Symbols within symbols across cultures and traditions

Since this is a weekly column (and I’ve been at it for many years now) I can’t possibly stick to writing about wedding ceremonies every single time.  And I don’t often offer fashion advice or write from the perspective of a wedding planner, either. With me – it’s usually about the meaning of ceremony, and as an extension of that, symbolism, ritual and tradition. But I will go off on tangents from time to time.

Last week I wrote about familiar symbols in weddings, and recently I was wearing a symbol myself: a beautiful ‘hamsa’ (sometimes spelled Hamzah, Hamzeh or Humza) – a necklace that I bought in Morocco. I started thinking about how symbols are connected through time and traditions. I love this necklace not only for its imagery of the open palm, but because it holds meaning in two major faith traditions, Jewish and Muslim, and it has some non-religious meaning, too. It isn’t very often you see a symbol be so adaptable.

I began to think about the variations of the cross. Most of us are familiar with several types of crosses; the cross most of us think of, in its most basic form, is the Latin Cross. But did you know there is also the Celtic Cross, the Patriarchal Cross (the one with two horizontal bars going across the vertical one) and the Papal Cross (with three horizontal bars)? There are lesser known crosses, too, such as the Armenian cross, the Byzantine cross, several types of Coptic crosses which have a circle incorporated, the Maltese cross, the list goes on. And of course, we can’t forget the Crucifix, the cross with a representation of Jesus’ body on it.

All hold one thing in common, fidelity to a Christian denomination, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican, Protestant groups, Lutheranism, or other denomination.

Additionally, there are variations that place that allegiance within a country or cultural context, such as Irish, Armenia, Macedonia, or Nordic, as well as to certain patriarchs or Saints. There is the cross of Saint Thomas, the cross of Saint Phillip, the Cross of Saint James. They vary through history as well, like the Byzantine cross.

Some of these crosses are very elaborate and others extremely minimal, and there is beauty in all of them. With the many denominations within Christianity, we find they can be represented by variations on its best-known symbol.

And back to that hamsa – it is traced all the way to the ancient Mesopotamia and Carthage, that’s hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. It is considered a symbol of protection, sometimes against the ‘evil-eye.’ In Islam, it’s known as the Hand of Fatima – Fatima being the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. In Judaism, it is associated with the mystical branch of the faith, the kabbalah, and represents the metaphorical Hand of God.

As if that isn’t enough, there is the Ahimsa Hand, which is very similar – it is the palm but depicts the Dharma Wheel in the center.  It is a symbol in Jainism, a religion from India, known for peace and non-violence.

Symbols and their meanings seem to evolve even more slowly than the religions themselves. There is one symbol, however, that abruptly changed. That is the swastika. The poor swastika was used for thousands of years before the Nazis ruined it. It comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘well-being,’ and is still a sacred symbol in Buddhism, Jainism and some ancient pagan practices. However, for westerners like us it has come to mean one thing, and one thing only. For us this once beautiful symbol is forever despicable.

A religious symbol isn’t simply an ornament; it holds history and meaning. If you buy a cross or a hamsa to wear as jewelry, it is enriching to know what it means when you wear it.

 

 

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    Lois Heckman

    Lois Heckman is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies in the Poconos and beyond. She has performed hundreds of ceremonies and brings a wealth of knowledge to her work. Visit her website: ... Read Full
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