Review by D. Metcalfe
Our eyes look out on the world and we spend little time thinking what impression is made on the tender web-work of our mind. Imagination on autopilot, receiving images from our senses and never measuring the changes made in our subtle perceptions; when we do seek out the hidden meanings it’s often in dreams. Images arise in our sleep and their surreal juxtapositions call us to question what we ignore while awake. As art, poetry, devotional works and writing, these images emerge to express our relationship to the world.
For 60 years the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism has been gathering “a pictorial and written archive of mythological, ritualistic, and symbolic images from all over the world and from all epochs of human history.” With roots in an annual conference once held in Eranos, Switzerland, where philosophers like Carl Jung, Karl Kerenyi, Mircea Eliade, gathered to explore the human experience, the archive seeks to provide a map of this experience through archetypal images. With publication of The Book of Symbols, Taschen provides a stunning tool for anyone looking to join the quest.
10 years went in to the project, a beautifully crafted book containing poetry, sacred art, and resonant images. The Book of Symbols is a concise selection of examples from the 17,000 photographic images currently contained in the archive itself. ARAS has one of the largest collections of symbols in the world, drawn from all traditions and artistic periods.
Two books have come out of the ARAS collection prior to The Book of Symbols, An Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism Part 1 and Part 2. With the first out of print, and the second focused specifically on archetypal images of the body, The Book of Symbols provides a good general guide to the collection.
As with their previous publications, the true complex of meaning that surrounds these symbols is accentuated with poetic fragments, and the astute observations of the curators at ARAS. In a society that is so over laden with imagery, and with an advertising industry active in using neuroscience, a resource like The Book of Symbols is useful for understanding how these images come to play in our lives. Whether actively or passively, this knowledge provides a more rounded conception of the malleable nature of our consciousness, and what can be called up with the proper use of archetypal imagery.
When we begin to take a more active view of the images that influence our interpretations of the world, we gain a better grasp of the world we are interpreting. The interplay of meaning, and the multitude of possibilities that lie in symbolic imagery, creates a vital area for working with our own conceptions of reality. Conflicting interpretations bring weight to the symbols; capable of holding the positive and the negative, they expose latent narratives that help to guide a profound meditation on the cycles of life.
“Symbolic images are more than data; they are vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.” - Ami Rosenberg, ARAS
This understanding moves through the entire book. Opening the reader to complex relationships with the images, and with the idea of the symbolic image itself. The Book of Symbols is a grimoire; a grammar of symbolism that evokes the spirits lying dormant in archetypal imagery. Taschen’s focus on the sensual experience of the publisher’s art brings a bodily presence to the book, lending a weight to the exploration of these symbols. The book itself is a charismatic body allowing the two dimensional pictures to come to life.
There have been other guides that address similar territory. Routledge and Keegan put out a translation of Diccionario De Simbolos Tradicionales, by J.E. Cirlot in 1962 under the title of A Dictionary of Symbols. Using Hermetic and Jungian interpretations of the symbols, this book provides a useful tool for analysts. The publication, however, contains only black and white images, and a small section of photographic reprints (also in black and white) for reference. Similarly, their 1981 publication Dictionary of Occult, Hermetic and Alchemical Symbols, by Fred Gettings, affords a profound textual analysis and cross reference, but lacks the visual flair that would truly bring these symbols to life.
Broken into sections that address Creation and the Cosmos, the Human World, the Plant World, the Animal World, the Spirit World, The Book of Symbols addresses a very holistic view of existence. Within this framework the images are activated to induce a global vision of the human unconscious. With the media’s constant repetition of divisive rhetoric, it’s a welcome reminder of the diverse expressions that can arise from our unified experience.
Review by D. Metcalfe