus whenever I travel in Europe, the sight of a Canadian flag in someone’s apartment window, or on another traveler’s backpack, always makes me happy. I find myself glad of the sign that a member of my ‘tribe’, so to speak, is nearby.

Some of the first pagan rituals I ever attended began when someone raised a flag on a tall pole near the ritual circle. In that case, it was a personal flag designed by the event organiser. But it made me feel as if I had landed at a place were some very specific (if not precisely or analytically expressed) values were in play: values, in that case, more or less consistent with the Charge of the Goddess. There was also numerous smaller flags in a myriad of colours, resembling Tibetan prayer flags, attached to nearby trees and attached to ropes between them. On those smaller flags were short proverbs written, or the symbols of various branches of the pagan movement: pentacles, triple moons, triskeles, ankhs, awen, the four elements, Sanskrit letters, astrological signs, pictures of animals and plants, pictures of deities and heroes, icons of agricultural tools, and so on, all with wonderful colours.

So for many years afterwards, I would fantasize about a flag for my own spiritual path (ever-changing as it was at the time), or for Druidry, or for the whole Pagan movement. Do you have a flag or a special symbol for your ideas and values, or the ideas and values of your group, coven, grove, local community, path or tradition? If you were in the position to design one for the whole pagan movement, what would it look like?

We’ve already seen one in that wonderful and notorious 1973 film which depicts a reconstructionist pagan community in full swing. It looked like this:

Although it may seem silly, I’m rather fond of this flag. I think some variation of it (a white field with a yellow / red / orange sun in the centre, outlined with a thin black line, and perhaps with a smiling face) would be my suggestion for a flag for the whole movement.

For many years in my dreams I regularly saw two symbols, sometimes as objects in the dream-world, sometimes as banners, heraldic crests, tapestries, kilt tartans, and (yes) flags. Here they are:

At one time I was involved in creating a Druidic networking association for druids in Ireland, and I gave these symbols to that group. But that group is now long since defunct, and the people involved gave the symbol back to me. Any suggestions about what I should do with them, or what they might mean?

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11 Responses to Question of the Week: Flags and symbols

  1. alfrecht says:

    If I may, I’ll venture a theory on your symbols there; and perhaps I’ll share some of my thoughts on this for my own group/etc. in a separate comment.

    The form of druidic work you’re involved with does acknowledge eight festivals, correct? The solar symbol you’ve got there with eight rays seems to lend itself to a calendrical interpretation–calendars, after all, generally mark out the procession of the sun (or, more accurately, the earth around the sun).

    As for the second one, here’s a suggestion: you’re familiar, I’m sure, with the cup of truth that Cormac mac Airt was given on his visit to the otherworld, which would shatter if falsehood was said over it, but would re-form if three truths were said over it. So, you’ve got three cups of truth, which I’d suggest is more fundamentally “three truths.” As it is on a green background, and that color is naturally associated with Ireland in most people’s minds (except for Cork folk, of course, but I show my own biases by drawing attention to that!), the particular valences for those symbols within Irish literature would probably be especially important to take into account.

  2. alfrecht says:

    In terms of symbols for groups, I’d be very far from suggesting anything for all of CR. However, for the Ekklesía Antínoou, this is an important issue, and one we’ve played with in the past…

    There are three things still named for Antinous (though not commonly in certain cases): his star/constellation (a.k.a. Ganymede beneath Aquila), the red Nile lotus, and a certain beautiful but very deadly South American spider! We attempted to incorporate these three things into a symbol a while back, but could never decide on something…

    Many people, though, have taken up the red lotus as the primary/most representative symbol for Antinous. In fact, in a recent “modern” icon someone made, with Antinous dressed in modern clothing, he had a big belt buckle that was in the shape of the (stylized) red lotus, which lots of people now would like to have!

    When one gets into flags, though, part of me gets a little worried. As the interviewer said to Alan Moore, “What would a group marching under the flag of Glykon believe?” The thought of Antinoan devotees marching under a flag for him rather makes me worried (especially given some of the excesses in that regard with certain other Antinoan groups…who did, at one point, say that fascism was a great thing and that there needs to be more of it in the world…???!!!???).

    I’d prefer to have tasteful and intricate tapestries hanging on the inside walls of a dedicated temple room for Antinous (like the Unicorn Tapestries, only with Antinoan hunting themes), I think, rather than a flag to march under…but that’s just me.

  3. misslynx says:

    Flags don’t really seem to qualify as symbols in the sense of the criteria you’ve outlined – they’re closer to signs. They are, in most cases, deliberately created, as opposed to spontaneously evolving, and do generally have specific dates of invention and formal adoption that can be recorded.

    Additionally, they are generally the flag of some specific nation or other group, meaning they have a single unambigous meaning as opposed to multiple shades of meaning and interpretation, which is one of the factors I recall as distinguishing symbols from signs from when I studied this in university.

    Of course, all of this is not to say that a flag might not incorporate symbols within it…

    • admin says:

      Well it’s Tillich’s thesis, not mine, although I am borrowing it for the sake of this week’s question. If I understand his use of the example of flags correctly, the symbols themselves are invented by someone in an act of creative imagination (or something like it), and then are subject to a kind of Darwinian process in which the ones that best suits the purpose are propagated, and the ones that don’t suit the purpose are not propagated. Flags and national emblems do seem to ‘behave’ that way. In Canada we were using the Maple Leaf for about a century before the flag was officially adopted in 1965. Similarly, there were lots of stars and stripes designs being used by American revolutionaries before the official adoption of “Old Glory”.

      But otherwise – point taken.

  4. darakat_ewr says:

    As someone with a Communications degree, this pretty much entailed an three years of study. I could probably write a whole series of essays on it, but because time is of the essence sometime I will round it down to this:

    There are three things that make up any symbol:
    The sign, signified and the signifier
    The sign itself is like data, the letter A can suffice for the moment as a sign.
    We as humans signify this sign, that is we know that this is a letter A, it is the first letter in the alphabet, it is a definite article, it can have the numerical value of 1, etc. We signify this sign from epistemological reasoning, i.e. what we have learned and what we know.
    Having signified this sign it gains meaning.
    Of course Context, Culture and the medium of Communication means everything in this world of signs.
    The symbols in your post are prime examples of pre-determined signs. That is they carry some meaning at first look, much like a stop sign or a Nazi swastika. We already carry a lot of communicated baggage when we see them. When we see a bright yellow sun non-expressive against a background we are going to get a meaning from our culture and what context it is delivered in. I will see a sun and think “Hey that means its going to be sunny today” or maybe “Hey its going to be hot today” or “Hey its a sun against a blue background”, etc.
    Just as pointed out Flags are a poor example as they can contain a overwhelming number of symbols and our interaction with them can be varied from pride and happiness to spite, hate and anger and it an depend on the context the flag is presented in or even the arrangement of symbols. There have been studies that show that turning a flag upside down can mean that its conveys “Good feelings” rather then “Bad feelings” when a study was done on this (sorry I don’t have a reference).

  5. I remember poring over the flags of the world article in the encyclopedia as a kid. So much so that the “p” volume would always open to that page. As a young pubescent artist, I drew heaps of superheroines with skimpy costumes based on their nation’s flag. 😉

    >Do you have a flag or a special symbol for your ideas and values, or the ideas and values of your group, coven, grove, local community, path or tradition?

    I don’t, but there is a symbol that bubbled up within me one day and continues to exert a certain pull. It consists of a gloriously-garbed queen standing on the shoulders of a naked woman standing on a black sphere. It seems to represent three different loci of the sacred: the decorous, named, mythic tradition (garbed queen); the mundane, human, unadorned self (naked woman); and the abstract, mystical, unknowable Beyond or ground of being (black sphere). The only thing I don’t care for is the vertical structure suggesting a heirarchy.

    >If you were in the position to design one for the whole pagan movement, what would it look like?

    I don’t know about the whole pagan movement, but I’ve always been fond of the simplicity of the patera dishes used to make offerings in Classical Roman days. Abstracted to simplicity, it would look like three concentric circles, two of which form an outside border (the lip of the dish) and the third a small centerpiece (the raised knob at the center of the dish).

  6. When the MPRC was looking for a logo (myself unaware that we already *had* a logo), the discussion quickly sped to “What is the Universal Symbol of Paganism?”

    And stuck there.

    Because there isn’t one.

    (Pentacle seemed to come closest. I’m on 4 yahoogroups; 3 have a pentacle as their central symbol.)

    After certain persons in the community got wind of this, and started accusing the Resource Centre of trying to Boss All Pagans Around – yes, because of course we want to be in charge of the lot of them, what limitless opportunity and unbounded joy! – I threw my hands up and decided we would have an open contest. That way, everyone could submit a proposal. After that period expired, everybody could vote. That way, nobody could bitch.

    They chose the old symbol:

    and personally, I think it looks great.

    (yes, Taras)

    • marytek says:

      It’s a lovely symbol and great for the Neo-Pagan movement. But there are other traditions out there which either do not acknowledge or use a 5-element system (fire, air, water, earth, spirit). I do agree with you, it would be extremely difficult to find a universal pagan symbol as “paganism” itself is an umbrella term for various non-judeo-christian faiths.

      For pagan paths/spiritualities which are less than 200 years old, the pentacle is a lovely symbol and tends to be universally accepted. For those of us who follow older paths it is meaningless to us.

      • Is it really meaningless, though?

        In your personal practice, sure, but outside of that, does it really elicit nothing at all?

        I don’t use the pentacle either, and the sight of it on an artisan’s table elicits little more than a resigned, bored shrug, but when I walk into a (non-esoteric) shop and the girl behind the counter is wearing pentacle earrings, my first thought is, “Cool – she’s family.”


        • marytek says:

          My reaction to a pentacle is generally a “meh” and also a sigh of resignation.

          The resignation isn’t because I hold any antipathy towards the pentacle, to me it’s just a pretty star – mostly because a lot of artisans slap on a pentacle onto any old thing like a purse, backpack, satchel, candle etc. The resignation is mostly not due to the pentacle itself, but how some vendors slap a pentacle onto something in the hopes of making it marketable and palatable to the neo-pagan communities out there…with no actual attention to detail, artistry and the symbology.

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