In what ways can symbols and ritual be said to have meaning?
Prior to discussing the premise of this article, it becomes immediately apparent that a brief analysis of the language used within the title must be considered before any departure can be attempted. The writer of this paper is aware of the disparaging way that people may dismiss an argument as being semantic, but when it comes to the question of what something ‘means’, semantics are surely a key concern. In ‘Kant and the Platypus’ Umberto Eco describes the wide range of implications the word can convey, ‘I prefer to speak of Nuclear Content rather than meaning, because by time-honoured tradition one tends to associate meaning with a mental experience. In certain languages the confusion is greater than in others, and we need think only of the English word meaning, which can stand for “that which exists in the mind” but also for an intention, for what is recognized as being, for what is denoted or understood, for sense, signification, and so on. Nor should we forget that meaning can also appear as a form of the verb to mean, which is variously defined as to have in mind, to intend, to stand for, and only in a few cases does it come to denote a socially recorded synonymy…’ (Eco, 2000, p.137). Therefore it could be put; what is ‘…the meaning of “meaning”’? (Langer in Lambek, 2003, p.137) Langer continues putting forward similar semantic points to Eco, highlighting that; ‘Meaning is not a quality, but a function of a term’. Thus in answer, and in relation to societies, cultures, and the symbols and rituals they employ, meaning may be seen manifest in the functions they afford society, some of these being focus, consistency, continuity, and maintenance of the authority which guarantees these factors. From the viewpoint of an individual within the culture symbols and rituals may do more than this, they can establish a relative position within the given cosmology which, with this established, the present paper will be given over to expanding and discussing how a specific symbol and the ritual surrounding it illustrate such cultural principles and how they can have significance to those within society. Langer (p.138) uses the analogy of musical notation to put across the point that only when ‘symbols’ are related to; ‘an object that is “meant” and a subject who uses the term’ (whether that ‘subject’ is the active ‘giver’ or the passive ‘receiver’) do they have ‘meaning’. Thus meaning in a very real way is both objective and subjective. Hopefully this article will also stand as an example of the levels of esoteric knowledge within a tradition, and the symbols and rituals that stand as a public demonstration of such ‘arcana’.
The symbol that first presents itself contextually within the United Kingdom is the Crown, a symbol that in the British milieu predates the national flag. While an interpretation is not available from ‘etic’ (and thus academically objective?) ethnographic material, it may be considered from an ‘emic’ perspective, and thus drawn partly from sociological texts as ethnographies. The meaning ascribed to the symbol draws on a diverse historic amalgam of belief. The Crown as a symbol most crudely is seen to represent hierarchy, hegemony, power, and its retention, ‘the ascending nature of the legitimating nature of the hierarchy is beautifully seen in a military parade – here the same features of ritual and significance can be noted and here we can see tier after tier, level after level, each in turn subordinated. Even the Queen at the Trooping of the Colour is seen saluting. Saluting what?’ (Holmes, 1967, p.149) While wishing to answer this seemingly paradoxical occurrence, it is only prudent to point out that militarily speaking the Queen is ‘returning’ the salute as one may return an everyday greeting/salutation. But ignoring the reality of military protocol, let us proceed as if the Queen was herself ‘subordinated’. In a metaphorical sense all ‘subjects’ of the United Kingdom are ‘under’ the Crown, and the Queen when wearing state regalia is literally ‘under the crown’ in that it is upon her head. In this sense then the Crown is a symbol of nationhood that transcends even the monarch.
So what does the Crown represent? Does it, as the ‘regalia’ of the Ashantehene of the Asante in present day Ghana, symbolise ‘power to command allegiance and to engross wealth.’ (Wilks, 1996, p.205) as Wilks continues, ‘sovereignty by the very logic of the concept, cannot be derivative. The Golden Stool, Elephant Tail, and Axe have to be conceptualised as objects of first creation.’ (Wilks, 1996, p.205). Without doubt there are some (see Holmes above) who would contest that the Crown symbolises naught but ‘allegiance’ and ‘wealth’ and thus control, privilege, and entrenched inequality. Leach considered that the crown was a ‘sign’ of sovereignty (cited by Morris, 2000 p.219) more than being a ‘symbol’, the distinction between the two being defined later in this article. It is notable that Leach was interested in ‘Hebrew culture’ (cited by Morris, 2000 p.224), and while accepting and referring to a mundane interpretation of the Crown, may have realised its metaphorical meaning as expanded upon subsequently.
If we delve into the Judaic and subsequently Christian traditions there is a deep symbolic significance to the Crown which does indeed refer to an idea of ‘first creation’. Of course there is the obvious symbolism of the Christ figure as King, but it is not to this that the writer of this paper alludes, other than in maybe his role as a second Adam. The specific symbolic representation of the Crown is delivered via the Hebrew tradition ‘Qabbalah’. The earliest Qabbalistic documents date from the tenth century C.E. though is arguably far older having been ‘reliably traced’ to the first century CE (Parpola, 1993, pp.173-174). It is said to have been taught to Adam by Angels after his fall from the supernal Eden to assist him in regaining his previous state (Stirling). It is said that; ‘the entire doctrinal structure of Kabbalah’ is symbolised by the; ‘Sefirotic Tree of Life…’ (Parpola, 1993, p.171). Moreover ‘it gives an account of the creation of the world, accompanied in three successive stages by the Sefirot emanating from the transcendent God. It also charts the cosmic harmony of the universe upheld by the Sefirot under the constraining influence of the polar system of opposites…it is a model of the divine world order, and in manifesting the invisible God through His attributes, it is also, in a way, an image of God…On the other hand, the Sefirotic Tree…can refer to man as a microcosm…it becomes a way of salvation for the mystic seeking deliverance from the bonds of flesh through the soul’s union with God…marks the path which he has to follow in order to attain the ultimate goal, the crown of heaven represented by sefirah number one, Keter.’ (Parpola, 1993, pp.172-173. The writer of this paper would contest that in fact the ‘mystic’ does not attain the ‘Crown of Heaven’ (which would surely belong solely to the King of Heaven, God Himself) but rather the Crown (literally in Hebrew, ‘Kether’) of the vice-regent of creation, the designation of Adam. Referring back to Wilks, the crown as a symbol can then be seen as an; ‘object of first creation.’ Of course such a metaphysical interpretation of the Crown is not held by all. Speaking of ritual Barbara Ward writes, ‘in everyday speech most of us are quite as ready to talk of purely secular rituals, such as Trooping the Colour, as such sacred ones as, say, the Holy Eucharist.’ (Ward, 1979, p.19). Arguably holding the Crown as a uniting focus point is anything but secular, and could in fact be considered a form of Eucharist in that humankind is itself the body of Adam. He is the father of humankind, whether taken literally or as metaphor. Even if ‘man’ is not the Adam of the supernal Eden, debased and fallen as he may be considered, the Crown and ascent toward it can be thought of as the inheritance of ‘man’. If our fallen state can be considered ‘liminal’ then focus on the unifying symbol of the Crown (either physical or metaphysical) could be considered as providing ‘communitas’ (Turner in Lambek, 2003, pp.359-360)
An interesting ritual which illustrates the changing authority of the monarch, and to extrapolate, the recognition of man’s ever increasing sovereignty over himself, is at the State Opening of the British parliament concerning the Queen’s representative, Black Rod, ‘at the State Opening it is he who summons MPs to the Lords to hear the Queen's Speech and has the Pugin door to the Commons slammed in his face. He knocks on the door three times with the rod: once for the executive, once for the legislature and once for the Speaker.’ (BBC, 2004). Shortly the door is opened, and Black Rod is able to lead the ‘Commons’ to attend the Queen within the upper house, the House of Lords. The statement of John Stuart Mill, a leading liberal intellectual, in ‘On Liberty’ is brought to mind; ‘Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’ (Mill, 1975, p.15) Perceptions of Monarchy, governance, and of exactly who or what the Crown ‘represents’ mutate as knowledge grows and changes.
The duality of what the Crown ‘means’ is then best put by differentiating between ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’. Morris citing Cassirer writes, ‘a sign belongs to the physical world of being, it is an “operator,” there being an “intrinsic” or “natural” connection between the sign and the thing it signifies. A symbol on the other hand, is “artificial,” a designator,” and belongs to the human world of meaning.” (Morris, 2000, p.219. This, then, defines the crown as discussed herein as both symbol and sign, having a mundane meaning of authority and a social hierarchy and also representing transcendent metaphysics, and to use Mill’s paradigm the duality may be considered thus, ‘two things resemble each other in one or more respects; a certain proposition is true of the one; therefore it is true of the other.’ (Tambiah citing Mills in Lambek, 2003, p.345). This may certainly be considered as ‘artificial’ or as a Marxist might observe a ‘false consciousness’. If the Crown is considered a religious symbol then as Geertz states such symbols ‘formulate a basic congruence between a particular style of life and a specific (if, most often, implicit) metaphysics, and in so doing sustain each other with the borrowed authority of the other.’ (Geertz in Lambek, 2003, p.62). Cassirer’s idea of ‘sign and symbol’ is paralleled (though arguably without the attribution of artificial) by Langer who says ‘the fundamental difference between signs and symbols is the difference of association, and consequently of their use by the third party…signs announce their objects to him, whereas symbols lead him to conceive their objects.’ (Langer, p.141). Morris reports Firth who delineates further with his idea of four semiotic categories; ‘index is a sign directly related in fact to what is signified…signal is considered the dynamic aspect of an index…icon is a sign used when a sensory-likeness relationship is intended or interpreted…and finally a symbol is a sign that has a complex series of association, but there is no direct relationship or resemblance between sign and the object signified.’ (Morris, 2000, p.219)
Another symbolic idea proceeding from the Crown when seen as symbolic of the ‘Tree of Life’ is the use of the body as a metaphor. Ideas of sacred and profane in the vein of the work of Durkheim (Barfield, 2003, p.402 & Hinde, 1999, p.50) are borne out within the Qabbalistic cosmology. As previously stated the tree can be seen as representing ‘man’ as microcosm, thus not only is ‘man’ upon the tree of life, it is also symbolic of he himself. The Tree is comprised of three paths; the left being severity, the right being mercy, and the middle path, crowned as it were by the first ‘sefira’, is mildness. Thus the tree can be seen as also reconciling binary oppositions, a form of mystical and prototypical dialectic. The influence of the Qabbalah on Romanticism, and Hegel directly, is cited by Tiryakian (1972, p.506). The idea of such a contrast is a common representation. In Judeo-Christian and Islamic Traditions this is true, but there appears ‘cross-culturally…there is a striking uniformity.’ (Bowie, 2002, p.42) Bowie draws on the work of Robert Hertz concerning the Maori tradition, stating that ‘among the Maori the right side is the sacred side, the seat of good and creative powers; the left is the profane side, possessing no virtue other than…disturbing and suspect powers.’ (Bowie, 2002, p.42). Armed with this symbolic meaning attributable to the Crown, occasions such as Trooping the Colour and the opening of Parliament, are not only ritual in the widest sense, but can seem to be directly religiously ritualistic which ‘Durkheim regarded…as a primary mechanism for reinforcing the sentiments and solidarity of the group’ (Hinde, 1999, p.130) and ‘like Durkheim, Weber argues that religion acts as a cohesive force unifying members of a household, clan, or tribal confederation’ (Morris, 2000, p.70)
From a Marxist perspective this unity could be considered a dishonest ideology, allowing the ruling class to maintain the hegemony, as Engels writes ‘the ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is an instrument for exploiting wage labor by capital.’ (Engels, 1981, p.23). It could be argued that the example of the Crown, in actuality, is a combination of more than one of Engel’s examples. Once again considering the ideas of Sacred and Profane, it is apparent that certain knowledge is considered not for ‘the profane’ to know. Taking the esoteric nature of the Qabbalah, the role it plays at least in some part in the ‘dogma’ of the Freemasons, and the association the Monarchy maintains with the Masonic order (Tiryakian, 1972, p.501), it would appear that while such knowledge is freely available, it is not widely known. Discussion on the politics of power and subsequent ‘control’ of knowledge as social capital (though as has been pointed out in this case a knowledge that is freely available outside of lodges) would require a paper solely dedicated to the subject. However, the previously mentioned rituals, when associated with the ‘mystical’ attributes of the Crown may be considered to be a ‘structured schema that unites diverse aspects of existence into a cosmological unity through symbolism…’ and that ‘man’ may “…feel a part of a living cosmos.”’ (Morris citing Eliade, 2000, p.179) and as a ‘root metaphor’ which ‘operates to sort out experience, to place it in cultural categories, and to help us think about how it all hangs together.’(Ortner in Lambek, 2003, p.162)
To conclude and drawing from the presented example, symbols and rituals not only have meaning, but layers of meaning. The same symbol can represent almost exactly opposite meanings to different groups, especially in ‘complex’ societies were socio-economic and political issues are seen to be negotiable. It has been observed that cultures work at a multitude of levels, some cultural values being obvious to all, while others operate on a deeper and subtle level, known inherently and without the need for discussion. This then may also be true for symbol and ritual, in that they have meaning in varying degree to varying people. Summarising with a return to a semantic argument, and to the title of this paper; if language is symbol, and communication ritual, then there could be argued to be little meaning in anything else.
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British Broadcasting Corporation, Insider Westminster: Black Rod, 23 January, 2004. Retrieved: March 13th, 2004, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programme...nt/3424657.stm
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