The typologies and symbols of rebirth and transformation are concepts which are a major element of our modern cultural folklore. It is important to learn how these concepts shape your thinking and values. Let’s start with a question. What messages do you get from the main image of the article?
The world runs on Symbolism. The sounds we make are symbols. We use these sounds to form words out of these sounds. Language is the basis for our thoughts. The icons and images that we conjure with the mind come from the symbolism we create with the values attached to ideas.
Take the cover image. For example, some people see a maiden sitting in the grass. Others see a demon surrounded by blue flames. The same image conjures different typologies based on your worldview.
Symbols are influential typologies (1). Typologies are potent symbols that shape our culture. Even if you do not ascribe to a religion, they still influence your thinking and values because they are in the fabric of society. Your life story is a series of changes.
Typologies and Symbols of Change
“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you become new if you haven’t first become ashes?” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Many people think this quote from Nietzsche (2) refers to the Phoenix typology, a creature of Greek mythology relating to resurrection and rebirth. The Phoenix does not die. Instead, it burns from within. Then, from its ashes, it is reborn.
Typology of the Phoenix
Many religions use some version of the Phoenix typology. This word picture is a good way to communicate the process of transformation because it is a complete cycle from birth to death.
There are similar concepts of rebirth in many cultures. You can find it in Chinese, Christian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. This is why the symbols of rebirth and transformation are universal principles.
“To transform the world, we must begin with ourselves; and what is important in beginning with ourselves is the intention. It is important to understand that this is our responsibility, yours and mine…” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
The Phoenix is often a messenger of truth. It is someone who goes against the cultural narrative, and as a result, they often torture and kill them, but then, there is a miracle, they resurrect and reappear. Thus, the pattern of resurrection and rebirth. Sound familiar?
Symbols of Rebirth and Transformation
The life cycle of the butterfly is another example of the rebirth typology. A caterpillar goes through several stages on its way to the cocoon. Then the caterpillar changes in the cocoon during its final transformation process. You don’t see the hard work done within the cocoon. The butterfly which emerges from the pupa, cocoon or crysalis is a completely different creature from any of its previous stages as a caterpillar.
What is important is that we understand the message of this typology? This way, we can see how our cultures use this typology, and also how we can use this same typology in our own lives. We use rites of passage to celebrate these typologies and traditions of change and transformation.
Spiritual Rites of Passage
The symbols of resurrection and rebirth are the goal in a chain of events in a complex ritual. They are the prize of the mystical process of spiritual transformation.
There are many physical symbols associated with this rite of passage. Take, for example, the ancient form of torture, the crucifixion. This painful way of death has become a symbol of the ordeal of personal transformation. The cross is the constant reminder of the spiritual consequences when one does not follow the rules of the religious dogma — you go to hell instead of heaven.
Make this torture an act of sacrifice, and you have a powerful metaphor. Symbols like this are the benchmark of spiritual transitions. Nothing is more important in some cultures than what happens after death.
If things are going the way you want in this life, then the next life holds the hope of a better outcome. In come cultures, it means is coming back to this life again in order to make better decisions and fix what we did the first time. It is another reason the myths of resurrection, reincarnation, and rebirth can garner such a wide and powerful mass appeal.
Death is the major rite of passage, so its symbolism is a powerful focal point for many stories, myths, and legends. The symbols of resurrection and rebirth are the cornerstone of many religions. The rituals become a sacred space which follow a common formula:
- Symbolic Death
The process of transformation is cyclical, just like the seasons of the year. You’ll find the four steps of this formula for personal and spiritual transformation in the traditions of many cultures. Some ancient cultures encapsulate these processes in a symbolic physical ritual. A labyrinth is a tool that symbolizes the inward journey. Some are so large that they are a significant part of the rite of passage.
Separation is often the first step in the transformation process. It focuses the attention of the candidate on the process at hand, and separation is often necessary for the process to take place at all. A good example is Jesus of the New Testament. He began his journey of transformation by separating and going into the wilderness, not by studying in the temple.
Cleansing the body and mind, preparing for change is the next step.
Symbolic cleansing takes many forms. For example, you can burn slips of paper with memories of events you want to move past.
A Symbolic Death — Symbols of Resurrection and Rebirth
The symbolic death is where we want to focus our attention. In some ancient cultures, the participants in the rituals did not realize that the “death” was only a symbolic act. Participants were let to believe they would die physically during the process. Some wish they had because the rituals surrounding this rite of passage were often both dangers and excruciating.
Some emphasize the physical rebirth with scarification and tattoos. However, some cultures went a step farther with dismemberment, burning of flesh or body piercings, so that this symbolic death will be a public sign of their initiation level. To live through these painful rites proves their commitment.
For some, the ritual is one of survival. It requires swimming in high waves or shark-infested waters. Others must kill wild animals barehanded. Some don’t survive these rites of passage.
Many cultures use the symbols of rebirth and transformation in public displays in order to reinforce the authority and hierarchy of the folklore. They show the candidate is worthy of some rite of passage. If you killed a wolf with your bare hands, or short knife, you were worthy.
The symbolic death is a way of killing previous beliefs. Because without their “symbolic spiritual death,” we cannot transform and move to the next level. So, the rites of initiation are how people tell others they are worthy.
We use a structured form of religious comparative studies as a way of examining our beliefs. It helps people explore the values of their worldview in a non-threatening way. This helps them to see the roadblocks of religious dogma.
With the knowledge of what is holding them back, all they need is courage to take the first step in the process of self-development. Can you separate yourself from the things which are holding you back? If you can move beyond these limitations, it is a symbolic death of their religious beliefs. These steps are a rite of passage. We use a necklace as a symbol of this transformation. No need for tattoos or scarification.
The step is the symbolic rebirth. Many associate this with resurrection or reincarnation because of their previous beliefs. But is that what rebirth is all about in this lifetime? We’ll discuss this in a moment.
Typologies and rites of passage we associate with rebirth are important landmarks for our psyche. If they are not available, they will often create their own. Instead, we need to recognize the milestones in our lives. These milestones help us gain a new perspective. They also connect with those who go through the same process. It unites people with the same life stories and events and commemorates and honors our efforts.
Many people experience profound life-changing losses. Nothing destroys like fire. So, if we can face the flames of truth as they burn away our beliefs about spiritual reality, this is a frightful experience. We must ignite the flame that allows us to burn away all faith. In doing so, we can be reborn by the ashes of mythology.
We understand that mythology is a typology that points the way. It is not a reality but a word picture. So, we can move beyond mythology, and out of these ashes, we are reborn to experience a new reality. We see we had to burn away “belief” to resurrect and become free spiritual Beings.
Reincarnation Versus Resurrection
Reincarnation and resurrection are two sides of the same coin. You come back from the dead. They are the major symbols of rebirth and transformation. Western thought prefers resurrection. Eastern thought prefers reincarnation.
A variation of afterlife beliefs includes the concept of reincarnation. It is the belief that the transformative process is not complete, and we must return. Perhaps we did not evolve or reach some goal, like learning a specific lesson. In some cultures, you return to experience life as an animal, insect, or plant.
The immortality of the spirit or soul is a common afterlife belief. The afterlife benefits depend upon the religion. For some, it is living in a mansion in heaven. For others, the afterlife is one long orgy with virgins. To reincarnate means to return to this plain of existence in some form. Reincarnation dovetails with the Dying-God myths. Here, the avatar comes in physical form. It is the cornerstone concept for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. (3)
The symbols of resurrection and rebirth are significant themes in spirituality. The goal of these typologies is evolution and change. Every religion and philosophy have their way of using and expressing this rite. In this way, they both use the concept of karma to shift our attention to the spiritual side of life.
Our modern world directs our focus to external things, like doing tasks. But this is not a healthy, balanced mindset. It denies our spiritual side. The transformation process allows us to focus inward. There are many inner work methods that help us direct our focus inward.
Transformation is a requirement for the “observer” to take its rightful place in our lives. We are born in default mode with the Ego in control. It’s a necessary tool that helps us acclimate to this life. The symbolism of reincarnation and resurrection are metaphors for this transformation.
Hence, we cannot remove the Ego. It is a tool connecting our body to consciousness. Tools like the Enneagram personality profile promote our understanding of this machine. This fosters self-awareness and presence. Thus, allowing the “observer” to be present.
Who do you think you are talking to in your self-talk? Likewise, who do you think is dreaming when you sleep? It’s the observer. We need to engage in the process that “awakens” the “observer.” We find everyone has their way of awakening by using a variety of spiritual tools or technologies.
Fire is also not just transformational. It is what brought people together to build a community. At first, out of necessity for warmth and to cook. But it is also a community builder. Because of this, fire is considered the first community-building tool.
Symbols of rebirth and transformation play a significant role in forming our values. Spiritual rites of passage and the symbolism of change are patterns we find in cultures around the globe. These are metaphors for self-development. These metaphors manifest as typologies of rebirth, reincarnation, and resurrection. If you look for these metaphors, you’ll see these icons in many places because their symbolism has deep roots in our modern world.
The symbols of resurrection and rebirth are important in our culture today because of the Western theology. It is a testament to the power of religious mysticism. The Abrahamic myths dominate the values of the cultural narrative. Even though they are backward, archaic and harmful. So it is important to recognize these typologies in our own thinking.
(1) Typology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typology
(2) Friedrich Nietzsche: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche
(3) Abrahamic Religions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abrahamic_religions