Last month I posted on symbols here. Since then there have been a number of excellent posts on this topic (feel free to add links to your old posts in the comments). One of the questions that I was dealing with is how symbols become symbols and how they acquire meaning. There were some really great comments that you should check out. In this post, I want to deal with the translation of Mormon symbols through time and across space. This image is of the 19th century Endowment House in Spring City, Ut. The building is now an artist studio, but it was the place where endowments and plural marriages were performed. For many Latter-day Saints, these symbols are clearly recognizable, but somehow different. They are displayed above the front door of this building.
What does this image tell us about public display, translation, and multiple meanings? We have a few options:
1) Do these symbols have a different meaning today than they had then? Have we spiritualized away real concrete values that our 19th century rituals upheld? Are our experiences and interpretations of symbols always historically situated and here we get a glimpse of how they were interpreted differently?
2) Or, do these symbols have an exoteric meaning for outsiders and an esoteric meaning for the initiated? Is this public display of these symbols meant as disinformation?
3) Or, are these symbols truly multivalent? Are we free to interpret them in a variety of internally consistent ways?
The larger question, and the one which follows up on my previous post, is how did the interpretation that we have today, of both the private display and oath-bound sacral secretiveness about these symbols come to be? How does any one interpretation of a symbol become the dominant one? Or, is this images’ interpretation of these symbols still valid today? If not, why not?