The Need for Symbols (Significance)

  • Hans Prinzhorn


The psychological foundations of the symbolic significance of an effigy can be explained only through the works of primitive peoples. Without taking into account the chronological sequence of the various types we nevertheless have to distinguish between the main variations: (1) The idol is itself a demon. It is personified, in other words, and considered to be in possession of all magic powers; a rock, perhaps resembling a person, a tree, or a carved figure amount to the same thing. This tangible demon is conceived of in such a personal way as to be subject to abuse if he does not perform according to his owner’s expectations. (2) The effigy is part of the model, whether demon or enemy, who moves about but is always present in the image. Whatever happens to the image happens also to him who is represented by it. We find here the roots of the magic of analogy: if I decapitate the effigy, the one whom it represents will also lose his head due to a magically transmitted effect. (3) The effigy, in itself nothing more than a piece of wood or a stone made identifiable by minor alterations, is inhabited by the soul of the demon, the forbear, etc. At the same time, the sacredness of the effigy’s location is often decisive whether the soul lives there or not; the image serves as the demon’s habitat within the sacred site. As soon as the effigy is moved elsewhere it becomes only an insignificant piece of wood. It is essential in all cases that emotional and preconceptual complexes be materially incorporated in the natural object or picture. This alone gives them their importance, while the spatial creation of a “motif,” be it man or animal, is secondary or, as in the third case, has not even anything to do with the magic significance evoked in it only by circumstances.16


Configurative Process Fixed Symbolism Symbolic Significance Sacred Site Magic Power 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1972

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hans Prinzhorn

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