Universal Symbols?

In response to my riff yesterday on discovering a character through one of her interests, UZ pointed out that there was a certain universal symbolism about tea.

“A villain who drinks tea is a civilized villain. A murderer who drinks tea is an urbane murderer. There is no such thing as a tea drinking contest. In fact, tea cannot be drunk in an uncivilized manner.”

Most things in a world, or in a culture, tend to have different associations depending on cultural context, physical environment, presentation, and other factors. Water is vital to life but finds numerous ways to be deadly, is as readily calm as mercurial; fire works as easily when symbolizing wanton destruction as hope in desolation as purification. But in some worlds, there are some things that manage to come across approximately the same way regardless of culture or context—I’m not entirely sure tea is one of them, but it certainly seems to be close.

What might make a symbol universal (or at least, locally universal) like that? (Note: this, even by my posts’ standards, is mad world-builder conjecture. You have been warned.)

In a world with active and vocal gods, the most likely answer is divine intervention. If even those two over there—you know the type, they’re some degree of opposites locked in an endless competition that could be anything from rivalry to perpetual murder attempts—agree that the world grew from a hazelnut, then the hazelnut is going to be, well, a symbol of the birth of the world.

There’s also instinct. Some things seem to be pretty much ubiquitous, or at least very close, in human psychology; people are more likely to be disconcerted by snakes and spiders than by turtles and beetles, taxonomy is apparently a hardwired part of the human brain (the book I found this in explained that as being one of the major reasons behind Pokemon being so successful), and most people will at the very least take notice when someone’s anatomy isn’t configured quite the way it’s supposed to be.

Sometimes it’s more connotation—or at least, all its connotations pointing in the same direction. Take tea, here. It’s generally manmade, but at the same time carries earthy, natural connotations, giving it a sort of balance. For most of history, waiting for the boiling and the steeping has been a required part of having the tea, so it isn’t exactly the drink of the impatient—and in both East and West, people have found different ways to turn that tea-wait into a social convention. Most people don’t drink tea in large quantities, so the cups tend to be small (comparatively, at least) and sometimes delicate. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, or at least it was in my experience, and it takes skill to know when it’s steeped enough and get the tea out before it’s gone too long and is rising out of the cup to smite you. Did I mention that the stuff could be used medicinally? Between the social ritual, and the patience required in waiting for it, and its overall innocuousness, it’s pretty easy to make a picture—tea is for talking to people over, it’s for people who know how to wait, it takes skill to serve properly, so of course it comes across as the beverage of the thinking, civilized person. (Whether that’s universal is another question entirely, but what do we know aside from what we’re exposed to?)

Slipping a universal symbol into a world can serve several functions. One, of course, is as a unifying theme—make it ubiquitous enough, it’ll become part of the world’s calling card. Another is contrast; if all of the numerous races/species/cultures you’ve seen thus far view a certain thing in the same way, and along comes someone from Those People Out Way Thataway who looks at it entirely differently, that’s going to stand out. And of course, there’s what it might say about the commonalities of the groups in question.

Does your setting have any universal symbols?

4 comments

  1. Grant says:

    I’m not sure if it’s an American thing, but for us Brits it’s pretty possible to drink tea in an uncivilised manner. Just think of big fat builders wearing stained vests and taking big gulps of tea from chipped mugs in-between mouthfuls of bacon and egg – or a homeless man asking for money for a cup of tea, then cradling a styrofoam container with as much milk and sugar in it as the shop would let him get away with – or standing out the front of your council estate house with a cigarette and a cup of tea with the bag still in.

  2. Swordgleam says:

    That’s a really interesting way of looking at it. Seems like one of those things that should go on those lists of “questions to ask yourself about your world when worldbuilding.”

  3. Ravyn says:

    Grant: Yeah, I’ve another source who said the same. Was his line, I’m just quoting. Maybe it’s that the tea is slightly less ubiquitous over on this side of the Pond, us being far too busy with our numerous fizzy drinks, so we’ve had less opportunity to see it outside of the social areas it seems to connote.

    Swordgleam: Probably wouldn’t hurt!

  4. JT the Ninja says:

    It’s impossible to drink coffee in a non-thankful way. []

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