Word Magic: Religious Symbols, Blasphemy, and the True Meaning of Christmas

Word Magic: Religious Symbols, Blasphemy, and the True Meaning of Christmas October 30, 2018


Not infrequently I find myself the recipient of the armchair scholar’s denunciations regarding the “inappropriate” use of religious imagery. Their quarrel is not with the open display of blasphemy, but with what they see as incoherent, rather than offensive, usage that fails to recognize a symbol’s true meaning. The inverted cross, particularly, exasperates the amateur etymologist when utilized to represent a Satanic subversion of superstitious theocratic impositions. In fact, the inverted cross, St. Peter’s Cross (or the Petrine Cross), I’m admonished, is a symbol of Christian humility with its origin in the head-down crucifixion of the apostle Peter, who is believed to have requested this positioning during his execution to signify his unworthiness in relation to Christ. So which is the correct meaning? The question makes as much sense as asking whether the word “brat” means “unruly child,” as claimed by English speakers, or if the Russians are correct in its “true” meaning signifying “brother.” The context in which the symbol is used determines its meaning.

“Religious syncretism” refers to the incorporation or assimilation of two or more distinct religious beliefs or practices into a new or preexisting system of religious belief. The native peoples of conquered lands would retain some of their beliefs and practices, even as the conquering force’s religion was imposed upon them. Multicultural regions with exposure to various religions often found those religions informing one another in ways not altogether surprising to anybody who recognizes religions as cultural creations, rather than divine, revealed, immovable truths. All of the world religions, it turns out, are significantly syncretistic.

From its very origin, Christianity is a very syncretistic religion. Having sprung from Judaism, and incorporating elements of Zoroastrianism. Many Christian myths, symbols, and practices have precursors in earlier traditions. In the annual allegations of a “War on Christmas,” religious conservatives scream persecution at any indication that some “holiday season” celebrations have excised or underplayed a veneration of their lord. In reply, many non-Christians revel in pointing out the pre-Christian origins of the Christmas traditions, leading to comical disputes regarding the “true” meaning of the holiday, as though holiday celebrations must necessarily fulfill a uniform purpose. Pointing out the distant origins of a holiday should serve to educate one that a given holiday has no fixed, intrinsic, divinely inspired qualities, but rather are malleable to context. The superstitious, however, seem to live in fear that misguided, ill-timed revelries might inadvertently serve the wrong god, leading even some Christians to view Christmas as an insidious Pagan subversion of Christianity.

Image from “Christians Against Christmas” Facebook page

Satanism is undeniably syncretistic, incorporating imagery from Abrahamic demonologies. Those demonologies incorporated imagery from competing religions of earlier times. Some depictions of the Christian devil are clearly based upon representations of the Pagan god Pan, though it would be nonsensical to say that Pan is the Devil. “Satan” holds different meanings, based upon interpretations from the same origins, between Christians and Satanists. To the Christian, Satan represents ultimate and absolute Evil. The Christian Satan is the author of all cruelty, depravity, anti-human destructive impulses, and harmful events. To Satanists, Satan represents — in the tradition of Milton — the eternal revolt against tyranny, inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge, autonomy and Liberty. Christians believe that all good things, the roots of all moral behavior, spring from fealty to their biblical tenets dictated by the “one true God,” and veneration of their lord binds (or should bind) the civilized world to the only truly legitimate moral code. While Satanists see such blind faith as the destructive source of superstition and theocratic affronts, Christians feel that Satanists, having rejected the source of all moral good, must necessarily serve evil, regardless of what Satanists themselves say of their beliefs; Two drastically differing perspectives branching from the same source material, both speaking clearly to the philosophical underpinnings of their religions.

But why all this apparent theft? Why can’t religions just develop their own rites and iconography without resorting to stealing from one another?

It is rare that any religious group would conduct a type of board room meeting to determine what their fundamental mythological and symbolic elements are. Religious leaders will debate which works belong in their canon, and how they should be interpreted, but we should not expect a religious sect to conduct focus groups on newly-invented gods or prophets, even should that religion be a non-theistic religion that accepts and embraces the folkloric malleability of religious narratives. Symbols gain evocative power for the individuals who utilize them from their exposure throughout one’s life and in one’s proximate culture. In the case of Satanism, the usage of symbols considered blasphemous in a Christian context originates as a commentary against theocratic superstition, proudly displayed now to indicate affirmative values of scientific skepticism and Enlightenment values. Intuitive as this might seem, the questions “Why Satan? Why couldn’t you use a less controversial character?” are among those which I am most commonly asked.

The idea that words or symbols contain a “true,” fixed, and intrinsic meaning, despite the pomposity with which those definitions are typically asserted, is indicative of a type of magical thinking, word magic; a failure to grasp word-object relationships, a deficient comprehension of semantic logic.

When symbols are mistaken for having the essential characteristics of the thing symbolized, or rather are mistaken for the symbolized thing itself, the symbol then acts as a replacement for its referent. For example, we see the circular logic of certain corrupt, depraved individuals who loudly brandish crosses and flags — symbols of moral virtue and patriotism — that belie flagrant immoral behaviors and assaults upon established national legal principles. When caught red-handed in bald acts of cruelty, corruption, or negligence, their crimes are either ignored by their peers, or, if sufficiently heinous, they are exiled by their fellow believers who rarely pause to reflect as to whether their own focus upon fealty toward shared symbols of virtue prevented them from recognizing clear warnings of corruption earlier. (Think of the Theocratic Nationalists, primarily in the Republican Party, as well as the child predators within the Catholic Church.)

According to linguist S. I. Hayakawa, “most societies systematically encourage, concerning certain topics, the habitual confusion of symbols with the thing symbolized. For example, if a Japanese schoolhouse caught fire, it used to be obligatory in the days of emperor worship to try to rescue the emperor’s picture (there was one in every schoolhouse), even at the risk of one’s life. In our society, we are encouraged to go into debt in order that we may display […] symbols of prosperity […] In all societies, the symbols of piety, of civic virtue, or of patriotism are often prized above actual piety, civic virtue, or patriotism.”

“The map is not the territory” is a phrase that was coined in 1931 by mathematician Alfred Korzybski to illustrate the distinction between the symbol and the thing symbolized, the word and the referent. Maps, by necessity, are generalized abstractions of the territory symbolized (as opposed to 1:1 exact replicas, which would defeat the purpose); information is omitted and/or distorted, an imprecise approximation of reality. The closer the approximation to reality, the more useful the map, but we would do well to always recognize the distinction between the two. Hayakawa elaborated, “[the] verbal world ought to stand in relation to the extensional world as a map does to the territory it is supposed to represent,” lest one “constantly be running into trouble, wasting [one’s] efforts and acting like a fool.” Hayakawa implicated “false maps in our heads” in the practice of superstitions, the result of “living in verbal worlds that bear little, if any, resemblance to the extensional world.”

As Alan Watts once said, “the menu is not the meal,” which breaks the concept down into terms that on first sight seem too obvious to merit any need for further review. Nonetheless, the intuitive map/territory distinction is not as strong as we might hope, as evidenced by flag-burning controversies and blasphemy laws. When we suppress Freedom of Expression to criminalize flag-burning, we undermine the very liberties we believe the flag to represent. We preference the symbol at the expense of that which is symbolized.

There are plenty of times, of course, in which a symbolic affront is rightly prosecuted. The Klan can not claim that burning a cross on the lawn of one of their victims is only a threat if interpreted as such by their victims, and that the victims are merely oppressed by their own interpretations. When the Klan’s own purpose in engaging in cross-burning activity is to harass and threaten, and/or it is reasonably interpreted that way by their victims, prosecution is appropriate. However, individuals who defect from a Christian church and throw their mantlepiece cross into the fireplace should not be admonished that the “true” meaning of their action was an expression of racism. One would be an ignorant fool to argue to an offended Jewish community that a swastika painted upon their door “actually” is merely a Sanskrit symbol meaning “well-being,” just as one is an ignorant fool for lecturing Satanists that an inverted cross actually symbolizes pious humility.

Words and symbols are not meaningless, but they are not fixed upon intrinsic definitions; context is essential. Words are symbols that can convey threats, they can harass and defame, and they can confess to crimes, but we must be aware of their intended meaning if we are to interpret them properly. We can not say that words “have the power of bullets” while pretending there is literally no qualitative difference between the two, just as we can not pretend that a context-dependent perspective of words and symbols justifies an interpretive free-for-all. Unique brand logos, art, and text are rightly protected by copyrights that ensure one’s own intellectual property is recognized, and that a creator’s work is appropriately recognized, and one’s own public image is secure against misrepresentation. (One might obviously have in mind The Satanic Temple’s legal action against the Netflix show Sabrina. We are claiming copyright infringement for their use of our unique Baphomet monument design in their show as a central icon for a cannibalistic cult. We are not laying claim to Baphomet itself, but rather our original interpretation of Baphomet that has become a central icon to our organization, much like a corporate logo.)

We all attempt to exert interpretive influence over words and symbols, but in order for such a dialogue to have meaning, we must abandon the superstition of word magic.

So the next time you feel compelled to educate somebody about the “true” meaning of their religious iconography… save yourself the embarrassment.

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