Jul 31, 2007

What's In a Symbol? The Polarities of Good vs Evil

Posted by PicasaThe small town of Silverton, Oregon, woke up last week to a swastika prominently displayed on a privately owned water tower. This was the second time such graffiti has appeared on it in the last two years. While this symbol was accompanied by racial slurs and mean-spirited intent, ironically, the original symbol of the swastika (without the association with the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler) originally carried no such intent.

I have had my own battles with the associations of this symbol. I was once asked, as a theatre costumer, to make armbands to be used by the Nazi soldiers in our local high school's production of "The Sound of Music," I, inadvertently, made two of the symbols 'spin' in the wrong direction and had a WWII historian in the audience point it out to me later. I was told, that the version I had made was an ancient healing symbol and I had to reverse it to stand for the Nazi's.

Later, I was again asked to make an armband for a college theatre class scene and found that students were appalled that I would sew it (for a play!) or that I had also made Jewish stars for that scene, which many of them, strangely enough, also refused to wear. I realized the then the immense power and even the misunderstanding of symbols and the roles they play in our collective and social consciousness. Each of those symbols represent something very different from one another, yet each created fear and in some cases, hatred in both the viewers and the wearers.

While many believe that it is the direction that the four arms appear to 'spin' that determines intent, in actuality, both forms have been used extensively as religious connotations for good, and not evil as is now associated with Adolf Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust and the horrors of the concentration camps in WWII. Only the right facing or clockwise spin was ever used by the Nazi's.

As hard as it may be to believe, for 3,000 years the swastika was one of the oldest, if not the oldest surviving symbols for what once was a holy and sacred cross symbol for well-being. The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit swastika, meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck.

It is a widely-used symbol in Dharmic religions...Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and is a common as a design motif in current Hindu architecture and Indian artwork as well as in ancient Western architecture, frequently appearing in mosaics, friezes, and other works across the ancient world.

In Hinduism, the two symbols represent the two forms of the creator god Brahma: facing right it represents the evolution of the universe (Pravritti), facing left it represents the involution of the universe (Nivritti). It is also seen as pointing in all four directions (North, East, South and West) and thus signifies stability and groundedness.

In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese art, the swastika is often found as part of a repeating pattern. One common pattern, called sayagata in Japanese, comprises left and right facing swastikas joined by lines. The symbol as it is used in Buddhist art and scripture is known in Japanese as a manji (which literally just means "the Chinese character for eternality" 萬字), and represents Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. When facing left, it is the omote (front) manji, representing love and mercy. Facing right, it represents strength and intelligence, and is called the ura (rear) manji. Balanced manji are often found at the beginning and end of Buddhist scriptures.

The swastika shape was also used by some Native Americans. It has been found in excavations of Mississippian-era sites in the Ohio valley. It was widely used by many southwestern tribes, most notably the Navajo. Among different tribes the swastika carried various meanings. To the Hopi it represented the wandering Hopi clan; to the Navajo it was one symbol for a whirling winds (tsil no'oli'), a sacred image representing a legend that was used in healing rituals.

In Christianity, the swastika is sometimes seen as a hooked cross, and as symbolizing Christ's victory over death. Some Christian churches built in the Romanesque and Gothic eras are decorated with swastikas, carrying over earlier Roman designs. The stole worn by a priest in the 1445 painting of the Seven Sacraments by Roger van der Weyden presents the swastika form as simply one way of depicting the cross.

Also, of surprising interest: swastikas appeared on the spines of books by the Anglo-Indian writer Rudyard Kipling, and the symbol was once used by Robert Baden-Powell's Boy Scout movement!

In the Western world, the symbol experienced a resurgence following the archaeological work in the late 19th century of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the symbol in the site of ancient Troy. By the early 20th century it was widely used worldwide and was regarded as a symbol of good luck and success.

The Benedictine monastery school at Lambach, Upper Austria that Hitler attended (as a boy)had a swastika chiseled into the monastery portal and also the wall ( above the spring grotto in the courtyard) which had been there since 1868. For whatever reason, that young Adolf Hitler took that childhood symbol of good luck and well-being, and forever altered its intent and meaning. Since its adoption by the Nazi Party, the swastika has been associated with fascism, racism, World War II, and the Holocaust.

That it was used (as mean-spirited graffiti) on the water tower in Silverton, accompanied by ugly words, only resurrects the concept that symbols can carry the power of either good or evil. In this case, the vandal had to climb through blackberry bushes and up many feet high to spray paint his message. Knowing that he is probably marked by bramble scratches and a black trigger finger are further symbols of his own inner scarring and the need to make his mark, however ugly and negative, and to hurt others in that process.

shown in my collage:
an ancient and royal coat of arms, flag of Kuna Yala, Iranian necklace 1,000 BC, holy emblem of Thule Society, Falon Gong yin-yang symbol, Finnish women's group symbol, holy Janiism symbol, Hitler's swastika, Finnish Air Force flag, pre-WWII Iron cross medallion.


Finn said...

what a neat collage Michele. I'm so very sorry to hear of the vandalism to the water tower...and while I understand how each of us is entitled to their beliefs, some demonistrations of that are harder to swallow than others. I suppose they feel the same way as we proudly display our crosses, etc. Like yourself, I'm very torn about that particular symbol. I knew of it's orgins, and have seen very old quilts done in red and white and called red cross with that same symbol used. I don't think I could, no matter how harmless. It seems to be the persona of something terribly gone wrong in our supposedly civilized world. Maybe it's just that as an American I put too much store in the "these truths we hold to be self evident..." part of our heritage. Or maybe just never having been a follower...I don't understand letting others think for you.
I'm glad you researched it and have so many facts concerning that particular symbol. I think my favorite symbol is a circle..*VBS* Big hugs, Finn

Meredith said...

When I was in college visiting Sicily we visited a museum. The name escapes me now. There were Greek (B.C.) vessels that had the same icon on them. I don't think I will ever forget how beautiful they were. It was an eye opener.

dee said...

I loved reading this. I have long been a student of Buddhist Philosphy and about 20 years ago met a woman who studied Jainism. She gave me several books on the subject and, of course, on and in some of them were these symbols. It was an eye-opening moment for me coming from a German family. I had to keep the books hidden from my Grandmother since her sister was sent to a camp and died for selling food to Jews in Munich during the war. Strange how something graphic can have such disparate meanings. I alweays learn so much from you. thanks

Tonya Ricucci said...

I'm visiting your blog from The Bent Needle. beautifully written post, thank you.

Clare said...

Like Tonya, I'm visiting your blog from The Bent Needle. I make up quilts for leukaemia sufferers from blocks that have been sent to me from all round the world. 2 of these blocks were used in the latest quilt and when I stepped back I realised that they were very similar to the swastika. They have since been replaced.

Take a look when you have a moment and tell me what you think?


Thank you.

MARCIE said...

Thanks for covering this topic so thoroughly and explaining it so well. You must LOVE research!

Anonymous said...

What i've allways wondered is whether
the symbology being banned is for different reasons entirely.

Throughout history it has meant
good fortune, wellbeing and other positive aspects, my point being
that it is inherent to the symbol itself. (please google cymatics & professor H Jenny)

In a nutshell.. symbols (and matter) are but manefestations of a resonating frequency.. ie. certain shapes give off good vibes (and therefore need to be outlawed.. how convenient ;) whereas others (watch tv for 5 minutes) "emit" negativity.

All i'm saying, it's not all black and white.

google these
prof dr hans jenny