Monday, December 8, 2008

Symbols in the Absolute Most Obvious Sense

[N.B. Per the name of this exploration, Axis Monday shall feature its lengthiest and most in-depth discussions on Mondays. Conveniently (and all unknowing) Demosthenes fulfilled this need for me with his labyrinthine Manifesto]

The most obvious symbols, in a very literal sense, are the letters of the alphabet. They are arbitrary drawings which our culture has imbued with meaning. This is no revelation to you, nor should it be. Naturally, we are so used to these symbols that they hold no great wonder for us anymore. See? Check it out:

Totally uninteresting. Letters, nothing more. A morass of meaninglessness, a quagmire of the quotidian (I'm pretty pleased with that alliteration). Now reverse it.

Suddenly two letters, written in a somewhat stylized manner but still very clearly recognizable as letters, unlock a whole new world of meaning.

Every one of you knows that these two letters, written in this way, mean "prescription." I dare say most of you would make the same association (with less certainty) if I merely wrote


Or more so for



I'm curious; let me know if I am wrong.

But I also bet that none of you could tell me why 'RX' means 'prescription.' Of course, this has no effect on your actual understanding of the symbol.

[For those interested: nobody seems to know exactly where RX acquired this connotation. In the absence of truth, I shall accept the most whimsical theory: that the symbol somehow looks like the Eye of Horus.
I enjoy such a spirit of imagination. Other theories involve Latin mumbo-jumbo and are much less interesting. All are dubious.]

Although the origins of the symbol are lost, it retains its meaning.

That covers the profane.

Onto the sacred.

Reverse the letters again. Superimpose them upon each other. And two mere letters, images which bring particular phonemes to mind, transmute into the most powerful image of Orthodox Christianity.

The Labarum!

In hoc signo vinces. En touto nika. In this sign you shall conquer.

Constantine the Great reputedly saw this sign in a dream before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. And, so the story goes, he adopted that very sign as his personal standard. And won the battle against Maxentius, and became Emperor, and ended Roman oppression of Christianity. Years later, on his deathbed, he converted.

Thus, the first two letters of Christ's name became the de facto battle standard of the late Roman and Byzantine Empire, and a powerful religious symbol as well. The symbol has two names: the labarum (etymology unclear), and more simply the Chi-Rho (the two letters; basically, the XR).

We could talk about semantics and semiotics and how symbols acquire meaning, and perhaps we shall in the comments, but my point is simpler.

Some of the symbols we often see are abstract, e.g. the American flag or the crescent moon and star(s) emblazoned on many Islamic flags. Others are more literal: the other great Christian symbol, the cross. A stylized picture of a man, indicating a men's restroom. The elements that compose these symbols are fairly obvious to those who know them.

But the fusion of two letters, symbols in themselves but related in an indirect or forgotten way to the new symbol, can merge to form a greater whole. From a convenient scribble to save ten letters, to a triumphant sigil embodying one of Christianity's greatest epiphanies.

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