A symbol is valuable only within context. The importance of a given symbol is weighted relative to the symbols around it and the emphasis placed upon that symbol. Asking if a given set of symbols are important is the same as asking if a language is important. In the case of language, it is generally accepted as true that language (oral or written) is required for a person to express their ideas easily to another.
All language is symbolic. When a person says “I am going to the store,” the verbalization is not the same as the act described. When abstract concepts such as love, honor, duty, or even mathematics are included, there is a new element of complexity added. The direct connection between word and understanding its meaning becomes increasingly depending upon context cues and previously agreed upon parameters.
Communication, which is the primary goal of language, fails when there is a misunderstanding of either of these elements. One may ask why focus upon communication and language when the topic of debate is shamanic symbols. The focus upon communication is because the symbols used by shamans (and others who operate within a similar belief system parameters), is a form of language. Unlike the written and spoken word in the English language, there are no individual units to detail the formation of the words that express the concept conveyed.
The language conveyed by the shamanic symbols is a pictorial one and, in some cases, a kinesthetic one. Gestures and images rather then letters make up the words of the language. Strung together it becomes possible to read’ the language and understand what the shaman is expressing in their efforts. An understanding of the cultural mindset that the shaman is working from serves to provide the context cues and a comprehension of the traditionally ascribed meanings provides the basis of the previously agreed upon parameters for discussion.
All of this serves to rephrase the question are shamanic symbols important?’ to are words important?’ It’s an incredibly simple question with an equally simple answer. Important implies value. The value of a word is neutral, as it simply serves as a vehicle for expressing a concept. Any and all value attached to the concept is attributed by the speaker or listener. The same is true for all symbols.
In the case of shamanic symbols, like other spiritual symbols, the meanings and importance of the symbols viewed is colored by a high degree of subjectivity. To remove the subjectivity, let’s refocus back on the language perspective. The word ma-ma’, is it important? Here is where the questions of context and agreed upon meanings rears it’s ugly head.
By itself, the word ma-ma’ is of neutral value and can be declared unimportant. Within the context of a child learning to speak, however, the word ma-ma’ can become important. Let us narrow the focus a bit more, within the context of a small child learning to speak English, the word ma-ma’ is important. The child saying the word is demonstrating several developmental milestones that indicate if it is developing properly. The word ma-ma’ shows the child has acquired sufficient skill and control over their mouth and vocal cords to manipulate their verbalization in an effort to communicate with others. It could also demonstrate that the child has acquired the intellectual complexity and comprehension to realize that ma-ma’ is the word that describes their mother.
If you take the context away, you are left with just a symbol. To the child, it is an important tool to communicate their needs and desires. To the mother of the child, it has an additional meaning. That additional meaning is subjective, it is an expression of love and affection from their child and this make it additionally important. The word ma-ma’, however, has no intrinsic value except for what could be derived in how well it conveys the concept. The meanings attached to the word ma-ma’ by the child or the mother does not affect the simple fact that it is a word that describes a concept. These subjective meanings attached to the word also do not change the traditionally ascribed meaning or the colloquially attached ones either.
The same can be said for shamanic symbols. They are of a neutral intrinsic value and as such they are of no importance.