Symbolism is essential for religious belief. In fact, many anthropologists view religion as a series of symbols that people in a given community believe explains the order of the universe and their place in the world. Religious symbolism can also extend into social and political interactions, becoming an integral part of cultural identity.


Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion as "a system of symbols" used to clarify the universe and eliminate chaos. Natural events may indicate the displeasure of deity, as in the biblical story of the flood and Noah's ark. Some might see aspects to the environment as home to the gods, as was the case in many ancient pagan religions. Ancient Greeks believed Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, to be the tallest mountain in Greece. The Mayas believed their tall, pyramid-shaped temples symbolized the actual mountains from which all life had sprung.


Ritual is a part of most of the world's religions and involves activities that symbolize sacred time and sacred place. Anthropologist Victor Turner, famous for his study of religious rituals around the globe, wrote that symbols are the basic molecules from which the meanings of religious rituals are constructed. A Christian mass, for example, might contain a Holy Communion where Christians symbolically reenact the Last Supper, reinforcing the importance of Christ's physical presence on earth with the consumption of bread and wine to symbolize his body and blood.


Turner also believes ritual symbols are multivocal, or carry multiple meanings. Some of these meanings relate not only to religious beliefs, but to social or authority structures. He adds that religious rituals serve to reinforce social structures because people come together to submit to an authority -- that of their religious leaders. Another anthropologist, Mary Douglas, argues that reinforcing social structures is important in religion because part of its purpose is to inform people of their place in the world. According to Douglas, religious symbolism is more diffuse in groups with weak social boundaries than it is in communities with a rigid social hierarchy.

Symbolism and Power

Societies are rarely mono-religious, and when there are two or more religions in a region, symbols are often employed to either bring people together or separate the two religions and attempt to establish one’s dominance over the other. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a classic example of the former case. Originally a Catholic religious symbol, she allegedly appeared to an Aztec man in 1521 dressed in indigenous clothing. Since then, she has served to unite the people of Mexico in both a secular and religious sense. An example of the latter case is the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, where a veritable war of symbols between Islam, Christianity and paganism has played out ever since its construction in the 6th century.