The full significance of a symbol cannot be captured or defined by the written word alone. Although many interpretations can be found for symbols, the concept of a symbol is complex. Symbols are timeless and make up an international language that transcends usual means of communication. J.C. Cooper explains that "the symbol is a key to a realm greater than itself and greater than the man who employs it." He also points out that the symbol does not merely equate to a set definition but reveals some essential part of what is to be understood. The Hindu philosopher Ananda K. Coomaraswamy defines symbolism as "the art of thinking in images.
The full significance of a symbol cannot be captured or defined by the written word alone. Although many interpretations can be found for symbols, the concept of a symbol is complex. Symbols are timeless and make up an international language that transcends usual means of communication. J.C. Cooper explains that "the symbol is a key to a realm greater than itself and greater than the man who employs it." He also points out that the symbol does not merely equate to a set definition but reveals some essential part of what is to be understood. The Hindu philosopher Ananda K. Coomaraswamy defines symbolism as "the art of thinking in images.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

But the question remains, what do these images symbolize? According to Peter Fingesten, "the tradition of symbolism connects us to a prehistoric and prescientific mode of thinking. It contributes to a magic world view." He elaborates, stating that the separation of the sacred (the things of the gods) and the profane (everyday activities) changed the magic. Nonetheless, symbols still communicate the essential magical elements of the sacred.
But the question remains, what do these images symbolize? According to Peter Fingesten, "the tradition of symbolism connects us to a prehistoric and prescientific mode of thinking. It contributes to a magic world view." He elaborates, stating that the separation of the sacred (the things of the gods) and the profane (everyday activities) changed the magic. Nonetheless, symbols still communicate the essential magical elements of the sacred.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

There exist universal concepts from an unspoken realm which are expressed through symbols. These symbols may have a universal meaning but assume a different emphasis depending on cultural context. In German-Canadian folk art, for example, a heart depicted on a chair symbolizes affection and understanding within the home. If the same image appears on a handkerchief given to a sweetheart, however, the emphasis changes to romantic love.
There exist universal concepts from an unspoken realm which are expressed through symbols. These symbols may have a universal meaning but assume a different emphasis depending on cultural context. In German-Canadian folk art, for example, a heart depicted on a chair symbolizes affection and understanding within the home. If the same image appears on a handkerchief given to a sweetheart, however, the emphasis changes to romantic love.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Aspects of culture reinforce group values, and symbols are no exception. Within German-Canadian culture, the majority of immigrants are Christian and even the most cursory comparison shows similarities to German, Austrian, and Swiss traditions. Examining the culture gives us a context in which to situate the origins of German-Canadian symbols.
Aspects of culture reinforce group values, and symbols are no exception. Within German-Canadian culture, the majority of immigrants are Christian and even the most cursory comparison shows similarities to German, Austrian, and Swiss traditions. Examining the culture gives us a context in which to situate the origins of German-Canadian symbols.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

In some instances the interpretation of a symbol has changed suddenly or dramatically, perhaps the best example being the swastika. The word is derived from the Sanskrit svasti, meaning "well-being." The symbol, which appears in many cultures, including Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, and Celtic, has stood for friendliness since ancient times. Yet in the course of only a few years after it was appropriated by the German National Socialist Party in the 1930s, the meaning shifted to one of racial intolerance, among other things, completely contrary to the original intention.

The meaning given to symbols does not usually change as rapidly as this example. And many meanings that were appropriate in the rural societies of earlier times are no longer valid in the modern world. Still, when contemporary artists use these symbols, as in the rooster created by Collins Eisenhauer, they demonstrate pride in their roots.
In some instances the interpretation of a symbol has changed suddenly or dramatically, perhaps the best example being the swastika. The word is derived from the Sanskrit svasti, meaning "well-being." The symbol, which appears in many cultures, including Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, and Celtic, has stood for friendliness since ancient times. Yet in the course of only a few years after it was appropriated by the German National Socialist Party in the 1930s, the meaning shifted to one of racial intolerance, among other things, completely contrary to the original intention.

The meaning given to symbols does not usually change as rapidly as this example. And many meanings that were appropriate in the rural societies of earlier times are no longer valid in the modern world. Still, when contemporary artists use these symbols, as in the rooster created by Collins Eisenhauer, they demonstrate pride in their roots.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Since there are no witnesses to tell us what these symbols meant when the objects shown here were created, the interpretations provided are suggestions rather than definitions. In any case, these symbols were unlikely to have been defined precisely; rather, their meanings were implied non-verbally.

It is difficult to define precisely what a particular symbol means. The messages suggested here for some common symbols in German-Canadian folk art are only a few among many possible meanings, which can vary depending on context. We invite you to rekindle your imagination and use your mind and intuition to explore what messages these symbols might communicate in the context of when they were created.
Since there are no witnesses to tell us what these symbols meant when the objects shown here were created, the interpretations provided are suggestions rather than definitions. In any case, these symbols were unlikely to have been defined precisely; rather, their meanings were implied non-verbally.

It is difficult to define precisely what a particular symbol means. The messages suggested here for some common symbols in German-Canadian folk art are only a few among many possible meanings, which can vary depending on context. We invite you to rekindle your imagination and use your mind and intuition to explore what messages these symbols might communicate in the context of when they were created.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Symbols

Left to Right: Rose ( love, joy, life, heavenly perfection, earthly passion), Trinity tulip (equivalent to lily, faith, hope, and charity), Flower in a vase/Tree of Life (happiness, immortality, joy, links heaven and earth), Flowers (transition, spring, beauty, passive principle)

Canadian Heritage Information Network
Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and Deutsche Telekom, Ananas Productions, Schule ans netz, Alexander Von Humboldt Schule, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Carl-Friedrich Gauß Schule, Confederation High School, Deutsachherren-Gymnasium, German Historical Museum, Gymnasium Isernhagen, Horton High School/Acadia University, Integrierte Gesamtschule Bonne-Beuel,

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Symbols

Symbol: Stars (Meaning: divine guidance and favour) Symbol: Five-pointed star (Meaning: health, wisdom, good luck, prevents evil) Symbol: Six-pointed star (Meaning: light and darkness, heaven and earth, spirit and body, perfect marriage, wards off danger) Symbol: Eight-pointed star (Meaning: rising sun, regeneration)

Canadian Heritage Information Network
Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and Deutsche Telekom, Ananas Productions, Schule ans netz, Alexander Von Humboldt Schule, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Carl-Friedrich Gauß Schule, Confederation High School, Deutsachherren-Gymnasium, German Historical Museum, Gymnasium Isernhagen, Horton High School/Acadia University, Integrierte Gesamtschule Bonne-Beuel,

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Symbols

Symbol: Birds (Meaning: bringers of luck, thoughts, imagination, freedom, winged souls ) Symbol: Rooster (Meaning: sun symbol, vigilance, watches out for evil in all directions, victory over evil)

Canadian Heritage Information Network
Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and Deutsche Telekom, Ananas Productions, Schule ans netz, Alexander Von Humboldt Schule, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Carl-Friedrich Gauß Schule, Confederation High School, Deutsachherren-Gymnasium, German Historical Museum, Gymnasium Isernhagen, Horton High School/Acadia University, Integrierte Gesamtschule Bonne-Beuel,

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Symbols

Symbol: Heart (Meaning: affection, compassion, love, understanding, courage)

Canadian Heritage Information Network
Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and Deutsche Telekom, Ananas Productions, Schule ans netz, Alexander Von Humboldt Schule, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Carl-Friedrich Gauß Schule, Confederation High School, Deutsachherren-Gymnasium, German Historical Museum, Gymnasium Isernhagen, Horton High School/Acadia University, Integrierte Gesamtschule Bonne-Beuel,

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. 1962.

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. 1990.

Einarsson, Magnús, and Helga Benndorf Taylor, eds. Just for Nice: German-Canadian Folk Art (exhibition catalogue). 1993.

Fingesten, Peter. The Eclipse of Symbolism. 1970.

Goldsmith, Elisabeth. Ancient Pagan Symbols. 1929.

Urban, Wilbur Marshall. Language and Reality: The Philosophy of Language and the Principles of Symbolism. 1939
Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. 1962.

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. 1990.

Einarsson, Magnús, and Helga Benndorf Taylor, eds. Just for Nice: German-Canadian Folk Art (exhibition catalogue). 1993.

Fingesten, Peter. The Eclipse of Symbolism. 1970.

Goldsmith, Elisabeth. Ancient Pagan Symbols. 1929.

Urban, Wilbur Marshall. Language and Reality: The Philosophy of Language and the Principles of Symbolism. 1939

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Define symbol
  • Recognize that interpreting symbols is complex
  • Express ideas about what symbolism means to cultures
  • Describe how the meaning of a symbol can change over time, and give an example
  • Relate Canadian-German folk art symbols to their meanings

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