The Meaning Behind Outlander's Signs and Symbols
Written by: Laura Miller
Editors’ note: From time to time, guest bloggers join us who have a certain expertise or passion they want to share with our readership. Laura Miller is one of those people. A medical editor for a global pharmaceutical advertising agency by day, at night she mostly rereads Diana Gabaldon’s works, researches interesting tidbits from the novels, or rewatches seasons one and two with her Outmander. Sound familiar? Here she shares some research she’s done on the symbols that abound in Outlander. We think it’s fascinating and hope you will as well.
While we all suffer through Droughtlander, any news is big news and perhaps one of the greatest gifts was our first look at the PRINT SHOP. The first sight of that sobriquet, “A. Malcolm, Printer and Bookseller,” and the sound of that bell had us in puddles on the floor. The Print Shop sign was brought to San Diego Comic-Con and flooded the web with excitement and speculation. After our initial swoon over those serifs and curlicues, it was clear that the Print Shop sign, brilliantly created by Jon Gary Steele and his crew, was more than met the eye. I decided to take a closer look.
I’m no Master Raymond, but I’ve done my fair share of reading on astrology and various other occult, so I decided to take a crack at breaking down these symbols for you. Of course this is not the first time we’ve seen these symbols used. The Apothecary, Master Raymond’s tunic, and the Star Chamber were teeming with sacred geometry and both pagan and Judeo-Christian symbols.
Symbols are subjective—the meanings change depending on who is using them, who is reading them and how they are being used. Symbols were often used as secret code or replaced written words in populations that did not know how to read and write. So, A. Malcolm’s shop sign was an advertisement, a means of conveying who he was to his customers, and he imbued the sign with symbols—both supernatural and religious—that had meaning in his life. Time to take a closer look at what all those symbols might mean.
Jupiter ?, Saturn ?, and Earth ?
Old astrological beliefs held that the orbits of the stars, moons, planets and sun shaped our lives here on earth. Star-crossed lovers were at the mercy of their ill-fated interplanetary crossings. Jamie and Claire’s relationship can be considered categorically star-crossed. Just as the stars and moons and planets move in their orbits, Jamie and Claire are constantly moving, slipping through time, always orbiting each other. Orbits are circles—they always return in the same place they started. “Promise you’ll always come back to me Claire.” Three planetary symbols orbit around the Print Shop sign: Jupiter, Saturn and Earth.
Jupiter and Saturn are both opposing and complementary symbols with many interesting features that dovetail nicely into our narrative. Saturn represents strength, discipline, agriculture, pride and darkness. It denotes an energy that defines an individual derived from the social sphere—Jamie is a leader because he is defined by his public identity and sense of duty to be a provider and protector. Jupiter is the star of intelligence, clarity, optimism and selflessness. Definitely sounds like our focused, compassionate Doctor Claire. Jupiter is invoked in practices requiring close attention, delicacy and a higher level of consciousness—good traits for a surgeon.
But these traits are not mutually exclusive; Jamie also has the precision and intelligence that is earmarked by Jupiter, while Claire has the stubbornness, recklessness and pride that we associate with Saturn. These two planetary symbols represent the characters as individuals but also in relation to each other, as both complementary and opposing.
We also see the Earth symbol (or upside-down Venus symbol), which represents being grounded, in-tune with the Earth. The symbol is meant to represent matter over spirit, or how the physical world around us informs our spiritual lives. Claire has felt the intangible; she’s traveled through the stones at Craigh na Dun and has felt the power of mystical healing. Despite her connection to the supernatural, she is not afraid to get her hands dirty, literally; a nurse, herbalist and mother, her physical world helps define her. Just as Claire’s spiritual life was shaped by her relationship to the physical world, Jamie had a fine-tuned relationship with the Earth, as a farmer, hunter and homesteader which shaped and were shaped by his Catholic beliefs.
Circles and spheres are perfect forms in sacred geometry. A circle, an orb, is an ancient symbol for the Earth. Historically, rulers and gods were depicted holding the orb to symbolize their domination over it. An orb topped by a cross, like we see in the Print Shop sign, is called a globus cruciger, or triumphant cross. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the pagan orb was re-purposed and a cross was added to send the message that paganism was replaced with Christianity. And more than anything, Christianity ultimately represents something even more important—Faith.
In Master Raymond’s alchemy, the planetary symbols were used to represent the seven prime metals. Saturn ? is the symbol for lead, Jupiter ? the symbol for tin and Earth ? the symbol for antimony. Many things important to Jamie’s life are derived from lead. Letterpress type was forged in lead, so the symbol for lead is appropriate for a Print Shop sign. The term “leading” means the space between lines of type; lines of lead were used in linotype to separate lines of text; the term is still used in digital typography and printing today. Lead and tin are malleable alloys with low melting temperatures, so they were also used to cast bullets, or lead shot, because it was easy to melt and quick to cool.
Photo of letter type cabinet and slugs from the SDCC Outlander booth of the courtesy of @insidethetube via Twitter.
Square and Compass
In the center we see the square and compass, a widely used, easily identifiable Freemason’s symbol. It’s a way for Jamie to advertise his status as a Freemason to signal that it was safe for other Freemasons to patronize his print shop, to keep the secrets of Freemasonry safe from outsiders. The square and compass also come together to form the letters, A and M, for Jamie’s nom de guerre, Alexander Malcolm. Interesting side note, the Clan Malcolm’s crest is of a tower, and their clan motto is “In ardua tendit (he aims at difficult things).” Verra appropriate.
On the upper supports from which the Print Shop sign hangs, we see a few floral flourishes, a bloom that appears to be a strawberry blossom with trefoil leaves. The significance of the strawberry plant to Clan Fraser has been well documented, the Fraser surname thought to be derived from the French word, fraisier (strawberry). Strawberries in antiquity were used by stone masons in architecture to symbolize perfection and righteousness while the trefoil leaves are symbolic of the holy trinity. On the other hand, they may be two Jacobite roses… one for Jamie, one for Claire. Though Jamie would not want to publicly implicate himself in the Jacobite rebellion, he was known for printing questionable material, so it is possible that this is another secret signal to potential customers that printing seditious documents is safe with him.
The Fleur de Lis ?
The fleur de lis is a stylized flower that can symbolize a multitude of things. When we think of the fleur de lis, France often comes to to mind. It’s no surprise Jamie would include a fleur de lis, having spent much time in France having attended l’université, serving as a mercenary in the French army, being a French wine merchant and attending French court. He speaks perfect French and this could be an advertisement indicating that he is multilingual and would be well qualified for printing documents in the French language. In Catholicism, fleurs de lis represent the holy trinity, the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. But in paganism and throughout antiquity, most interesting of all is that the fleur de lis is often interpreted as a deconstructed bee!
The bee was a sign of life, reproduction, reliance on a female leader and the importance of the female to promulgate future generations. As paganism gave way to Christianity, the bee that symbolized the Divine Feminine was re-purposed to symbolize the Virgin Mary.
Claire has many associations with bees. She keeps an apiary at Fraser’s Ridge, dips beeswax candles, uses honey for medicinal purposes and barters with honey in the backcountry. Claire certainly is a queen bee, and we know that the current title of Diana’s next novel in the Outlander series is Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.
The wrought-iron interlace of the sign also includes serpentine details. In alchemy and the occult, the bee and the serpent archetypes are often used. Bees symbolize industry, collaboration, royalty and the ability to perpetuate life. Bees are integral to our ecosystem, pollinating flowers and ensuring the perpetuation of the food chain. Snakes and serpents embodied wisdom, guardianship, poison and medicine. Jamie carries Sawny in his sporran, and he and Claire both have many treacherous encounters with snakes over the series of books. As a medical professional, Claire would have association with the the Rod of Asclepius, the rod entwined with a serpent associated with healing and medicine. We can also associate snakes (and eels!) with Lord John Grey, who has meetings with them at the most inopportune times. And if we look to the Catholic bible, we can find a whole lot of serpent symbolism throughout both testaments. Even Master Raymond and Comte St. Germain use a biblical snake reference in Dragonfly in Amber: “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16:18). The ouroboros, a serpent eating its own tail, occurs in numerous mythologies representing the cycle of creation and destruction, life and death, infinity, unification—the cyclical nature of time.
Crown and Thistle
The crown and thistle is a pretty obvious one, since it features prominently on the cover of Diana Galbaldon’s original novel Outlander. The crown and thistle conjoins the British Crown with the thistle, the flower of Scotland, signifying the fealty of the Scots to the British crown. The crown represents England and, therefore, Claire; the thistle, Scotland and Jamie. It is an abstraction of the union of Jamie and Claire, the Scot and the Sassenach.
|Photo courtesy of Matt B. Roberts|
Wolves appear several times in the series, notably when Claire encounters them outside of Wentworth and kills one with her bare hands (in the book)! But what if the symbols are not identical (I think they appear slightly different)? Perhaps one represents a wolf, and one a dog. A wolf-dog hybrid, Rollo! Wolf and dog symbolism in ancient Scots culture, and around the world, is pervasive. Many icons throughout history often were depicted as having canine companions, a sign of loyalty, instinct, ferocity and warriors. A wealth of folklore and superstition surrounds wolves, including the belief in lycanthropy (werewolves) and associating wolves as shadowy demons. As previously mentioned, the wolf is symbolic for the alchemical compound antimony. The globus cruciger ? is also used as a symbol for antimony, or Lupus metallorum “the grey wolf” which was used to purify alloyed metals into pure gold.
The first thing that probably comes to mind when you see musical clefs is Mother Hildegarde and her musical genius, breaking ciphers with J & C for the Jacobites, and her deep loving affection for Claire—it was Mother Hildegarde who christened Faith and buried her with the other angels. Of course it could be an homage to brilliant soundtrack composer, Bear McCreary, too. These are specifically F clefs, backwards, forwards, and upside-down. Upside-down clefs were frequently used in musical compositions, such as Bach’s canons and by other composers in the Baroque period, but it was the unusual use of the musical notes that helped Mother Hildegarde realize that the clefs were the key to deciphering the secret messages in Dragonfly in Amber.
The shape of the clef is a spiral, also a visual representation of the Divine Proportion, or the Golden Ratio, a naturally occurring geometric pattern (nautiluses, flower petals, galaxies). The golden ratio is achieved when the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. It links each new generation to previous ones, preserving continuity and connecting generations through time and links all matter from the smallest molecule to the Universe in space; it is all encompassing, representing the transcendence of time and space. In the study of quantum mechanics, the golden ratio and the notion of time/matter as a spiral are used in theories by quantum physicists to explain the possibility (and the improbabilities) of . . . TIME TRAVEL.
Circles and spheres have a boundless constellation of meanings and if you combine the two halves of the circles in the Print Shop sign, they create a quincunx, a geometric pattern of five points used in the arts, sciences, and religions because of the numerical importance of five—four parts comprising one whole. In nature, it can represent four physical aspects and a central spiritual aspect: earth, air, fire, water and The Fifth Element (think, Leeloo Dallas Multipass); the five senses inform a person as a whole; the four seasons make up a year. This quincunx represents how Jamie and Claire complete each other.
In art, science and religion, we see quincunxes everywhere and they are usually a confluence of the three studies. The Vitruvian Man, the ancient Pyramids, the pentacle, the Celtic 5-fold knot, the five wounds of Jesus (the crucifix itself) are all examples of quincunxes. In astrology, a quincunx is a 150-degree angle between two planets that are five signs apart. Often referred to as “injunct,” it signifies the two signs are in opposition, which could herald discord, opposition, or chaos. But it also means that there needs to be a partnership to reconcile their differences; there are certainly times in Jamie and Claire’s lives when they are in discord and need to restore harmony. In ancient alchemy, it represents the whole being more than the sum of its parts, and on an atomic level many metals and minerals have quincunx-shaped molecular structures.
On flags, banners, and other insignia, elements are often arranged in a quincunx pattern, which is then called called saltire. The proudest Scottish symbol of them all, the Scottish flag, is a saltire flag, St. Andrew’s cross passing through each point on a quincunx. Standing stones have been found arranged in a quincunx pattern.
The Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and has many divine meanings. “I am the Alpha and the Omega” can be translated from Hebrew to “I am the Aleph (?) and Tav (?).” An alternative sign for the tav is the X and the aleph also crosses to create an X (also a quincunx); the alpha and omega being God, the quincunx representing balance and attaining spiritual perfection.
Interestingly, the lower left descender of the aleph makes the letter J. Opposite, we can see the other initial C, so we have J and C for Jamie and Claire juxtaposed with what could be interpreted as “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” They are each other’s beginning and end, a divine union, star-crossed lovers wed by God. The term aleph is derived from oxhead, the shepherd’s staff, and the mouth or voice. I’m not 100 percent positive, but I’m pretty sure Claire’s called Jamie a bloody ox-headed Scot a time or two.
|Photos of the print shop sign from the SDCC Outlander booth are used with permission from @Andeesings for @tvafterdark via Twitter.|
Less enigmatic than some of the other symbols, the wave motifs on the sign are fitting. Waves carry ships to far away lands, they move the current, and shape the shores. Relocation, being carried away and how lives are shaped are central themes in Voyager. Images of the South African coast and tall ships have kept us waiting with baited breath for the next season of Outlander and on September 10th, our ship will come in.