Photos: ©Taschen, ARAS.
Reflections on Archetypal Images
Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin liberate the psyche
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
website Preview pdf The Book of Symbols
“When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.”
- Meister Eckhart
Symbolic images are more than data; they are vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.
Eckhart’s words also explain why a book of images matters in a world as chaotic and complex as our own.
- ARAS Curator Ami Ronnberg
Taschen’s beautiful new publication The Book of Symbols is a spacious retreat from corporate noise and electronic haste. To open its covers is to put aside commerce and entertain the enduring mysteries of life and death that imbue even our most prosaic acts with meaning.
The Book of Symbols invites intuitive wandering and creative reflection. We offer a gentle caveat emptor, meant to encourage: The Book of Symbols is neither a handy reference guide nor an encyclopedia of facts and denotations. You won’t find simple equations or interpretations of dreams.
Instead, over 700 images, carefully gleaned from thousands of years of artistic and ritual representation embody the book’s themes of “Creation and Cosmos,” and “Plant,” “Animal,” “Human” and “Spirit Worlds.”
Readers are treated to essays that suggest rather than define the meanings of symbols that cross time and culture. Over thirteen years in the making and running to 800 pages including research ready sources and index, the heart-savvy joy of this book is its insight-yielding selection of art.
Image and text open up a symbol
Spanning a range from fine art to religious icons, children’s drawing to cave painting, the images have been chosen as touchstones in the open field of consciousness and human expression; the unique nature of each image as well as its specificity provides entry to the multivalence of universal symbols.
Editor Kathleen Martin describes the development of The Book of Symbols:
The intention was not to describe at any length the artistic features or contextual history of these images but rather to allow them to serve as points of departure for the essays that follow.
Together, image and text open up a symbol, telling something about its essential nature and what its intrinsic qualities evoke.
The essays, like the symbolic energies they describe, flow into each other in ways that mirror psyche’s unexpected convergences. You might read the entry on Breath, for example, and then be intuitively drawn to Wind and Bird.
Our hope is that a wide range of readers will find The Book of Images absorbing, and that in turn it will stir their own reflections, insights and symbolic imaginings.
The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism
The Book of Symbols’ editor-in-chief, Ami Ronnberg, is the curator of The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) “a pictorial and written archive of mythological, ritualistic, and symbolic images from all over the world and from all epochs of human history.”
With libraries in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco,
The ARAS archive contains about 17,000 photographic images, each cross-indexed, and accompanied by scholarly commentary. Often it also includes an archetypal commentary that brings the image into focus for its modern psychological and symbolic meaning, as well as a bibliography for related reading and a glossary of technical terms.
The ARAS commentaries honor both the universal patterns and specific cultural context associated with each image, something seldom found in other collections.
Though of course masterly in its own right, The Book of Symbols is an introduction of sorts to this treasury, the impressive depths of which can be fully accessed on line through an annual membership.
For editor-in-chief Ronnberg an image like those in The Book of Symbols is a “threshold leading to new dimensions of meaning.”
Tame the unbridled, harmonize chaos
If your work life revolves around creativity or thematic material, The Book of Symbols expands on the nuances that sometimes differentiate, sometimes unite symbols such as “Fire,” “Spark,” “Sunrise,” “Dawn.” Sections on the human body explore the resonance of “Skin,” “Bone,” “Spine,” and “Skull,” as well as the deep sexuality of “Menstruation” and “Masturbation.”
The symbols presented in the chapter on “Structures” include evocative images of and essays on “Windows,” “Gates,” “Stairways” and “Tunnels” in the section on House and Home that contrast with similar entries on “Labyrinths,” “Crossroads” and “Spirals,” or perhaps relate to “Shapeshifting,” “Metamorphosis” and “Transformation.”
The beauty of this book is its deliberate lack of sequentiality and its ease of fertile suggestion.
In a pretty section on Sound, for example, singular essays on various musical instruments such as “Drums,” “Bells,” “Flutes,” “Harps” and “Trumpets” effectively remind us how much we already know about the appearance of heralds or seductresses.
Courtesans, magicians and tricksters are depicted with the flute. Yet, in the hands especially of the shepherd, the flute evokes the capacity to restrain the passions, quiet the appetites, tame what is unbridled within and harmonize the chaos of its force.
This essay on flutes is delightfully in concert with images of a Persian miniature of Krishna from 1760 and a Werner Bischof 1954 photograph of a flute-playing Peruvian boy.
Compels our attention and unfolds in new meanings
Not since The Family of Man has a collection of images lobbied our consideration this successfully, to be released from the aesthetic day job of period and genre, to the shadow work of all art as essence and avatar of culture.
Turning pages we slip into relationships among an image of the sky goddess Nut, Georgia O’Keefe’s clouds and a photograph of wood and feather Navajo ceremonial wind snakes.
Wind exists beautifully, they say. Back there in the underworlds, this was a person it seems.
For the Navajo, wind is the unifying force of nature, encompassing primordial mists, light and darkness, the greatness of the mountains and the four cardinal directions.
- fiery, parching or blustery, frigid and cutting. Wind is all these things. Gentle, cradling, pushy, violent, it gets us, settles over us, flows within us –
It is this, it is a person, they say.
The Book of Symbols is overflowing with inspiration for teachers, writers, and artists. Whether you need a boost of imagination to get out of a creative rut or shot of free association to shake off the grip of a blank page, browsing its thoughtfully edited pages will bear results.
As Kahtleen Martin writes, “A still vital symbol remains partially unknown, compels our attention and unfolds in new meanings and manifestations over time.”
The Book of Symbols is dedicated to demonstrating this eternal unfolding.
You can download a wonderful preview of the book here:
Book of Symbols Preview
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.