Symbols are important because they facilitate communication and identification of ideas and other concepts based on what those symbols represent, though they can have literal as well as figurative meanings. Symbols can be used to signify individuals, groups of people, organizations or more ambiguous concepts.
Most symbols have complex meanings. One example of this is the symbolism presented by the tree in the Christian religion. Not only does it refer to the place where Jesus was crucified, but it also has other meanings such as "branching out." Symbols and metaphors are often interchangeable, although symbols are more widely used than metaphors. This is because symbols, like metaphors, often mean more than one thing. Some widely accepted symbols have an indefinite number of meanings.
Often, a symbol's meaninghas great cultural significance, but one symbol can mean different things to different cultures. An example of this is the swastika. To Hindus and Buddhists, it is a sacred symbol, but to much of the rest of the world, it is a symbol that signifies the death and destruction associated with the Nazi Party.
A symbol that means the same to all who see it is called an archetype. These symbols have universal meanings and can be used in literature, artwork and other mediums. They have been accepted by all cultures and are generally non-changing.