Symbols are defined as objects, acts, relationship or linguistic formations that stand for a multiplicity of meaning. This definition indicates that there are different symbolic forms in different cultures and that it is possible for one symbolic form to be given several interpretations and these interpretations could be given at different levels, depending on the level of the interpreter’s consciousness and beliefs. This essay will discuss the significance of symbols in indigenous religion.
Symbolism can help to maintain order and coherence and this is achieved largely by the use of art objects. They are a powerful instrument for indoctrination or as a tool for impressing religious dogma in the minds of the devotees, thereby making it easy for the leaders to organize their followers in an orderly manner. According to Nabofa, a symbol can be defined as an overt expression of what is behind the veil of direct perception. It is quite usual for a perceiver to express his inner experience, sight or visions and mystical or religious experience in symbols.
Words, myths, proverbs, parables, icons and masks are powerful and enduring symbols for conveying religious truth. Onigu Otite postulates that symbols are agents which are pregnant with messages and with invitation to conform and to act when decoded in their social and cultural context, they are believed to have both cognitive and emotional meaning. For example, the axe or the meteorite stones found in most of the cults of God and solar divinities in West Africa convey the meaning and idea about the wrath of God and it also shows the purity of God and His impartial justice. Carl Jung posits that a symbol can be a term, a name or even a picture that we are familiar with in daily life yet that item possesses specific connotation in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning.
Symbols also serve as agents of identification in indigenous religion. People of the same religion or culture or status can easily identify each other through symbolic attire or objects for instance the attire for chiefs is a symbol for rulers hence it is easy to identify them. From the above line of argument it is apparently clear that symbols have the role of assisting in identity.
Symbols, especially those connected with cultural festivals, which reenact historical events, are useful instruments for communication to the younger generations about the sect they belong. This is another means of preserving culture. A good example is that of the costumes used by the Shona people perform such dances as mhande, muchongoyo or mbakumba which are all believed to be symbolic just like the isitshikitsha dance of the Ndebele people.
Symbolism helps in indigenous religion to express gender roles for example the spear is a weapon for the male people and it is a symbol of war and hunting expertise. For the Shona group, rusero is a tool used by women and it is symbolic for the hard work at home by the mothers. Just like the hoe which is a symbol for farming.
Symbols are a source of history about different religions. One’s religious history can be traced using the symbols. Symbols of religious art can be used as a means of preserving knowledge of historical and religious importance for example the Zimbabwean bird at the great Zimbabwe ruins
Finally, symbols of religious art could help in achieving higher mystical exercise and spiritual development, such as divination, medication and education. For example, a diviner who uses water, mirror, lobes of kola nut during divination usually develops higher spiritual intellectual ability to solve human problem which a normal man cannot do.