Impactful Worldbuilding with Archetypal Symbols

In today's issue of the LegendKeeper newsletter, we will give you a working knowledge of three common symbols, and show you a few ways to leverage them in your own worlds.

The symbolism of the egg, the octopus, and the color purple.
When the soul wants to experience something she throws an image in front of her and then steps into it.

- Meister Eckhart

We strive to create worlds that become far more than mere words on a page. The worldbuilder seeks to pull others into the same level of immersion that they themselves have experienced while creating their worlds.

We instinctively know that imagery helps accomplish this lofty goal. We are visual creatures, with more than 50% of our brain's cortex devoted to vision. We source striking illustrations and photos to help convey the tone and the shape of our worlds. But attractive illustrations only scratch the surface. There is a deeper form of imagery we can learn to wield.

Archetypal symbols are more flexible, more enticing, and more powerful than imagery selected simply for aesthetics. By using archetypal symbols in our worldbuilding, we can trigger stronger emotional responses from our audience.

In today's issue of the LegendKeeper newsletter, we will give you a working knowledge of three common symbols, and show you a few ways to leverage them in your own worlds. It also includes many links to images and examples from culture and mythology, to demonstrate how others have leveraged them before.

An example of symbolism at work

Start by reading this brief narrative description:

The preachers travel the globe, spreading teachings of their prophet. For He died and was born again, so that He might save our eternal souls. Wherever they go, you can find them. They erect churches to worship and spread His teachings. Followers congregate at the churches every week on the Sabbath, a most holy day.

Sit with this description for 10 seconds. What thoughts does it evoke for you? How does it make you feel?

...

...

Now click this link, and look at the image presented to you.

What do you think and feel now?

What happened when you saw the symbol?

The narrative description of a religion wasn't very interesting. There were tidbits that might have sparked some minor interest in the religion, its people, or its prophet. The capitalization of "He" was a curiosity. You likely had a few thoughts bubble up while reflecting on it.

On the other hand, seeing the symbol was like a bolt of lightning.

A single glance and your mind floods with visions, stories, and emotions towards the religion it represents. The purpose here is not to discuss this specific religion, but to demonstrate that the use of a symbol conveys an emotional impact and density of meaning that completely outshines any description which does not use the symbol.

The use of a literal picture is not even required. Any reference to the symbol will do. As an exercise, try rewriting the textual description but incorporate references to the symbol that was behind the link. I can't do this part for you, because I don't want to reveal the symbol for anyone skimming ahead.

Why do archetypal symbols have such a strong impact on us?

A still vital symbol remains partially unknown, compels our attention and unfolds in new meanings and manifestations over time.
- The Book of Symbols, p.6

Symbols are not just visual data: they are like gateways into an entire dimension of meaning. It's important to note that you can't just invent your own picture or shape and get the same effect. An archetypal symbol taps into our deep, shared experience to convey meaning.

Consider our opening example again. That Symbol has the following characteristics:

  1. It is repeated. It appears in many times and places. It even appears in dreams.
  2. It is part of a shared story. Whether or not you like the story, you know it.
  3. It has depth. There are many meanings contained within it. There are many interpretations of it.
  4. It remains partially unknown. The symbol is still vital and active today. It continues to evolve and adopt new meanings and interpretations. People continue to study it.
  5. It is emotional. Seeing the symbol, or even thinking about it, can cause an emotional reaction in many people. It affects us at the subconscious, emotional level.

How to start using symbols in your worldbuilding

A symbol mysteriously unites disparities. Thus, the reader will find that we have avoided pat definitions and equations since these tend to constrain a symbol.
- The Book of Symbols, p.6

Using the already quoted Book of Symbols, and references to pop culture and mythology, we will survey 3 archetypal symbols. This will serve as our inspirational research.

We will then apply the knowledge to our own fictional world in 2 possible ways: Reinforce an existing symbol, or introduce a symbol.

So to summarize, our process for incorporating Symbols in our worlds will be:

One last reminder before we start: Use existing symbols! Experimenting and developing your own symbols from scratch is fun, but they can not possibly have the emotional impact of an archetypal symbol like the one in our opening example. Starting from scratch would defeat the point of this particular exercise.

Step 1: Survey existing Symbols

Egg

Alchemy depicted the germ of the egg contained in the yolk as the ‘sun-point,‘ the infinitesimally small, invisible ‘dot’ from which all being has its origin.
– The Book of Symbols, p.14

The egg is the epitome of a self-contained stable state brimming with cosmic potential. Its perfect oval shape centers our attention. But there is a strong sense of anticipation: something will hatch.

In Indian mythology, the cosmic egg of Brahma the Creator hatches the world. The egg opens, like an eye, revealing the light of the yolk within it. The two halves of the shell become the earth and sky, while the yolk is the sun. This is consistent with many other creation myths. The primal nature of an egg provides the ideal focal point for Everything That Is.

At a more local scale, the egg appears as a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. The Easter ritual of painting eggs is one example. The symbology of the egg is physically acted out in ancient healing rituals where people isolate themselves in a cave for a time before emerging again after recovery or enlightenment.

Egg Examples

⚠️ Spoiler Warning: The examples may reveal key moments in stories you have not yet heard.

Octopus

...the image of the octopus symbolically depicts an encounter with the depths of the psyche, in all its ambivalence, suffering and seeming chaos.
- The Book of Symbols, p.208

The eight arms of the octopus, writhing in constant motion in the deep water, have inspired the intense fears of chaos and the void. Yet in the center of that chaos, the creative spark emerges – like an idea born from the center of our swirling dreams. Like the whirlpool, spider's web, wheel, and spiral, the octopus represents a mystic center and an act of "creation through dissolution" (The Book of Symbols, p.208).

An octopus is a shapeshifter. It can rapidly shift from elastic to rigid, and from color to color. It escapes in clouds of dark ink. It's entire physical composition evokes the shifting darkness of chaos.

Be careful not to conclude that the octopus symbol is only monstrous. The creative potential in the center makes it more of a paradox - a juxtaposition of extreme negative and positive experiences. In rural Japan, octopuses were believed to possess human emotions and desires, and images of them were used in healing rituals.

Octopus Examples

⚠️ Spoiler Warning: The examples may reveal key moments in stories you have not yet heard.

The Color Purple

Hugely admired by the Romans, a color known as ‘Tyrian purple’ came to represent wealth, worldly position and honor, and was worn exclusively by the famous and powerful. Ultimately, by law it could worn only by the Caesars themselves. The Tyrian dye, precious and costly, was painstakingly made from a Mediterranean sea snail. This purple–a very dark color that was most valued–was described by ancient authors as the color of congealed blood.
- The Book of Symbols, p.654

The color purple was a divine symbol of royalty for the Alchemists, the Chinese, the Aztec and Incan empires, the Romans, and the Christians in the western tradition.

It is also notable for its ability to bring together opposites by combining red (representing passion) and blue (representing reason). It is the transition between yang and ying in Taoism. As the last color of the rainbow it is a border between what's known (the living world) and what's unknown (the underworld).

The Alchemists' goal was to combine opposing substances into a new creation. Their goal became known as "the precious purple tincture" and at the end of some of their rituals they would declare "The king puts on the purple robe".

The Color Purple Examples

⚠️ Spoiler Warning: The examples may reveal key moments in stories you have not yet heard.

Step 2a: Reinforce a symbol

We have just surveyed three symbols: The Egg, The Octopus, and The Color Purple. There are countless others you can research on your own if you are so inclined (a few examples: snake, garden, oak tree, sun, bone, sword).

You will likely discover that you have already incorporated a symbol into your world in some way. If that is the case, then you should reinforce the symbol. Here are some ways you might do that:

  • Adorn a character whose personality or story arc relates to the symbol. Give them a tattoo, color their clothing, or have the symbol be a detail in their home.
  • Have the symbol show up in the physical environment: paintings, pottery, stonework, murals, building shapes, etc.
  • Create an entire scene that represents the symbol through character actions or events. For example, we discussed in the Egg section the idea of someone going into a cave and then emerging, as if from an egg. We also gave the example of the rebirth of Daenerys Targaryen, and how the eggs hatching echoed the concept of the scene itself.
  • Make it bigger. For example, instead of a small toy make a massive sculpture in the town square, or make the town's very shape resemble the symbol, or make a constellation in the sky.
  • Repeat it. Have the symbol become a recurring motif. This will help your audience notice it and you will enjoy hearing them try to interpret its meaning.
  • Build or modify monsters to incorporate the symbol.
  • Invent local rituals that somehow revolve around the symbol or incorporate it. We gave the example of painting eggs at Easter.

Step 2b: Introduce a symbol

You may not find an obvious symbol within your world. If that is the case, then you should introduce a symbol. There are two easy ways to do this:

1) Make something you already have more like an archetypal symbol.

For example, let's say you have an elf named Clarion who lives in a purple house. You originally chose that color randomly because, let's admit it, that sounds like a really fun house.

You could potentially incorporate more impactful symbolism here by weaving a royal lineage into Clarion's past or future story. Perhaps his ancestors were rulers? Perhaps he is really a prince but does not know it yet? This slight shift will make the color choice more impactful to your audience even if they don't recognize the symbolism at a conscious level. Those who do recognize the reference will appreciate being in on it, and admire your attention to detail.

2) Take the qualities of something you already have (person, place, event) and do a Google search like "Symbols for [the qualities]".

Perhaps you are planning a midsummer festival in an outwardly cheerful town that is secretly controlled by vampires. Look up some symbols for blood, undeath, or vampirism and smother the town square with them. Don't fret about giving away your secrets - people love to notice hints and figure things out.

Perhaps your big bad villain's notable feature is their ability to summon lightning. Research the meanings of lightning and incorporate them. This villain could have had a "sudden illumination and loss of ignorance" be a key moment in their backstory. Their disposition could become cloudier. They could have a cool tattoo of Mjölnir. Be creative and don't shy away from repetition!

Scratching the surface of the collective unconscious

We have only just begun to explore the potential of archetypal symbols in worldbuilding. The Book of Symbols, which I have referenced heavily in this issue, contains 350 essays.

There are countless symbols all around us, with countless interpretations. By learning those interpretations, and then weaving the symbols into your creations with more intention, you will create evocative worlds that affect people at their deepest emotional levels.

There are, and always have been, those who cannot help but see that the world and its experiences are in the nature of a symbol...
- Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, p.521

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