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This article considers the place of cycads as symbols worldwide. To this end, it presents evidence for a symbolic structure or systemâ€”a symbologyâ€”encompassing diverse ways that humans use cycads to interpret birth, death, and the possibility of rebirth or an afterlife. Relatively detailed accounts from the authorâ€™s fieldwork in Mesoamerica are complemented by a survey of existing literature on cycads in other cultural contexts. Sections on cycads as symbols in Roman Catholicism; traditional African religions; Islam; southern, eastern, and Southeast Asian religions; and Oceania touch on the dominant usesâ€”nomenclature, plantings in cemeteries, and decorations on holy daysâ€”that suggest an intimate relationship with human conceptions of such important topics as time versus eternity, the possibility of an afterlife, and human redemption through divine intervention. It is suggested that the physical characteristics of cycads, e.g., their durability and longevity, are inextricably related to their symbolic importance to human culture.
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