Background to the autumn audio course, part 3
Particular regional perspectives.
In the image above you see one of the strapping young lads of the Welsh rugby team. On his shirt you see the Three Feathers which is a symbol adopted by the Welsh Rugby Union. In this context, its clearly a symbol with strong regional connotations; but this wasn’t originally a Welsh symbol, which is ironic considering its associated with so much national pride. In origin, its the royal insignia of the Prince of Wales, which is an English institution that replaced the Welsh royal lineage with the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd 1282. You can see it worn as a royalist symbol in the picture bellow, on the dress uniform of these Royal Welch Fusileers.
Regardless of the continued use of this symbol by the English establishment, it has been appropriated by the Welsh and made their own. Its not difficult to see how the Three Feathers has become a symbol of Welsh national identity, even if that symbol originally came from outside of the Welsh cultural sphere.
Symbols in modern pop culture
Just as the more regional cultures of the past could draw heavily on the meaning of symbols, so do international cultures such as that of the Anglo-American West. All successful brands are marketed through the medium of symbols, and much work has been done by advertising agencies and media corporations on studying the effect of symbols on consumerism. When symbols are removed from their original, native contexts, be they associated with transcendent or particular perspectives, and then used in mass media culture, the more transcendent perspectives are often obscured.
For example, the Egyptian ankh symbol above has been used to represent many different transcendent concepts over the ages, but here its bling jewellery style suggests the more particular concept of wealth as expressed through adornment, although it has been argued that as the engine of consumerism, capitalism displays all the trademarks of a religious cult. The bling version of the ankh suggests how a symbol can evolve (or devolve), how a symbol’s depth of field shifts depending on the perspective supplied by a particular cultural context.
In modern pop culture we find symbols in a fluid state, such as those incorporated in the hippy bracelet shown above. The crows foot circle is actually the emblem of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that arose out of the UK peace movement, and here its mixed with Rastafarian colours, blending two originally distinct cultural symbols together to make a third, expressing the teenage ‘hippie’ fad culture of the nineties, which was itself derived from the earlier hippie movement of the 60’s.
Its this repeatable, disposable nature of any symbol in modern global culture, regardless of its provenance, that has fed into to the development of popular philosophies such as Post-Modernism. Witnessing the fluid, mercurial aspect of symbols as they‘re transmitted between cultures we can appreciate their inherent instability. As they change contexts, what they mean also changes. We should bare this in mind when interpreting and giving meaning to any symbol, particularly when we draw on those originally found in cultures different to our own.
The swastika is a very interesting symbol, for some obvious and other less obvious reasons. Since the Second World War, people the world over have generally associated the swastika with Hitler and the Nazis. In that context it was clearly a symbol of fervent nationalism, the emblem of the Third Reich expressing the mythology of a pure race of ideal Arians. But it is much, much older than 20th century fascism. Bellow you can see how universal a symbol this is, used by cultures as distinct from each other as Native American, Chinese and Jewish.
The example given above of a Celtic swastika isn’t totally representative either, as there are plenty of examples of the more common four armed swastika in Celtic decorative art.
As a religious symbol the swastika is often used in Buddhist iconography, the example bellow showing the swastika on the Buddha‘s heart, symbolising love and compassion.
In related Hinduism also, the swastika is a very important religious symbol, so much so that in recent years there have been increasing calls from Hindus for the swastika to be reclaimed, taken back from the Nazis and reaffirmed as a symbol of Hindu spirituality.
When the swastika is placed over the Buddha’s heart, this ancient symbol obviously has transcendent connotations. But viewing the swastika outside of any of the above contexts, what does it mean? What is it about this very simple shape that has made it so popular? What can we say of the swastika when it is interpreted in terms of its own simple form?