Of all Napoleon's witty comments (whether he originally said it or not), this one about how symbols regularly displace or remake reality in our minds always struck me as deeply true. They excite and (mis)inform us, lead us to bright futures even worse than the present, give us "reason to live," as Randy Newman concisely put it. Signs, like a red octagonal one, stand for what is known; a symbol (the word's from the Greek for "throw together") is an object, picture, word, sound or mark that represents something else by association, and is often imprecise, various or vague. Strange stuff. Animals, I assume, see things just for what they are to them: food, danger, comfort.
There is a story that during hiring interviews, the FBI used to ask applicants if they had bumper stickers on their vehicles -- their thinking being that this showed narrowness or a herd mentality. Language, names and words are symbols. The vehicle itself is a symbol of status (power, really). A symbol can have lost its utility and any original meaning yet still say exactly what the individual using it wants it to: exhibit A, the necktie.
The swastika has strong emotional meanings now it did not have; symbols can be re-purposed easily enough. When turning counter-clockwise, it is female, and when turning clockwise in the Nazi fashion, it has male characteristics. In different places and times, it represented fire and sun, or winds and directions. Like the Red Queen said, words mean what I say they mean.
The evil eye symbol, found even today from the Philippines to Malta, is a talisman to ward off misfortune. The Egyptians incorporated it into their formal religion with the story that Horus lost an eye in battling Set; his remaining one was alert and watchful for us mortals. Does the strange Masonic eye on the back of our dollar bill come from this ancient source? Of course, Horus has in this use been replaced.
Recently I discovered something that gives me a chuckle when I see that metal fish outline symbol on the rear ends (how appropriate) of cars. It is claimed to be a very early Christian symbol, like a secret handshake, supposedly used to slyly identify themselves to one another (or to mark meeting or tomb sites) when Roman authority was, to say the least, disapproving. I wonder if there is any archaeological evidence for this or if the backstory was just made up. It won't be the first time.
What we do know is that around 1965 an evangelical student group at Sydney University adopted the fish symbol, and like the smiley face or peace symbol, it quickly gained worldwide acceptance. In reality, fish make good food and so-so pets, but the convoluted connection between religion and our piscine friend goes like this.
The letters of the Greek word for fish (variously ixthus, icthus or ichthys) make an acronym for a title for Jesus:
i = jesus (Greek iesos)
x = Christ (the anointed)
th = God's
u = almost the first letter of Greek for "son" -- huios
s = first letter of the Greek for "savior" -- soter
Phew. The symbol, however, goes very far back and is ubiquitous. It's formed by the intersection of two curved lines, and is just a representation of the female vulva. From the earliest evidence we have from all over the world, fertility symbols predominate. When life was short and very chancy, fertility of crops, animals and humans was the paramount thought. We now have the dubious luxury of getting all wrapped up in abstract and complex symbols, and use them skilfully to manipulate others, but our paleolithic brethren did not. We see it later, in the era of the Egyptian, Greek and other Mediterranean state religions, formalized as the vulva of Isis and the fish amulet of Aphrodite at Ephesus. The pointed oval was known as the "gate of life." Before the gods were raised to the (male) sky and the goddesses were vilified and banished, female/earth/fertility religion was all. And it was not Puritan.
Apologists like Tekton Ministry deny any connection between the current use of the fish symbol and the heritage of thousands of years, which is hard to prove but may be the case; what we know as the peace symbol is probably not a revival of, but just similar to, the Nordic "death rune." Old and New World pyramids are also strikingly alike, but any direct connection is beyond our ken. Still, when I see a fishy on the back of a minivan, I am amused.
I saw what I thought was a strange variation of Fish Symbol once or twice (picture above), but only recently found out that it's the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the deity of the Pastafarians. Their heaven has a beer volcano! And if that wasn't enough to like, their religious calendar introduced Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I hope the Romans don't catch on.