There’s No Such Thing as Universal Symbols

Do truly universal symbols really exist? Are there symbols that will mean the same thing to any intelligent being, anywhere in the universe?

I tend to doubt it. There may be a few, but even something that seems universal to us may not be. Take water for example. This seems pretty universal—life needs water to exist. But intelligent beings who live in and breathe water would look at water differently than we do—after all, it’s really their air—and so water would not mean the same to them as it does to us. And what about beings based on a different chemistry, ones to whom water is not only unnecessary, but actually lethal? They would certainly think about water in a way completely alien to us!

So when we talk about “universal” symbols, we really mean “universal human symbols.” Or even “universal Terran human symbols, ” because humans living on a planet with two moons, or no moon or a moon so close it covers half the sky are going to think about the moon in very different ways than we do.

The point of all this is that we can’t just blandly talk about “universal” symbols without considering what group they’re actually universal to. Each of us has a hierarchy of symbols, starting from those we share with most (if not all) other humans, through those we share with the various cultures we’re a part of, ending with symbols which are truly unique and personal. (The number five, which tends to have very negative meanings in the Tarot, has always been a positive number to me because I grew up in a family with five people: my mom, dad, grandmother, brother and me.)

I’ll be dealing with all of this in more detail as time goes on, including musings on individual symbols as well as conjectures on what kind of symbolism (and divination systems) imaginary cultures, both human and non-human) might have.

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