Symbols are classifiable or could be classified into various forms. Fromm (1951: 23) identifies three kinds of symbols, namely, ‘conventional’, ‘accidental’, and ‘the universal symbols’. He is of the view that conventional symbol is the best known of the three, since it is employed in everyday language. Fromm cites example with the word “table”, in which the letters T-A-B-L-E stand for something else; the thing (table) that is seen, touched and used. He goes further to explain that there is no inherent relationship between the word “table” and the thing “table”, that the only reason the word symbolizes the thing is the convention of calling this particular thing by a particular name. This type of connection is learnt from childhood by the repeated experience of hearing the word in reference to the thing, until a lasting association is formed, so that no one has to think to find the right word. Words are not the only examples of conventional symbols as pictures can also be conventional symbols. A flag, for instance, may stand for a particular country, and yet there is no connection between the specific colours and the country for which they stand; rather they are accepted as denoting that particular country on conventional grounds.
Accidental symbol, as Fromm sees it, has no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and what it symbolizes. He cites example with someone having a saddening experience in a certain city; when he hears the name of that city, he will easily connect the name with a mood of sadness, just as he will easily connect with a mood of joy had his experience been a happy one. There is nothing in the nature of the city that is either sad or joyful;it is the individual experience connected with the city that makes it a symbol of a mood. Both conventional symbol and accidental symbol have no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes; but in contrast to the conventional symbol, the accidental symbol cannot be shared by anyone else except as the events connected with the symbols are being related. Hence, accidental symbols are rarely used in tales, myths or even in works of art written in symbolic language, because they are not communicable unless according to Fromm, the writer adds a lengthy comment to each symbol he uses; but the accidental symbols are frequent in dreams.
Fromm states that Universal Symbol is the one in which there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it represents. For instance, when fire is used as a symbol, the inner experience characterized by the same elements which is being noticed in the sensory experience of fire is being characterized; the mood of energy, lightness, movement, grace and gaiety. In the case of universal symbol, there is the connection between mental and physical experience;it is the only one in which the relationship between the symbol and that which is symbolized is not coincidence of the affinity, between an emotion or thought, on the one hand, and a sensory experience, on the other. Universal symbol is shared by all men, in contrast not only to the accidental symbol, which is by its very nature entirely personal, but also to the conventional symbol, which is restricted to a group of people sharing the same convention. It is rooted in the properties of the body, the senses, and the mind, which are common to all men and, therefore, not restricted to individuals or to specific groups.
Perrine (1983) classifies symbols into two types, namely, ‘universal’ or ‘cultural’ symbols and contextual symbols. According to Perrine, Universal or cultural symbol, embodies ideas and emotions that writers and readers share, like snake symbolises temptation and evil. Contextual symbols, on the contrary, are the symbols that are made by the author within individual works, which cannot be carried over to other works. Meyer (2007) arrives at two groups of symbols, which are conventional and literary symbols. According to Meyer, conventional symbols are those symbols that are widely recognized in a society. An example of conventional symbol is the flag used by different countries and the cross used by Christians. In contrast, literary symbols are those everyday images that a writer has expanded into conventional archetypes in his or her work to the extent that the readers or listeners are able to interpret them as they unconsciously interact with them in different artistic works. According to Obala and Orwenjo (2010), “once expanded, literary symbols do not remain with only one author; they can be used by other writers and still maintain the same symbolic value.” They cited examples with the use of a stream by Kimenye in the short stories “Bombo” and “The Pig” and the ‘river’ by Ngugiwa’ Thiong’o in The River Between where, the river or stream is used in the same sense by both writers as a source of life and renewal.
Mmaduka and Eyoh (2000) also classify symbols into two: conventional symbols and the private symbols. They hold that conventional symbols are those symbols that have been enshrined in the peoples’ collective memory over a period of time in such a way that whenever they are used, they elicit predetermined reactions in the audience or readers as the case may be; whereas private symbols are invented by users. They also observed the tendency of Africans to use private symbols in the place of the conventional symbols due to the fact of the diversity of experiences in the continent.
Shamisa (2004) equally postulates that symbols are of two types: Arbitrary symbols and Personal symbols. According to Shamisa, arbitrary symbols are those common and familiar symbols that can easily be recognised by the reader or listener of any literary work while personal symbols are the fresh ones that the literary artist newly created which are difficult to be recognised by the reader or listener. The categorisations of both Perrine and Shamisa are the same; the difference is only a matter of nomenclature.
Orimoogunje (2004: 158-202) attempts a study of the roles symbolism plays in the verbal art used in Yoruba indigenous healthcare practices. He points out the various classes of characters obtainable in the Yoruba healthcare practices and the ideas they symbolise in the health-related verbal arts among the Yoruba. He categorises them into the following: temporal symbolism, spatial symbolism, the symbolic object-characters and the human-object characters. Orimoogunje’s work buttresses the point that symbolism is a universal concept, hence, is not limited to any particular society or culture.
Rokin (2009) identifies three types of symbols: significative, metaphoric and commemorative. To Rokin, ‘Significative symbols are the arbitrary symbols that are common in each particular field of study like ‘@’ which is a symbol used in email addresses. This is the same with what Fromm (1951), earlier mentioned, which he calls ‘conventional symbols’. The metaphoric symbols are the significant symbols used for natural phenomena, things in their natural state; while the commemorative symbols are the ones that add a real event to a memory.
Most of the categorisations to some extent, point to the same thing; the only differentiating factor is traceable to their naming system. It is also obvious from the above discussions on classifications of symbols that two or more types of symbol may intermingle or be evident in a particular work.
Isiguzo (2012) in his discussion on types of symbols states that abstract symbols are the symbols that do not depend on their concrete material substance; rather they are the abstract entities that are capable of abstracting themselves, freeing themselves and purifying themselves from their concrete substance. He cites examples with mathematical symbols and names.
This study hinges on the conventional symbols as they apply to Igbo animal tales. This is because the relationship between the symbols and what they symbolise are not based on their natural affinity; rather the relation of the symbols to what they symbolise are conventionally based. Both the cultural and the contextual symbols are also analysed because some of the symbols analysed in this study can still appear in any Igbo literary work. In this study, the symbols that have relevance in the interpretation and transmission of Igbo cultural value system are explored as they are reflected in the tales under study. The symbols being analysed in this study, relate to Rokin’s metaphoric symbols, since we are looking at what the animals, their actions, utterances, etc. stand for in the tales under survey. This study also subscribes to Shamisa’s (2004) categorization. This is because in line with Shamisa’s categorisation, some of the symbols in the Igbo animal tales are very explicit; while some others need some explanations before the children can understand them.