Sacred Texts  Symbolism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Migration of Symbols, by Goblet d'Alviella, [1894], at


In most of the instances which I have here quoted it is easy to discover through what ways the specified symbol was transmitted from one nation to another. In this respect the migration of symbols proceeds directly in conformity with what may be called the history of commercial intercourse. Whatever the similarity of form, and even of meaning, may be between two symbolic figures of different origin, it is proper, ere we assert their relationship, to show the probability, or at least the possibility, of international relations which would have served as a vehicle of transport. This point once set at rest, it remains to be seen who was the giver and who the receiver.

It may be asked, for instance, why it is not the Greeks who communicated the Thunderbolt to Mesopotamia, or the Hindus who transmitted the

p. 261

[paragraph continues] Lotus to the Egyptians? It is here especially that the advantages we possess over preceding generations come into play. There was a time when the origin of the gods, myths, and symbols spread over the whole surface of the Old World could be vaguely located in India; and another, when it would have been rash not to ascribe to Greece the honour of all intellectual and religious creations possessing any moral or artistic value. But the researches carried on for the last half century have henceforth placed on a definite basis the ancient history of the East, and the latter, in its turn, has enabled us to assign their relative distance to the principal centres of artistic culture which have reacted upon one another since the beginnings of civilization.

We may differ in opinion as to whether the Ionic column borrowed its volutes from the horns of the ibex, or the half-closed petals of the lotus. We may even argue whether Ionia received it directly from Golgos by the ships of the Phœnicians, or from Pterium, by the caravans of Asia Minor. But whoever has noted its presence on the monuments of Khorsabad, or of Kouyunjik, will not refuse to locate in Mesopotamia its starting-place on its journey to the Ægean Sea. This is only one example of those types and motives whose development doubtlessly owed its importance to the independent inspirations of Greek genius, but whose origins must nevertheless be sought for in Phrygia, in Lycia, in Phœnicia, and even beyond these countries, in the valleys of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile. In India likewise the most ancient products of sculpture and of carving, when they do not bear witness to the direct influence of Greek art—as in the Buddhist bas-reliefs of Yusufzai, and the Bacchanalian scenes of Mathura—are connected with the monuments of Persia through the adoption of what

p. 262

might be called classic motives in Persepolitan architecture: such are those capitals formed by animals, sometimes face to face, sometimes back to back, which are, as it were, a plastic signature, in the former case of Assyria, in the latter of Egypt.

I am far from denying that there arose among some nations independent and self-governing centres of artistic creation. In this respect it will be. sufficient to make mention of China and pre-Columbian America. But it must be admitted that art in the extreme East was profoundly modified through the influence of the Buddhist types which proceeded directly from India. We might even take into account a still older element which would directly connect the art, as also the religion, of the Chinese empire with the development of Mesopotamian civilization, if, as is assumed by M. Terrien de la Couperie, who has brought together a considerable amount of presumptive evidence in support of this theory, the ancestors of the Chinese were descended from the nation which occupied Chaldæa and Elam some three and twenty centuries before our era. 1 At any rate, it would be astonishing if, in the course of so many centuries, infiltrations had not occurred between the civilizations which were developing in this parallel manner on the Asiatic continent.

As for ancient America, Gustave d’Eichthal had already called attention to the similarities which are met with on the monuments of Central America and of Buddhist Asia. For myself, I am more and more inclined to admit, not the Asiatic origin of the inhabitants of America, which is quite another question, but the intervention of certain artistic influences radiated from China,

p. 263

[paragraph continues] Japan, or the Indian Archipelago, to the shores of the New World, long before the Spanish conquest.

In short, whether we start from Japan, from Greece, from India, or even from Libya, from Etruria, or from Gaul, we always arrive, after many halting-places, at two great centres of artistic diffusion, partially irreducible as regards one another, Egypt and Chaldæa—with this difference, that, towards the eighth century before our era, Mesopotamia took lessons from Egypt, whilst Egypt learnt little of any country. Now, as we have noted more than once in the present volume, not only did symbols follow the same paths as purely ornamental schemes, but they were also transmitted in the same manner, at the same periods, and in nearly the same proportion. Concerning symbols as well as artistic products we everywhere find, by the side of aboriginal types, the deposit of a powerful current which has its more or less distant origin in the symbolism of the banks of the Euphrates, or the Nile. In a word, the two classes of importations are joined together to such a degree, that in writing the history of art we write to a great extent the history of symbols, or at least, of their migrations.


The knowledge of these migrations, in its turn, throws quite a new light not only upon the presence of the same emblems among nations who never professed the same creed, but also upon the formation of certain complex images which cannot be accounted for save as the result of a reciprocal action between symbols often differing greatly in origin and in meaning. Through thus always finding, often among nations far apart, either the same symbolic combinations, or the same features in different combinations, we might be tempted to believe that symbolism had at its disposal only an

p. 264

extremely limited number of signs and figures to provide for the plastic requirements of the religious sentiment.

Need I add that this is not so? The variety of symbolic representations has no more limits than the spirit of analogy. But certain figures, when once formed, have so captivated the eye and the imagination that they have become the commonplaces of figurative language, and the artist's hand could not free itself from their influence when engaged in producing new symbols. It is equally easy to understand that, having forgotten, or having never known, the meaning to be attached to a foreign pattern, the copyist should have attempted to connect his productions with some other known and popular type. At other times, again, the symbolic syncretism is intentional and premeditated; whether it be in the desire to unite, for the sake of greater efficacy, the attributes of several divinities in a single figure, as is shown in certain pantheistic figures of Gnostic origin; or a wish to state, by the fusion of symbols, the unity of the gods and the identity of creeds, as in the mystic monogram wherein the Brahmaists of contemporary India have testified to their religious eclecticism by interweaving the Om of the Hindus with the Trident, the Crescent, and the Cross. 1

Sometimes, too, the sacerdotal interest must have tended towards accentuating the analogies rather than the dissimilarities of symbols, in order to assist the absorption or unification of the doctrines which they represented. Finally, we must take into consideration the popular tendency towards syncretism which, when not held in check by a rigorous orthodoxy, acts upon symbols, as well as upon creeds, by introducing into the new form of worship the images consecrated by a long

p. 265

veneration. Or else it is the innovators themselves who take advantage of symbolism in order to disguise, through borrowing from antique forms, the newness of their doctrine and, if need be, to transform into allies the emblems, or traditions, which they are unable to boldly extirpate.

Need I recall to mind Constantine choosing as a standard that labarum which might be claimed both by the religion of Christ and the worship of the sun? It is singular to find the same policy attributed to the first Christian king of Norway. According to an old song of the Shetland Islands, Hakon Adalsteinfostri, obliged to drink to Odin at an official banquet, traced quickly upon the bowl the sign of the Cross; and when his companions reproached him for doing so, he told them that it was the sign of Thor's Hammer. 1 We know, indeed, that in Germanic and Scandinavian countries the Cross of Christ more than once drew near in appearance to the Two-headed Hammer of Thor, as in Egypt it assumed, in more than one inscription, the aspect of the Key of Life. 2

Buddhism was even less scrupulous. In some of its sanctuaries it did not hesitate to preserve the images of the worship paid by the natives of India to the sun, to fire, or to serpents, whilst ascribing these rites to its own traditions. The solar Wheel thus became easily the Wheel of the Law; the Cosmic Tree represented the Tree of Knowledge, under which Sakya Muni attained the perfect illumination; the Seven-headed Serpent

p. 266

[paragraph continues] Naga was transformed into the guardian of the impression left by the Feet of Vishnu, itself to be attributed henceforth to Buddha, and so on. Some years ago there were discovered at Bharhut the remains of a Buddhist sanctuary whose bas-reliefs exhibited emblems and religious scenes with inscriptions which served as their legends, or rather as their labels. Great was the joy of Anglo-Indian archæologists at the receipt of this intelligence. We were to have at last an interpretation of Buddhist rites and symbols, formulated by the Buddhists themselves one or two centuries before our era. We had unfortunately to lower our expectations when a minute investigation showed that it was merely an ancient temple of the sun taken possession of by the Buddhists at a later date. They had contented themselves with placing on the figured representations of the solar worship inscriptions which connected them with their own creed. 1


Some have gone as far as to say that religions changed, but that the form of worship remained always the same. Thus formulated the proposition is too absolute. But it is certain that each religion preserves, in its rites and symbols, survivals of the whole series of former religions. And no complaint need be made of this. It is not the vessel that is important, but the wine which we pour into it; not the form, but the ideas which animate and transcend that form.

When the Christians and the Buddhists concentrated on the image of their respective Masters the principal attributes of the sun—beginning with that halo of glory whose prototype dates back to the Aureoles carved upon the Chaldæan monuments—did they mean to do homage to the orb of day?

p. 267

[paragraph continues] In reality, they only claimed to refer to the venerated physiognomy of their founder the symbol which has not only formed from time immemorial the most radiant expression of celestial glory, but which also characterized, in an especial manner, the highest personification of the Divinity in contemporary creeds. We must call to mind the reply of a Father of the Church to those who accused the Christians of celebrating the festival of the sun:—"We solemnize this day, not, like the heathen, on account of the sun, but on account of Him who made the sun." 1 Constantine went further still when he composed, to be recited on Sundays by his legions, a prayer which, according to M. V. Duruy, could at once satisfy the worshippers of Mithras, of Serapis, of the sun, and of Christ. 2

Symbolism may combine with the most mystical tendencies, but, like mysticism itself, it is a powerful ally of the religious sentiment against the immobility of dogma, and the tyranny of the written Word. M. Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu has shown, in his valuable researches into religion in Russia, how, thanks to the symbolic interpretation of texts and ceremonies, the conservative ritualism of the Old Believers has managed to arrive at the liberty of doctrines, and even, in some instances, at a complete rationalism, without breaking with the traditional symbols of Christianity, and even of the Eastern Church. 3

There comes a time when religions which deal largely with the supernatural come into collision with the progress of the different branches of knowledge, and above all with the growing belief

p. 268

in a rational order of the universe. Symbolism then offers them a means of safety, of which they have more than once taken advantage, in order to keep abreast of the times. If we take nations in a lower stage of development, we find among them fetiches—i.e., beings and objects invested at pleasure with superhuman faculties—then idols, which are fetiches carved to resemble a human being or animal. But we do not find any symbols as long as there is neither the desire to depict what is abstract by what is concrete, nor the consciousness that there is no identity between the symbol and the reality thus represented. When the mind opens itself to the conception of abstract or invisible gods, it may preserve its veneration for its ancient fetiches, but under the condition of looking upon them henceforth as but representative signs of the divinities. Lastly, when people can conceive of a supreme God of whom the ancient divinities are simply the ministers, or the hypostases, these antique representations may yet have a part to play, provided however that they be referred to the perfections and attributes of the superior Being in whom the Divine World is resolved.


Such is the evolution observable in the midst of all the ancient worships, and which still continues, often unconsciously, in many a contemporary religion. It implies, as a last conclusion, the belief in the equivalence of symbols, that is to say, the conviction that symbolic representations are all inadequate, inasmuch as they attempt to explain the inexplicable, but that they are all justifiable, inasmuch as they aim at bringing us closer to the Supreme Reality; and, moreover, that they are all beneficial in so far as they contribute to awaken ideas of the Good and of the Beautiful. In this respect the functions of symbolism cannot but increase; for, in religion, as in art and literature, it

p. 269

corresponds with a necessity of the human mind, which, very fortunately for our æsthetic development, has never been able to content itself with pure abstractions, nor remain at the surface of things. Here, indeed, is the secret of the impulse which increasingly moves the new generations to break with the commonplace conventions of superannuated traditions, as also with the superficial platitudes of a false realism.


262:1 Origin from Babylonia and Elam of the early Chinese Civilization, in the Babylonian and Oriental Record, vol. iii., No. 3 et seq.

264:1 Protap Chunder Mozoumdar. Life and Teaching of Keshub Chunder Sen. Calcutta, 1887, p. 501.

265:1 Karl Blind. Odinic Songs in Shetland, in the Nineteenth Century, 1879, p. 1098.

265:2 The Abbe Ansault has shown, without any difficulty, in his Mémoire sur le culte de la croix avant Jesus-Christ (Paris, 1891, p. 68 et seq.), first of all, that heathen nations used as religious emblems Greek, Latin, Maltese, pattées, gammées, potencées, ansées, trêflées, and other crosses; and, secondly, that the Christian Church has always accepted these different forms of the Cross as the representation of its own symbol.

266:1 Edw. Thomas. Numismatic Chronicle, vol. xx. (new series), p. 27.

267:1 S. Augustin. In natale Domini, sermon 390, Migne edition, vol. v., 1st part, p. 1007.

267:2 V. Duruy. Histoire des Romains. Paris, 1885, vol. vii., p. 54.

267:3 L’Empire des Tzars, vol. iii., p. 451.

Next: Addenda