Light and Dark:
The creation story begins with the construction of Heaven and Earth, of light and dark, of day and night. Heaven is immediately separated from the Earth, placing that which is holiest in its firmament and that which less holy down below. But before all these additions of plant and animal life, the world is a rock shrouded in blackness. It is barren, lifeless, lightless, and soulless. It is not until those words are spoken that meaning comes into being: “Let there be light”. All allusions to light, the changing of light, and the absence of light, inevitably trace themselves back to this moment. But what does this light mean from a symbolic perspective?
It is stated that “God saw the light, that it was good” and thus he divided the light from darkness – simultaneously assigning the light to the day and the dark to the night. Light and day are therefore representations of good, thus leaving dark and night to be evil (or in many cases, merely the absence of good). One can look at references to light in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “And private in his chamber pens himself, / Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out / And makes himself an artificial night: / Black and portentous must this humor prove, / Unless good counsel may the cause remove.” In any film that takes place in an city plagued by urban decay, say Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God or Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, artificial light is used to illuminate a city which, without this light, would be a dark void of evil.
Of course, there are other things to watch out for while reading or watching other than pure light and dark. Keep an eye out for irony – where dark may be used to delve deeper into what it means to be good. Or, watch for color patterns, dark blouses, white suits, or tones of gray. Look at the events of a city at differing times of day, or watch the mood change as a character moves from a crowded noontime street to a bleak smoke-shrouded bar. And then there is the sun and moon, both creators of light. The sun, providing our day, is the giver of life and a symbol of God himself whereas the moon, only reflecting the true light of the sun, serves as a beacon or reminder in times of uncertainty.
Land and Sea:
God then created the sea from which the land arose. An interesting correlation to our modern world is that all life evolved from the sea, paralleling the mystery of the land which God brought forth from it. It leaves the sea a more mysterious entity than the land, harboring some ability to bring forth masses of earth that lie somewhere beneath. Of course, this does lead to greater meanings as well. Discovery within water or within sea has more significance than a discovery on land. A character with a greater knowledge of the ocean makes us see them as wiser, more God-like, or possibly even more suspicious.
Looking at a work like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the sea is shrouded with more mystery than the land, hence why Melville attempts to unravel its obscurity through an encyclopedic knowledge of seafaring and whaling. If the white whale is to be a symbol of God or of America, and the characters of the novel seek to conquer and understand this entity, then the whale being hidden in an even vaster sphere of the unknown makes perfect allegorical sense as if one seeks to understand the nature of God or America, one must unravel the nature of so much more. “For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!” To search for a mystery within the sea is to get lost in mystery itself.
This does not mean that land is not mysterious, because the land itself arose from the sea. It is simply strange to look at the concept of earth and land as symbolic due to almost all events taking place upon it. There are interactions with the Earth – digging could represent an attempt at discovery less profound than the sea, or burying (whether a body or object) could be the attempt to hide without the implication that it will never again be found. The land thus represent mystery to a far lesser degree because all that is buried in earth can so easily be returned to the hands of man: “
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
Plant and Animal:
And so God creates plant, animal, and man. He disperses to man and animal alike “every herb bearing seed” and “every tree” for food. Beginning with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden onwards, man no longer eats only plant, as God had intended, but meat as well. This is where the carnal feasts begin to represent characters filled with sin or with evil. It is not the original intention to eat from an animal and was only brought about due to sin. A famous scene in the third film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, shows King Denethor of Minas Tirith feasting on meat with blood flowing down his chin as his army, ordered by him, hopelessly rides into a battle they cannot win.
These plants, whether they be meant for food or are present only in a garden or other form of natural landscape, may then represent a paradise that can be defiled by humanity. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the forest-covered island is a paradise in itself. It is only when the children arrive that it becomes a fearful hellscape filled with threats and death. Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi shows the history of our world beginning with nature. It is simple and innocent until slowly the Earth is populated by telephone wires, bombs, exhaust, and smog. It was that natural world that was the purest and most innocent. Or finally, a video game such as the recent Death Stranding, which takes place in a world crafted with the most gorgeous natural scenery, has been now overrun by an oil-like substance only possible in the modern world.
The Act of Creation:
The act of creation is a symbol for God, or a God-like character. Planting a tree and nurturing an animal are obvious symbols, but there is also the act of bringing light into a darkened room, of bringing water to those who are thirsty. There are even symbols that are antithetical to the Bible – think, in Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King when he originally destroys the native Africans’ source of water. However, as the later hailed “rain king” he reverts from being an Antichrist to a God figure once again.
Of course, what comes next is man itself. Yet, man’s purpose and symbolism are explored throughout The Bible. Mankind is given authority to rule over the land, the plants, and the animals, but the symbolism is not apparent in this statement alone. So I will keep this first write-up to the previous four ideas: light and dark, land and sea, plant and animal, and the act of creation itself. They are at the forefront of the biblical creation myth and are some of the broadest symbols available. However, even with their broadness and their infinite number of possibilities, simply remembering where these ideas come from can provide some foundation for what an artist is trying to convey.
For more essays on how to understand the importance of The Bible in art, check out my project page: HERE