A Brief Introduction to Symbols

by Joelle Steele

New Age Moon and Star Logo

Even before humans developed the ability to speak they found ways to communicate their thoughts and ideas to others. They drew pictures on cave walls and used sign language to convey their needs and their commands. Over time, with speech and language and the need to record facts and events, humans created symbols to depict more complex thoughts. Some of those symbols ultimately evolved into the alphabetic and pictographic writing systems that are in use to this day. But even with written language — composed of letters which are symbols themselves — we continue to rely on stand-alone symbols to express ourselves.


The word "symbol" is itself from the Greek "symbolon," meaning "token" or "sign." A symbol is anything that represents something else, such as a material thing, a sound, a word, a phrase, or an abstract thought. A symbol can be a letter or a picture, neither of which may even remotely resemble what they were originally designed to represent. Many symbols are recognized throughout most of the world, such as the heart (love), the cross (Christianity), and the star of David (Judaism). Other symbols are used in certain circles only, such as the arts and sciences, or in the study of such ancient practices as astrology and alchemy.

Symbols can also be composed of lesser symbols that make up the whole, such as the planetary symbols used in astrology which are believed by some astrologers to be composed of circles (the spirit), crescents (the soul), vertical lines (the mind), horizontal lines (the body), and crosses (matter, the combination of body and mind). In this way, each planet's symbol has a meaning that corresponds to what it represents astrologically. However, with astrology, this is not an accurate interpretation of the planetary symbols, because they are actually derived from the constellations. On the other hand, we have musical symbols. These are composed of lesser symbols that convey meaning and instruction as to how music should be played. For example, in modern notation, note signs are made up of the notehead, a stem (or tail), and a flag or hook (for and eighth note or quavers), often incorporating dots, beams, and ties, and all positioned between bars (vertical lines) on a stave (five parallel horizontal lines).

Some symbols may have dubious associations, such as the crescent moon and star that are frequently associated with the Islamic religion. Even though the symbol appears on the flag of several Muslim countries, the Muslims themselves reject it because Islam does not have a religious symbol associated with it. In fact, the crescent moon and star pre-date Islam by thousands of years, dating back to far more ancient religions, later being adopted by the city of Byzantium (Constantinople, Istanbul), and even later by the Ottoman Empire.


There are many words used to describe symbols. We use the word "image" to denote any physical likeness to a person or thing, and an image can take any form. The word "image" is from the Latin meaning copy, likeness, or equivalent. Images are therefore symbols that can be written, painted, sculpted, or photographed. Icons are likewise symbols. The word "icon" comes from the Greek meaning likeness or image. It is therefore almost interchangeable with the word "image," and so an icon is a symbol, but one that is normally associated with sacred art and computer desktop pictures. And yet another similar symbol is the pictograph or pictogram. The word "pictograph" is Latin for a painted graphic, a simplified picture that represents a word or idea. And the word "graphic" is from the Greek "graphikos," which by itself means a drawing or painting or a piece of writing. And it is also from the Greek that we get a related word "graffiti," which comes from "graphion," meaning to scratch or etch – or to scribble – with a stylus.


Examples of pictographs include the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The word "hieroglyphic" comes from the Greek "hieroglyphikos" meaning "sacred carving." In that ancient writing system, each hieroglyph was a recognizable picture of an everyday object which symbolized, in most cases, both a letter sound as well as a word, thing, or concept. Pictographs are sometimes confused with "ideograms," which are similar but represent only ideas and things and not words or speech sounds. In that way, the Chinese language characters are ideograms. Another word for an ideogram is a "logogram," from which we get the words "logotype" or "logo," as used in describing corporate symbols. Other words for an ideogram include "insignia," a type of logo used most frequently by the military to symbolize rank or a branch of the service; and "emblem," usually found in the form of a badge.


It is easy to confuse one word for another when their definitions seem so similar and they all denote different kinds of symbols. But sometimes the small distinctions between the words define how a symbol is used and what it means. For example, in astrology, many astrologers use two very different words interchangeably to denote the symbols for the planets and aspects: "glyph" and "sigil."

The word "glyph" comes from the Greek "glyphe" meaning a carving or engraving, and "glyphein" which means to carve or engrave. Simply put, a glyph is a symbol that is carved, engraved, or etched into stone, clay, wood, or metal. Since carving is not our modern means of creating a glyph, we can assume that the use of the word glyph can be attributed to a symbol on paper. In that regard, the word glyph could be used for astrological symbols.

A sigil is also an engraved symbol. The word "sigil" comes from the Latin "sigillum," which means a small "signum" or incised mark. In English, a sigil is defined as a seal, a sign, or a signet. Nowadays, seals and signets are pretty much used only within the realm of governments, specifically in certifying official documents by marking them with an embosser. The word "sign" is in common use, and when something is a sign of something else, it is a symbol, just like a glyph. So in that way, the word sigil could be used interchangeably with the word glyph.

But sigils are not as simple as glyphs. A sigil is composed of other smaller symbols combined into a single more complex symbol, and that is what astrology symbols are. So in that way, a sigil would make a good word for an astrological symbol. Unfortunately, sigils are also associated with occult or magical powers, and are used in the performance of magical rituals, spells, and incantations. In that way, astrologers like me probably wouldn't want the association with the word sigil. Not because we are necessarily opposed to magic, but because astrology is not itself magic, a distinguishing factor that many of us struggle to explain to the world when we are pushed to defend astrology. In the end, neither word is really adequate or accurate, and calling astrology symbols by the word "symbols" alone would be most appropriate. Common usage will ultimately dictate that one or both words will prevail.


Another type of symbol is the alphabetic letter. Letters are symbols or characters that are used to represent a speech sound such that when combined together the letters form a word. The word "letter" comes from the Latin "littera," meaning "written documents." There are numerous alphabets that are in current use, and many are very ancient. Still others have been lost through time and disuse, and of those that we have samples, some have yet to be deciphered. One two-thousand year-old alphabet that is no longer in use for linguistic purposes but is still used for esoteric practices is the runic alphabet.

Runes are letters found in any of several alphabets that were used up until about the 13th century AD. Believed to be German in origin, runes were also used in Britain, Mongolia, and Scandinavia. The runic alphabet was used for general communications but was also symbolic and used as such in magical writings, spell-casting, and charms. To make a spell work, a specific rune was cast and a prayer (or a curse) was whispered over it. This practice has resulted in our current English verb "to round," which came from an old English word "rounen," meaning "to whisper," which came from the word "rune."

To learn about symbols and symbolism, it is always helpful to know some of the terms that you'll encounter, and to understand how they apply to the use of symbols, past and present. You can find more information in the article Astrological Symbols.

This article last updated: 03/29/2011.