March 22, 2017

Serendipitous Synchronicity of Symbols

I've just started to delve into the meaning of textile motifs and symbols that repeat across cultures and history. To begin, I'm relying heavily on The Birth Symbol in Traditional Women's Art from Eurasia and the Western Pacific by Max Allen, the catalog accompanying the 1981 exhibition at the Museum for Textiles in Toronto.
The symbol I've plotted in the sketch above, as well as variations on this symbol, is definitively described as a birth symbol in many scholarly texts. As such, it symbolizes the Great Goddess, creation, feminine creative power, and fertility. The diamond glyph (or lozenge) that is central to the symbol, when depicted without the limbs, is said to represent woman, vulva (yoni!), and womb.
Belarus national flag adopted 1995. Image credit:
male fertility, heroism, power and masculinity
While walking along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway yesterday, I happened to look up at the flag of Belarus. Right there, in it's border is the birth symbol! How wild is that? Of course I had to look it up, and thus the journey down the rabbit hole of the internet begins.

The non-credited description of the flag, that is repeated across numerous webpages, refers to the hoist border as a decorative pattern of local plants and flowers, traditionally used on garments and rushnyk. Which led, of course, to a search of rushnyk (alt. spelling ruchnik). The rushnyk is a towel, with various woven patterns, used in rituals and sacred ceremonies. One source (from the book by Vol'ha Labacheuskaia "Poviaz' Chasou - Belaruski Rushnik" ("Link of Times - Belarusian Ruchnik")
Minsk, publishing house "Belarus" 2002, ISBN 985-01-0351-5) notes:
Textile figuration absorbed and preserved almost the whole arsenal of signs, elements of the language that the mankind has been using since the times of upper Paleolithic period...  With time the sacral language of patterns lost its original meaning, changed semantically, but its artistic qualities were improving from generation to generation. It has reached us in the climax of its artistic development, but as a language and means of communication it has lost its meaning and inner semantic relations.
Image credit:
I find this kind of stuff fascinating. The flag pattern, described as depicting plants and flowers, has older meaning (birth symbol and woman symbols) that has been forgotten or deliberately altered. This proves to be a common practice; new regimes, oppressors, religions, etc. incorporate the imagery and iconography of the preceding society while rewriting the meaning of the icons to support their own belief systems. For example, the birth symbol is elsewhere described as a ram's horn. The ram's horn is interpreted as a symbol of male virility, strength, heroism, power, and masculinity.  The birth symbol has been co-opted, renamed, and its meaning changed to support a patriarchal worldview.

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