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Signs, Symbols, Metaphors & Allegory

Humans communicate via symbols. This is what language is at the most basic level.

Personal Identity

Consider how we express ourselves through aspects of our physicality and cultural.

In many ways these attributes are or become symbolic.

Artists of all types extend expressive capabilities by being inventive in their use and exploitation of both symbol and interpretation of symbol.

Visual Signs & Symbols


have practical, unambiguous meaning


are more complex and have greater imaginative resonance


stand for an object by resemblance


is use of an image for something it does not literally denote


is often symbolic representation of a moral or political concept


involves a twist of language, often by using the opposite of what is meant


is a humorous or satirical imitation



Discussion of the term sign is a topic of semiotics and philosophies of language. It can be defined as a basic unit of meaning, and refers to the concept that something indicates or signifies some meaning.

In the visual realm, we also have signs which contain symbols. These symbols can be simple or complex. Either way, they are meant to communicate specific meanings to a given audience.

For example: Recreational Signs

Part of being culturally literate is knowing how to read signs such as these.



What is a Symbol?

Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.

Here are two websites that have both graphical (image-based) and word-based indexes. You can find almost every sign from Western culture here.



Byzantine painters did not paint sacred icons realistic or lifelike to keep a boundary between the physical and spiritual world.


Original Macintosh icons, 1984


Computers & Technology continue to add to the symbol database. Many symbols such as these have become part of font sets. They are called dingbats.

Check out California graphic designer John Hersey's Dingbats.


Icon from Magnets of Meaning SFMOMA


Symbols through Time

Middle Ages


Industrial Revolution




Here are some historical symbols and their interpretations in different contexts.



  • dates back 400 years, symbolizing divinity in Phoenicia and Babylonica.
  • Today it is the emblem of medicine and commerce.
alchemy = the integration of opposites
medicine = link between the snake and rejuvenation (the snake is both poison and cures)
axial pole = suggesting phallic power and the tree of life (means of communication or route for messages between earth and sky)
double spiral = suggesting cosmic energy, duality and the union of opposites
serpents = suggesting the fertilizing forces of the earth and underworld



  • Symbol of harmony, health and mystic powers (2000 B.C.)
Mesopotamian = astronomical plot of Venus' movements
Jerusalem = official seal 300 - 150 B.C.
Greece = health and mystic harmony, marriage of heaven and earth
Gnostics/Alchemists = the five elements
Christians = the protective five wounds of Christ
Magicians = wore pentacle caps to conjure up supernatural help
Masonic = aspirational symbol, the flaming "star"



  • Emblem of eternal and indivisible, cyclic time
Egypt = the sun's daily return to its point of departure, passing through sky and underworld
Greece = death and rebirth
Gnostics = image of self-sustaining in Nature, endlessly recreating itself, the unity of duality, essential oneness of life, the universal serpent moving through all things
Roman = Saturn the god of time, and Janus the god of the New Year



Egypt = wedjat, or eye of Horus
Hinduism = spiritual perception associated wit the power of Shiva
Buddhism = inner vision
Islam = superhuman clairvoyance
Greek = the evil eye
Christianity = God the Father (single eye), Trinity (eye within a triangle), Satan (displaced eye)


Yin Yang

Unity in duality, balanced dynamism, Yin (female) moist, dark, passive, soft, pliable and intuitive earth, flowers, lunar animals & birds
Yang (male) dry, bright, active, hard, inflexible and rational sky, mountains, solar animals & birds



A single path or unicursal tool for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation.
The Labyrinth Society



  • Ideogram representing cosmic dynamism and creative energy.
  • traditional significance was always positive.
Indo-Iran = sun or skygods
Buddhist = cycle of existence
Native American = sacred number four
China = symbol of the "infinite" number 10,000
Nazi = Aryan racial purity

The Swastika has been in use by humans since prehistory.

The word Swastika has its roots in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, but the actual symbol is older.

Swastikas have been found on vases, coins, and other artifacts all over the world. Various cultures that probably didn't communicate with each other used swastikas or similar symbols independent of each other.

The Swastika has been a Hindu symbol for thousands of years.

You can see swastikas today all over the world. They are on gravestones in Japan and on ancient Roman ruins in Turkey.

Perhaps the Swastika is an archetypal image in man's collective unconscious (as described by Carl Jung), in other words, the human brain tends to have an affinity for the swastika and similar shapes.

Hitler's use of the swastika becomes historical context which changed the meaning of this symbol for most of the Western world and much of the Eastern world as well.

Some say the Nazi swastika "points away from god." Note how it is often shown standing on a point of one of the arms.

Today there are many groups who are trying to reclaim this symbol for its original, positive meanings. Perhaps a difficult task, as the context of Hitler and the Nazi Holocaust has transformed the reception and interpretation of this particular symbol for many years to come.



on grave stone

Wikipedia on Swastikas has many diverse cultural examples



An example of a historical symbol whose meaning has change through time and context, the NIKE logo was created by Caroline Davidson in 1971.

The SWOOSH represents the wing of the Greek Goddess Nike.

Davidson met Phil Knight (the founder of Nike) while in an accounting class. She received $35 for the first SWOOSH. Although I can not find any documentation, it is my understanding that she receives 5 cents every time the logo is used, and yes has made millions.

There are some scholars who believe that pre-patriarchy, Nike was a goddess who brought ease of childbirth.


What does each of these images communicate about Nike?


Here are two symbols which look very similar, yet have very different effects/interpretations. What do they mean to you?

Peace Symbol (Scroll down to The peace sign to see the history of this symbol and how it was conceptualized.)




Literary Metaphor

Poetry and song lyrics are rich with metaphors.
What is the meaning of the metaphor in the refrain of this song?


Cultural Metaphor

Coyote, from wikipedia
The Trickster

"In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.

"Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception.

"Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.

"The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth."




Even contemporary popular culture is filled with metaphors.
The X-Men, from wikipedia
Scroll down to Reflecting social issues.


• The conflict between mutants and normal humans is often compared to conflicts experienced by minority groups in America such as Jews, African Americans, Communists, LGBT persons, etc.

Also on an individual level, a number of X-Men serve a metaphorical function as their powers illustrate points about the nature of the outsider.



Visual Metaphors

Visual artists create visual metaphors. These may be much less explicit/obvious than many symbols, but they often are based on cultural metaphors, and thus require the context of the culture to be understood.

Jean Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Eggs, 1756

What is the metaphor of The Broken Eggs?
Is this metaphor still viable in today's Western culture?
Museum interpretation.
A more recent interpretation.


William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Broken Pitcher, 1891

Perhaps you have seen this painting in San Francisco at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Like The Broken Eggs, the metaphor here is about the loss of innocence.
Vessels have long been a metaphor for the female body and its ability to carry a child. The broken water jug is the visual metaphor in this image. How old does this girl look to you? Does she look like she is happy about her "broken pitcher?"

Can you interpret additional possible underlying meanings for this painting?

Bouguereau's paintings are sometimes described as kitsch. What qualities make this image kitschy?

Can you identify any metaphors, old or new, for males in this or another culture?



Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.

The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas such as charity, greed, or envy.

Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.

Allegory, in literature, is a symbolic story that serves as a disguised representation for meanings other than those indicated on the surface. The characters in an allegory often have no individual personality, but are embodiments of moral qualities and other abstractions.

The allegory is closely related to the parable, fable, and metaphor, differing from them largely in intricacy and length.

A great variety of literary forms have been used for allegories.


What does Justice remind you of?


Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

In this history painting, Liberty is an allegorical figure, not a real person. The image tells the story of the French Revolution.