198 – Symbols, How Do They Work?

The Mythcreant Podcast
Hmm, this character is holding an apple; is it a symbol for original sin or health and learning? What about this marlin being eaten by sharks? Does it symbolize corporate bosses extracting value from the working man, or does it represent unfair taxation demolishing a paycheck?

If you’ve ever had trouble deciphering symbols like these, then this podcast is for you. We talk about how symbols are interpreted and how that interpretation can change the story. Then we discuss some well known symbols, including that damned marlin caught by an old man at sea. And, of course, we talk about Shakespeare, because how could we not?

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Have a question or comment for our hosts? Send it to [email protected]

Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Themes Podcast

Old Man and the Sea

The Great Gatsby

The Garden Party

Crime and Punishment

Post-Colonial Reading of the Tempest

Colors Across Cultures

The Great Tulip Bubble

The Scarlet Letter

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?



  1. Fay Onyx

    I am confused by the comments at the beginning saying that fairy tales and mythology aren’t symbolic. That is very strange to me because both are rich in symbolism. Even those stories with a specific moral or message (a lot of fairy tales and myths don’t have one clear moral/message) have many layers of symbolism that can be interpreted different ways.

    Classic example of a fairy tale popular in the USA that doesn’t have a moral and that has rich symbolism: Sleeping Beauty. Does the evil fairy who wasn’t invited and then comes to curse the baby represent her parent’s futile attempts to protect their child from the hardships of the world, other’s jealousy, her own mortality, the evil/sin of the world, or the fact that parent’s can’t control who their child will actually become?

    The rich layers of symbolism are part of what I love about fairy tales.

    • Cay Reet

      If you look at the classic tale of “Sleeping Beauty,” then the dark fairy godmother is not invited, because there are only twelve golden plates and because thirteen is not a good number. The parents had control over the future of their child – having another plate made and uttering an invitation would have been sufficient. They didn’t invite a fairy godmother with a bad reputation, she heard about that, was mad, and cursed the child. So, if anything, the original tale is about the parents making a mistake which is revisited on the children (an old trope). And about the fact that you can’t even cheat fate if you ban all spindles from your kingdom. The curse (or fate) will always work itself out and happen as foretold.

      Fairy tales are not symbolic in the classic definition. They are educating tales, showing good behaviour rewareded and bad behaviour punished. Mythology is a different question, though.

      • Fay Onyx

        Plenty of literature has both messages about morality and symbolism. The two can exist together, as they do in fairy tales. Some of the symbolism is connected to the moral messages, but plenty of it isn’t. For example, a lot of people have looked at fairy tales as symbolically representing different types of family dynamics and this is not directly related to the messages in the stories.

        Fairy tales are a broad folk tradition which includes many stories without direct morals. For example, the Brothers Grimm are known for having altered the stories to fit their moral ideas. This did produce some stories with stronger moral messages, but also demonstrates that the tradition as a whole includes many stories without moral messages.

        Also, I can’t say that I completely agree with your interpretation of Sleeping Beauty’s message and the fact that we both have different interpretations of its meaning shows that there is room for interpreting the story and its symbolism in different ways.

        • Cay Reet

          Modern literature interpretation is always personal. What one person sees in a story is not necessarily what another person sees – and the original intention of the author doesn’t matter. So if the story of Sleeping Beauty speaks to you this way, it perfectly fine. Your interpretation is as valid as mine or that of anyone else. I just wanted to show that there is a completely different way to interpret it.

          A lot of symbolisms we understand today, however, are deeply influenced by old stories like fairy tales and myths. Like the rule of three, which is often found in fairy tales. Three princes go out to do a deed (and the last succeeds), three tests await the ‘worthy’ character, three gifts are given to the hero. (And this list was made of three entries on purpose.) It may not be that much that fairy tales include symbolisms by design in every case, but that we have learned to see symbolisms through them. It might not have been the intention of the creator (which is hard to tell with fairy tales, anyway, as they have no original chreator), but it’s fine to see them this way.

  2. Julia

    A couple of friends of mine taught a college course on literary analyses using Lord of the Rings as the example for each. The day they did Freudian techniques the students were resistant at first, but then instead of focusing on the phallic symbols (male villains living in towers, all the swords, etc) they looked at the yonic ones: like the female spider Shelob living in tunnels who tries to kill Sam by lowering herself down on his upraised sword. The students started having fun with it and started pointing out things like Galadriel giving Aragorn a sheath for his sword.

  3. I.W. Ferguson

    Symbolism was poorly taught when I was in high school, and assumed knowledge when I was in college, so I have always felt like I wasn’t quite getting it. This podcast was very helpful for me, both as a reader and a writer. Thanks!

  4. Sam Victors

    In one scene from my first story, there is a scene that is just like the Masquerade Ball scene from Labyrinth, but with much more imagery and symbolism:

    The Ball has guests wearing periodic clothing and masks (Greek Comical, Visards, Carnival masks, and Skull masks decked with butterflies). Other images and symbols consist of peacock/quail/cuckoo feathers, horns, snakes, toads, monkeys, clams, sausages, plums, apples, gooseberries, pomegranates, pipes, dice, card decks, poppies, orchids, tulips, oriental shawls, candles, hourglasses, watches, jade/baroque pearl/coin jewelry, crowns, mirrors held up by skeletons, hand mirrors with Putto handles, jeweled anklets, high heeled slippers, scarlet belts, yellow scarves/headbands, money purses, black or red ribbon chokers, orbed canes, and bubbles.

    The imagery came from Vanitas Art, the Masque of Red Death, and Archaic symbols of temptation, genitalia, vanity, drugs, pleasure, brevity, prostitution, adultery, and debauchery.

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