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Ancient Pagan Symbols was originally published in 1929 as a companion volume to two other books by the same author, Life Symbols, which the author describes as "a much larger volume" and refers to frequently in footnotes, and Sacred Symbols in Art, which dealt exclusively with symbolism found in Christian art. The author seems to have equated Christian symbolism with Western symbolism; the symbols dealt with in this volume concentrate on Eastern cultures, especially those of ancient Egypt and China.

 

Information is organized into chapters by topics that may be quite specific or very general. For example, the serpent gets its own chapter, but there is also a more general chapter on animal symbolism in Chinese art. In the general chapters, subject names are printed in bold-face type, so if one were looking for information, say, on crows, she could just skim the pages looking for the word in bold-face, rather than having to read each sentence closely.

 

Despite what seems like a straightforward organization of the material, however, the book is not always easy to use. Often topics are covered in more than one chapter; dragons, for example, appear both in the chapter of the four supernatural creatures of Chinese myth as well as in the chapter on animals in Chinese art. At other times, a topic will be referred to in one chapter, but the reader must go to another chapter to get the actual information. In the chapter on solar symbols the lotus is called "a symbol par excellence" of the sun, with no further elaboration, so it's on to the chapter on the lotus to find out why this is so. Another entry lists the eight familiar symbols of the Buddha, but to learn their meanings the reader must look up the individual entries. Sometimes the explanations feel incomplete, but I suspect this is due at least in part to the fact that the book needs to be used in conjunction with the author's other books, and not by itself. Unfortunately, neither of the other two titles is currently in print.

 

In spite of its organizational shortcomings, Ancient Pagan Symbols will be useful to readers looking for a good quick reference on Eastern symbolism, or a starting point for further research on the topic.

 

~review by Jackie Gorman

Author: Elizabeth Goldsmith

Ibis Press, distributed by Red Wheel/Weiser, 2003

pp. 220, $18.95

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