We are quite literally constantly surrounded by symbol. Advertising, politics, education, religion, even athletics are full of symbols. A symbol is a powerful thing. The fact that we are inundated with these powerful objects throughout our lives does not rob them of the effect that they have on us. In fact, knowledge of symbol can make that symbols affect even more profound.

Take the example of the conservative political action committee in 2021. The group put together a rather large and well-funded conference to discuss its agenda. The stage for this event was shaped very similarly, okay precisely, like a symbol called the odal rune. This symbol represents white supremacist organizations that operate out of North America. It is a symbol that the group uses and an attempt to make their movement more mainstream, as their use of the swastika is largely associated with Nazi Germany and Hitler’s attempted genocide during World War II. So how does this symbol of white supremacy make it into a prominent, mainstream political convention?

What does this mean to you?

This symbol originated in Scandinavia as a part of the ancient Norse alphabet. The runes had many meetings to ancient people, almost all of which are reconstructed based on oral tradition and the few histories we have. At the time, those who knew about the rune and could read it knew what it meant.

That meaning was a phonetic sound similar to the modern English “o” sound, and the meaning of the rune was associated with inheritance and land-right, or property law. When it was co-opted by white supremacists, it gained a different meaning. There were certainly those who didn’t agree with this new meaning, and there’s no doubt that they felt this was unfair. And yet, the media coverage and the general reaction of most people proved that the meaning of the odal rune is now white power. We see this change in meaning all the time – look at the icons of sports teams, hand gestures, even internet memes that can carry meaning beyond or different from that which they were intended.

How we create meaning out of raw facts is a critical aspect of our humanity, and indeed even our personalities. There is an entire science devoted to this, that of sociology, but in more accessible realms knowing why you think what you think is critical to understanding symbol and meaning. Try as we might, the one thing that we cannot get away from as humans is the interpretation of facts. Raw facts do not interpret themselves. Take an example of the weather – if it is 70° F outside then that is an example of a fact. It just is. Now how your mind interprets that number is where you assign it meaning. It’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit outside, therefore I will not need a jacket. It is warm outside. On the other hand, it could be 70° inside, and someone else may interpret that to be cold. Anyone who has lived with another person can relate to this through their discussions on the optimal placing of the thermostat for the time of year. (It’s 65° in the winter, 78° in the summer., in case you were wondering.)

Storytelling can and should make effective use of symbols. A character in your story that encounters water may view the water as a symbol of baptism. Or even better, the character has no idea but the audience sees it and understands. The symbol painted on the side of a spaceship and a science fiction story may have meaning far beyond what is written on the page. Incorporating symbol into writing with intent is a murky art at best.

Storytellers should consider not just what they want the symbol to mean, but what that meaning is to everybody else. This has a tie back to what I believe to be a fundamental truth of communication – the meaning that has passed between two parties is dependent both on the speaker and the listener. The best communicators can place themselves in the shoes of their audience and see the words that will carry the meaning that they want their audience to hear. So when crafting your story, and deciding on the symbols that you will include, make sure that you put in the time and the research to understand all of the meanings that those symbols might have. If there is a particular meaning that you would like to emphasize, this will allow you to do so armed with the full knowledge of the symbol, and by the same token if there is a meaning you wish to diminish, discourage, or otherwise distance your story from you will need to know that as well.