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The Meaning of Symbols
in Psychoanalysis

By J Jones

What is a symbol? Freud defines the symbol as a comparison where the compared term disappears. If we compare, for example, a snake with a staff, when the compared object - the snake - is no longer specified, we only have the staff which could be a symbol for the snake. I did not use by chance this example because staff can suggest more than a snake to Freud.

Symbols appear especially in dreams - in nocturnal and diurnal (fantasies) as well. But they are also present in the awoken life - in the culture of people, in religious believes, in myths and folklore. Symbols are also present in neurosis - or more precisely in their thought content. These symbols that at first sight seem to be very different have a unique signification in Freud's view: they points to the human sexual life, more precisely to sexual organs.

Let's see what had to say Freud about several symbols:

    We have not yet finished with symbols. There are some which we believed we recognized but which nevertheless worried us because we could not explain how this particular symbol had come to have that particular meaning. In such cases confirmations from elsewhere - from philology, folklore, mythology or ritual - were bound to be especially welcome. An instance of this sort is the symbol of an overcoat or cloak. We have said that in a woman's dreams this stands for a man. I hope it will impress you when you hear that Theodor Reik (1920) gives us this information: 'During the extremely ancient bridal ceremonial of the Bedouins, the bridegroom covers the bride with a special cloak known as "Aba" and speaks the following ritual words: "Henceforth none save I shall cover thee!" (Quoted from Robert Eisler). We have also found several fresh symbols, at least two of which I will tell you of. According to Abraham (1922) a spider in dreams is a symbol of the mother, but of the phallic mother, of whom we are afraid; so that the fear of spiders expresses dread of mother-incest and horror of the female genitals. You know, perhaps, that the mythological creation, Medusa's head, can be traced back to the same motif of fright at castration. The other symbol I want to talk to you about is that of the bridge, which has been explained by Ferenczi (1921 and 1922). First it means the male organ, which unites the two parents in sexual intercourse; but afterwards it develops further meanings which are derived from this first one. In so far as it is thanks to the male organ that we are able to come into the world at all, out of the amniotic fluid, a bridge becomes the crossing from the other world (the unborn state, the womb) to this world (life); and, since men also picture death as a return to the womb (to the water), a bridge also acquires the meaning of something that leads to death, and finally, at a further remove from its original sense, it stands for transitions or changes in condition generally. It tallies with this, accordingly, if a woman who has not overcome her wish to be a man has frequent dreams of bridges that are too short to reach the further shore. (From New Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis).

Further readings:

  • The meaning of the symbol of labyrinth (paper) - click here.
  • About the symbols and symbolism at Freud and Jung (paper) - click here.
  • An essay on snake symbolism in dreams and fantasies may be found here.


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