Imagery has likely existed for longer than we have had the language or intelligence to describe it.
Before expanding on this, first we must understand the distinction between “imagery”1 and “symbols”. Hieroglyphs are not what is meant by imagery; hieroglyphs convey explicit and objective meaning. Imagery is distinguished by its contextual importance as a means of understanding something abstract.
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, cover art
Some examples of imagery are:
- the tree of life
- serpents (e.g., ouroboros, caduceus, or deceptiveness)
- flooding (and towers)
- the moon overlaying the sun
- the Self (Jungian sense — Christ, the All, the philosopher's stone)
All of these images have the common theme of conveying things that perhaps even lack words to fully describe them, and yet they cross the boundaries of time, culture, and experience very effectively.
The unconscious mind can be divided further into the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious, the distinction here being experience overlaying and shaping our view of what is collectively understood.
What singularly defines us as a species is the individual narrative that we are able to extract from what resides purely in the unconscious for all other species. Our minds are built for storytelling, and are constantly perfecting a collection of completely new imagery alongside that which is inherited. This process is critical to building a framework of understanding for things which we don’t even necessarily understand literally. It is the basis of our capacity for pattern recognition (which is the foundation of all intelligence), and is on some level akin to seeing the future.
Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
source: Google Art Project
The industrialized world has brought with it a large amount of pressure to repress the subjective and rely exclusively on an empirical understanding of the world, even where there exists no empirical means of evaluating something. In unhealthy individuals the conscious mind rules with a heavy hand over the unconscious, crippling it for all practical purposes. Yet, when the unconscious is brought to light2 and synthesized alongside the conscious mind, there comes a remarkable sense of clarity of the world and in decision making.
Special attention should be given for imagery which is manifested of the personal unconscious and is of contextual importance. Dreams are of particular interest here, as they are arguably the most effective window into aspects of our existence that we choose to ignore. Often aspects of one’s self and their surroundings are found too difficult to confront directly. Narratives which we prevent our conscious mind from enacting will boil indefinitely until correctly integrated. This is the source of virtually all regret.
Act on the stories your mind creates; its awareness extends beyond conscious reality.
1. Note that I prefer to place emphasis on "imagery" as opposed to Jung's preference for "archetypes". I believe that the modern usage of "archetype" (typical, ideal, rather than foundational) does not communicate the intent well, despite an archetype itself being superordinate and unbound to any image representation of it.
2. The distinction between sunlight and darkness definitely precedes spoken language.