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Origin of symbologyEdit

Also known as "processual symbolic analysis", this concept was developed by Victor Turner in the mid-1970s to refer to the use of symbols within cultural contexts, in particular ritual. In anthropology, symbology originated as part of Victor Turner's concept of "comparative symbology". Turner (1920-1983) was professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, the University of Chicago, and finally he was Professor of Anthropology and Religion at the University of Virginia.[1]

In 1940, Robert A. Heinlein used "symbology" in Blowups Happen, a mathematics-based short story. He uses the word as a way to establish conceptual connections between behavioral psychology and mathematics.

Symbology versus semioticsEdit

Semiotics is a linguistic-style study of signs, with a deconstruction of signs and symbols in relation to structure. Semiotics is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dicitonary as "a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics."

In contrast, Victor Turner's theories in general were purposefully "anti-structure". His theories or models focused on performance and drama.

Symbology versus symbolismEdit

Symbolism is the use of a symbol to send a message. For example, the simple symbolism of a cross is to represent Christianity.

Symbology is the symbolism and how it is used in ritual (aka "ritual performance"). For example, on Good Friday of each year a man dressed in a white robe will bear a large wooden cross on his shoulders, dragging it along cobble streets in Jerusalem. People in the crowd watching will offer to take the cross to relieve the man of his burden. Within the ritual context or drama, the symbol of the cross is grouped with other symbols, such as the white robe and the location.

Symbology in fiction and popular cultureEdit

In Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, "religious symbology" is the academic discipline pursued by the hero of Dan Brown's novels, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Specifically, the Da Vinci Code refers to Robert Langdon (the lead character in the novel) as "Professor of Religious Symbology, Harvard University" (Brown 2003:7). Langdon's academic work in the novels involves anthropological perspective of symbols and religion. The character discusses religious symbols in a cross-cultural sense. He de-contextualizes symbols, discusses how they are used within ritual, and presents a diachronic (over-time) interpretation of changes in symbology: when and how the symbols are used within various cultural contexts change over time.

Although "symbology" may be an accurate description of Langdon's particular field of research, in reality he could not hold the title "Professor of Religious Symbology". "Symbology" is not a formal discipline, and does not exist as a department at Harvard or any other university. It is an approach or model of study within the anthropology of religion or symbolic anthropology.[2]

In the PlayStation 2 RPG Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time, symbology is a scientific research/technology, used in place of magic, and is a kind of cheat code the residents of the game world use in order to get certain powers. This power is accessed by putting symbols on one's arm in the game. It also opens up the path to a shocking plot twist later in the game.

In the film Boondock Saints, it appears in dialogue as a misusage or malapropism. The FBI agent Paul Smecker, played by Willem Dafoe, chastises a police detective he is working with for using the word symbology. The implication is that he is irked by the officer's statement because he sees symbology as a malapropism for the word symbolism. The dialogue is as follows:

Police detective: "So, what's the symbology there?"
Smecker: "Symbology?...Now that Duffy has relinquished his king bonehead crown, I see we have an heir to the throne. I'm sure the word you were looking for was symbolism. What is the sssssymbolism there?"

See alsoEdit


  1. * Liminal to liminoid in play, flow, and ritual: An essay in comparative symbology. Rice University Studies 60(3):53-92, 1974, describes comparative symbology of Victor Turner.
  2. Karen L. King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard, called "symbology" a nonexistent field, and suggested that the closest field, semiology, is unrepresented at Harvard. She also suggested that Brown's Langdon does not act as a semiologist, but is closer to being an art historian studying iconography. See C. E. Jampel's article Ruffling Religious Feathers, The Harvard Crimson, February 12, 2004.

Other referencesEdit

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