THE BODY IS THE TEMPLE: SYMBOLS OF OUR EARTHLY INHABITATION - A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed

A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed (2016)


I am smoking a cigarette in church. The congregants stare at me in silent disbelief. I begin to feel a bit awkward if not downright guilty.

When I wake up from this dream, it’s obvious to me that my tobacco habit is on my mind. Why am I smoking in church? Is tobacco my religion? Everybody is upset about what I’m doing. It’s polluting the church. Then it hits me: The body is the temple.

The dream came at a time when I was beginning my first spiritual study group. The symbolization of the body as “church” introduces a spiritual theme to the contemplation of the physical body. It brings the issue of the tobacco habit into the spiritual realm while at the same time anchoring the concern in the body itself. Here we see again the symbol functioning as more than simply a coded sign. Instead, the church symbol is evocative, bringing various areas of meaning to me as I think about my daytime motivation to be “spiritual” by joining this group. Yet here I am, at the same time, polluting the church. The symbol operates actively to break down compa­rtmen­taliz­ation and the denial it enables.

The symbolization of the body as a temple dates back at least to the Old Testament. As evidence that God can visit the body-church and reverse diseases in that body, we present to you Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Stone tablets exist testifying to miraculous healings occurring during the night among those sleeping in the temples of Asclepius, such as at Epidaurus. The recorded healings, although directed at physical disease, seem symbolic or dreamlike in nature. One ancient inscribed testimony describes that while the petitioner slept in Asclepius’s temple, he was bitten by a snake and awakened healed from a cancerous sore.

By the time of Socrates, the dream “incubation” miracles of Asclepius were already enshrined in sculptures as objects for prayer. We can learn something of our body-dwelling from the symbols from that time, of Asclepius’s wooden staff and the encircling snake, which is active today to indicate healing and medicine. In that sense, the image has become a code, yet the symbols speak of a mystery yet to be fully realized.

Let’s place the symbols of Asclepius on our brain and see what happens. The staff is of wood and, thus, from a tree. The tree and the snake have in common that they shed their skin and renew themselves every year. Yet they are of different natures, one a plant, the other an animal. Is there some yin and yang creative duality going on here? The staff has been shaped by a human hand, while the serpent remains untamed and still alive. Could it be that by combining these two realities, something new, as in healing, might occur? Why do we need healing medicine in the first place? Is it something to do with being human and which the balance of instinctual nature might cure?

As long as we wonder with the symbol and don’t conclude about it, we still have the symbol on the brain. Try to formulate a final answer, and what we get is the end of the symbolization process and the beginning of having ideas in hand—ideas that, at best, might stimulate some further research or experimentation.

Dreams are notorious for revealing things unseen. In the case of the body and its activities, Aristotle wrote about how subtle bodily sensations are easy to ignore during the busyness of the day. As we are relatively quiet and inactive in sleep, those same bodily sensations have an easier time of being noticed. The common analogy is that the stars are always there but are easier to see once the sun goes down.

The implication was that some dreams might be early-warning signals of impending disease. From that idea grew the idea that dreams were by nature prophetic in many ways. That idea gave birth to the first dream dictionary, the Oneirocritica, compiled by the Greek Artemidorus in the second century CE and still published and available today. In it, dream symbols are equated with future events. It has inspired many imitators and successors, and such dream prophecy books use this exact same approach as guides to the future. Their “this means that” divinatory code pattern gave symbol dictionaries a bad reputation among those wishing to evolve greater consciousness from meditating on symbolism.

Research in authoritative, historical sources (of which there are many available today on the Internet) concerning symbols regarding the body will reveal how the body has been symbolized for millennia as a dwelling. The form that dwelling takes, and the details, evolve with history and the artifacts in a person’s environment. Several millennia in the past, a person suffering from congestion might have a dream in which their hut needed sweeping. Today, that person would dream about a house in need of vacuuming. In each case, the symbolization function of the mind turns to its experience in the daily dwelling place for analogies to express an event happening in the body.

In modern times, aspects of a house come into play as raw material to symbolize bodily events. Plumbing and electrical references are obvious candidates. Clogs, leaks, disconnections, swellings, fires, rotting, and all such things seen in one’s outer physical habitation can become enlisted as symbols to suggest subtle events going on within. An electrical fire in a dream, for example, with dramatic sparks and horrible sounds, is how symbolism can add a motivational element to perhaps stimulate some action on the facts it suggests.

In today’s moving world, people spend enough time in their automobiles that the dream’s symbolizing function might represent the body as the person’s vehicle. Is it handling okay? Is it having trouble making it up the hills? Is the carburetor working okay?

For the most part, however, the home base, with its windows, doors, floors, rooms, stairs, etc., readily symbolizes the body and its events. It’s easy, I believe, to intuit the “fit,” and how using a dwelling-type symbol for the body can be quite expressive of the nuances of the experience of being “a spirit dwelling in a physical home.”


Any body home?

Asclepius: a healer in your dreams

A dwelling place for the divine

Something material with something spiritual


Home shoe home

The vehicle for your adventures

The bare bones, but nobody is home

Which form do you inhabit?