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Quick Essays on Social Theory

Symbols, Sumptuation, and Mystification

Signs and Symbols

Signs occur naturally: A rainbow is a sign of moisture in the air. Smoke is a sign of something burning. Turning blue is a sign of not getting enough oxygen.

Symbols, in contrast, have “meanings” that are created for them by human beings: A crown is the symbol of kingship. A skull and cross-bones symbolize danger or death. The letter S with a vertical line or two through it symbolizes money: $. A symbol, in other words, arbitrarily “stands for” something.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether something is more symbol or more sign: Having many books can be a sign of education (the owner has read them) or a symbol of education (the owner displays them).

Because they are created in specific cultural contexts, symbols can have different meanings in different contexts: A rainbow is the symbol of the Peruvian city of Cuzco. And of the inter-racial Rainbow Alliance. And of gay rights. And of the old Shanghai airport. And of God’s promise at the end of Noah’s flood. And of Rainbow Laundry & Dry Cleaning Company. The color red is often associated with the Communist Party, but in the United States it often refers instead to the Republican Party, and in the late twenty-teens it became associated with teachers’strikes.

Behaviors can be symbolic too, sometimes the same behaviors that are non-symbolic in other contexts. For example, a barber routinely places a hand on a customer’s head to indicate a direction in which the head should be moved. But the hand of a priest on one’s head is quite different again (and even more obviously symbolic), conveying blessing, baptism, or even ordination, depending on the context.

Symbols can be made up of other symbols. For example, the European flag is a symbol of the European Community, but each individual star on it is a symbol of one of its constituent nations.

Language is the most elaborated and most highly structured system of symbols that humans use. The sounds that we actually make turn out to symbolize categories of sounds (phonemes), which, in combination, symbolize words, which, in turn, symbolize concepts, many of which are symbols of other concepts, and so forth.

Sumptuation & “People Like That”

Many symbols are associated with social structure. In our society, popular culture makes playing golf a symbol of high social standing. Jokes about rich people playing golf and (formerly) a tradition of country clubs designed to exclude whole classes of people suggest that the activity (and the equipment associated with it) has the ability to make a symbolic “statement” that the golfer is a person of high social standing.

What happens if the golfer does not in fact occupy a high social position? One effect is that such an exception weakens the symbolic significance of golf as a marker of social standing. People for whom golf is an important symbol of social standing may be annoyed about this. “How can they let people like that in here?” they may ask. The attempt to exclude “people like that” from various prestige activities has inspired legislation throughout most of human history.

Footnote 1
The Latin root of this word is sumptus, “expense,” one of the derivative forms of the verb sūmere, “consume, spend, take.” Our words “sumptuous” and “consume” are obviously related to this. It is significant that the root refers to the use of something rare and expensive, for, as we shall see, what is expensive is often used as a symbol of social standing.

Footnote 2
The monopolization of symbols for specific purposes is not limited to sumptuation. Nurses’ uniforms may be a coveted symbol of the nursing profession, and golden arches may be a carefully defended symbol of one particular hamburger chain, but general political power is not what these symbols most centrally represent. Thus they fall outside the range of convenience of the concept of “sumptuation” as we are defining it.

The most famous case of legislation restricting access to a symbol comes from ancient Rome. In Rome, wearing a toga with a purple border was a symbol of belonging to the Roman Senate. For an ordinary Roman to wear a toga with a purple border was made a punishable offense. (In some periods misuse of purple in clothing carried the death penalty.) The issue was not the risk of being mistaken for an actual senator (“impersonating an officer” in modern terms), but rather making a claim to being as important as the senators. The Roman laws confining purple toga borders to senators (and governing other symbols of status) are called “sumptuary laws.” [Footnote 1] Another example would be the imperial Chinese prohibition of yellow roofs on buildings not associated with the emperor.

Sumptuary laws can also extend to access to places, such as shrines (open only to priests) or even bathrooms (which in the pre-civil-rights American south were race-specific) or to practices (such as the right to practice polygamy among the Aztecs).

Generalizing, the legally enforced monopolization of symbols in order to demonstrate social ranking and/or political power can be called “sumptuation” or “sumptuary process.”[Footnote 2]

Beginning with the individual differences in possessions and power that followed the dawn of the Neolithic, we see the process of sumptuation at work as people in positions of wealth and power represented their “superiority” by forcefully monopolizing some kinds of goods or activities.


Two related issues are particularly important. One is the use of sumptuary symbols to justify political control (mystification). The other is the related monopolization of other people’s labor (or life) as a symbol of one’s power and social position.

Mystification involves the use of symbols to exalt rulers and to make them seem different from ordinary mortals. It refers especially to supporting political power through the use of diversionary cultural symbols that make hierarchical social arrangements seem more than human, even cosmologically inevitable.

For example, symbols of kingship among the ancient Egyptians and in the East African Nilotic societies influenced by them, made the king seem, if not exactly divine, as least more than human. In many societies, certain religious rituals (and the priesthoods controlling them) have been asserted to be “necessary” to the favor of the gods, the success of the hunt, the growth of crops, or even continuation of the world. (That does not mean that everybody actually believed such assertions, but it was usually dangerous to contest them.)

Political legitimacy can come from various sources. In most modern societies it is rooted in elections and the associated belief that elections represent an overwhelming social good. But political order can also be sustained through effective mystification of a religious hierarchy or of a dictator (a king, a Führer, a “supreme leader,” a “great helmsman” or whatever). As Confucius and his followers noticed two and a half millennia ago, when legitimacy is successfully achieved, very little active coercion is necessary to maintain social stability.

Scarce Goods & Other People’s Labor. The objects and actions that are used as symbols are many and various. But a recurring theme in sumptuation and mystification is the use of scarce goods and of other people’s labor.

The ability to gain access to scarce goods is a sign of one’s power, making possession of scarce goods a more or less natural symbol of power. It is no accident that gold and “precious stones” are used in ritual celebrations of wealth and power around the world. The reason people love gold is usually not primarily because it is pretty, but because it is scarce.

The ability to control other people’s labor is conveniently symbolized by physical objects that are the fruit of spectacular amounts of human labor either to manufacture (such as fine embroidery, sculptures, or pyramids) or to locate (such as gold or gems) or to transport (such as cedars from Lebanon or marble from Italy). In our own society, “upscale” grocery stores tend to feature fashionably foreign products: French cheese, Japanese beer, British jam, &c.

In archaic societies one symbol of great power over other people was slavery. An even more powerful symbol was the right to take human life at will (including human sacrifices). In most early empires we find these practices institutionalized and associated with royal or upper-class mystification. (Slavery and arbitrary public execution were also in use by the so-called “Islamic State” in the early XXIst century, explicitly in order to demonstrate its power over people.)

Part of what makes the modern world “modern” is the gradual reduction in these extreme processes of mystification and sumptuation. (We don’t do human sacrifice any more.) But dramatic symbols of social differentiation and political legitimacy are still with us, even if many of them strike us as quite benign.

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