Cover image for Ariadne's clue : a guide to the symbols of humankind
Ariadne's clue : a guide to the symbols of humankind
Stevens, Anthony.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 464 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm

Format :


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BF458 .S74 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Symbolism is the most powerful and ancient means of communication available to humankind. For centuries people have expressed their preoccupations and concerns through symbolism in the form of myths, stories, religions, and dreams. The meaning of symbols has long been debated among philosophers, antiquarians, theologians, and, more recently, anthropologists and psychologists. In Ariadne's Clue, distinguished analyst and psychiatrist Anthony Stevens explores the nature of symbols and explains how and why we create the symbols we do.

The book is divided into two parts: an interpretive section that concerns symbols in general and a "dictionary" that lists hundreds of symbols and explains their origins, their resemblances to other symbols, and the belief systems behind them. In the first section, Stevens takes the ideas of C. G. Jung a stage further, asserting not only that we possess an innate symbol-forming propensity that exists as a creative and integral part of our psychic make-up, but also that the human mind evolved this capacity as a result of selection pressures encountered by our species in the course of its evolutionary history. Stevens argues that symbol formation has an adaptive function: it promotes our grasp on reality and in dreams often corrects deficient modes of psychological functioning. In the second section, Stevens examines symbols under four headings: "The Physical Environment," "Culture and Psyche," "People, Animals, and Plants," and "The Body." Many of the symbols are illustrated in the book's rich variety of woodcuts. From the ancient symbol of the serpent to the archetypal masculine and feminine, from the earth to the stars, from the primordial landscape of the savannah to the mysterious depths of the sea, Stevens traces a host of common symbols back through time to reveal their psychodynamic functioning and looks at their deep-rooted effects on the lives of modern men, women, and children.

Author Notes

Anthony Stevens has worked as a Jungian analyst and psychiatrist for the past thirty years. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford and, in addition to his medical degree, has two degrees in psychology

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

One need not be a Jungian to appreciate this fine book as both a reference and a contemporary introduction to symbolism. Psychiatrist Stevens (Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming, LJ 3/15/96) treats the specialist or lay reader to a brilliant integration of psychological archetypes with Darwinian theory. Symbols, a "natural Esperanto," transcend ethnic and linguistic boundaries while absorbing and reflecting cultural (as well as biological) influences. Stevens draws heavily on Jung but goes beyond him, making effective use of philosophy, semiotics, biology, and dream research. His "Thesaurus" (over 300 pages) is divided into four parts: Physical Environment; Culture and Psyche; People, Animals, and Plants; and The Body. Stevens presents vast learning easily and precisely in prose that is at once calm and exciting. A bibliography rich with recent references, a glossary, and a separate symbol index combine to make this a standardÄif not the standardÄin the field; essential for most libraries.ÄE. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Written by a Jungian, Ariadne's Clue carries the Jungian tradition into evolutionary psychiatry. Stevens believes that the human mind developed a symbol-forming capacity in response to selective pressures in evolution; i.e., the predisposition to develop certain kinds of symbolic images is genetically determined. Part 1 develops this theory by discussing many of the great works (mainly psychological) of symbolic theory. Part 2, "Explanatory Thesaurus," has four broad chapters: "The Physical Environment," "Culture and Psyche," "People, Animals, and Plants," and "The Body." Although each chapter has various subheadings, readers will need to use the symbol index at the end of the book to find specific symbols. Stevens's goal is to foster active, symbolically engaged living--to present symbols as "living entities" rather than the inert intellectual concepts found in even such respected dictionaries as Juan Eduardo Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols (1962; 2nd ed., CH, Jan'73). Entries both present the "structure" of the symbol (e.g., "brown" as having aspects of life and death drawn from the earth) and bring more contemporary meanings to symbols (e.g., "green" as environmentally friendly). Despite an occasional nod to classical anthropology (e.g., V. Turner, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown), the majority of symbols treated are in the Western tradition. Unlike many guides to symbolism, Ariadne's Clue has sparse illustrations--only black-and-white woodcuts and diagrams. A valuable addition to general reference and psychology collections. G. M. Herrmann; SUNY College at Cortland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. vii
About This Bookp. ix
Part I Symbolism, Evolution, and Psychology
1 Ariadne's Cluep. 3
2 What is a Symbol?p. 12
3 The Evolution of Meaningp. 22
4 How Do Symbols Work?p. 36
5 Basic Symbolic Themesp. 45
6 The Conjunction of Heaven and Earthp. 62
7 Living the Symbolic Lifep. 77
Part II The Explanatory Thesaurus
1 The Physical Environmentp. 97
i Landscapep. 99
ii The Psychic Compassp. 116
iii The Four Elementsp. 123
iv Alchemyp. 132
v Celestial Bodiesp. 134
vi Coloursp. 146
vii Buildingsp. 150
viii Migrationp. 154
2 Culture and Psychep. 161
i Religion and the Sacredp. 170
ii Gods, Goddesses, and Demonsp. 173
iii Creation Mythsp. 195
iv Paradise and the Fallp. 200
v Heroes and Heroinesp. 208
vi Initiation, Male and Femalep. 216
vii Eros and Psychep. 220
viii Individuation and Transcendencep. 235
ix Death and Rebirthp. 256
x Moralityp. 262
xi Sickness and Healingp. 274
xii Tools, Weapons, Utensils, and Musical Instrumentsp. 280
xiii Transportp. 291
xiv Performance and Ritualp. 298
3 People, Animals, and Plantsp. 305
i Sex, Gender, Bonding, and Child-rearingp. 306
ii Power: Dominance and Submissionp. 323
iii Animalsp. 332
iv Monsters and Fabulous Beastsp. 367
v Plants, Fruits, and Treesp. 379
4 The Bodyp. 395
i Adornment, Clothes, and Nudityp. 396
ii Parts of the Bodyp. 401
iii Physical Activitiesp. 415
Bibliographyp. 423
Glossaryp. 433
General Indexp. 439
Symbol Indexp. 449