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Religion Library: New Age

Symbolism

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

New Agers have no shared symbols that unite the movement, though several popular symbols exist. Practitioners have appropriated most of those symbols from the same religious traditions that they have used as sources in developing their sacred geographies and ritual practices. These include Asian religious traditions and Native American traditions as well as some pre-Christian European religions. Symbols associated with those traditions, such as the Hindu OM, the Chinese yin/yang ideogram, and Lakota (or other Native American) dream catchers have become powerful visual symbols in the New Age. In addition, New Agers employ astrological symbols such as constellations, planets, the sun, and the moon. Finally, crystals serve as one of the few unique symbols to the New Age religious tradition.

Because so many New Agers look to Asian religious traditions as a source for their practices, sacred narratives, and theological concepts, those religions have served as a useful repository for sacred symbols as well. Among such images, the Hindu sacred syllable of OM has become extremely popular among the New Age.  Many Hindu chants and meditative techniques utilize the syllable, and as these mantras entered New Age practice, OM did as well. The written form of OM in Devanagari script similarly became a central symbol for such New Age practitioners, though some New Agers more attracted to Buddhist approaches have employed OM as a visual symbol in its form of Tibetan script. In both cases, the symbol represents the New Age’s understanding of Asian religious traditions as sources of spiritual knowledge, insight, and legitimacy.

Chinese religious symbols, most notably the hexagrams of the I Ching and the yin/yang ideogram most readily associated with Taoism, serve a similar symbolic role as the Hindu OM. As in the case of OM, the presence of these Chinese religious symbols represents the New Age’s valuation of traditional Chinese religion as a source of spiritual insight as well as legitimacy. Since New Agers have also appropriated the I Ching as a text useful in oracle practices, the hexagrams used in that text have become a natural symbol for New Age practitioners. The yin/yang ideogram, which represents harmony and balance, offers a further synergy. Drawn from the Taoist tradition, this ideogram’s representation of harmony reinforces the New Age’s vision of a dawning age of world harmony as well as harmony on a personal level. Subsequently, the yin/yang ideogram has become nearly as popular as the OM in the New Age movement.

Numerous other Asian religious symbols have appeal within particular subcultures of the New Age movement. New Agers attracted to Hindu yogic techniques have employed the visual symbols of the chakras, or energy centers within the body. New Age practitioners who follow Buddhist meditative techniques look to traditional Buddhist images such as the wheel of dharma as New Age religious symbols. Outside of Asian religious traditions, Celtic crosses or knots have become symbols among New Agers who identify with Celtic religious practices or beliefs.

New Agers have also adopted numerous elements from Native American religions, and with them Native American symbols such as the medicine wheel or dream catchers. The dream catcher has become a particularly strong visible symbol in the New Age since it not only reflects the tremendous value New Agers ascribe to Native American religious traditions, but the practice of dream interpretation and vision quests that have accompanied the use of shamanism.

Again owing to the presence of other techniques and beliefs in the New Age movement, participants have utilized a variety of astrological images as symbols. Early in the history of the New Age movement, the astrological notion of the precession of the equinoxes led to the adoption of the concept of the ‘Aquarian Age’ as a name for the dawning new age. Subsequently, New Agers looked to astrological methods as means of self-development and charting the future. The constellations associated with traditional western astrology therefore entered the New Age symbolic lexicon. More broadly, the New Age interest in the balance between light and dark as well as an attraction to goddess-centered spirituality have introduced the sun and moon as symbols of the New Age.

Finally, the crystal serves as a central symbol of the New Age, though usually in physical form rather than ideogram. New Age practitioners look to crystals as possessing powerful abilities to focus spiritual energy, and often associate them with the ancient technologies of such mythical lost lands as Atlantis and Lemuria. Numerous New Age sub-traditions ascribe particular meanings to different crystals, for example identifying quartz as helpful for healing or ruby as able to bring love. The specific meanings vary according to text, teacher, or tradition, though the use of crystals as a symbol cut across nearly all New Age subcultures.

Study Questions:
     1.    What symbols are associated with the New Age movement? Which are unique to it?
     2.    Why do many New Age symbols have Asian undertones?
     3.    Describe the relationship between astrology and the New Age movement, as exemplified through symbols.

 
     
     
     
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