Some historians and anthropologists believe that the earliest art was created while under the influence of mind-altering substances.
Artists, by their very nature, are a breed apart and have access to brilliant worlds but dimly perceived by what Hogwarts-trained magicians would call 'muggles.'
Art, by its very nature, is the translation and transmission to others of perceptions of those numinous worlds through various media - petroglyphs, music, dance, drama, novels, movies, games, etc.
Yet how can you the artist possibly transmit the ephemeral, the ineffable, the sublime? How can you take what you have perceived in your own altered states - whether reached via meditation, movement, marijuana, martinis or any other consciousness-altering tool - and make it accessible to the rest of us?
Symbols and images affect people emotionally - hence their exceptional effectiveness. Because there is no particular rational attachment to them, visuals are a universal language that engages our intuition and imagination.
In previous articles of this series on Conscious Media we've looked at the Mythic Statements [Thematic, Mission, Lesson]; the Inner Drives 8 Centers of Motivation [chakras], the 5 steps on the Path of Initiation [Physical, Emotional, Mental, Dark Night, Ascension]; and the 5 ArchePaths [Warrior, Monk, Scientist, Magician, Lover] and their 3 levels as guides to character creation. In this article we'll explore the use of Symbols and Imagery.
Some of these materials are excerpted from my book SYMBOLS, IMAGES, CODES: The Secret Language of Meaning in Film, TV, Games, and Visual Media due out from Michael Wiese Productions in 2010.
How Symbols Work
Humans are meaning-making creatures. We see animals in the clouds, Mother Theresa on cinnamon buns, and Jesus on rusty screen doors...or was that Willie Nelson?
Communication is the most important aspect of human interaction and it is accomplished in a number of ways, from utilitarian to artistic. Some of the most primitive yet still most effective modes of communication are visual - that's just how our brains are wired.
PET-scans and MRIs reveal the location where particular images cause reactions: squares here, circles there, triangles over here. Some of this is just our animal heritage taken to a more sophisticated level. Baby chicks instinctively run and hide from the shadow of a cardboard hawk. One night walking past an old building I leapt three feet when half-glimpsing a statue of a crouching lion. Our brains are built to recognize danger. They're also built to recognize positive situations like good breeding material, healthy food, and safe havens.
About 40,000 years ago, humans began creating media. They held their hands against a rock wall and blew out a mixture of spit and pigment, the first air-brushed images. Graffiti tagging begins here.
Though some of the details may bemuse us, we are still impressed by symbols and images hundreds and thousands of years old. Carvings on temples in India offer enlightenment advice disguised as sexual positions; ancient Egyptian art offers instructions on navigating the afterlife; stained glass in European cathedrals iconized Bible stories for illiterate congregations; and early American builders of massive mound complexes seem to have thought their audience was spirits high in the sky.
People have waged war under symbols: the Roman Empire's Eagle (co-opted by the Nazis), the Crusader cross of Christendom, the crescent moon of Islam, the hammer and sickle of the old Soviet Union. People also accomplish great deeds of generosity and self-sacrifice under icons: peaceful Buddha, Virgin Mary's compassionate sacred heart, the rainbow of many ancient cultures and the modern lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender [LGBT] movement.
Symbols and images also convey emotions, states of mind, and actions frozen in time. Bernini's exquisite marble statue of Saint Theresa of Avila quivers with the ecstasy of adoration. A flower crushed in bloody battlefield mud captures war's tragic futility as in All Quiet on the Western Front. A raised fist commemorates a revolution, a raised flag a victory, and a bird in flight a valiant act or a release to freedom as when replicant-robot Rutger Hauer dies in Blade Runner.
In today's multi-cultural, instantaneously interconnected global village we speak hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects with diverse and specific cultural backgrounds. How can we communicate effectively across all these borders?
With the unspoken universal language of visuals. The more consciously you can use symbols and images in your stories, the more effective your message will be.
Some symbols are really obvious signals about situations or states of mind - the tossing waves for emotional turmoil, the fence between two people indicating ideological or social barriers, the rainbow symbolizing hope and connectivity.
Many universal symbols are taken from nature: the elements, plants, physical features such as rivers, caves, mountains, stars... Our meaning-making tendencies assign pretty much everything that exists with some obvious or subtle meaning relative to ourselves.
In this article we'll take a look at some major concepts that afford very dramatic imagery: Animals, Duality, and The Leap.
From Aesop's Fables to The Chronicles of Narnia, from the dog-headed Egyptian god Anubis to Scooby Doo, we've always used animals to symbolize aspects of human nature: crafty fox, courageous lion, wily serpent, silly goose, loyal dog, independent cat, etc.
Tribes and clans have totem animals, and nations have symbolic animals. The Roman Empire, Nazi Germany, and the USA all claimed the eagle.
Astrology uses animals to signal the main psychological aspect of many signs: Aries ram, Taurus bull, Pisces fish, etc. The concept of nature's interconnectedness is symbolized by the spider in many mythologies.
Pantheons are rich with animal gods, part-animal gods, and mixed-animal gods. Angels have bird wings. The Babylonian teacher god Oannes was fish on top, man on bottom; or maybe just a smart sailor wearing chain-mail armor.
Because animal traits are the same the world over, you can easily use an animal to elicit a strong, immediate identification of some specific emotion, situation, or concept.
We humans are torn on the inside between different motives - the angel and the devil on our shoulders, whispering their dark and light, self and shadow urges into our ears. We are torn on the outside between the many choices life continually presents: the polarity of friendships and loves, the matching and mis-matching of ourselves with others, work versus play. Symbols of duality strike a familiar and often troubling chord within our psyches.
Influenced perhaps by the dualities of night and day, sun and moon, we tend to split our experience of the world into dualities: good and evil, hot and cold, war and peace, friend and foe, black and white, forward and back, past and present, life and death.
Most mythologies have a story about twins who usually end up as rivals, sometimes as friends. There was Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament, the Dogon Nummo twins, Mezo-American twins Hunadu and Zbalanque, and Mesopotamian opposites Gilgamesh and Enkidu who aren't related but after a fierce battle become best friends.
One's 'doppelganger' or ghost is usually an ill omen. In Fight Club, Brad Pitt is Edward Norton's doppelganger, living out the violent and confident parts of himself he still represses.
In the silent classic Metropolis, an evil scientist builds a robot that looks just like the kind-hearted heroine; the robot twin leads rebellious workers to storm the city of the elites; the real woman saves the day.
The Man in the Iron Mask is the story of French King Louis XIV and his hidden twin, rescued by the Musketeers.
Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is a classic duality/twins story.
An episode in the first Star Trek TV series pits two men of different races on the same planet against each other in a lesson about the ridiculousness of prejudice: one's face is black on the left and white on the right, and the other's is just the opposite.
John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play an FBI Agent and a terrorist in Face-Off. There are face-replacement operations and switched identities. The terrorist Castor Troy has a brother Pollux - named after the mythical twin brothers of Helen of Troy.
Harvey Dent and Batman become ill-fated twins in The Dark Knight.
Other examples are the twin witches in Spirited Away; Heat finds criminal DeNiro and cop Pacino as mirrors of each other; Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and Bette Davis in Dead Ringer play troubled twins; Frost/Nixon illustrates the duality between those two real men.
Use Duality to indicate an inner, psychological conflict. To indicate two diverse ways of life: sophisticated vs. simple, ethical vs. depraved, solitary vs. gregarious, etc. To increase the conflict between characters or groups of characters. To signal a deeper relationship between two seemingly diverse people or situations.
The best stories are about transformation - sometimes external, sometimes internal, usually both. A character transforms, a situation transforms, the environment transforms. The exaggerated transformations in stories give us examples of how to approach the changes in our own lives.
Showing characters actually leaping from one physical spot to another symbolizes a shift into a different state of being. Initiatory systems often use the leap to symbolize a change from childhood to adulthood, single to married, outsider to insider.
Dramatic conflict surrounds this pivot point in a story because once a character has made such a radical shift, the old ways no longer work and it often takes them a while to adjust to the new way. They can yearn all they want for the old way, but there's just no going back.
Philosophically this image of The Leap says a lot about the unstoppable passage of time and how it affects us all.
The Tarot card of The Fool symbolizes the initiate starting out on the journey of discovery, the Hero's Journey. He is poised to step out into thin air and looks pretty happy about it. For many others however it is not always a welcome step but rather a move of desperation. Like it or not, when you step off the edge some sort of transformation is guaranteed.
In The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and determined to find the one-armed man who actually killed her, must stay out of jail to do so. Eluding the law, he makes a desperate Leap out over a dam and into a swift-flowing river. Now presumed dead (for a while), Dr. Kimble is able to pursue the search for the real killer. The Leap typically symbolizes the death of the former self and a new beginning.
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, pursued by a posse with no chance of escaping back the way they came, Butch (Paul Newman) suggests a Leap into the river below. When Sundance (Robert Redford) protests that he can't swim, Butch blithely replies that given the height and the swiftness of the river, it'll hardly matter. They jump.
Though the tone feels light, this is life-or-death for our anti-heroes. They escape this time, and do try to go straight. But it doesn't work out and they eventually meet death in a rain of lawmen's bullets. Here the heroes were not able to leave their former lives behind.
Sometimes The Leap is done not for the self but for others, often at great cost to one's self. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the motivation is love. Indy's father (Sean Connery) is dying and only Indy (Harrison Ford) can save him by finding the Holy Grail somewhere across that deep chasm.
This is truly a Leap of Faith as the bridge is invisible until Indy steps on to it. Change is often like that - impossible to imagine until you actual do it.
Occasionally The Leap is literally from one state of physical existence to another.
In Thelma and Louise, what began as a run from unsatisfying lives has gone horribly wrong. Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) have killed a rapist and are surrounded by cops. Deciding they can't turn back but will bravely go together for total transformation, they grasp hands and hurtle out over the edge of the canyon and into another state of being entirely. Killing off your heroines can be dramatically affecting. Just be certain you've justified it throughout the story and have given enough of a setup that it doesn't feel false.
Use this device of The Leap when your characters or a situation has reached a seeming Point of No Return. Show that what's behind is undesirable and what's ahead is unknown. There should be some obvious risk, and some personal sacrifice involved. Sometimes the sacrifice is of a way of life, or social connections, or a treasured object. Sometimes it's life itself.
The Leap is not effective if there's a sure thing on the other side, so work in ambiguity. Make the Leaper unsure of the reward, or unsure if there even is a reward for taking the Leap.
Like a magic decoder ring, the spinning dials of The Da Vinci Code's cryptex, or the hidden-in-plain-sight symbols of a secret society, consciously using the timeless power of symbols and images will heighten the emotional impact of your stories and will connect your audience to the rich stream of meaning - conscious and unconscious - that flows through humanity and our arts.