Symbolism is the foundation of modern writing and picture representation. Letters of ancient languages, the original symbols, were similarly contrived like the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians, to utilize a small drawing in the depiction of real life. All visual symbols of information throughout history, therefore, have a basis of symbolism in depiction, lending to the meanings of the future as they have been reworked and redeveloped through society. As the symbols have changed, so have their meanings – creating a neuro-programmed resonance that reverberates through time, and gifting to those who understand their users the ability to use small pictures to speak through history to the intended recipient.

When we look through the modern world, at companies who have developed significant branding that has become synonymous with the names and goals of the entities, we immediately think of symbolic logos such as the McDonald’s golden arches and the Nike “swoosh.” Jim Schindler, head of construction and engineering at McDonald’s, was the man who came up with the golden arches logo – a genius move that related the birth of the new company to many significant historical events and civilizations. For example, the Bible mentions “the arch” twenty-four times, and in one Genesis instance cites, “And God gave the arch the name of Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”

By relating the heavens to the company of McDonald’s’, the entity associated itself with that which is pure, light, holy, and heavenly. While their burgers have fought claims in modern years against award-winning documentary films claiming that the company’s food could be dangerous to human health, the golden arches have stood strong, proud, and largely unharmed – often welcoming customers back for another slice of perceived heaven.

Symbols in Ancient History

Symbols carved into a rock
Symbols carved into a rock

Since the foundations of humanity, people have been drawing images to explain important ideas or concepts and to keep historical records for the future in anticipation of necessity of the following generations. Symbols have been utilized to represent a particular person, group of people, an idea, an element, a sound, a number or a specific quality of an item.

Take cavemen for instance: before the advent of any form of sophisticated language, Neanderthals drew symbols on cave walls as a way to record, explain, and warn others of the things happening around them. Their images may have been rudimentary but the meaning of the things they drew were obvious to the people living at that time, just as the modern symbols we see are easily identified by society. Even to our sophisticated eyes the drawings of cavemen, as well as the images drawn by later civilizations like the Aztecs, Egyptians, and Greeks, can still be largely ‘read’ or deciphered without the contextual knowledge of those living at the time.

For example, a circle written on a cave wall is still easily seen as a sun thousands of years after it was drawn. In later years, the same image was employed by people in the Greek and Roman ages to represent a wheel. The symbol did not lose its initial meaning when it was represented, but in fact gained additional meanings, residing in the minds of viewers as “the sun or a wheel,” in turn creating an identity that somehow comprised both positive attributes and setting of indicators of “cycle, turning, rotation” in the human psyche.  

Symbolism of circles

Albert G Mackey 33* and Charles T. McClenachan 33* in their Encyclopedia of Freemasonry 1920, describe the history of the symbolism of a circle, “The circle being a figure which returns into itself, and having therefore neither beginning nor end, has been adopted in the symbology of all countries and times as a symbol sometimes of the universe and sometimes of eternity. With this idea in the Zoroastrian mysteries of Persia, and frequently in the Celtic mysteries of Druidism, the temple of initiation was circular.

In the obsolete lectures of the old English system, it was said that “the circle has ever been considered symbolical of the Deity; for as a circle appears to have neither beginning nor end, it may be justly considered a type of God without either beginning of days or the ending of years. It also reminds us of a future state, where we hope to enjoy everlasting happiness and joy.”

The rudimentary circle is only one of many symbols originating in the ancient past which has continued to build from its original indication to what we see and understand today.  The crucifix shape (a cross) has long been utilized as a way to represent churches as well as other religious places and a crown is still something we associate with monarchy and sovereignty in our prefrontal cortex, but throughout time has held a very different meaning relating to the stars, the celestial skies, and the heavens.

Symbols of time

Godfrey Higgins describes it best in his limited edition Anacalypsis, “During the time that man was making his first calculations, his attention would be turned to the sun and moon. The latter he would perceive to increase and decrease; and after many moons, he would begin to think it was what we call periodical; and though he had not the name of the period, he would soon have the idea in a doubtful way, and with his calculi, he would begin a calculation. He would deposit one (stone) for every day for twenty-eight days, being nearly the time one moon lived and is the mean between the time of her revolution around the earth, twenty-nine days and twelve hours and forty-four minutes, and the time she takes to go round her orbit, twenty-seven days seven hours and forty-three minutes.

Anything like the accuracy of observation would be absurd to expect from our incipient (caveman) astronomer. After a few months’ observation, he would acquire a perfect idea of a period of twenty-eight days, and thus he would be induced to increase his arithmetic to twenty-eight calculi (from the basis of ten which was first derived from a pair of human hands.)

Higgins would now try all kinds of experiments with these calculi. First, he would divide them into two parts of an equal number. Next, he would then divide them again, each into two parts, and he would perceive that the two were equal, the four were equal, and that the four heaps made up the whole twenty-eight. After that, he would now certainly discover (if he had not discovered before) the art of adding, and the art of dividing, in a rude way, by means of these calculi, probably at first without giving names to these operations.

Higgins would also try to divide one of the four parcels of calculi into which the Moon’s age was divided still lower, but here for the first time, he would find it difficult. He could halve them or divide them into even parcels no lower than seven, and here began the first cycle of seven days, or the week.

This is not an arbitrary division, but one perfectly natural, an effect which must take place, or result from the process which I have pointed out, and which appears to have taken place in almost every nation that has learned the art of arithmetic. From the utmost bounds of the East to the Ultima Thule, the septenary cycle may be discovered. By this time, which would probably be long after his creation, man would have learned a little geometry. From the shell of the egg or the nut, he would have found out how to make an awkward, ill-formed circle, or to make a line in the sand with his finger, which would meet at both ends.”

From Symbols to Branding

An entrepreneur making a heart symbol with their hands
An entrepreneur making a heart symbol with their hands

The modern interpretation of the word “brand” has, very much akin to symbols in general, changed and redeveloped over time.  Brand as a word derives from the Ancient Norse word Brandr that means ‘to burn.’ In its original usage (about 950 A.D. according to language historians) it means the process of burning wood much like a torch.

Over the years as the Vikings spread across much of Europe the word’s meaning morphed into more commercial purposes. By the 1300s, the word was often used to represent the process of burning a mark or logo on cattle to signify ownership and to deter theft. Each farmer or ranch would have their own ‘unique’ mark that would represent their business. With blacksmithing tools rudimentary at the time, branding irons employed simple and unique shapes for easy identification. Years later this use of branding items that we own or sell is still commonly found in the logos businesses employ.

At the dawn of the 1800s, mass production began to boom and the ability to ship goods across great distances saw the early inception of the global trade market. As products like wine, ale, and clothing goods became easier to produce in large batches, it was possible to ship items to other parts of the world in wooden crates; however, with so many items being transported at any given time, the need to identify the owner and contents became a problem that needed a solution. By looking at the way farmers branded cattle, producers came up with a way to mark wooden packing crates in which goods were shipped in.

Each consignment of items would have their containers marked with a red-hot metal branding iron that carried a logo or symbol representing the company that made them. The iron burnt the mark deep into the wood making it difficult to remove and keeping the crates easily identifiable. Surely, in those times as now, the owner would think on the symbolism he was familiar with and would choose the ideology which he felt most akin to and which would represent his company in the way he preferred.

1800s

As the 1800s progressed and the industrial revolution took hold, the process of shipping goods refined making the marking of crates almost unnecessary, but branding items didn’t stop and the idea of using a symbol to represent a company had already taken hold. It did, however, change and became more of a representation of quality rather than ownership.

By the 1870s, it became possible for businesses to register a symbol (or trademark) to prevent competitors and rivals from passing off their own products as theirs, or deliberately trying to confuse customers with a similar brand. People began to associate certain symbols with specific businesses and would link them with the quality of the products they provided.

1900s to present day

In 1928, Edward Bernays, the nephew of noted psychologist Sigmund Freud, published a book entitled Propaganda. In the book, Bernays argued that it was possible to link products with quality and ideas in a way to convince large numbers of people to change their current behavior. “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of,” he said. Berynays noted that the use of basic symbols was all you needed to push people into doing things they might otherwise not do; i.e. buy something they wouldn’t normally buy. The book was a huge hit and led to the early ideas of marketing and public relations which filtered into mass media many decades later, harnessing the powerful history and ideologies of the symbols they employed.

As human beings, our view of the world is based on what we see, and symbols are a big part of what we identify around us, but a symbol isn’t just an image. Symbols are a window through which we access the meaning of things throughout time, tapping into psychology built over many centuries to today. When we see a circle, we immediately associate it with a wide array of things. It could be the sun or a wheel. It could be a tomato or a hamburger. If we see a rectangle, we may see a door. Or it could be a book or maybe even a television.

The context around the image (whatever that may be) will give us an idea of what it represents, and our brains will do the rest of the work, engaging and subconsciously associating that symbol with all ways that we have known it. This process of seeing meaning beyond a basic picture hasn’t changed for thousands of years, we’ve just become more sophisticated in its usage and interpretation, and the best in branding are those who are most familiar with historical references and symbolism lending to the unconscious connections of past, present, and future and ability to harness the full psyche of the consumer. 

What do you think are some powerful symbols in modern marketing? Let us know in the comments!

This article originally published on GREY Journal.