Signs and Symbols

Word Wednesday: DK’s ‘Signs and Symbols’

Books Columns Word Wednesday

Signs and SymbolsThis Week’s Word is “Symbobology.”

Ok – that’s not a real word, but ever since reading The Da Vinci Code, that’s how I think of anything signs or symbol related. My book for Word Wednesday this week is pure geek manna.

Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings. What’s not to love?

What is Signs and Symbols?

Signs and Symbols is a reprint of a 2008 book and is a small(ish) format hardback encyclopedia of the signs and symbols that appear around the world. The book is bound in an attractive gold on mottled deep-red leather-like color. It’s textured to invoke a tactile impression that we’re holding a book of ancient lore. It’s the closest things I’ve held to a grimoire in a while.

As well as describing what various signs mean, the book also discusses the cultural significance of symbols. How they conveyed humanity’s relationship with the Earth, how they informed civilizations’ social systems and helped crystallize our understanding of the world around us. As well as being religiously significant, many symbols also form the beginning of humanity’s investigations of science.

Like many DK books, Signs and Symbols is broken into several distinct sections.

Signs and Symbols

The Cosmos:

This section looks at symbols that describe celestial objects and also physical properties of the planet, such as mountains, precious stones, and the weather. It describes ways in which the sun was worshipped across the globe, the cultural significance of the moon, and through a beautiful illumination, (from the Harmonica Macrocosmica) displays how early astronomers saw the cosmos. Mother Earth, sacred mountains, divine flames, and flood myths are all described here. The section finishes with the attribution of significance to different gemstones and the eternal thrall of gold; a symbol of both divinity and corruption are discussed.


Animals have huge cultural significance across the globe and this section looks the symbolism of mammals, with a particular focus on cats, before moving on to birds. Snakes, inevitably get their own page, and this section also takes in insects, amphibians, and aquatic creatures. There are several pages devoted to “fabulous beasts” and dragons. The book examines the depiction of dragons as both creator and destroyer, and the cultural differences between “Eastern” and “Western” dragons. The animals section also incorporates plants, trees, herbs, and spices.

Human Life:

It’s only when you start reading this book, it becomes apparent just how much significant symbolism centers around the human body. Across cultures, the head, facial features, hands, and feet, have a plethora of different meanings and significance attached to them.

Myths and Religions:

As you might expect, the myths and religions section is one of the biggest in the book. Whole books are devoted to the stuff in here but Signs and Symbols does a pretty great job of condensing the information down. This section looks at the iconography that surrounds deities and religions, from across time and geography. Opening with the gods, Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Norse and Celt, Meso- and South American, the book details worship around the globe. It looks at the significance of ancestors, spirit worship, and the significance of dreams.

From there it moves onto the symbolism and iconography of all the major religions, including a beautiful illustration of the Wheel of Life, a detailed diagram of the Kabbalah God, and the significance of various crosses in Christianity. After a discussion of the imagery of Islam and Sikhism, the book moves to less mainstream symbols.

The rest of this chapter is devoted to Voodoo, Angels and Demons, witches, tarot, horoscopes, numerology, and alchemy.

Signs and Symbols

Society and Culture:

This section is something like a global social history. It opens with royalty as symbols and nationality, before moving into architecture and sacred places. Homes, gardens, and clothes, including uniforms and jewelry, follow, as does the symbolism of clubs, societies, and belonging. This chapter is dripping with art, studying several famous paintings for their imagery and symbols.

Symbol Systems:

Good as the rest of the book is, the Symbol Systems chapter is probably my favorite. Its geek appeal is set to 11. It’s essentially a symbol glossary. There are pages devoted to colors and what they are used to symbolize, similarly for shapes; the significance of circles, triangles, stars, and crosses. The section on number systems is fascinating, as is the evolution of writing, from cuneiform right up to emoticons.

Pictograms are explored as are various alphabets. There’s even an explanation of the derivation of the word trailblazing, something I had no idea came from use of symbols. Weather symbols, hazard symbols, musical notation, currency, and mathematical symbols are here too, along with symbols of professions, hallmarks, quality control, and, adding a modern twist, the importance of brands. If all that wasn’t geeky enough, the book ends with heraldic emblems, flags, and semaphore.

The book closes out with a glossary, extensive bibliography, and comprehensive index.

Signs and Symbols

Why Read Signs and Symbols? 

The breadth and depth covered in this book is astounding. Signs and symbols permeate our culture in ways we rarely stop to think about. This book makes you think about the world around you. How lots of things are interrelated and how cultures have evolved and combined as a result of humanity’s love of symbolism.

It’s a fabulous reference book. One that is both rooted in fact and fancy. It’s hugely evocative and could spur ideas for countless novels, whether they be fantasy, thriller, or religious epic. As stated more than once above, the book is a fascinating journey through humanity’s cultural and social history. Symbols and symbolism run right through our civilizations and it’s fascinating to be able to examine differences and similarities of symbols across the globe.

As you might expect from a DK book Signs and Symbols is beautifully put together. The artwork used is exceptional, and the way the pages are laid out, draws the reader in. It’s the sort of book you find yourself browsing through long after you found the thing you were originally looking for. Like all the best encyclopedia, it’s perfect for dipping in out of.

If you have an interest in signs, symbols, and the way we relate to them, this book is a perfect addition to your library.

If you want to pick up a copy of Signs and Symbols, you can do so here, in the US and here, in the UK.

If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other Word Wednesday posts.


Signs and Symbols

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.

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