Panel 1.1: Eastern Symbols

This panel was chaired by Henry Clarke and included papers from Huwaida Issa, Olivia Webster, and Shuchen Xiang, the abstracts, powerpoints, handouts, and audio for which are shown below.

Huwaida Issa, The University of Leeds

Title: Animal Imagery and Proverbs in Two Syrian Novels.

This paper looks at the animal symbolism in proverbs and curses in two Syrian novels:  Muftaraq al-Maṭar (The Parting of the Rain) by Yūsuf al-Maḥmūd and Anājīl Al-Xarāb (The Gospels of Destruction) by Naufal Nayouf. Six examples of proverbs involving animal imagery are taken from each novel. A comparison is made between the number of occurrences of animal imagery in proverbs in Muftaraq al-Maṭar and that in Anājīl al-Xarāb. The findings show that Muftaraq al-Maṭar is makes more prolific use of animal imagery than does Anājīl al-Xarāb. Similarly, animal imagery is fairly significant in curses in Muftaraq al-Maṭar, occurring 8 times, but is found in only one curse in Anājīl al-Xarāb. Certain animals are considered loathsome and impure in specific religions. For instance, dogs and pigs are negatively perceived in Islamic and Jewish religions. Thus, using such animals in cursing may symbolise harm-wish, despise or humiliation to the reviled person. In both novels, fantasy is linked with curses, as the curser asks for help from a supernatural power to bring him or her justice. This leads to the conclusion that though there are differences in the number of curses uttered by different characters in different surroundings, the ultimate goal of the curser remains the same: supplication to an imagined supernatural authority to restore the curser’s emotional equilibrium, through taking revenge on the other – in this case, the person who has caused the curser pain and suffering.

Huwaida asked that her talk not be placed on the blog.

Olivia Webster, The University of Nottingham

Title: Icons of Identity: Sacred Stones, Ritual and Self Promotion on the Coinage of Roman Syria in the Second Century A.D.

In the intensely competitive world of Roman Syria, image was everything. The cities of Roman Syria were denied political independence by Rome, so they turned to symbols to assert their cultural independence, both within the community and to neighbouring cities. At the same time, in promoting their distinct nature, the community hoped to win international prestige, imperial honours and patronage. In a world where dissemination of images and ideas took, at best, weeks, coins were one of society’s most vital communicative devices in this struggle.

From the 1st century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., over 500 cities issued nearly 100,000 types of coins. Coin symbols offer a glimpse of hundreds of deities, myths and buildings, long since lost, and they are by far our richest source of local culture for the Roman Near East (corresponding to modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan). With the region today mostly inaccessible, and largely ignored by ancient authors, civic coins provide an opportunity to explore the cultural heritage currently under threat.

In this paper I will examine how cities depicted baetyls (unworked or partially worked cult objects) on coins to promote the richness and variety of their religious life, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their neighbours, but also to advertise what they considered to be emblematic of the community as a whole. Through examination of religious iconography, I will explore political, religious and social life in Roman Syria, combining classical, archaeological and art historical scholarship, to assess how symbols on coins were used to evoke an emotive reaction from their audience, and promote a distinct sense of self and identity. I will also be able to address the influence of Rome on local religious life, but also the impact of Syria in the western empire.


Audio –

Shuchen Xiang, The University of Hawai’I at Manoa

Title: The Nature or Chinese Aesthetics: An Interpretive Analysis of the Yijing (Book of Change) and Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.

This project intends to elucidate the character of Chinese aesthetics by interpreting the Yijing through Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The Yijing and Symbolic Forms are chosen as the texts for investigation because the Yijing, as “the creative origin of Chinese philosophy” (Cheng May 2011) is, by implication, also the source of Chinese aesthetics; whilst Symbolic Forms both connects to Western aesthetics and in its understanding of the plurality of representational systems offers insight into the modes in which the Yijing creates meaning. However, the Symbolic Forms was formulated largely on the basis of Western sources, as such its categories and structures do not seamlessly accommodate the cultural forms of a tradition based on different set of principles. The categories of the Symbolic Forms are, despite this, useful for understanding, and exhaust the ranges of significances of the Yijing. What needs to be investigated is how the different symbolic aspects of the Yijing relate to each other to create the text that it is. It is this structural understanding of the Yijing, of the interrelation of its linguistic, mythical, religious, artistic and scientific aspects which will give a truly insightful account of the nature of Chinese aesthetics.

“Art history” is a product of the Hegelian notion that Geist is revealed in the products of culture itself; and Cassirer’s philosophy of culture shares many of its methodological assumptions. It is in this sense, that how we know something comes to affect our representations, how epistemology affects our ontology, which could be applied to the Yijing. The Yijing is the epistemological framework for gaining knowledge, which in turn grounds the nature of Chinese aesthetics.


Audio –


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