Comets Across the Sky

The Change

The Change

Book Review

Linda Hampton Schiffer

The Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects by Barbara G. Walker, published by HarperSanFrancisco ©1988 ISBN 0-06-250923-3, 563 pages, 636 illustrations, 21 Chapters, Introduction, Bibliography, Index $24 ($33.75Canada)

Chapter Titles: Round and Oval Motifs; Long Motifs; Three-Way Motifs; Four-Way Motifs; Multipointed Motifs; Sacred Objects; Secular-Sacred Objects; Rituals; Deities' Signs; Supernaturals; Zodiac; Body Parts; Nature; Animals; Birds; Insects; Flowers; Plants; Trees; Fruit and Foodstuffs; Minerals, Stones, and Shells

I first came to read this book not as a student of women's history but as a visual artist. Barbara Walker's "Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects" was recommended to me by a studio art instructor. She had found the book "full of useful information" for visual artists searching for a collection of symbols and signs.

Indeed, this book is full of graphic information, with a large number of illustrations. Many of these illustrations are tantalizing, crying out for development by the artist into personal icons. The subject area of iconology and religious symbology is richly illustrated in Walker's book. Any reader with an interest in how-symbols-came-to-be-what-they-are will revel in the copious information Walker has amassed. She illustrates dozens of prehistoric and ancient religious referents, with considerable historical detail and scholarly study.

For example, to choose a single symbol at random, I decided to look up "dove" in the index and found the following references: "Dove": pages 29, 76, 100, 108, 206, 361, 399, 424, 490. I was delighted to find that all indexed terms are bolded in the text of Walker's book, making cross reference discovery easier.

My search for information on "dove" yielded the following:

page 29: under "rod": "...'dove of the Goddess' perched on Joseph's rod of office...";
page 76: under "Star of the Seven Sisters": "Pleiades...whose name is Greek for 'a flock of doves'.";
page 100: under "Omphalos": "..frequent appearance on ancient coins...flanked by two doves.";
page 108: under "Tomb": "Venus Columba, whose symbol the Holy Dove...";
page 206: under "Hokmah/Holy Ghost": "..the triumphant dove having been the most common symbol of the Goddess's spirit brooding over the waters of creation...";
page 361: introduction to "Animals": "The Moslems placed ten famous animals in heaven among the stars....Noah's dove...";
page 399: One and a half page article about "Dove": A discussion of how the Dove, originally the symbol of female sexuality and Goddess energy came to represent the soul, in general, and the Holy Ghost, specifically, in Christianity.;
page 424: Under "Columbine": "The columbine was named after Columba, The Dove, once a universally recognized symbol of the Goddess Aphrodite or Venus (see Dove).";
page 490: Under "Olive": "The olive was often associated with the Dove, both symbolizing the Peace of the Goddess."

Having done this randomly selected research, I now know that the dove is a prehistoric symbol and that the present day celebratory release of white doves during triumphal ceremonies has extremely ancient antecedents. The dove as symbol for the soul intrigues the visual artist in me; it is an image I will file in my personal "to be developed" image folder.

There is more to Walker's book than visual cues, however. The volume of information contained in this book is staggering. Any student of women's history or religion will be fascinated by the depth of research Walker has pursued in the production of this volume. Anyone intrigued, as I am, with prehistory and human development will be interested in the data Walker has accumulated in this book.

Organizing the data given is, however, an almost overwhelming task. The indexing Walker has accomplished with this text is helpful but by no means complete. The reader and especially the student of history will find a need for organization beyond that supplied by Walker. Many different references to the same circumstances occur, as needed, under different subject headings and must be reconciled into a coherent story by the student herself. Calling this text a "dictionary" was accurate. Walker does not even attempt, in this volume, to produce a cohesive whole, but merely to file, cross reference, and document dozens of signs, symbols, and icons.

I found myself tantalized by the many references in different parts of the book to the worship of the ancestral Goddess figure. Not since I read "When God Was A Woman" (Merlin Stone, Harvest/HBJ, San Diego, 1976) many years ago have I found such a rich source of information on the history of Goddess worship. I could have wished for more rigorous scholarship on the topic (at a minimum, more dates and specific archeological references). Of course, this book is intended to be accessible to the general audience, so Walker obviously chose not to become mired in scholarly minutiae but to concentrate rather on story detail.

On the whole, Walker has done an excellent job with this book and I would highly recommend it to any person interested in the origins of contemporary cultural icons and symbols. The information Walker provides is fascinating and revealing of the history of human religious development and tantalizing to the woman searching for religious options rooted in the worship of the ancestral Goddess.

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