Blood Symbolism


Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia (born 460 BCE) thought of life as pneuma coursing through vessels. In Stoic thought, pneuma is the vital spirit, soul, or creative force of a person.

Many fourth-, fifth- and sixth-century thinkers are called “Pythagoreans” in the Greek tradition after the fourth century BCE. These Pythagoreans (Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle et al) thought the soul was nourished by blood.

Empedocles (400s BCE) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher. He is best known for originating the cosmogonic theory of the four classical elements. He had some wacky ideas about blood and its purpose. He thought blood was the seat of perception. Warm blood was involved in nourishing the body, digesting food, and even let the body respire and think. Technically, he wasn’t wrong? The key wacky thing being, Empedocles thought blood was the physical basis by which all of these things happened, and also the physical basis of consciousness. He believed blood contained the four material elements: fire, air, earth, water. These elements governed the entire universe, so blood was the most important aspect of humanity and life and existence and nature. Basically, Empedocles thought blood was really, really important. Blood connected humans to the world around them.

We know that during the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1250 AD) people thought of the body more like a mould, into which blood was poured, bringing the ‘mould’ to life. As evidence we have devotional writing. (Caroline Walker Bynum writes about this in Wonderful Blood, 2007). In one 14th century story from Germany, angels escort a widow to a wine press, squeeze out all of her blood and replace it with virginal blood. Now she’s a virgin again. (This presumably improves her remarriage prospects and therefore her socioeconomic status.) Obviously, this story didn’t really happen (at least, I hope not) but the fact that this story exists offers insight into how people of that time thought of blood and the body. To exchange blood is literally to become a different person.

Blood as a symbol of life can be seen in classical, Biblical and Medieval thought.

In the Hebrew Bible, the tribes of Israel are not allowed to eat blood.

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the alter; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

Leviticus 17:11

In Medieval Christianity, blood spritually nourished Christians in the same way that mothers nourish babies with milk. Although blood and milk may seem to be very different substances, they are not. Their colours are nothing alike, and are symbolically quite often opposite. In fact, breastmilk has many shared properties with blood. Colostrum, the earliest form of breast milk contains 1 to 5 million white blood cells per milliliter. (Breast milk is constantly changing to adapt to babies’ growth.) So when Medieval Christians started the tradition of forming community around the drinking of God’s (symbolic) blood in the performance of the Eucharist (aka Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper), perhaps this spoke to a deeper biological knowledge.

Christ is both priest and sacrifice. His body and blood are truly contained in the sacramane of the alter under the forms of bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215)

Why is Christ’s blood so important? It is thought that his blood is able to give life, even without his body. This is an affirmation of his divine status.

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The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

In folklore and fairytale, round, enclosed structures — towers and wells — are closely associated with lunar figures which stand in for cyclic time ie. dragons, serpents, werewolves or other related creatures who abduct maidens. And also, by the way, dishevelled hair and shaggy furs worn as garments are the other symbol set which go hand-in-hand with round, enclosed structures. These symbols are associated with moon phases, menstrual cycles and, more broadly, renewal through death.

In a very deep well you can see a star even on the brightest day.

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The Symbolism of Dolls In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Storytime 1893

Dolls serve as comfort; they also creep us out. Which is it gonna be? And how do storytellers utilise their multivalent presence in our lives?

Outside the West, dolls are sometimes a part of supernatural/religious belief. Perhaps the most memorable and oft-utilised by storytellers is the Haiitian vodou usage, which has been heavily simplified for Western audiences. Likewise, the concept of the ‘gwumu’ in Papua New Guinea is complex, and ‘doll’ is a substandard translation:

People describe gwumu as an agency hiding inside the body of another: it may be referred to as a “doll” for example, and an additional idiom I recorded referred to these familiars as “little sisters”. Though gwumu are held to be concealed in the interior of persons, they may nevertheless sometimes be seen as apparitions, especially when they have left the body of a person to hunt.

Becoming Witches
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A Glossary of The Underworld

ACHERON — One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades, according to Ancient Greeks. This is an actual river located in northwest Greece. The Ancient Greeks called it the ‘river of woe’. Homer and Virgil contributed to the mythology around it. Virgil called it the main river of Tartarus, which is where you go if you’ve been bad.

ASPHODEL MEADOWS — of the Fields of Asphodel. According to Ancient Greek thought, this is the part of the Underworld where ordinary people are sent.

AVERNUS — The Romans geolocated the place where Virgil’s Aeneus is meant to have entered the Underworld, and they reckon the entrance is located at a placed called Avernus, a crater near Cumae. To the Romans, Aeneus refers to Hell/The Underworld.

BASEMENT — The symbolic underworld of the dream house is the basement. Naturally, stories with basements are more frequently found in fiction written by authors who live in countries where houses tend to have basements. Canadian writer Alice Munro makes use of this in her short story “Cortes Island“. Her main character lives in a basement, but the fairytale upon which is seems based takes its main character to the underworld.

BATS — Since bats like to live in caves, and since being inside a cave feels very much like being underground, no surprise bats are symbolically connected to the Underworld. In the Odyssey, the Fields of Asphodel is described. This is the first region of Hades, where shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER — Creator Joss Whedon is very familiar with Ancient Greek mythology and makes much use of the tropes and stories in his contemporary work. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a reimagined Achilles in the body of a teenage girl, At one point, Buffy returns from a literal journey to the realm of the dead.

CELLAR — Whereas a basement is the floor of a residence or building entirely or partly located below ground level, a cellar is a room below the ground level used as a storage area. A dry cellar has housing shelves for storing wine, canned food and produce storage. Since storing things feels cosy and safe, appealing to our fantasies of self-sufficiency, the cellar has a much more cosy association than basement.

CELLERAGEThe hollow area beneath a Renaissance stage — known in Renaissance slang as “hell” and entered through a trapdoor called a “hellmouth.” The voice of the ghost comes from this area in Hamlet, which has led to scholarly discussion concerning whether or not the ghost is really Hamlet’s father or a demon in disguise.

CHARON The Hellenes believed a guy called Charon would ferry dead people across The River Styx. He charged a small fee. How is a dead person meant to pay it? This is why loved ones would place a coin in the mouth of their dead relatives. I guess Charon knew to look in dead people’s mouths for it.

CHTHONIC — Deities, spirits, or anything connected or related to the Underworld. Means “of the earth.”

COCYTYS — One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades. Means lamentation. In Inferno, the first cantica of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cocytus is the ninth and lowest circle of The Underworld.

DANTE — Full name: Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet known for using everyday language instead of Latin to create his art. His depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven inspired many subsequent Western artists including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton and Alfred Tennyson. You’ve probably heard of Dante’s Inferno.

Dante and Virgil are obsessed with demons passing through hell, an illustration by Gustave Dore for the 1861 edition of Dante's “Hell” (“Divine Comedy”)
an illustration by Gustave Dore for the 1861 edition of Dante’s “Hell” (“Divine Comedy”)

DI INFERI — The Romans used this phrase to refer to a collective of underworld divinities.

DIVINE COMEDY — Dante’s story about how he goes on a journey that takes him through hell, purgatory and paradise (heaven).

DUNGEON — Aristocracy used to lock prisoners up in their castle dungeons, but these dungeons were never meant (or used) for longterm imprisonment. The prisoners were held there only for a little while, as the more powerful people decided what should be done with them.

ELYSIUM — If Ancient Romans were really good they got sent to Elysium (meaning Islands of the Blessed), along with other “blameless” heroes.

EREBUS — The Ancient Greeks did not like to say the word Hades because they were so scared of him, so they made up many euphemisms. Erebus often referred to Hades himself, but is also a realm of the Underworld (ruled by Hades) which lies beyond the Asphodel Meadows. In Erebus you find two pools. One of the pools was in the River Lethe (one of the Five Rivers of Hades). This is where ordinary dead people would go to erase all memory. There’s also the pool of Mnemosyne (“memory”). This is where the initiates of the Mysteries drank.

FAVA BEANS — Fava beans were the first beans known to Europeans. Among the Greeks and Romans it was associated with funeral rites and the Underworld. Used as offerings. Perhaps in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lecter mentions fava beans (and a nice chianti) to go with his cannibal meats in his underground prison the writer was drawing from ancient symbolism of the underworld. (Here in New Zealand and Australia we call them broad beans.)

FIVE RIVERS — The five rivers of Hades, according to Ancient Greek thought: Acheron (River of Sorrow/Woe), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (oblivion) and Styx (hate).

HADES — Ancient Greek god of the underworld, the dead and also riches. Lives in the Underworld. After he was born his father gobbled him up, but thankfully for Hades, he was subsequently regurgitated. Zeus told Hades to find a wife, specifically to abduct one. So Hades ‘obtained’ his wife Persephone by abducting her while she was out picking flowers. He also got really worked up if anyone ever tried to leave his domain, so he’s the Greek mythic equivalent of a coercively controlling, abusive man. When another guy, Pirithous, tried to enter the underworld to abduct Persephone, Hades really had it out for him. Hades seems pretty evil to me, but scholars would like to remind us that Hades is more ‘passive’ than ‘evil’, and mostly doesn’t care about his subjects.

HEAVEN — The place where you go when you die, so long as you’ve been ‘good’. The inverse of Hell.

HELL The world over, human notions of Heaven are above us in the sky; our notions of Hell are below us, underground. This ties in to how we feel symbolically about feet. Feet are ‘dirty’ parts of the body because they touch the ground. Notice how many folkloric creatures from art have weird feet (chicken feet for Baba Yaga, goat feet for Satan and so on). We are suspicious of the ground, whatever lies beneath the ground, and things that touch the ground.

KATABASIS A mythic journey which takes a hero down into the Underworld. When the hero goes down there he typically rescues a soul, so these stories offer a great opportunity for what storytellers might now call Save The Cat. Modern katabasis may not be a literally underground arena, but instead a psychological space.

MYTHOLOGICAL DEATHSCAPES Literal underground arenas are not the only settings which function as mythological deathscapes. Take for example the frozen Wyoming mountains and darkened Mexican foothills of the Sicario trilogy of films.

LETHE Ancient Greeks believed The Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld. Those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion.

OCEAN — Symbolically, we should consider ‘the ocean depths’ separately from ‘the top of the sea’. The sea functions more like a desert — it’s dangerous and quite possible to die out there, but the ocean depths are a whole other world, symbolically more like outer space than like anything humans experience on land. The ocean depths are a variant on ‘underground’.

ODYSSEY — The Odyssey is the O.G. masculine mythic journey going back 3000 years. This story started a kind of rule: That in any mythic journey (a.k.a adventure story) a hero’s personal growth must be accompanied by a journey underground. Cf. katabasis. We see main characters venture underground in contemporary Odyssean stories such as Star Wars and The Hobbit. The Odyssey gets quite specific about what hell looks and feels like. For instance, the Fields of Asphodel is the first region of Hades and this is where shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats.

In The Odyssey, Circe urges Odysseus to consult the seer Tiresias in the Underworld, where many departed souls (including Achilles) appear to him.

PHLEGETHON —  One of the five rivers of the Realm of Hades. Plato describes it as “a stream of fire, which coils round the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus” (where bad people are sent).

POMEGRANATE — In a Greek myth, after Hades kidnaps Persephone and takes her to his Underworld, Persephone’s mother Demeter misses her and requests her return. Hades is chill with that, apparently, but insists she eats the seed of a pomegranate first. Once you eat the food of the dead you’re bound to return to the realm of the dead. Hades has thusly made sure that he’ll get his kidnapped wife back. Symbolically, for us, pomegranates are symbolically linked to the Underworld. Contemporary stories make use of the trope that once you eat something of another world you become a part of that world. See for example Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

PRECIOUS MINERALS — Since precious minerals come from under the Earth, the Ancient Greeks believed Hades had control of them. And because Hades was so closely associated with death they were afraid to say his name, so he euphemistically became known as “the rich one”.

PSYCHOPOMPS — creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. From a Greek word meaning ‘guide of the souls’.

PURGATORY — Our notions of purgatory have been heavily influenced by Dante.

RAROHENGA — The designs of Maori male facial tattooing commonly known as Moko, are also referred to as Mataora Moko. Mataora is the Mythical figure attributed with venturing into Rarohenga (the Underworld), bringing back with him knowledge of tattooing.

REALM OF HADES — Hades is the guy who rules the Ancient Greek Underworld, but what is actually like down there? We know he has a palace, a chariot, and likes to sit on couches. He’s got pomegrantes. In the older Greek myths, the realm of Hades is gloomy and misty. (Cf. The Symbolism of Fog.) Once mortals go down there, they can’t come back. (Makes sense, since that’s how death works.) There are five rivers.

STYX — The Hellenes believed dead people got to the Underworld by crossing The River Styx, one of the five rivers of Hades. The River Styx is the river of hate. The dead got ferried across by a guy called Charon. If they didn’t have a coin for him because they were poor or because they didn’t have any loved ones to place one into their mouths, they had to gather on the banks. Charon did not work for charity.

TARTARUS — Ancient Greeks got sent down the road to Tartarus if they were judged by the Three Judges to have been bad/impious. They end up in a deep abyss, used as a dungeon of torment and suffering. Also as the prison for the Titans (the pre-Olympian gods). As you may have guessed, the Ancient Greeks didn’t think much of the Titans. After a ten year war called the Titanomachy, Zeus and his five siblings defeated the Titans. Most were sent to Tartarus as punishment. But those who didn’t take part in the war didn’t have to go down there. Some were punished differently. For example, Atlas’s punishment for helping Cronus was to hold the sky up for eternity.

THREE JUDGES — According to the Ancient Greeks there were three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus.

TRIVIUM — The crossroads or fork where three roads meet. Once the Ancient Greeks get to Hades, they are judged by the Three Judges. Most of us are neither very good nor very bad, so we’d get sent to the Asphodel Meadows. If you’re really bad you get sent down the road to Tartarus. If you’re really good you get sent to Elysium (meaning Islands of the Blessed), along with other “blameless” heroes.

VIRGIL (OR VERGIL) — an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. “The Aeneid” is an epic journey undertaken by a guy called Aeneus. Since those old masculine mythic journeys require a trip underground, Aeneus goes underground. (Dante and Virgil were both obsessed with demons passing through hell.) This epic poem was highly influential in how the ancient Romans (and beyond) thought about death.

UNDERGROWTH — The forest equivalent of the ‘underground’ without actually being underground. In narrative, at least, this is a natural landscape where you may find humans doing things they don’t think they should be doing. The forest undergrowth is a heterotopia, where the rules of society are different. (The forest undergrowth is a heterotopia within a heterotopia, because the forest itself is heterotopic.)

Joan González Couple in the Undergrowth c.1900
Joan González Couple in the Undergrowth c.1900

UPPER WORLD — If we’re going to talk about the ‘underworld’ we need a word to describe the regular place where people live. The Romans called this place the upper world.

The Beast In The Pit by Alasdair Gray, 1952. Glasgow
The Beast In The Pit by Alasdair Gray, 1952. Glasgow

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Home » Symbolism

Words to Describe Landscapes, Landforms, Water and Construction

Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

(Includes bodies of water.) You may be after a full glossary of landforms, in which case the Wikipedia article is comprehensive: Full list of landforms at Wikipedia. This post skews literary.

Arroyo — (colloquial: southwestern United States) The channel of a flat-floored, ephemeral
stream, commonly with very steep to vertical banks cut in unconsolidated material;
sometimes called a wash. It is usually dry but can be transformed into a temporary
watercourse or short-lived torrent after heavy rain within the watershed. Where arroyos
intersect zones of ground-water discharge, they are more properly classed as intermittent
stream channels.

Ash field — A land area covered by a relatively thick or distinctive, surficial deposit of
volcanic ash (air fall) that can be traced to a specific source and has well defined boundaries. An ash field can be distinguished from adjacent landforms or land areas based on ash thickness, mineral composition, and physical characteristics. Soils within an ash field form solely or predominantly within the ash deposit.

Aspect — The direction toward which a slope faces with respect to the compass or to the
rays of the Sun; also called slope aspect.

Atoll — A coral reef appearing in plan view as roughly circular, and surmounted by a chain
of closely spaced, low coral islets that encircle or nearly encircle a shallow lagoon in which
there is no land or islands of non-coral origin; the reef is surrounded by open sea.

Backshore — The upper or inner, usually dry, zone of the shore or beach, lying between the
high-water line of mean spring tides and the upper limit of shore-zone processes; it is acted
upon by waves or covered by water only during exceptionally severe storms or unusually
high tides. It is essentially horizontal or slopes gently landward, and is divided from the
foreshore by the crest of the most seaward berm.

Backslope — The hillslope profile position that forms the steepest and generally linear,
middle portion of the slope. In profile, backslopes are commonly bounded by a convex
shoulder above and a concave footslope below. They may or may not include cliff segments
(i.e., free faces). Backslopes are commonly erosional forms produced by mass movement,
colluvial action, and running water. Compare – summit, shoulder, footslope, toeslope.

Backswamp — A flood-plain landform. Extensive, marshy or swampy, depressed areas of
flood plains between natural levees and valley sides or terraces. Compare – valley flat

Badlands — A landscape that is intricately dissected and characterized by a very fine
drainage network with high drainage densities and short, steep slopes with narrow interfluves. Badlands develop on surfaces with little or no vegetative cover, overlying unconsolidated or poorly cemented materials.

Bay — a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity. See: At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.

Beck — (Northern English) a stream

Berm — Berms are mounded hills of soil that are often constructed to serve a purpose in a landscaped area. They can be used for aesthetics, excess rainwater drainage, separating different areas of the garden, accent walkways, and as foundations for privacy screens.

Boreen — (Irish) a narrow country road

Bower — a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood

Brook — a small stream

The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Buffalo wallow — A buffalo wallow or bison wallow is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff. Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the American bison.

Burn — Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A burn is a stream. (cf. Robbie Burns)

Camber — The slightly convex or arched shape of a road or other horizontal surface.”A bend where the camber of the road sloped to a ditch.” British: a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed.

Canal — an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland or to convey water for irrigation.

The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight - Sunny Afternoon on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight – Sunny Afternoon on the Canal

Canyon — A deep cleft (gorge), between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic time scales. Typically a canyon has a river flowing through it. See “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The People Across The Canyon” for two short stories in which the canyon comes to the fore.

Cleugh — Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A cleugh is a gorge which is the shape of the course of a stream.

Cliff — a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.

LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
John Brett - Carthillon Cliffs
John Brett – Carthillon Cliffs
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 - 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 – 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour

Clump — a small group of trees or plants growing closely together

1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK

Col — the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks (of hills rather than mountains). A drainage divide.

Colonnade — a row or evenly spaced trees

Conurbation — a city surrounded by many urban areas

Coteau — uplands; higher ground of a region

Coulée — a steep and dry gully

Couloir — gully

Counterscarp — narrow earth band on the outer wall of a defensive ditch

Cove — a small type of bay or coastal inlet. Coves usually have narrow, restricted entrances, are often circular or oval, and are often situated within a larger bay. Think cove, think ‘sheltered’.

Kobliha František,  Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Kobliha František, Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945

Crest — the top of a mountain or hill. Also used as a verb e.g. ‘Crest the rise’. This word is used to mean the hillslope component summit, but geologists don’t approve of that usage. When geologists say ‘crest’ they specifically mean the narrow top of a ridge, hill or mountain.

Crevasse — A wide breach or crack in the bank of a river or canal. A crevasse can naturally occur or it can be created artificially (e.g. in the bank of the lower Mississippi River.) Also refers to a wide, deep break or fissure in the earth that appears after an earthquake. When talking about glaciers, a crevasse is a deep, nearly vertical fissure, crack or break in the mass of land ice.

Crista — ridge or fold resembling a crest

Cutbank — In everyday usage cutbank refers to a small cliff on an otherwise flattish surface which will injure you or your horse if you don’t see it, but probably isn’t big enough to kill you outright. Larry McMurtry frequently makes use of this word in his cowboy novels. Geologists don’t use cutbank to mean this. In geology, a cutbank is a slope or wall portion of a cut excavated into unconsolidated material or bedrock, as in a borrow pit.

Dale — “up hill and down dale”. A dale is a valley, especially in northern England (e.g. The Yorkshire Dales.) A valley can feel closed in, but a dale is a wide, open area that stretches between hills. (Dale comes from the Old English word for “valley,” dæl.)

Debris — Any surficial accumulation of loose material detached from rock masses by
chemical and mechanical means, as by decay and disintegration. It consists of rock clastic
material of any size and sometimes organic matter.

Delta — A body of alluvium, nearly flat and fan-shaped, deposited at or near the mouth of a
river or stream where it enters a body of relatively quiet water, usually a sea or lake.

Delta plain — The level or nearly level surface composing the land-ward part of a large
delta; strictly, a flood plain characterized by repeated channel bifurcation and divergence,
multiple distributary channels, and interdistributary flood basins.

Deposit — Either consolidated or unconsolidated material of any type that has accumulated by natural processes or by human activity.

Depression — Any relatively sunken part of the earth’s surface; especially a low-lying area
surrounded by higher ground. A closed depression has no natural outlet for surface drainage (e.g., a sinkhole). An open depression has a natural outlet for surface drainage. You can get closed depressions and open depressions.

Desert pavement — A natural, residual concentration or layer of wind-polished, closely
packed gravel, boulders, and other rock fragments, mantling a desert surface. It is formed
where wind action and sheetwash have removed all smaller particles or where rock fragments have migrated upward through sediments to the surface. It usually protects the underlying, finer-grained material from further deflation.

Detritus — A collective term for rock and mineral fragments occurring in sediments, that are detached or removed by mechanical means (e.g., disintegration, abrasion) and derived from preexisting rocks and moved from their place of origin.

Dell — a small valley, usually among trees. ‘There’s a sort of dell down here in front of us, where the ground seems all hilly and humpy and hummocky.’ (The Wind In The Willows)

Dike — A tabular igneous intrusion that cuts across the bedding or foliation of the country rock. Cf. sill.

Dingle — (literary) a deep wooded valley or dell

1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash
1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash

Dip — A geomorphic component (characteristic piece) of flat plains (e.g. lake
plain, low coastal plain, low-relief till plain) consisting of a shallow and typically closed
depression that tends to be an area of focused groundwater recharge but not a permanent
water body and that lies slightly lower and is wetter than the adjacent talf (flat part), and favors the accumulation of fine sediments and organic materials.

Dip slope — A slope of the land surface, roughly determined by and approximately
conforming to the dip of underlying bedded rocks; (i.e., the long, gently inclined surface of a
cuesta). Cf. scarp slope.

Ditch — a landform created by running water. Smaller than a gully, which is smaller than a ravine.

Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627
Jan van Goyen (1596 – 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627

Draw — (US). a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain an ephemeral stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. A draw may be described as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.

Embankment — ‘a railway embankment’ (the little hill which elevates a railway line)

Escarpment — a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights. Commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. (Compare scarp)

Flat —An area of low level ground, especially near water. e.g. “the shingle flats of the lake”

Freshet — the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow

Fold — sheep walked up the lane and into the fold

Gap — a low point or opening between hills or mountains or in a ridge or mountain range. It may be called a col, notch, pass, saddle, water gap, or wind gap, and geomorphologically are most often carved by water erosion from a freshet, stream or a river.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised.

Glen — a narrow valley, especially in Scotland or Ireland.

Grain — a Scottish word for a tributary; the branch or fork of a stream or river, an arm of the sea.

Grange — (British) a country house with farm buildings attached. (Historical) an outlying farm with tithe barns belonging to a monastery or feudal lord

Sidney Richard Percy - Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874
Sidney Richard Percy – Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874

Gulch — a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. ‘…two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch…’ (“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”)

Gully — a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width.

Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children's Stories
Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children’s Stories

Heath — (British) an area of open uncultivated land, typically on acid sandy soil, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.

On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887
On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887

Hill — A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit.

Hollow — Another name for a valley. In literature, functions similarly to words like ‘gap’, symbolically/metaphorically suggesting an absence of something. See: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. A very small dale (a British term) is sometimes called a “hollow,” pronounced “holler” in American rural Appalachia.

Howard W. Thomas 'Nauvoo Hollow', Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938
Howard W. Thomas ‘Nauvoo Hollow’, Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938

Hummock — a hump or ridge in an ice field. (US) a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh.

Isthmus — a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.

Jungle — An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics. See: The Storybook Jungle for visual representations of jungles as they tend to appear in storybooks. Jungles are best suited to tree-dwelling apes, because food is found high off the ground (compared to the savanna).

Knob — a prominent round hill.

Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 - 1989)
Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 – 1989).

Lagoon — a stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef. In mythology and storytelling, lagoons tend to be associated with mermaids.

Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon
Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon

Lane — a narrow road, especially in a rural area

John Constable - Fen Lane, East Bergholt
John Constable – Fen Lane, East Bergholt

Lee — the sheltered side of something; the side away from the wind.

Lovely Is The Lee by Robert Gibbings

Moor —  a tract of open uncultivated upland, typically covered with heather. Think Wuthering Heights. Mary Lennox’s uncle in The Secret Garden lives in the Yorkshire Moors. The word ‘wutherin’ is used there, too: “Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house”. (Yorkshire dialect.) When trees are cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washes soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Moors therefore include the feeling of saudade (something missing, something which was once here but is no longer).

after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor, which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Mound — a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.

Mountain — A mountain is a large landform that rises above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally considered to be steeper than a hill.

Mountain Pass — A mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.

Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957
Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957

Notch — a rugged and forbidding col (for mountains rather than hills)

Outcrop — a rock formation. Somewhere like New Mexico is well-known for rocky outcrops.

New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976
New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976

Peninsula — a landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland it juts out from. Peninsulas can also be named: a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, fork, or spit. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a “peninsula” within the loop of water.

Sir David Murray - My Love has Gone a-Sailing 1883
My Love has Gone a-Sailing exhibited 1883 Sir David Murray 1849-1933

Plateau — In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side.

Point — a narrow piece of land jutting out into the sea. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape.

Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, 'Point Sur' landform
Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, ‘Point Sur’

Pow —Scottish word for a slow-moving stream

Ravine — a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides

Re-entrant — the international word for a ‘draw’. 

Ridge — a geological feature consisting of a chain of mountains or hills that form a continuous elevated crest for some distance. The sides of the ridge slope away from narrow top on either side. Ridges are usually termed hills or mountains as well, depending on size.

Ridge line — The line along the crest formed by the highest points, with the terrain dropping down on either side, is called the ridgeline.

Saddle — the lowest area between two highlands. 

Sand berm — In coastal systems, a berm is a raised ridge of pebbles or sand found at high tide or storm tide marks on a beach. In snow removal, a berm or windrow refers to the linear accumulation of snow cast aside by a plow.

Savanna — A wide, open, mostly flat landscape. Of all the geographical arenas, savannas contain the highest amount of protein per square kilometer. We can therefore deduce that this is humans’ natural landscape, where we largely evolved, and where we thrive. (Savannas were where we lived when we became meat eaters.) We find our meat at ground level, unlike in jungles, which are better suited to apes who can swing through the trees. Humans are attracted to the savanna in art, though the ideal ‘savanna’ is undulating, probably because high areas afford us a good vantage point, good for safety and hunting.

Scarp — a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment. “The north face is a very steep scarp.” “I got to my car, but before I could get in I had to run to the scarp of grass and weed that surrounded the parking lot.” (Louise Erdrich, “The Years Of My Birth”.)

Shore/Shoreline — the fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as an ocean, sea, or lake. In physical oceanography, a shore is the wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water past and present, while the beach is at the edge of the shore, representing the intertidal zone where there is one. In contrast to a coast, a shore can border any body of water, while the coast must border an ocean; in that sense a coast is a type of shore; however, coast often refers to an area far wider than the shore, often stretching miles into the interior.

Sinkhole — A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.

Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922
Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922

Sluice — a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate

1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK
1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK

Spur — A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge.

Stank — Scottish word for a pond

Stream — a small, narrow river

Myles Birket Foster - Children Paddling In A Stream
Myles Birket Foster – Children Paddling In A Stream

Syke — Scottish word for a small stream

Tarn — A mountain pool that forms in a hollow scooped out by a glacier is called a tarn. Officially, tarns are smaller than lakes. The word tarn comes from the Old Norse tjörn, “small mountain lake with no tributaries.”

Natural Environment - The Mountain - Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967
Natural Environment – The Mountain – Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967

Trench — A long, narrow ditch. Also, a long, narrow, deep depression in the ocean bed, typically one running parallel to a plate boundary and marking a subduction zone. Trenches have also often been dug for military defensive purposes, so have associations with war and death. Gullies and ditches are wider than trenches.


Turlough — (in Ireland) a low-lying area on limestone which becomes flooded in wet weather through the welling up of groundwater from the rock

Valley — a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.

Volcano — a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams volcano
Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams

Wind gap — another name for a notch

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Home » Symbolism

Header painting: Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks

The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)

Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.

Continue reading “Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks”

Wave Symbolism

1917 creepy dude with swimmer

Storytellers have long utilised the symbolism of dreams, which apply equally when we’re awake. Around the world, we all have a similar visceral reaction to forests, the colour red, skulls… In fiction these universal symbols indeed say something deeper about our collective anxieties and fixations. Same goes for waves.

What is the universal symbol of climate change? I can tell you already. It’s waves. I listened to an interview with an Australian climate change scientist who has recently decided to open up about her climate crisis anxiety. Other climate change scientists have thanked her for her honesty. Sounds like they’re all having these dreams. Dreams about massive waves crashing onto shore. In some dreams this particular scientist is sucked in by the wave; in others she’s trying to run away. 

This imagery is echoed in a British cartoon that came through my feed last month: three waves in increasing order of magnitude, the smallest labeled ‘Pandemic’, the next labeled ‘Brexit’, the biggest labeled ‘Climate Change’.

If you haven’t joined us already, when you start having nightmares about waves, then you’ll know you’re viscerally feeling our climate crisis.

Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett wave
Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
Art Lover (Tired Museum Feet), Stevan Dohanos, 1956
Art Lover (Tired Museum Feet), Stevan Dohanos, 1956
William Bouguereau - The Wave 1896
William Bouguereau – The Wave 1896
Shimizu Yūko  清水裕子, Japanese illustrator wave
Shimizu Yūko 清水裕子, Japanese illustrator
Nikifor Rashchektayev – The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish
JS Bach (Various) – Leonid Kogan with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Ackermann art by John Copeland
Sailing ship on raging waves, anonymous, after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1600 - 1625
Sailing ship on raging waves, anonymous, after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1600 – 1625
Winslow Homer - The Life-Line waves
Winslow Homer – The Life-Line
NACHTMERRIE OVER NEDERLAND (1945) L.J. Jordan the tidal wave
NACHTMERRIE OVER NEDERLAND (1945) L.J. Jordan the tidal wave
LADY FILMY FERN or The Voyage of the Window Box (early 1930s and 1980) Edward Bawden waves
LADY FILMY FERN or The Voyage of the Window Box (early 1930s and 1980) Edward Bawden waves
Illustration from In Search of the Castaways by Jules Verne, 1873 by Edouard Riou wave
Illustration from In Search of the Castaways by Jules Verne, 1873 by Edouard Riou wave
Webster Murray (ca1900-1957) 'Arctic Antics' Illustration for the London Illustrated News, 1928, mermaids wave
Webster Murray (ca1900-1957) ‘Arctic Antics’ Illustration for the London Illustrated News, 1928, mermaids wave
Patrick von Kalckreuth (1898 - 1970) The North Sea, 1955 waves
Patrick von Kalckreuth (1898 – 1970) The North Sea, 1955

The Biblical scene of the parting of the sea is almost a story which suggests the taming of the wave: the ultimate in supernatural prowess. The illustration below could also be of two tsunamis, but no, the waves are (presumably) static.

Arnold Friberg 10 Commandments sea


The tsunami has swept everything away—including Kenta’s most prized possession, his soccer ball. When tragedy strikes Kenta’s small village in Japan, he does all he can to hang on to the things that matter to him most. But amidst the chaos of an emergency evacuation brought on by the tsunami, Kenta and his family must quickly leave their home, taking with them only the barest necessities. Climbing to safer ground, Kenta watches helplessly as his prized soccer ball goes bouncing down a hill and gets swept away by the waves, never to be seen again… that is until it washes up on a beach on the other side of the world, into the hands of a child who takes it upon himself to return the ball to its rightful owner. In this evocative picture book, Ruth Ohi’s glowing art transports the reader to Japan with gentle images that offer reassurance amidst the background of an environmental catastrophe. Inspired by true stories of personal items being washed ashore thousands of miles away after the tsunami of 2011, Kenta and the Big Wave is about the strength of the human spirit and the power of Mother Nature. Including an afterword explaining tsunamis to young readers.

Ocean symbolism

Home » Symbolism

Header illustration: 1917, illustrator unknown to me

Symbolism of Eyes and Foucault’s Panopticon

The gaze is extremely powerful. Artist Marina Abramovic knew this when she sat in an art gallery and stared at people for months.

Harrison Fisher also understood when painting these girls, supposedly having fun, except for the one giving us the stink eye.

Harrison Fisher (1875 or 1877 – 1934) stink eye
Harrison Fisher (1875 or 1877 – 1934) stink eye

Eye contact has been emphasised in psychological research. Take the following experiment, first using a series of questions, interspersed with eye contact, all to induce intimacy between subjects. These 36 questions became widely known after Mandy Len Catron used them as part of the process in getting to know her boyfriend, then wrote an essay about that experience for the New York Time’s Modern Love column. The subjects are required to look each other in the eye. (This is a self-selected group. Many neurodiverse people would avoid an experiment like this.)

A cartoon by Charlie Hankin Unbroken Eye Contact
A cartoon by Charlie Hankin Unbroken Eye Contact

Eye Colour In Fiction

Eye colour is commonly mentioned in thumbnail character sketches. Don’t mention it unless it’s meaningful, and even then, be careful.

The Evil Eye

Colloquially known today as ‘the evils’ (in New Zealand) or ‘stink eye’ (in a funny scene from the film Juno), a threatening gaze or stare was once thought to be so powerful it caused actual harm.

As a result, numerous amulets and charms have been invented, thought to protect one from the harms of the Evil Eye.

Eye contact varies significantly across cultures. Western, neurotypical cultures are commonly, problematically, thought to set the ‘correct default’ when it comes to eye-contact. In the West, eye contact gives the impression of reliability and sincerity. But in many, if not most, cultures around the world, eye-contact is commonly perceived as threatening, and avoiding someone’s gaze is often simply a sign of situationally appropriate submission. For our closest animal relatives, the same holds. This leads me to believe that eye-contact ‘rules’ in my own Western culture default is a contrivance, impressed upon others from leaders in a patriarchy, which always functions best with overt and commonly understood displays of dominance.

Austin artist John Cleveland designed the pyramid-and-eye album cover. The album’s sound, featuring elements of psychedelia, garage rock, folk, and blues, is notable for its use of the electric jug, as featured on the band’s only hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.
1936-1939 WPA illustration eye poster Keeping Up With Science
1936-1939 WPA illustration Keeping Up With Science
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition by August Natterer 1913
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition by August Natterer 1913
Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004
Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004

Sanpaku eyes is a Japanese term to describe eyes which show a lot of white above or below the pupils. Transliterated, it means ‘three whites’ (each side as well as above or below). When illustrating a character, it’s a great way to create an ominous look.

Artist unknown, The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936), One Sheet Movie Poster sanpuku eyes
Artist unknown, The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936), One Sheet Movie Poster sanpuku eyes
Carlos Schwabe, July 21, 1866-January 26, 1926, 1900, Paris
Carlos Schwabe, July 21, 1866-January 26, 1926, 1900, Paris
Harry Clarke, Irish. 1889-1931. An illustration for Goethe’s Faust, c. 1925
Illustration by Tancredi Scarpetti, 1932 letter
Illustration by Tancredi Scarpetti, 1932
Georg Tronnier, 1902 ink advertisement
Georg Tronnier, 1902 ink advertisement

Eyeball Warding Off Evil

Apotropes are specific kinds of amulets designed to ward off evil. The word comes from Greek and means ‘turn away’. This amulet features a protective symbol such as an eye. Eyes are thought to ward off the evil eye by staring right back at it.

The idea that you can overcome evil by looking something directly in the eye is a trick from psychology, based on the idea that you can only overcome something if you face it first. For example, addicts must acknowledge they have an addiction problem before they can start to control their addiction.

This idea is also used in various narratives at the Battle scene (climax). An excellent example of that is the movie The Ritual. A man with PTSD after the murder of his friend enters the forest and encounters a terrible monster. He overcomes this monster not by escaping it, tricking it or killing it with a gun but by mustering the courage to put his face right up to the monster’s face. The monster can no longer bother him. The monster is clearly a symbol for some very hard emotions — emotions the main character must learn to live with rather than banish, which would only result in suppression.

One-eyed Creatures

The one-eyed creature is as scary as the three-eyed creature. Humans have evolved from bilateral symmetry, starting with the bony fishes. Therefore, anything without bilateral symmetry is nowhere near related to us.

Unless there’s been a genetic mutation, that is. One-eyed sheep have been overexposed to a chemical known as cyclopamine, clearly named after the Cyclops, an ogre from Greek mythology. He has one eye.

We all go through a forebrain dividing process in utero. But when that process is interrupted, it’s known as cyclopia. When human babies are born with cyclopia, they live only for about a day.

The Pineal Eye

A parietal eye, also known as a third eye or pineal eye, is a part of the epithalamus present in some species of fish, amphibians and reptiles. René Descartes believed the human pineal gland to be the “principal seat of the soul”. Some existing reptiles such as monitor lizards, some iguanas and the tuatara still have a pineal eye. (Only cold-blooded creatures have one.)

Mammalian ancestors likely shifted from “cold” to “warm” blood 246 million years ago. The basic make-up of the eye is similar between cold and warm blooded creatures.

The pineal eye differs from a regular eye. It’s usually covered by a thick and large scale and can differentiate between light and dark only. It basically acts as a calendar. Is it daytime or nighttime? Winter or summer? It also helps reptiles to regular body temperature. Mammals don’t get much use out of it, so we lost it.

“Everything looks different to me when I look at it with you. Have I mentioned that?”
“No,” said Harry. “Perhaps you open a sort of pineal eye and see with that one as well as the other two.”
“What?” said Felix, taken-aback and intrigued. “A what?”
“I think that’s what it’s called,” Harry said doubtfully. “I”m not even sure if it’s a real eye. Tuataras have them. Eye number three on the top of the head, all overgrown with scales.”
“It’s not as silly as it sounds,” Felix said. “If I found I had opened a third eye these days, one that saw more deeply into things than the other two, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. Shall we hold hands or leave that respectable space between us?”

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

Eyeball As Symbols of Surveillance

The symbol of the All Seeing Eye can be seen famously on the American dollar note. This is also known by conspiracy theorists as The Eye of Providence. I can’t be the only one who finds this creepy because the existence of an eyeball on a Government issue ‘document’ has given rise to various creepy theories.

The Eye of Providence has been used throughout history to represent God watching over us. This All Seeing Eye / Eye of Providence has its roots in the Egyptian Eye of Horus. The triangle was added later. Now we have the Christian Trinity — Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

The eye in triangle was adopted as a symbol of the Illuminati and the Freemasons, both secretive organisations. The Illuminati is an organisation within the Catholic Church. According to Freemasonry God is considered Architect of the Universe. Hence the eyeball in a triangle as their symbol, first used as a Masonic symbol in 1797.

When creating characters for children’s books, it’s really easy to get the eyes wrong. The eyes make or break a piece. I’m not sure if the artist behind each picture below intended peak creep, but if so, a gold star.

Foucault’s Panopticon

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who left us with some very interesting ideas. He thought of his ideas as a toolbox, and others were welcome to take tools from it, using them how they wished. Foucault provided us with the concept of the heterotopia and also with the concept of the panopticon. Foucault’s main interest was with systems of power and oppression.

Foucault rejected the notion that power comes from the top and that if we cut the head of the king off we can be free.

There’s a 1968 slogan, about lifting up cobblestones, finding a beach and finding sexual pleasure and being happy. (Something like that.) It may have worked like in the 17th century regime, but not today. Today power comes from the decentralised networks of institutions where professionals have the right to classify individuals through categories. 

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault critiqued the apparatus of modern society — schools, hospitals and so on — rather than how people traditionally thought of power structures (led by monarchies). This other kind is now widely known as ‘capillary power’.

In describing capillary power, Foucault presented us with the idea of the panopticon. The panopticon was based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century architectural drawings of a prison.

Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison

Key features of the panopticon:

  1. A central observation tower for the guard
  2. A periphery comprising a circular building with circular cells
  3. Crucially, all of the cells have windows. This isn’t to keep the Hannibal Lecters of this world happy. The windows are not for prisoners’ benefit at all. Instead, light floods the cells so that prisoners can be observed from the tower.

The point is that the inmates observe themselves. They begin to monitor themselves, taking that gaze and imagining we are being watched even when we aren’t. Nobody holds ‘power’. This is how Foucault’s work becomes a critique of Marxism – nobody holds power; we hold it within our very sense of ourselves. (Foucault’s gayness was probably crucial here – later academics have studied this internalised homophobia in much depth.

It’s significant that Michel Foucault lived as a gay man in a dangerously homophobic time. Foucault was a playful, youthful character, but he was also at times very unhappy. He attempted suicide more than once. When faced with the medical establishment, Foucault was told that his illness was because of his homosexuality (not because he was required to live in a homophobic society). So Foucault had personal experience with the medicalisation of something which should never have been medicalised – his sexuality. He gave much thought to how people are surveilled, and even when no one is watching, we still feel watched and judged.

For excellent insight into how homophobia affects mental health, see the work of New Zealand’s Professor Michael Ross, whose research looks into sexual risk behaviour and mental health in gay and bisexual men across cultures and continents. Or perhaps listen to Professor Ross interviewed on Radio New Zealand.

Illustration by Fred Banbery for ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GHOSTLY GALLERY (1962)
Illustration by Fred Banbery for ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GHOSTLY GALLERY (1962)
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935). The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house.

Black Eyed Kids

Black-eyed kids are paranormal creatures from contemporary American culture. The stories began in the mid 1990s. They’re thought to be normal looking teenagers who wear hoodies. They’ll knock on your door asking for help. The story goes downhill from there. Their entire eyes are black. Some people think these stories come from drug-addicted young people, because of the dilated pupils experienced by drug users.


Cover illustration for Madeleine L'engle’s A Wind in the Door, 1973, Cover Artist unknown
Cover illustration for Madeleine L’engle’s A Wind in the Door, 1973, Cover Artist unknown

This cherub, whom Meg affectionately refers to as Progo, is an extraterrestrial alien who resembles an apocalyptic angel, having many wings and eyes like the seraphim in the Biblical book, the Revelation of John. His name means ‘foresight’ or ‘foreknowledge’ in Koine Greek, and his character is described as one who names, specifically, he is a namer of the stars. He teaches the protagonists how to use telepathy, and assists them in their quest, eventually sacrificing himself for their salvation, a notably messianic act.

Green-eyed Monsters

The green-eyed monster is a line from Shakespeare’s Othello and no commonly means jealously personified. (Monsterfied?)

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Noah and the Rainbow An Ancient Story, illustrated by Helga Aichinger, 1972 eyeline
Noah and the Rainbow An Ancient Story, illustrated by Helga Aichinger, 1972. There are tricks illustrators can use to show where a character is looking and not all of them look light they’ve come straight out of a comic book. This is one fine art example.
"The Green Eyed Monster' illustration by Anton Pieck from 'The Ring Of Seven' (1939)
“The Green Eyed Monster’ illustration by Anton Pieck from ‘The Ring Of Seven’ (1939)
John Schoenherr (1935 - 2010) 1971 book cover illustration for Catseye by Andre Norton
John Schoenherr (1935 – 2010) 1971 book cover illustration for Catseye by Andre Norton
Virgil Finlay's artwork 1950s
Virgil Finlay’s artwork 1950s


Opia: The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.


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Home » Symbolism

Symbolism of the Maze and Labyrinth

The Cat Returns suburbia as maze

I hate being lost. I’m not the only one. Before the age of cities, suburbs and GPS, it really was dangerous to separate from your tribe.

Professor Kenneth Hill has studied the psychological effects of getting lost, and was interviewed by Jim Mora on the RNZ Sunday morning radio show. Jim asks, why do people freak out when getting lost?

No surprise, I’m not a huge fan of mazes. I’ve been in a hedge maze, and once rented a barn at a maze made of maize, but never entered the maze. Wasn’t interested.

Mazes and labyrinths look a little similar at first glance but once you’re stuck inside one it feels quite different. Here’s the difference: Mazes have many different paths branching off into dead ends, making their symbolism similar to that of the crossroad. If you’re ever stuck inside a maze you’ll have to make decisions about which path to take.

MAZES (1976) Rolf Myller
MAZES (1976) Rolf Myller

But once you enter a labyrinth you are forced to trudge along a single, massively long pathway. The path takes you round and round until eventually — after the longest path possible — you will end up at its centre. According to Greek mythology, a scary part-bull, part-man lives at the centre of the labyrinth at Knossos. He was a chimerical creature killed by a prince called Theseus. Theseus found his way back out by following the length of string he’d unspooled on his way in. (This was actually Ariadne’s idea, the daughter of Minos, who was in love with him. He later abandoned her on an island.)

A similar kind of trickiness is utilised in the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, but unfortunately birds ate the starving children’s crumbs.

Theseus’s length ofstring may seem clever, but was a bit overkill. It shouldn’t be that hard to find your way out of a labyrinth. I haven’t tried this, but apparently you pick a hand, touch the wall with it. Keep that same hand touching the wall and walk until you’re out. A labyrinth is not like a maze, where you have to remember which decisions you made on the way in, only in reverse. This technique also works for mazes actually (with the only tricky bit being bits of wall not attached to anything). You won’t get out by the fastest route doing this, but you’ll make it out alive.

Kevin from The American Office panicking inside Dwight’s hay maze

In modern English, the words maze and labyrinth are often used interchangeably and can function symbolically in many various ways, as reflected in ancient traditions:

  • protection against supernatural powers
  • a path the dead must follow on their way to the world of the spirits (mazes as liminal spaces)
  • Mazes divorce the traveller from the comfort of cardinal direction, shucking off all symbolism to do with points on a compass. This is how a labyrinth/maze can help you find your spiritual path. Removed from the constraints of linear time and markers of ‘the real world’, the traveller has no choice but to focus inward. This is how you find your ‘true path’ in life.
  • In more modern dystopian fiction, the labyrinth can symbolise organisations in which it’s impossible to get anything done — paperwork, bureaucracy. The labyrinth is especially good for conveying this idea because it takes you on the longest journey possible to the centre, or truth.
  • Related to this, the maze/labyrinth symbolises anywhere clarity is deliberately suppressed. This often harks back to a much older story (e.g. the Garden of Eden) in which knowledge is the ultimate taboo (especially for women).
  • The maze/labyrinth is a paradoxical symbol because when viewed from above, or when designed by its artist, the maze is this beautiful, symmetrical work of art. But when you’re stuck inside one at ground level, you become confused, frustrated and ultimately hit peak despair.
  • The labyrinth as an idea is closely related to the knot because they both symbolise journeys. The difference is that in knotwork design there is no beginning and no ending. (The branch of mathematics known as knot theory also studies knots with no beginnings and endings. The simplest mathematical knot is a ring.) A story like Andrea Arnold’s film American Honey resembles a knot more than a labyrinth because the ending suggests our main character will be on the road forever.
  • To enter a labyrinth and make it out alive symbolises a rebirth. Therefore, the labyrinth might be regarded a womb. Fairylands function similarly, or any land beyond the fantasy portal. Once inside, the hero’s mission is to make it out alive.

ABANDONMENT: The symbolism of abandonment has a similar range of reference to that of the ‘lost object’, and they are both parallel to the symbolism of death and resurrection. To feel abandoned is, essentially, to feel forsaken by the ‘god within us’, that is, to lose sight of the eternal light in the human spirit. This imparts to the individual’s existence a sense of estrangement — to which the labyrinth theme is also related.

A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Circlot
Labyrinth, 1991 by Leonora Carrington, UK-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter, and novelist
Labyrinth, 1991 by Leonora Carrington, UK-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter, and novelist


by Alice and Martin Provensen from “Myths and Legends” (1959). Minotaur and Theseus.

Returning now to Greek mythology, the word ‘labyrinth’ means ‘house of the double axe’. The labrys is an ancient and symbolic axe. What have axes got to do with labyrinths? The labrys was a powerful emblem in Minoan culture — Bronze Age people of Crete (c. 3000 BC — 1100 BC). The Minoans got their name from Minos, a legendary figure from Greek legend, and that’s where ‘Minotaur’ comes from as well. (Minotaur = Minos + bull.)

However, the labyrinth is not a specifically Greek concept. To show the universality of labyrinth symbolism/mythic structure look at the following examples from all around the world:

  • The labyrinth is found on fragments of amulets from Ancient Egypt, who believed the labyrinth mirrored the afterlife
  • in Turkey
  • Greece
  • in the tantric texts of India and in the design of mandalas
  • on Mycenean seals
  • and Etruscan vases
  • in Ireland and Britain, pre-figured in the ring-and-cup marks of stonework and at sights such as Newgrange. (Hedge mazes were an English variation.)
  • Labyrinths were adopted by Christian churches (initially in Algeria)
  • For a while, labyrinths were found in almost all Gothic Catholic cathedrals because walking them was meant to be meditative. But I guess some people found them too fun because most were later removed. They distracted from the religious services in the nave.
  • The Dearinth is a symbol invented by Oberon Zell, used as the symbol for his Church of All Worlds. (That guy also coined the term neo-Pagan.) This symbol is a labyrinth and also looks like a god/goddess stretching their arms above the head.
The Dearinth

Labyrinths are sometimes called ‘Solomon’s Mazes’ because there’s a famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, about 80 km outside Paris, which is exactly 666 feet long (the devil’s number!). At the centre of this labyrinth there’s a six-petaled flower containing the Seal of Solomon inside it. (Either a pentagram or hexagram shape. If it’s a hexagram, it’s known as the Star of David in Jewish tradition. It was meant to be a signet ring owned by King Solomon.)


Gothic stories tend to feature castles as part of the ominous setting. The massive castle is basically the home equivalent of a labyrinth.

Related to these actual Gothic castles are labyrinthine computer game stories, or anything set in cyberspace. Thematically, these settings tend to explore ideas around double consciousness and moral disintegration. They are often metafictive. From 19th century Gothic fiction to ultra-contemporary speculative work, the concept of the labyrinth is heavily utilised as a symbol in fiction.


In the Studio Ghibli anime The Cat Returns, a girl rescues a cat and finds herself caught inside a fantasy world inhabited by talking cats. A castle within the fantasy world features a maze as part of its fortress. This maze is remarkably difficult because the walls keep moving around. The cats are wearing bits of wall, which means the walls have legs.

What’s especially interesting about this setting: Haru’s suburban Japanese life melds into the fantasy world. Some of the cats in the real world are magical, for instance. Apart from that, the narrow, winding, maze-like alleyways of suburbia echo the literal maze of her fantasy world.

The Cat Returns is a super clear example of this, but any urban story which features characters running between tall buildings, perhaps on a chase, perhaps on a ticking-clock mission, is drawing on ancient maze symbolism, and the terror of feeling lost.


People who study storytelling tend to use the labyrinth as a symbol of the classic mythic journey. When I say ‘classic’, I mean masculine. Christopher Vogler’s book The Hero’s Journey even features a labyrinth on the cover.

In the hero’s journey, earlier described by Joseph Campbell, a character leaves home to embark upon a journey into the centre of his soul, fights a massive opponent (the Minotaur) and then finds his way out of the labyrinth/subconcious. At the end he’ll have either returned home or found a new one, but either way, he’s changed forever.

It’s fascinating to consider how bad humans are at directions compared to almost all animals, especially certain birds, like homing pigeons. When did we lose this ability to know where we are in space? And might it be possible to get it back? A fascinating podcast on this topic a podcast entitled “A Sense of Direction” from Seriously…Presents:

Many animals can navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Not humans, though. But might we have evolved the sense but forgotten how to access it? 40 years ago a British zoologist thought he had demonstrated a homing ability in humans. But his results failed to replicate in America and the research was largely discredited. But new evidence suggests that our brains can in fact detect changes in the magnetic field and may even be able to use it to navigate. … Is the magic still there for all of us, just waiting to be rediscovered?

Шерстюк Сергей Александрович (1951-1998) «Exit» 1988
Шерстюк Сергей Александрович (1951-1998) «Exit» 1988. A long hallway with many doors coming off it is the architectural equivalent of a maze or labyrinth.

Header image: Scene from The Cat Returns

Chimneys In Art And Storytelling

Fred Cecil Jones (British,1891-1956) - Chimney stacks and winding ways, 1936

Chimneys are inherently scary. A few years ago I turned up at our local country bookclub and assumed the host had been slow cooking meat for dinner. Others entered one by one and assumed the same. The grim truth was revealed; a possum had fallen down the chimney. I won’t go into further details because they are gruesome and tortuous. But I’ve heard the story more than once. Owning a chimney, at least in Australia and New Zealand, puts wildlife at risk.

Certain wildlife is attracted to chimneys, sometimes because they’re trying to find a hidey-hole to escape a predator, and sometimes, I wonder, if they are attracted to the heat in wintertime.

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
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