The Power of Symbols

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine. -Diana Wynne Jones

Recently, I had the luxury of visiting the trifecta of the Balkan coastline: Tallinn, Helsinki, and Riga. Although all cities were quite amazing, there was this pull in Riga to know the culture on a deeper level. As I lingered onto the city’s streets and stores, I noticed a pattern of symbols popping up frequently on clothing, purses, notebooks, scarves, and wallets. I inquired a store teller about this, as I noticed the images were being sold as small wooden souvenirs.


She began to describe that these were symbols of their pagan Gods. It wasn’t until the 13th century that Christianity were forced on the Latvians. Despite this, the symbols remained rooted in the culture over time. At first I simply bought several symbols as gifts, and left the store. I quickly returned and stocked up buying 15 various symbols, but almost half of them were one particular style. Although the most popular one was “Austras koks” (power of all symbols), there was only one left. I chose to stock up on “Ugunskrusts” because it was described as the most ancient of all symbols and was equated with strength. It looked celtic and I thought this would be a perfect gift for others. The store teller Janna told me I could use the symbols as either a display on my xmas tree, in a car, office, home. It was versatile, cheap, and portable for gifts.

“Is there a book on this?” I asked Janna. “Just google it,” she encouraged me. I would find loads of resources. And therefore that evening, in my hotel room, I did. I began finding page after page of the history behind these symbols, numerous individuals gracing themselves with tattoos of these images, and other souvenir ideas I could purchase. But then I stumbled on a fact that I could not release from my head.

The Ugunskrusts which I purchased 7 of were previously worn by the Latvian military, as it signified strength. Germany was inspired by this, and therefore embraced it. It became known to the world as a “swastika”. Of course! I knew how familiar this looked. Why didn’t the store clerk tell me?

I informed my husband, and was horrified I did this. He laughed, and I was curious if I could exchange these souvenirs the next day. He reminded me that it wasn’t America, I would be stuck with 7 swastikas. The next morning, I woke up, and ensured I entered the store when it opened at 1000 am. Luckily Janna was there and recalled our interaction the day previously. I graciously inquired if I could exchange the 7 symbols for other ones. She quickly approved. I should have stopped my mouth there. But my babbling mouth continued.

“I googled it like you told me to, and it said that these were swastikas.” 

She retorted,”they are not swastikas.”

Ugg, I realized I was offending her. This was a Seinfeld episode living itself out in real time. I couldn’t stop it. 
 “I know they were originally gods here years ago, then taken from the Latvian military by the Nazis. But my family and friends may see it as swastikas. And we’re ethnic.”
She understood and was cordial. I left, but kept ruminating on how I may have offended Janna. I returned to the store, apologized again, and took a photo with her. I knew this would be a funny story. 
Having this experience, reminds me of the essence of why we travel. We uncover history of spiritual roots of a country, the power of symbols and how it can be transformed and rewritten, and the authentic vulnerable interactions we are able to have with strangers, even with store clerks who sell us souvenirs. 


Thanks Janna.


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