A lot of writers enjoy reading dictionaries and encyclopedias and thesauruses. These same have only rarely drawn me. Yet there is one sort of dictionary I can’t stay away from, and that’s the dictionary of symbolism. Collecting the symbolic meaning of virtually everything and providing literary examples, these prove to be both helpful and fascinating. I have here collected some of my favorites in one big uber-review.
The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant)
By far and away the best dictionary of symbolism, it covers everything you could possibly imagine in extensive detail (and providing a 26-page bibliography). Spanning everything from beans to goose and shadow, as well as significant numbers and ranging from cryptozoology to objects, furniture, persons, and places, this is by far the most detailed and substantial of the dictionaries I have consulted. It features in-depth entries, working through the various interpretations given to your entry. Any author or critic of literature (heck, even theologian) ought to have this on their shelf.
A Dictionary of Symbols (J. E. Cirlot)
Another good symbolic dictionary, Cirlot’s is a well-known staple and provides information not covered in Chevalier and Gheerbrant above. It tends to focus on the alchemical and esoteric moreso as well, which is no bad thing and still makes for interesting reading. Its entries are more limited and less detailed than the Penguin dictionary, but also deals with things less discussed in the first. It makes for a fine companion volume.
A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Lyndy Abraham)
This is also vital reading. Much of literature depends upon alchemical symbols and references, in the ancient world, in the medieval period, the Rennaisance and onward. Works from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Harry Potter depend on alchemical structures and symbols for their meaning. Without such a dictionary, a lot of this will be totally missed. Covers most of the entries in considerable detail, taking the time to explain the unfamiliar practice of alchemy so you are not lost in the jumble.
A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Michael Ferber)
A helpful volume, though with a limited range. Though what he does cover, he covers in detail, I found the dictionary lacking in comprehensive coverage. A lot of things I looked up he didn’t even bother to include entries for. Generally he runs through the various references throughout literature which an animal or object has been employed in, and discusses them. Helpful, but not overly so, and Ferber’s sneering dismissal of other similar dictionaries is frequently irritating.
The Bestiary of Christ (Louis Charbonneau-Lassay)
Convinced that the world revealed Christ in every nook and cranny, the Medieval Church undertook the task of compiling large works which tried to reveal Christ in the birds and beasts, rocks and trees of the world. Charbonneau-Lassay’s bestiary is a collection of central symbols which point to Christ, either explicitly like the lion, bull, eagle, and human, or implicitly as in the horse, dog, deer, panther, hyena, wolf, dolphin, unicorn, phoenix and many others. A very helpful reference to have close by as a writing (and reading) resource.