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The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin Dictionaries) [Paperback]

Alain Gheerbrant , Jean Chevalier , John Buchanan-Brown
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

26 Sep 1996 Penguin Dictionaries
This is a remarkable dictionary, exploring the vast and various symbols which abound in literature, religion, national identity and are found at the very heart of our dreams and sub-conscious. Compiled by an international team of experts, each entry is given its complete range of interpretations - sexual and spiritual, official and subversive, cultural and religious - to bring meaning and insight to the symbol.

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The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin Dictionaries) + The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism) + An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols
Price For All Three: 40.87

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Product details

  • Paperback: 1184 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (26 Sep 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140512543
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140512540
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3 x 13.2 x 5.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description

From the Publisher

Some sample entries:


At all cultural levels in works of art rays are drawn from the SUN, from HALOES or from other forms. These rays symbolize an emanation of light radiating from a centre, sun, saint, hero, genius or other individual. They express a fecundating influence, whether of the spiritual or material order. An individual emitting rays belongs to the element Fire, and is related to the Sun. The recipient of the rays determines whether they instil warmth, stimulus or fertility, or else burn, dry up or sterilize.


The chair is universally recognized as a symbol of authority. To remain seated while others stand is to demonstrate your superiority, while to offer somebody a chair is to recognize his or her authority or prestige, either as a person or a representative of that authority. In academic circles professional authority is dignified by the Chair in that particular branch of learning, while in the church the bishop's sphere of authority is known as his see, from the Latin sedes, meaning `chair'. Thus the Holy See is the symbol of the divine authority with which the Pope is invested as Sovereign Pontiff. A raised chair confirms superiority.


Air- or soap-bubbles symbolize a created object which is lightweight, spontaneous and short-lived and which suddenly bursts to leave no other trace of its existence than the transient and arbitrary volume of a little air.

Similarly Buddhists make them emblems of anitya, the transience of the world of illusion. `Whoever', states the Dhammapada, `looks upon the world as upon and air-bubble, can look beyond the kingdom of death.' Another sutra affirms that `the occurrences of this life are no more than dreams, phantasies, air-bubbles, shadows, glittering dew, a lightning flash.' This is no doubt the source from which The Secret Garden Flower teaches `that in the sight of the Tao, Heaven and Earth are but an air-bubble and a shadow'.

About the Author

Jean Chevalier was a university lecturer in philosophy and theology before working for UNESCO. He subsequently devoted himself to writing and research, publishing many works on religion and spirituality. He died in 1993.

Alain Gheerbrant is a well-known poet and travel-writer, living in Paris.

John Buchanan-Brown is a long-established and gifted translator of French books.

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
3.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Most people who own this sort of book have many similar books on their shelves (I do). If that's the case, this book is a great addition to your library. If you're looking for a single book to do the job, this is the one I'd recommend. I'm slightly perplexed by other reviewers who seem to knock the book down to base level for lacking pictures, but for those among the readership who are intelligent enough to know what an acorn, bat, candle, wheel, wolf and worm all look like, pictures aren't necessary. The symbolism included includes visual symbolism but stretches far beyond this too, including mythological and religious symbolism (would a picture of Cain and Abel really help?), rituals and activities (Blessing, Dance), types of clothing, philosophical and literary symbols and so on and so forth.

For me, as an academic, this book is the best of its kind, but it will be accessible to anyone - each entry is explained in concise, short-sentence prose, which includes some sparse details of stories and traditions. Best of all (and this is where this book really towers head and shoulders above nearly all its competitors) is that it is fully referenced, so the source for each symbol is listed in full, and you can go and read up further if you find the information too concise. For its breadth of coverage, and the depth of its explanations, this book finds a really useful balance. It's a really decent size, but is well produced and light enough to fit in your hand like a copy of War and Peace or Middlemarch.

It's also got some blank space inside the front and back covers, so if you want any pictures, you can draw them there; although my guess is that you'll be too engrossed in the text to ever get round to it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book for my English Literature degree 18 Feb 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have just purchased the dictionary of symbols as a reference tool for my English Literature Degree, helping me understand literary analogies, allegories and some allusions (such as mythology) and for use as assignment quotes.

So far it has been fantastic for quotes as it is surprisingly hard to find academically acclaimed guides to symbolism via online searches... believe me I've tried!

OK.. so it doesn't have pictures, you really don't need them, and all entries are alphabetically listed so really easy to find what you need. It spans many different subjects and cultures for its references, and is really interesting (I have found myself reading articles I didn't need to). Some entries are short and concise as they don't have many different meanings, however others such as serpents have an longer entry looking at a wealth of meanings including biblical and psychological.

Maybe not for everyone, but I honestly don't know how I have coped without this book.
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15 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Perhaps I was a bit hasty in my research about this book, but I was nevertheless dumbfounded to find that this book has no pictures whatsoever about the symbols it sets out to describe.

If it was a word dictionary I would understand this reasoning, but because we are talking about a dictionary about something as visual as symbols, it must count as a criminal act to publish a book without images of them. And it wouldn't have mattered if the images had been kept tiny, the size of a thumb nail in a corner, or as a reference. They are simply essential to this book, and they are not there.

Haven gotten that out of the way, I can now turn to a more positively note and say that the word descriptions of the symbols are excellent. In most types of dictionaries you would appreciate concise writing, but here you welcome the lengthy examinations of each symbol's meaning, history and sometimes lost or hidden meanings.

So all in all it's an OK book. But still upset about the error of leaving the images out.
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11 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Save your money! 8 Sep 2009
A tide of dissatisfaction enveloped me when i received and perused this book. It is outrageous to put a book into print on the subject of symbols with no illustration whatsoever.

The meanings given behind many symbols are far too long winded and combined with added 'waffle' make this book nothing short of a chore to study.
The company that publishes this book is Penguin. I suggest they get their 'international team of experts' together (see back cover) and produce a book aimed at the people who actually pay for it, namely me!! the customer. I'm sorry but in my honest opinion this book fails and disappoints at every level. I regret making the purchase.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
85 of 89 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dictionary for Thinkers 23 Oct 2000
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a thinker's dictionary, not a guide to road signs and icons. The editors took the trouble to recruit symbol experts from many different professions, ranging from the paranormal to the skeptical academic. The result is a dictionary with entries that have more depth than the usual "quick hits" that other symbolism dictionaries give you. Chevalier is not afraid to give contradictory or contrasting meanings of icons. (He is not a universalist, but a relativist.) He is usually careful to identify the culture in which a particular meaning is given. I keep this in easy reach on my bookshelf, reminding myself, however, that no dictionary on this subject can possibly cover all the meanings a symbol may have. It is worth having around.
51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent dictionary in scope and depth 20 Oct 1999
By joanne wieland-burston ( - Published on
i have known this dictionary in the french original for about 20 years now and recommend it again and again to students. i have always hoped that it could become available for non french readers. finally! as a jungian analyst, i find the dictionary extremely helpful: it does an extraordinary job of displaying the breadth of symbolic meanings involved in so many symbols that are still very much alive in people today. the refence to various cultures is especially important in our multi-cultural world.. i am very thankful for this translation into english and hope the german translation will follow soon.
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best esoteric symbol interpretation I have seen 25 Jan 2001
By Yvonne Turner - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have about a dozen symbol books... most of the classics. This one is the best for interpreting those strange symbols in your dreams, daydreams, etc. It is not the shallow stupid interpretations "you are going on a journey..." stuff, but true archetypical and esoteric interpretations.
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed with Amazon 19 Jun 2006
By C. M. Harrison - Published on
While this is certainly an interesting reference tool, the book Amazon keeps in stock as 'The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols' is not the one pictured. The book that this page leads you to believe you are buying is quite a bit shorter, but actually gives illustrations of the symbols (I used to own a copy of it). The book that Amazon sells on this page is a fairly useful reference book, but lacks the imagery of the one pictured, which some buyers may be seeking.
79 of 96 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Dictionary of Words 3 Aug 2000
By "stir_67" - Published on
I can not comprehend how this book got published without a single symbol illustration. I was tempted to give it zero or only 1 star, but the text is good - very thorough. It is therefore useful if you know the glyph or symbol you're interested in, but is not a book of discovery and imagination.
The layout and presentation is horrible - a small, very fat book with tiny print.
Not as intellectually deep, but still very comprehensive and a lot more useful and usable, is Carl G. Liungman's Dictionary of Symbols. It has illustrations, groupings, big print and everything! Get it first, and if you then want to get way deep into the esoteric, maybe Chevalier is for you.
Also, try for a quick online reference. I find it pretty helpful, too.
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