Miles Kington: Symbolism can be a very dodgy business

Hitler could get away with stealing the swastika for his own ends, but it would be hard to imagine anyone but the Christians using the cross
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The Independent Online

Yesterday we visited a session of the United Deities to see what they thought about British Airways employees being allowed to wear a cross, and as the gods seemed to have a lot to say on the subject, I thought we would return to their discussion today:

1. The chairgod said that what struck him about the use of the cross by the Christians was that it was not just an arbitrary symbol; being based on the crucifixion, it was also pictorial.

2. Whereas with the Islamic crescent, the Jewish Star of David or the swastika, which had been used as a holy symbol from ancient times, there seemed to be no intrinsic connection at all between symbol and belief. Which of course made it easier for the symbol to be hijacked.

3. For instance, Hitler could get away with stealing the swastika for his own ends, he said, but it would be hard to imagine any group except the Christians using the cross.

4. What about pharmacists, the Jewish god wanted to know. Pharmacies often had a green cross outside. What was so Christian about pharmacies?

5. There was an intervention at this point from the Greek god of medicine, Aesculapius, who said the green cross was a recent flash in the pan and that for many centuries the main pharmaceutical symbol had been his staff with a snake coiled around it.

6. Zeus, chief of the Greek gods, said it might be a bit late in the day to ask, but he had often wondered why Aesculapius wandered around holding a snake on a stick. It was not the sort of thing you expected a doctor to do.

7. Was it to frighten people into paying their bills?

8. Aesculapius said it was symbolic. From way back in the Middle East the snake had been a symbol of wisdom and healing, though he wasn't sure why. He had never met a snake which was particularly interested in healing or wisdom.

9. But there again, the swastika had been the symbol of pureness and sunshine and happiness till the Nazis gave it a bad name. Symbolism was a dodgy business. You could even sometimes find the same symbol representing two opposite things.

10. The Jewish god queried that. He said he could not think of any opposite facing symbols.

11. Well, said Aesculapius, he could think of one drawn straight from Judaism. The Jews thought it was unholy to have an uncovered head during religious services. The Christians thought the exact opposite - that it was irreverent to keep a hat on in church.

12. Touché, said the Jewish god.

13. Again, said Aesculapius, a shaven head in Buddhist countries was the sign of a monk. In Christian countries it was the sign of the Hollywood villain or the football thug.

14. Touché again, said the Jewish god.

15. Hermes, the Greek god, intervened at this point to say that his staff, which had two snakes around it and two wings at the top, and was known as the caduceus, was also sometimes used quite wrongly as a symbol of pharmacy. The next time any god saw it used in a chemist's shop, he would be grateful if they could strike the offender dead.

16. The chairgod said that Hermes well knew that the gods had voluntarily renounced their powers of personal revenge and that it was out of the question to kill chemists. As nobody had anything interesting to say about the wearing of crosses, he proposed to move on to the next item, which was atheism and the publication of Mr Dawkins' book The God Delusion, which poured scorn on the existence of any god.

17. Did any god have any thoughts on that?

18. The Jewish god said he had always found it rather hard to believe in the existence of Richard Dawkins. (Laughter)

19. Hermes said if they couldn't strike chemists dead, what about a one-off lightning strike on Richard Dawkins? Even atheists might have second thoughts if their top spokesman was struck down by a thunderbolt.

20. The chairgod said that as no one had anything sensible to say on that either, they might as well adjourn for an ambrosia break.

More of this divine debate soon...