Symbology: Meaning and Meaninglessness

I would like to take a brief break from my current focus on the Greeks, and discuss the meaning we assign to astrological symbols.

In general, symbols carry powerful underlying messages, sometimes unrelated to the squiggle or pictograph we’re looking at. Because of this, the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to symbols is that they represent something almost entirely theoretical.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you are clear on what that thing is, and how you feel about it. Just because a symbol has no practical meaning, does not devalue its importance, after all. There are many purely theoretical symbols that bring us a lot of emotional or spiritual comfort, and I believe that’s what astrology gives us—the perception that things are predictable and knowable.

Symbols have a language of their own, and they evolve, like any language, over time.

At this point in history, the astrological symbols we think of as “traditional” actually represent an amalgam of pictographs civilisation collected in bits and pieces and make use of now without necessarily knowing their precise origins or the reasons for their original usage.

So, what do these symbols mean?

Symbols are usually used as a form of mental shorthand to convey information easily and quickly; pictures speak more immediately than words. However, fast is not always better, and the quick-and-dirty version of a thought often elides meaning. Deeper meaning comes from studying the pieces of a symbol, and asking where these elements came from, who first used them, why those people valued these pieces, and why the symbol still has life left in it. To the extent that we continue to use it today, after all, the symbol must have meaning and value.

I think possibly the most interesting thing about any astrological symbol we rely on to convey meaning is that these squiggles and glyphs are completely representational and theoretical. On their own, they mean absolutely nothing.

Look at Aquariusglyph, for example: two wavy lines. Now, to astrologers, especially if you’ve read the history of how this symbol has evolved over time, you know that the wavy lines imply water (yet, Aquarius is not a water sign, so does this symbol actually represent the sign—which, to be even more confusing, was not always a “sign,” it was originally a constellation which became a sign over time, as did all the signs, which are no more than arbitrary clusters of stars in the heavens attached to a name; which, to make matters mega-complicated, changes with the culture and time period in which the name is created).

Another odd symbol is the glyph for Cancer. Theoretically, it implies the claws of a crab, but for others, it implies breasts, the part of the body assigned to Cancer by medieval astrologers. Some of the glyphs seem obvious, however, and are better representations of what they actually mean. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Sagittarius, and even Capricorn the Sea-Goat make sense, for their physical shapes imply what they represent.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to mention that the word ‘glyph’ can be translated as “carving,” so a glyph implies a carved shape or pictograph, and indeed, that is almost precisely what astrological symbols are, carved shapes connoting something they can never denote, for their denotation is never precise, because what is, literally, an “Aquarius”? Do you see the problem? There is no such thing.

You are saying, “Don’t be silly; I know plenty of Aquarians. My best friend Fred is an Aquarius.” This is the point at which you and I would have words in real life, and those words would be comprised of me slapping you upside the head with logic, and you pouting and calling me a real meanie. No? All right, good. Then let us proceed. 

Other glyphs are much more theoretical, such as Pisces curved lines crossed in the middle—this has no ostensible, obvious meaning, nor does it immediately bespeak two fishes going off in opposite directions. Possibly the most theoretical symbol we make use of is the one for Virgo. I have read innumerable explanations of how this symbol is supposed to indicate the complexities of a sign few people seem to understand to begin with.

The point is that these depictions of signs are just as likely to function as signifiers as they are that which they signify. In other words, they imply, from a highly theoretical standpoint, something we who follow astrology take rather blithely for granted, that there’s an underlying, and perhaps even universal, meaning we all agree on when we use a sign or a glyph.

So ask yourself, what is the idea that underlies the glyph for Leo? What is the idea we’re trying to convey when we say the word ‘Pisces’? Because the glyph, the signifier, relies on a concept to convey meaning, and before we get to the meaning of any symbol, we need to know what concept it is we are hoping to convey. When is a sign not a sign? Read more here about the ways in which interpretation determines (semiotic) meaning of signs.

To look at even more astrological symbols, click here.