The definition of symbols is very vast. A symbol is something such as an object, a word or a picture, that represents something else by association. As an example, a language is a symbol, a name is the symbol representing a person.
Think of the symbol for a toilet. If you do a search for symbols for toilets or public rest rooms you will be inundated with loads of clever graphics depicting his and her toilets. Some include the word for male or female in a particular country’s language. With others the signs are just graphic images. Sometimes when I am traveling I wish there would be signs indicating the quality of toilet paper being used. I think one of my favorite international toilet signs was seen in Pamukkale, Turkey. The man’s toilet sign featured a line drawing of a man’s silhouette with his hands on his hips and a little line of water squirting from his crotch area. The woman’s sign had a outlined lady sitting on a toilet with a bow in her hair. I hope the lady’s toilet had nice, soft toilet paper.
And for some common items, such as a wig, there are no recognizable symbols. I was just recently browsing through Raquel Welch wigs styles at an online wig boutique while I was writing this post and couldn’t for the life of me come up with a graphic symbol for a wig. Wig brands such as Raquel Welch have their logos, but they don’t make a viewer think “wig.” And the images that do connote “wig” really are images rather than a graphic symbol. Certainly lots of people wear wigs. Probably a lot of consumers purchase Raquel Welch wigs online. But the stores that sell them online don’t have a symbol that identifies them as a wig store. All you see is the store’s name, which often has the word “wig” in the title, but no symbol. Think about that. If you had to create a symbol that represented the concept “wig” what would it look like?
The historical meaning of certain symbols have been reinterpreted, changing their entire meaning, and even sometimes being the total opposite. For example, the cross is known as the symbol of Christianity. But the exact same cross set on fire on a lawn is symbol of racism and represents the Ku Klux Klan.
Another typical example would be the Swastika. This symbol is considered extremely holy and auspicious by all Hindus and is very often used to decorate items related to Hindu culture. In Buddhism and ancient Tibet, it was a graphical representation of eternity. Today, this symbol is used in Buddhist art to represent universal harmony and the balance of opposites. However, the exact same symbol has been used as a symbol of Nazism. Since that period, and only in the western part of the world, it is now representing hate groups and white supremacy, and today some countries like Hungary or Poland have laws that forbid the pubic display of this swastika that is considered as a criminal offense, and it is punishable by up to eight years of imprisonment.
Fortunately, all symbols have not been reinterpreted, or reinterpreted in a negative way, and a lot of them have a very positive and beautiful meaning. As an example, the firefly is the symbol, among other meanings, of light, illumination and energy. This little insect has the specificity to create energy with its tail, so its symbol is light and illumination. Besides, in some particular beliefs, some people think that fireflies come into our lives to guide us to ways of living that are more earth-friendly and soul-friendly.
Symbols are everywhere. We never think about it, but we are surrounded with symbols, whether it’s on the road while driving, or by choosing the name of an unborn child.
** Update **
It is important also to remember that the symbolism of something to one person or group of people can be a totally different symbolism than the same object can have to another set of people. This is due to their different individual ways of viewing the same thing. The object can be equally important to both of them in their own way but for totally different reasons. If you look around the globe you can see examples of this from time to time & culture to culture.
Symbolism is very deeply rooted in man. Many people would argue that it is intertwined with the psyche of man so much that the 2 are not able to be separated.