REMINDERS OF HOME: A survey of the semiotic signs related to human dwelling-places

Abstract Introduction Early Shelter Color Pattern Meaning in Language Archetypes
Parts of Shelters Semiotics and meaning Modern Usage Conclusions References Webliography Links


Making Meaning: Uncovering The Archetypal
In addition to written alphabets, some research suggests that human beings tend to produce mental thesauri of types of experiences, which can later be used to describe multiple states of reality (Berger 255).

Carl Jung's archetypes of the collective unconscious provide one set of references to explain some of the commonalties found within signs of home. Jung attempted to codify behavioral patterns and tendencies found among human societies. This united set of patterns, the collective unconscious, is generally further divided into archetypes. Within various theories, archetypes are also called dominants, imagos, mythological manifestations or primordial images (Barnard 198).

Interestingly, early Jungians frequently used the analogy of a house when describing the collective unconscious, with the top floors being our most sophisticated reasoning, descending down through lower and older floors of antiquated opinions, and finally reaching a basement filled with primitive earth rituals, containing a bare and ancient human skull. It seems fitting that the collective unconscious itself was figuratively constructed using signs of home (Jacobi 200).

Throughout the twentieth century, researchers relied on Jungian archetypes to examine many aspects of human culture. While these classical Jungian images are helpful when examining human communication, new theories have begun to contradict Jung's ideas (McDowell 46).

Jung based his approach on the “hard-wired” aspect of many human responses, arguing that archetypal constructs would be genetically inherited and shaped by biological evolution. Some theorists now argue not only that archetypes may not be an inherent part of the biological makeup of humans but that such constructs can only be transmitted through a learning process (McDowell 48). Other research seems to demonstrate that humans do not inherit generalized images of any kind but only the tendency or potential to form such images (Katz 320).

How people organize their impulses to make meaning, along with their seemingly instinctive responses to the physical world, is a fascinating area of study which continues to expand (and contradict) existing theories of communication. Although debate continues regarding the validity of a biologically-based collective unconscious, many theorists agree that for a large number of studied cultures, particular archetypes do continue to reappear in new contexts. While archetypes, in and of themselves, may not have universally specific forms, large numbers of modern humans do apparently continue to recognize and use the same symbols, over and over, as filters and amplifiers for actual events and experiences they confront.

A community of humans may apply any meaning they unanimously agree upon to any sign they choose, allowing the application of new symbols to old objects and vice versa. This flexibility of semiotic definition allows an astonishing potential for human languages to convey specific types of information (Eco. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. 87).

Protective Archetypes: Bringing the Great Mother Home
Sacred powers seem to have been combined with the essence of holy places to produce additional protective signs for human dwelling places. Protecting a permanent shelter with the power of a guardian spirit is a common and apparently widespread application for particular signs. Many religions are founded on a given geographical site, viewed as the center of creation, a supremely holy location where some seminal event purportedly occurred. Tapping into the power of such a sacred place and attaching it to a portable symbol of a protecting divinity allows every household to share in the blessings of a guardian spirit. Protective signs, including adapted images of the deities themselves, become a central feature of human dwelling places.

Researchers suggest that the Neolithic peoples based their earliest defined religions on Mother Earth, the “Magna Mater”. Observing the cyclical regeneration of nature produced an awe of the birth, growth, death, and rebirth cycle in primitive humans that pagan religions embraced, “remaining vital as an underground current in Western culture via the various Dionesiac cults and mystery religions right up, via Romanticism, to modern times” (Gimbutas 74).

This might explain why among both global archetypal symbols and domestic semiotic signs, the Earth Mother is one of the most ancient and widespread images. Generally recognized as a transformative force, she supplies cycles of disappearance and reappearance, provides birth and death, and remains a source of both nurturing and devouring. The Great Mother usually is seen to be sustaining, cherishing, fostering growth and fertility in places of magical birth and rebirth. Among a majority of Earth Mother archetypes, the protective embrace of home is central to her powers (Rossi 63) and she tends to be directly involved in protecting human shelters. Weaving references to the symbolic Mother into the graphics, architecture and decoration of a shelter reinforces the close connections between the powers of the domestic goddess and the desire to sanctify and protect the human home.

Not surprisingly, a great number of references to the protective powers of archetypal ancestors also occur in the architectural elements of a variety of cultures, either as Earth Mothers transformed into architectural forms or as specific house deities created and maintained within the house by the occupants. Evidence of these protective archetypes, particularly among “primitive” human cultures, can be quite blatant, even becoming part of the architecture of the shelter itself.

Many shelters within Earth Mother cultures are situated in locations which signify either the protection of a goddess or the specific power of her blessing (Markale 34). Fountains, ponds and wells, frequently interpreted as ancient archetypal forms of the Primal Sea, and the Void, both feminine provinces, are often considered protective feminine symbols and domestic altars were constructed near such features (Churchward 34). “Well-dressing” is still practiced in parts of the U.K, complete with rituals for the blessing of the well. Fifth century Anglo-Saxons considered specific trees and water wells as unusually protective domestic “beings”. The site of a particular tree or groves of trees would be used as a personal identifier for many “heathens” who remained deeply reverent of natural powers within this culture, resulting in offerings being made to the gods of these places. It is still common practice to leave strips of cloth tied to trees surrounding an especially benevolent well site which act as prayers for healing to the Goddess of the Well.

Some of the oldest human artifacts identified have been images of household gods. The Egyptians were particularly prolific in their production of residential deities, particularly of popular goddesses who protected mothers and children against the risks during pregnancy and birth, such as Taweret. Nephthys, a secondary goddess of safety in childbirth, was often addressed and honored as the Mistress of the House (Cooper 4). Including the often abstract signs of these powerful maternal forces within the structure and decor of the home reinforced the protection they provided. Representations of Vesta, known to the Greeks as Hestia , goddess of the hearth, protected the centre of the Roman house, as markers of Ceres insured fertility would return to the inhabitants every year (Daly 9).

But not all protective house deities are mothers. Signs in ancient Roman houses include representations of Janus, the two-faced god who kept the gates of heaven, watching over household entrances and allowing both good fortune to enter and dangerous passions to leave. Inscribing Janus over archways and entrances marked the house with a sign of safety. However, since a house is only as strong as its doors, houses built in the more turbulent periods of Roman history required even more protective powers: signs of Forculus protected the door itself, Limentinus watched the threshold, and even Cardea guarded the hinges. Personalizing the gods into the very hardware of the building provided a layer of extra protection and embedded the protective signs of the immortals within the structure itself.

As a culture, the Romans exhibited a special fondness for demonstrating the special protection available from domestic gods, encouraging household shrines in special alcoves, to routinely honor the powers which allowed fertility, abundance and family tranquility. Small rituals were performed daily, some at every meal, and many layers of protective deities surrounded a wealthy Roman house, from the pantry to the roof tiles. Such display of so literal a sign of protection and blessing emphasizes the confidence of this culture in their ability to recognize and satisfy the appropriate powers. The significance of the symbols in a Roman household emphasized abundance and authority, announcing the self-assurance of the householders. Embedding the powers of the gods within the very architecture insured the safety of such dwellings.

The public display of protective religious icons provides a particular message about the residents of a dwelling. Many cultures continue to view private houses as connecting points in the spiritual realm, places of unity which join the invisible powers above to the daily needs of mortal beings below. “Our literal home is a "sacred," mythic place, even for non-religious people. We all believe in a special space beyond our own doorsills that simply cannot be violated. This is my place, where I can close the door on chaos and find some kind of cosmos, peace, assurance of purpose. "This is mine; here I belong" (O'Malley). In front of many Akan (Ghana) houses, a stump called the Nyame dua , also known as “God's altar”, is installed to guarantee a benevolent God's presence and protection. A particular graphic sign is also associated with the Nyame dua , the household god (Manonowicz 40).

Indonesian houses are considered a blessed link between the heavens and the earth, combining the intangible protection of invisible gods with the potent protection of natural creatures. In Borneo and Sumatra, stilt houses are lavishly decorated with the abundance of hardwoods available in the surrounding landscape. Larger structures display an “ancestor pole” in the center of the building, representing the founding member of the family. Symbols from creation myths are used as decoration, including water snakes and the rhinoceros bird. Complex art on the outside walls protect the inhabitants from evil. The human world, the heavens above and the underworld below are signaled by the red clay, the chalk white and the soot black used in the interior wall paintings.

A practice of the Owerri Igbo villages in southeastern Nigeria called mbari is a uniquely complex way of tapping into the powers of a beloved location. An entire community reaches the decision to produce a mbari house, which involves financial contributions from every member, the training of a specialized team of artisans and may take up to two years to complete. The structures created during this process are not intended as private homes, but rather as symbols, as full-blown cultural signs, of the richness and potency of a sacred dwelling place. From the wooden frame of the ceremonial house itself to the painted mud clay figures of deities and villagers who populate the niches within, the mbari house is an extended act of worship, bringing the village together in an act of creativity and exuberance which is intended to unify and bless all participants.

To emphasize the impermanence of all things, after the two-day celebration and unveiling, the mbari house is allowed to slowly decay back into the earth, a reminder of the cooperative will and artistic ability of the villagers themselves. (Cole 80). This ritual action becomes a complete semiotic system, including direct iconic references to particular people from the village, symbolic use of materials and colors and highlighted indices of animals and implements unique to this location. Recreating a place using icons, indices and symbols produces a potent example of semiotic signification.

Rituals for a New Home
While established shelters can be identified and delineated by the use of specific signs, new dwelling places can also be marked with particular signs. Throughout human history, selecting a location for a new house and preparing to move in has involved the use of many resources: the experience of the builders, knowledge of natural environments, comparisons of potential capabilities of certain locations and experience in past house maintenance (Preziosi ).

Ritual actions are important in establishing a safe and successful new home and frequently involve sacred objects, often edible materials and water. House-warming rituals include the baking of specialized cakes or ritualized water being left in a selected place for a proscribed period, to determine whether the location is acceptable (Parmentier 84). Recognizing and personalizing a new residence requires the use of specialized signs and materials.

Since designing a new shelter is a potentially dangerous activity, the householder should be guided by ritual knowledge supported by symbolic markers. Hindu vesta rituals state that while a square house is considered auspicious, other geometrical shapes are also allowed. Building with increments of four is almost universally favored. Semiotic signs within this culture can take the form of certain plants known to be protective, particular directions for rooms to face, distances for staircases to climb east and west, and flowering trees which should be placed on specified sides of the new residence. These pieces of information, while concrete, carry layers of both practical and symbolic meaning and have been proven over time to provide advantages when followed precisely (O'Kelley 72).

More obscure signs and rituals for protecting a new house range from hiding coins either underneath the windows, or more often in the corners, to hanging used iron horseshoes over the entrance in a specific position for good luck (Reed 10). A recurring symbol in human construction rituals is that of the spirit of the old house haunting the new shelter. New construction should not occur in place of the old house or on a cross road, because conflict between the old and the new spirits would be unavoidable. Also, building on a crossroad is problematic because people, animals, success and happiness can go away on that same road. Gates should not be in front of the house, since well-being, health, and life "flows out" through the gates (Bourdier 288).

Consecrating a new shelter is a serious event in most human cultures, with potentially life-threatening repercussions in some. The signs related to this process include several domestic implements, which sometimes appear in weavings, paintings and decorative copies of the tools themselves. Typically the preferred symbols are a particular cloth used for washing the main dining table or specific bread-making tools, since bread is a sacred symbol of the home. In Old Turkmensahra (Russian) rituals, the spirit of the old household is asked to go from the old house to the new one ("My head of the house, go with me") and it is vital to include things that the house spirit loved in the old house. Once the new house is occupied, the old sprit can be persuaded to settle in if specially baked buns are presented by the mistress of the new house while reciting particular welcoming charms (Knevitt 41).

In Hebrew culture, the mezuzah is a container made of wood, metal, glass, stone or ceramic, inside of which is a parchment with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 lettered on one side and the word Shaddai (Almighty) on the other. The word mezuzah means "doorpost" and refers to the sentence in Deuteronomy 6:22—"...inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." The mezuzah is usually affixed outside on the right-hand doorpost as one enters the house, but they can correctly be added to the doorposts of all rooms in the home. Before affixing the mezuzah, the appropriate blessing is said during the Chanukkat Ha-Bayit (dedication of the house). Having a mezuzah on one's doorpost is considered a religious duty, and the householders must remove it when they change houses.

Because signs are often based in the daily experience of the culture, food items have also frequently been used as signifiers for deeper meaning when applied as decoration or embellishment in shelters. The pomegranate as symbol of domestic fertility and contentment is widespread in many cultures and still can be found as a theme in mosaics, murals and embroidery. Ceres, the Roman Mother goddess who provided fertility and contentment to the home, was particularly respected for returning her beloved daughter, Persephone, home from the underworld. Ceres became associated, through this story, with the symbol of the pomegranate, a sign of fertility, abundance and health in many cultures, and considered a desirable motif for shelter protection ranging from carpets and dishes to commissioned sculpture and art work (even though it was eating the seed from the pomegranate which forced Ceres' daughter back to Hades for three months every year) (Markale 55).

“Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home” is a universally held platitude, particularly during the stressful process of relocating an entire household from the old to the new premises. The signs required to insure the prosperity of a new shelter range from the lucky horseshoe over the door to the new broom on the hearth and seem to keep pace with the evolution in human shelter.

For any society which retains a migratory pattern, moving either seasonally or when the local environmental conditions change, shelters evolve as transportable systems. Heavy, bulky or permanent items are not practical. Shelter must be lightweight, strong and protective. One aspect of domestic culture which bloomed among transient human groups is the woven rug. Warm, strong and comfortable, rugs are used for bedding, as furniture and even as walls and doorways. In addition to creating a barrier between the earth and the family, carpets became a form of writing for the illiterate tribes, frequently adapted as a record of good fortune, setbacks, marriages and births.

Through necessity, rugs became religious recordings when incorporated by Muslim cultures as prayer mats. Iranian weavers have been producing elaborate rugs for over 2,500 years and it has long been standard practice for a rug to be named after the village in which it was woven, since that is its “home”.

An extensive graphic vocabulary exists to describe the designs of traditionally woven rugs. A handmade rug from the place of one's ancestors is the ultimate sign of home, defining a place and a culture simultaneously in a vividly useful form (Aschenbrenner 105). The rugs themselves could be viewed as semiotic indices of the weaver's culture, since semiotic icons such as animals and plants appear, as do symbols in the form of geometric patterns and particular color combinations , and ultimately the weavings themselves are direct indicators of the skills and training such a society has produced.


(C) 2004 Tami Sutcliffe
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History
in the Graduate School of California State University,
Dominguez Hills, Fall 2004

"Seaside Souvenirs" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 34" - Oil on Masonite
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Last updated 07.15.04