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The Watkins Dictionary of SymbolsReview - The Watkins Dictionary of Symbols
by Jack Tresidder
Watkins, 2008
Review by Rob Harle
Dec 16th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 51)

Jack Tresidder has undertaken a huge amount of research to compile this comprehensive dictionary of symbols. There are over one thousand entries, in alphabetical order, starting with Acacia (a symbol of immortality) and finishing with Zodiac (a celestial power path).

It is fully cross referenced, so that within the textual explanation of a symbol, words emboldened refer to other symbol entries in the dictionary. In addition to the main dictionary there is an Index of Supplementary Words. These cover real or mythological people, places, events and symbolic themes that are discussed in the main dictionary but do not appear as separate entries.

Symbols are not signs, a sign points to a location for example, whereas a symbol leads beyond itself to different layers of meaning, quite often metaphorical. "Traditional symbols form a visual shorthand for ideas – and yet their functions and meanings extend to much more than that. For thousands of years they have enabled sculptors, painters and craftsmen to embody and reinforce deep thoughts and beliefs about human life in single, immediate and powerful images" (p. x)

It is somewhat ironic, though understandable, that there is not one single image in this dictionary when the power of symbols is mainly visual. If images had been included with each text entry the dictionary would have become a huge, and I imagine much more costly book. There is a wealth of information in most entries which will help the reader find visual representations of the symbol from other sources if required. For example, if an artist wanted to use the symbolic Acanthus in a painting, this dictionary will give him or her the meaning as the symbol of "life's trials surmounted" (p. 1) but the shape and form of the Acanthus would need to be found elsewhere.

Tresidder notes that symbolic images long predated writing, "...the most important symbols represented attempts to give order and significance to human life in a mysterious universe" (p. x) One of the most powerful group of symbols are those connected with astrology and the zodiac. The earliest records of these I understand can be found in Chaldean culture. Despite the complete lack of scientific support for astrology, it still remains a powerful and influential system of symbols which people use to guide or understand their life. This example attests to the power and usefulness of symbols to go beyond their immediately obvious meaning.

This book will be a useful, and I predict, an often used addition to the bookshelves of a wide variety of individuals such as artists, craftspeople, writers, poets, scholars of religion, spirituality and mysticism. It will also be invaluable to those involved in psychotherapy, dream analysis and many branches of psychology. Jung for example did extensive work with symbols and their meanings, leading to archetypes, in an attempt to help others reach a more balanced and complete self or personality. This book will help us understand the symbols that surround us and in doing so enrich our lives.

© 2008 Rob Harle

Rob Harle is an artist and writer, especially concerned with the nature of consciousness and high-body technologies. His current work explores the nature of the transition from human to posthuman, a phenomenon he calls the technoMetamorphosis of humanity. He has academic training in philosophy of mind, comparative religious studies, art and psychotherapy. Rob is an active member of the Leonardo Review Panel. For full biography and examples of art and writing work please visit his web site: http://www.robharle.com


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