Excerpt from Dictionary of Images and Symbols in Counselling


This Dictionary was originally conceived as Part Three of Imagery and Symbolism in Counselling. However, it was decided that as one book it would be too bulky, hence the separate volume. Both books stand on their own; however, I am sure that your awareness of symbols and imagery will be enhanced by what you read in this volume. Like all dictionaries, this is not intended to be ‘read’ from A to Z, but rather to be dipped into.

The index lists the subjects of the Dictionary. Subjects in the Dictionary are annotated with the topic heading. A word in bold type denotes a topic, e.g. Zodiac; all other references to ‘Zodiac’ are in ordinary type.

The subjects in the A-Z all have some relevance to symbols and symbolic language. Some of the subjects refer to sayings in everyday use, and all of them have an imagery content.

Some, like flowers and precious stones, are invested with a great deal of folklore; folklore has a profound influence on our language, on our thinking and on the images we use.

Myths and legends are so interwoven with the language of imagery that it would be difficult to try to separate them; so a sizable bit of the Dictionary deals with myths and legends, and the symbols associated with them. Overall, the book is intended to help you understand the vast wealth of symbols and symbolic language, although what is included here is only a small part of what is available. The bulk of the book explores the meaning of symbols, with particular reference to using them in imagery.

If you are reading this book in conjunction with Imagery and Symbolism in Counselling, then you will find that the one supports the other.

The symbols in the Dictionary are taken from a wide range of sources:

myths, legends, fairy-tales, folklore, superstitions, and allusions. Many of them have been given possible psychological interpretations. I say, ‘possible’, because interpretations can rarely be stated with authority It is more probable that ten different authorities would give ten variations on the same theme.

In addition to the index, there are two contents lists: one which arranges the symbols alphabetically, and the other arranges them in eight themes. While it would not be feasible to think, when working with an image, which theme it belongs to, arranging them this way helps further study of the whole subject. Both the alphabetical list and the thematic list will enable you to find your way around the book.

I have not referred to other authors in the text; there is a bibliography at the end which lists the various sources I have studied in compiling this volume.

I wish you well in your study of the fascinating study of symbols.


Aaron, first Jewish high priest and traditional founder of the Hebrew priesthood. Aaron was the older brother of Moses and a direct descendant of the tribe of Levi. When Moses declined the mission of delivering the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage because he was ‘slow of speech’, Aaron was appointed his minister and spokesman (Exodus 4:10—15). Aaron incurred the anger of Jehovah when he made the Israelites a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32:1—24). Moses interceded on his behalf, and he was pardoned, but Moses and Aaron were forbidden to enter the Promised Land.

Possible psychological interpretation

Aaron was a priest, and one of the main functions of a priest is to mediate between man and God. A mediator strives to unite, to reconcile and Aaron is a type of Christ, who does for man what man cannot do for himself. Christ is the last mediator.


Some cultures believed that people who were maimed or deformed or insane were possessed of supernatural qualities. These special qualities — frequently the gift of prophecy — that often brought penalties with them were the price the person had to pay for being chosen by the gods. In some mythologies, people with deformities are linked with the moon and its phases; some mythic lunar beings only have one hand or foot, and are endowed with the gift of being able to cure disease or bring rain.

Abraham or Abram

Biblical patriarch (Genesis 11:27—25:10), progenitor of the Hebrews, who probably lived in the period between 2000 and 1500 BC. Ishmael, first son of Abraham, whose mother was Hagar, an Egyptian slave, was born when Abraham was 87 years old. Isaac, born to Abraham by Sarah in his hundredth year, was the first of his legitimate descendants. God demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac as a test of faith, but because of Abraham’s unquestioning compliance, God permitted him to spare Isaac and rewarded him with a formal renewal of his promise. Christians, Muslims, and Jews accept Abraham as the epitome of the man of unswerving faith, a view reflected in the New Testament.

Possible psychological interpretation

Abraham is a type of God the Father, the father of a multitude. Being able to feel that one knows who one’s ancestors are is important to most people, for it strengthens their identity A second aspect is that of the willingness to sacrifice his son: this parallels the willingness of God to sacrifice Jesus. Implicit in this is the obedience of both Isaac and Jesus. At a personal level, the willingness to make a sacrifice of something precious carries with it the potential for something greater to emerge. Isaac and Ishmael were brothers, and from them came the two great Jewish and Muslim religions, with all the antipathy that exists between them. God’s promise to Abraham, that he would make a great nation of him, has been fulfilled in two totally different directions. At a symbolic level, Isaac and Ishmael represent the shadow side of each other.

Abraham’s Bosom

This refers to the custom of reclining on couches at table, which was prevalent among the Jews, an arrangement which brought the head of one person almost into the bosom of the one who sat or reclined above him. To ‘be in Abraham’s bosom’ thus meant to enjoy happiness and rest (Matthew 8:11; Luke 16:23) at the banquet in Paradise. Lazarus, a beggar, died and was carried into the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22, 23) whereas Dives, a rich man, died and went to Hell. Between them there was a great gulf which neither could cross.

Possible psychological interpretation

The bosom is the symbol of love, affection, emotions, security intimacy and of belonging. As with many symbols, it is necessary to look at the opposite to reveal their full meaning, and the opposite to Abraham’s bosom is Hell. Between the conscious and the unconscious there is a great divide, which often carries the terrors of death and separation. Lazarus safely crossed this divide into the paternal bosom; as did Dante in his journey through Hell into Paradise. The Bible (Isaiah 40:11) draws a parallel of Christ carrying his lambs in his bosom.


Bees have always been held in high esteem as makers of honey, which was believed to be a divine food that nourished wisdom; it is also a preservative. According to Hahomet, because they are the souls of the departed, bees are admitted to Heaven. Bees were thought to be the souls of nymphs who had been in the service of Aphrodite during her lifetime. Aphrodite’s symbol at her temple at Eryx was a golden honeycomb.

The bee is symbolic of industry, creative activity and wealth, all associated with honey. In Greece it was emblematic of work and obedience. In one legend, one of the temples at Delphi was built by bees. In the doctrines of Orpheus, the bee represents the soul, on account of its honey, but also because a swarm of bees is said to be the souls migrating to the divine. One bee has a different symbolic meaning to a swarm, which carries the meaning of potential danger.

Bees extract nectar from many different flowers, which is symbolic of the essence of life that lies just beneath the surface of existence. Bees, like ants, demonstrate the concept of oneness and unity; working together as a single unit, for the good of all, and is the opposite of isolationism.

Bees have another symbolic meaning; their name in the insect order is hymenoptera, deriving its name from the Greek, bymeno, ‘god of marriage’. In Greek mythology, Hymen was the god of marriage, a handsome youth whose name was invoked in wedding songs. Wearing a wreath, he presided at marriage feasts. Hymen also means ‘veil-winged’, so called because of the veil that covered the inner shrine of the temple of the Moon Goddess. The moon was referred to as bee by the priestesses of the Moon Goddess, and being ‘moonstruck’ means a person with ‘bees in the head’. ‘To have your head full of bees’ is to have one’s head full of devices, whimsical fancies, inventions and dreamy theories.

In folklore and superstition, the bee is identified with mortality; if bees left the hive, it was a sign that the owner would die. Bees must be told if a member of the family dies or they will leave and not return. Hives must be turned to face away from the body leaving the house. Bees should also never be moved on a Good Friday or they will die. A virgin can pass through a swarm of bees without being stung.


Legend has it that when Plato was an infant, some bees settled on his lips when he was asleep, an indication that he could become famous for his honeyed words. Plato said that if the souls of sober, quiet people are exposed to philosophy, they come back to life as bees.

Bell, Book and Candle

A ceremony in excommunication. After reading the sentence, a bell is rung, a book closed, and a candle extinguished. From that moment the excommunicated person is excluded from the sacraments and from worship. ‘In spite of bell, book and candle’, in spite of all the opposition.


Biblical Symbolism

Much of the material in the Bible comes from an age and region that is rich in symbolism. The books of the Bible are presented as straightforward, historical documents and so much of their symbolic meaning is obscured.

Much of what we think of as ‘Biblical’ symbolism is really Christian symbolism, and may not have any clear reference to the Bible, but which enshrine Christian faith since its earliest days. Christian symbols are found in stained-glass windows, icons, the carving of lecterns and baptismal fonts, screens, the altar and such things as tiles and draperies.

Just as the various legends and myths from generations past have become part of the collective unconscious, so have Bible images and figures. We need not have any special affinity for things religious to be influenced by them. Just as many mythic figures, from many cultures, have become integrated into our language, so have events and figures from the Bible. And in turn, many of the symbols from the Bible have been incorporated into our language and unconscious. In working with the unconscious, then, we can add a richness to our own quest by recognising these symbols, and by so doing, we can enrich the journey of our clients.

The symbols have been chosen from a wide range of symbols scattered throughout the Bible. In many instances I have given general interpretations as well as scriptural interpretations.

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