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Symbols: Sources for Identifying and Deciphering

Sometimes images include signs or icons that we cannot identify or that seem out of place. Online and printed resources help to decipher such elements. When searching for the meaning of an icon or symbol, it is best to consult more than one source because the coverage often varies. Also, the sources rarely agree completely on what the symbols, signs, or icons connote.

This basic list of sources will help you get started. Many additional sources that specialize in certain subjects are also available and can be located through the Library’s online catalog ( ) using such subject headings as: Signs and symbols; Symbolism in art; and Symbolism--Dictionaries.

TIP: The asterisk next to an entry indicates that it is organized as for visual or picture browsing; these are particularly handy when you don't know the name of a symbol.


* Online Encyclopedia of Western Signs and Ideograms, External link
“Deals with mainly Western signs that are non-pictorial,” for example, Caduceus, V for victory, and Zodiac signs. Includes a graphic (visual) and a word index.


Chevalier, Jean. A Dictionary of Symbols. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994. (Call number: GR931.C4413 1994  P&P Ref)

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Rev. ed. London: J. Murray, 1979.  (Call number: N7560.H34 1979  P&P Ref)
Primarily addresses symbols as they pertain to Christianity, Roman and Greek mythology, and the monarchies of Europe.

Hall, James. Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art. New York: IconEditions, 1994.  (Call number: N7740.H35 1994)  
Covers seven categories: Abstract signs, Animals, Artefacts, Earth and Sky, Human Body and Dress, Plants, and Collectives (e.g., Ages of Man, Buddhism, Eros/Cupid). Each entry is accompanied by an image and a brief description.

Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1961-62.  3 volumes (Call number: GR35.J6 1961 Main Reading Room)
This impressive compilation presents, for each symbol or icon, a comprehensive multicultural overview.

* Lehner, Ernst. Symbols, Signs & Signets. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1950. 
(Call number: AZ108.L4  P&P Ref).  Also available as reprint, Dover Books, 1969.
Primarily images with little explanatory text. Useful for identifying the name of a symbol or icon and sometimes its place of origin.  

Pierce, James Smith. From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995. (Call number: N33.P5 1995  P&P Ref)  
While more than half of this book is devoted to the explanation of art techniques, it also includes some helpful information on popular mythological and Christian subjects in art. 

Tresidder, Jack, ed. Complete Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005. (Call number: GR931.C65 2005 P&P Ref).
Provides diverse cultural perspectives on a broad selection of symbols, both abstract and representational.

Werness, Hope B. Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: Continuum, 2004. (Call number: GR705.W47 2004  P&P Ref)
Addresses the meanings of animals across cultures. 

Whittick, Arnold. Symbols, Signs & Their Meaning and Uses in Design. London: L. Hill, 1960. (Call number: AZ108.W45 P&P Ref)  

Compiled by: Eliza Scally, academic intern, 2010. Last revised: October 2010.
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