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(Crossposted from Tumblr because 1) I want to save it and 2) I should probably post something on here before the year runs out. Enjoy.)

The title of this post is from a Terry Prachett Discworld book. Which I honestly think should be required reading for everyone, but especially those who paddle in woo. Can’t remember which one (and am currently not in the same house as the books so I can’t check), but it involved that world’s version of dwarves.

The king of the dwarves held up his axe, and told Captain Vimes that it was his father’s axe, and the axe of his father before him, and so on. Sometimes the handle would break, or the blade require replacing, but it was still his father’s axe. It could be completely replaced and have nothing of it’s original making left to it, but it was still the axe of his forefathers. Which was summed up in the phrase “It is the thing, and the whole of the thing.”

It is the thing, and the whole of the thing.

Its a pretty good description of the vast majority of symbols we use. Especially if we are using it to symbolize something we cannot touch, whether because it is intangible to begin with, or because it is unreachable for various and sundry reasons. A mass-produced resin saint statue, for instance, or a picture of a holy place. All ways to connect to something we otherwise couldn’t. Sort of a symbolic telephone network.

The one great strength and flaw of symbols is their malleability. Anything can stand for anything else. It is the viewer who determines what the symbol is. Let’s think of that mass-produced resin saint statue. We’ll say its a statue of Saint Barbara. To a Catholic, it is the saint. To a practitioner of Santeria, it’s Chango/Shango. (I am vastly oversimplifying here for the sake of word count.) To a pagan, any sort of deity or spirit that they think should or could fit the statue would then use that symbol, for them.

This leads back to the role of perspective in the use of symbols. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that no one, ever, can own a symbol. They can only own their own perspective of it. The pentagram is a good example. For Christians it symbolizes the five wounds of Christ. For Pythagoras’s ancient Greek group, it was a symbol of mathematical grace. For modern Wiccans and various flavors of Pagan, generally it represents the four Classical elements overseen by Spirit.

Even oathbound, closed, and any other sort of tradition with a huge “DO NOT DISTURB” sign on them cannot own the symbols they use. They can own their perspective on it, and they can control the distribution of that perspective. Which is basically all any culture or group does to shape the reaction of it’s members in the direction that is appropriate for that group. But someone who uses the exact same symbol as an oathbound tradition but lacks the perspective the oathbound folk have will not necessarily have the same experience.

Which brings me to another point. The journey of finding your own perspective of a symbol. In the process of learning about and interacting with a symbol, you form your perspective. Without that process, there would be no perspective. Cultures and outside information can change the process, thereby changing the perspective. So choosing the influences you allow, shun, or encourage while studying a symbol is vital. And if your perspective of the symbol shifts, you still have the value of the study. If you had not studied, the shift wouldn’t have happened and you would not be where you are.

It is the thing, and the whole of the thing.

It is the thing, and all that it entails.

It was the thing, and now is something else.

It is not the thing yet, but it will be one day.

It was never the thing, and for you it never will be.

It is the thing, and the whole of the thing.