A Dictionary of Symbols: Juan Eduardo Cirlot’s Classic Study of Symbols Gets Republished in a Beautiful, Expanded Edition

How, exact­ly, does one go about mak­ing a glob­al dic­tio­nary of sym­bols? It is a Her­culean task, one few schol­ars would take on today, not only because of its scope but because the philo­log­i­cal approach that gath­ers and com­pares arti­facts from every cul­ture under­went a cor­rec­tion: No one per­son can have the exper­tise to cov­er every­thing. Yet the attempts to do so have had tremen­dous cre­ative val­ue. Such explo­rations bring us clos­er to what makes humans the same the world over: our pro­duc­tive imag­i­na­tions and the arche­typ­al well­spring of images that guide us through the unknown.

When Span­ish poet, crit­ic, trans­la­tor, and musi­col­o­gist Juan Eduar­do Cir­lot began his 1958 Dic­tio­nary of Sym­bols, he did so with Carl Jung in mind, writ­ing against a cur­rent of pos­i­tivism that deval­ued the sym­bol­ic.

Cir­lot quotes Jung in his intro­duc­tion: “For the mod­ern mind, analo­gies… are noth­ing but self-evi­dent absur­di­ties. This wor­thy judge­ment does not, how­ev­er, in any way alter the fact that such affini­ties of thought do exist and that they have been play­ing an impor­tant role for cen­turies.” Like it or not, we inter­act through the sym­bol­ic realm all the time. Those inter­ac­tions are freight­ed with his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al mean­ing we would do well to under­stand if we are to under­stand our­selves.


In his method, Cir­lot writes in a Pref­ace:

I want­ed to embrace the broad­est pos­si­ble range of objects and cul­tures, to com­pare the sym­bols of the post-Roman West with sym­bols from India, the Far East, Chaldea, Egypt, Israel and Greece. Images, essen­tial myths, alle­gories, for my pur­pos­es, all these need­ed to be con­sult­ed, not, self-evi­dent­ly, with the inten­tion of mak­ing an exhaus­tive reck­on­ing, but rather to comb out pat­terns in mean­ing, in what counts as essen­tial, in fields both near and far.

Cir­lot draws his inspi­ra­tion from Dada and Sur­re­al­ism and the com­par­a­tive method in reli­gious stud­ies pop­u­lar­ized by schol­ars like Mircea Eli­ade, who influ­enced promi­nent stu­dents of myth like Joseph Camp­bell (and through Camp­bell, the pop­u­lar cul­ture of film, tele­vi­sion, and the inter­net). “Thus I drew near the lumi­nous labyrinth of sym­bols,” Cir­lot writes, “con­cerned less with inter­pre­ta­tion than with com­pre­hen­sion and con­cerned most of all, real­ly, with the con­tem­pla­tion of how sym­bols dwell across time and cul­ture.” And “dwell” they do, as we know, in ele­men­tal fig­ures like drag­ons and ser­pents, destruc­tive gods and evil eyes. (In 1954, Cir­lot pub­lished The Eye in Mythol­o­gy, a pre­cur­sor to A Dic­tio­nary of Sym­bols.)


In times of trou­ble and uncer­tain­ty like ours, sym­bols become impor­tant ways of orga­niz­ing chaos in our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion, and are inte­gral to what Sind­ing Bentzen, pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Copen­hagen, calls “reli­gious cop­ing” in the face of COVID-19. Ripped from their his­toric con­text, as hap­pened with the swasti­ka, sym­bols can be used to inten­tion­al­ly manip­u­late and mis­lead, to turn col­lec­tive anx­i­ety into acqui­es­cence to tyran­ny and total­i­tar­i­an­ism. Cir­lot was acute­ly aware of this as an artist work­ing under the rule of Fran­cis­co Fran­co. As a lead­ing mem­ber of a group of painters and poets who called them­selves Dau al Set (“the sev­en-spot­ted dice”), Cir­lot and his con­tem­po­raries “cham­pi­oned cre­ative lib­er­ty and resis­tance to the dom­i­nant Fas­cist regime.”

In the 21st cen­tu­ry, we can just as well read Cirlot’s dic­tio­nary with this same mis­sion. It is not an arti­fact of anoth­er time but as an ever-rel­e­vant, eru­dite, and fas­ci­nat­ing resource for our own. Through the study of sym­bols we learn to see, Cir­lot wrote, that “noth­ing is mean­ing­less or neu­tral: every­thing is sig­nif­i­cant,” every idea con­nect­ed to oth­ers across time and space. “It is only by read­ing through the vol­ume steadi­ly that one can become aware of the intri­cate inter­re­la­tions of sym­bol­ic mean­ings,” wrote Cather­ine Rau in a 1962 review of the book. We can “devel­op such aware­ness by start­ing off with any ran­dom entry,” Angel­i­ca Frey observes at Hyper­al­ler­gic.

Do so in the “orig­i­nal, sig­nif­i­cant­ly enlarged” new edi­tion of the Cirlot’s Dic­tio­nary of Sym­bols, just pub­lished by the New York Review of Books in an Eng­lish trans­la­tion by Valerie Miles. We can read the book for ref­er­ence or for plea­sure, Her­bert Read writes in an intro­duc­tion to the new edi­tion, “but in gen­er­al the great­est use of the vol­ume will be for the elu­ci­da­tion of those many sym­bols which we encounter in the arts and in the his­to­ry of ideas. Man, it has been said, is a sym­bol­iz­ing ani­mal; it is evi­dent that at no stage in the devel­op­ment of civ­i­liza­tion has man been able to dis­pense with sym­bols.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

18 Clas­sic Myths Explained with Ani­ma­tion: Pandora’s Box, Sisy­phus & More

48 Hours of Joseph Camp­bell Lec­tures Free Online: The Pow­er of Myth & Sto­ry­telling

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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