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Symbology Research Failure
Russian Orthodox Church architecture on a Communist War Factory. A Church Militant's nothing compared to this.

This trope occurs when a creator will include religious or cultural symbols without realizing that they are religious or cultural symbols for use in a particular context. They'll have seen the imagery turning up in the art of another culture and so use it for that ethnic or fantastical flavor. They'll use a saint's name because they like the sound, or make every building look like a church because they like the pretty arches. This can confound any audience member who knows what those images really are about and wonders, "What's that doing there?"

Contrast with Faux Symbolism. In that trope, the creator knows it has some symbolic meaning and tries to throw these ideas on top of the work, in vaguely appropriate situations to try to make things seem deep and meaningful. In this trope, the placement being out of joint with any appropriate context highlights the lack of intended depth.

Can overlap, but is not to be confused with Dan Browned. Actually, it should be, since there's no field of study called symbology.note 

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Situations where crosses are meant to denote "gaijin" (not Church Militant, just normal European war forces) in some anime/manga.

    Film 
  • Played straight in The Boondock Saints. Smecker interprets the McManus brothers' habit of placing pennies in the eyes of the dead to be a payment to Charon (Greek ferrymen of the dead across the river Styx), so they can cross over and atone for what they did in life. The payment to Charon was a coin under the tongue. Placing coins on the eyes simply served as a weight to keep the eyelids from opening on their own post-mortem. Not to mention that two very Christian Irishmen would probably not participate in a pagan Greek funeral rite.
    • Worth noting, the quote associated with that scene:
    Dolly: So what's the symbology there?
    Smecker: Symbology? Now that Duffy has relinquished his "King Bonehead" crown, I see we have an heir to the throne! I'm sure the word you were looking for was "symbolism." What is the ssss-himbolism there?
  • Mission: Impossible 2 mixes the processions of the Holy Week in Seville with the "Fallas" of Valencia (and throws in some people dressed for Pamplona's running of the bulls looking at them for good mesure), even having a character uttering the line "how crazy Spaniards are, burning their saints to honor them?". The origin of the Fallas is only incidentally religious: they take place in the four days prior to March 19, Saint Joseph's day in the Catholic calendar, who is the patron saint of carpenters. In this day, carpenters would take out and burn the wooden splinters left by their work that could not be reused, and over time it evolved into the confection of elaborate structures over the year for the express purpose of being burned that day. These structures often make parodic references to events of the year and feature caricatures of politicians, actors and other famous people, but never effigies of saints or other figures of worship. And they are not held in Seville.
  • In the 1959 movie Thunder in the Sun, about a group of 19th century Basque immigrants in California, the characters use jai alai baskets as weapons and the irrintzi (a traditional high-pitched yelling used by Basque shepherds to denote happiness) as a coded language.

    Literature 
  • Digital Fortress uses the real fact that Christopher Columbus is interred in the Cathedral of Seville to claim that he is a saint worshipped in the "Spanish" Church, rather than him being there just as a notable person since churches were common burial places until recently. Not content with it, Dan Brown then blows it completely out of the water by inventing that his body was butchered and turned into relics that were diseminated in churches through the whole country, with Seville being the proud guardian of his scrotum.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Invoked in the first season of Boardwalk Empire when Margaret reads a poem about ghosts to her children during Halloween and Nan Britton asks her if they will read it again when they go to the Church later that night. Margaret is weirded out by the comment and clarifies that they are going to a religious service for All Saints' Day, not a Halloween party.

    Video Games 
  • The Soviet War Factory from Red Alert 2, with an "onion dome" — a traditional element of Russian Orthodox church architecture — lodged on its roof. Several other Soviet structures in this game were given similar "attachments". On the other hand, Red Alert is built entirely on Camp and Rule of Cool/Rule of Funny, so this can be excused by the MST3K Mantra.
    • May be justified as the Bolsheviks (especially at the beginning) found new uses for building of "opium of the people". The churches were converted into theaters, town halls, stables, warehouses, museums or shuttered/demolished. Thanks to the Church's large manpower contributions to the anti-revolutionary White Army, and enormous wealth, they were a top opponent of the Bolsheviks. The succeeding Soviet government was openly anti-religious and any Christian symbolism was prohibited until The Eighties, with an exception of a period during the War.
    • Also partly justified in Red Alert 2 as the Soviet leader is basically a Tsar, which may restore some of the pre-revolutionary antics as long as it doesn't contradict the Soviet socialism.
    • Proving that at least they're even-handed, Red Alert 3 puts Shinto torii on Imperial buildings. This might be slightly more justified, since they have been occasionally used in secular architecture, and the Empire is explicitly endorsing State Shinto, reverence of the Emperor as a deity.
  • The Kremlin wonder in White Day: A Labyrinth Named School world time puzzle ...is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
  • The Kremlin wonder in Rise of Nations ...is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
  • The Kremlin wonder in Civilization IV ... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
    • Likewise, the Masjid al-Haram wonder in Civilization IV is actually the Dome of the Rock. (For those not in the know, the former is the Kaaba—the Black Cube—in a big mosque in Mecca. The latter is the blue and gold octagon in Jerusalem, which while cool and significant isn't half as cool or significant as the actual Masjid, which is the holiest site in Islam).
  • The Kremlin wonder in Civilization V really is the Kremlin, but the little icon for it ...is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
  • Mayincatec castles in the Age of Empires II expansion The Conquerors are very impractical sacrifice pyramids. Probably done on purpose as realistic Mesoamerican fortresses wouldn't be as iconic.
    • Similarly, in the The War Chiefs expansion of Age of Empires III, where the Native American civilizations don't build temples - they get a fire pit where the villagers dance in exchange of new units and techs instead - the inevitable lack of pyramids in the Aztecs is solved by having pyramid-shaped barracks.
    • In the second expansion to AoE III, The Asian Dynasties, the Chinese get a "Confucian Academy" as one of their wonders which is used to... build siege engines.
  • Stave church architecture is used frequently for housing, castles and great halls in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

    Web Comics 
  • Parodied in Problem Sleuth where several stats are shown using very out-of-place Christian imagery, such as monstrances, communion wafers, the Gifts of the Magi, etc.

    Western Animation 
  • Seth MacFarlane is obviously a pretty big fan of Rule of Funny and generally just doesn't care, but his use of Jewish symbols is, unsurprisingly, way off the mark. In at least a couple episodes in Family Guy he shows Jews wearing prayer shawls at the wrong times (either outside of prayer, or at nighttime services when they are not worn), and The Cleveland Show at one point, in a fantasy cutaway, shows Cleveland reciting Kol Nidre, the Aramaic annulment of vows that begins Yom Kippur, by reading it out of a Torah scroll. It is a legal declaration, not a Biblical passage, and is certainly not found in the Torah (it's not even in the same language).
    • In a Schoolhouse Rock-style music video in American Dad! the Kremlin used as a counterpart to the White House... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
  • The Simpsons has also made this mistake more than once, though it's easy to miss behind the glamour of Zombie Lenin.

    Several Media 
  • Use of San(to)/Santa ("Saint") followed by any random word to name fictional Spanish-speaking locations. Marvel is particularly prone:
    • San Elanya, home village of minor Marvel Comics superhero El Aguila.note 
    • Santo Rica ("Saint Rich"), also from Marvel Comics. This one is not even gramatically correct: Santo is a masculine word and Rica, feminine. Some writers have caught on this and use "Santo Rico".
    • San Gusto ("Saint Taste"). San Justo and San Gustavo would have been perfect names, but... nope.
    • The worst example has to be places in several different stories called San Diablo...Saint Devil.
      • This one also pops up in the first Spy Kids film.
    • Out of Marvel there is the fake travel guide to San Sombrčro ("Saint Hŕt").note 
    • Another non-Marvel example: San Angeles, home base of the Power Rangers Operation Overdrive. Done as a San Diego/Los Angeles mashup of course, but seriously - "Saint Angels"?
      • San Angeles is also used as the setting in Demolition Man, but this time it is justified: San Angeles is a megalopolis formed by the future growth and unification of San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
  • The Kremlin in a great deal of American source material ... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral. This is probably due to Western journalism superimposing an image of the Cathedral while announcing news relating to Russia during much of the 20th century. Perhaps ironically, Red Alert 2 does feature both, having models for what is a incorrectly-designed Grand Kremlin Palace and the cathedral.
    • It doesn't help that when you do a Google image search for "Kremlin," what shows up most prominently ... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral. It's a shame because there are some rather nice-looking churches on the Kremlin grounds.
    • To clarify: The Kremlin is a fortress. With red walls and green roofs. Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed stands just outside the Kremlin. It is a colorful temple.
  • The Greek capital letter Lambda (L) looks like a Latin A without the horizontal dash. It has the advantage of being recognisable as a letter (the wrong one) while making anything look instantly Greek. Many authors therefore use it as a substitute for A, leading to nonsensical things like the poster for Agora which actually says "LGORL" in a mix of Greek and Latin letters.
    • The Backwards R is this trope applied to the Russian alphabet.
    • Ancient Greek hoplites in fiction almost invariably carry the capital L on their shields. It was indeed used as such in Ancient times, but only by the Spartans - the L stood for Lakedaimonia, the homeland of the Spartans. Symbology Research Failure ensues when even the Realism mod of Rome: Total War has Athenians carrying this mark. Athenians, or for that matter Thebans, Argives, Megarians and citizens of nearly a thousand other states would not be caught dead carrying their mortal enemy's emblem on their shields... (For their part, most other Greek states did not have consistent shield designs, the design being generally personal to the bearer, although often inherited father-to-son. In most states, hoplites paid for their own arms and armor, including the shield; Sparta's consistent design is because Spartans were armed at the expense of the state.)

    Real Life 
  • Those Wacky Nazis appropriating swastikas. The swastika, previous to encounters with India and Buddhism, was already a very popular symbol in the West. It was commonly associated with, among other things Thor, the god of thunder. In fact, the swastika is so ubiquitous in world cultures that some, including Carl Sagan, theorized that it was, in fact, based off the image of a comet seen straight on. Others have hypothesized that it represents the sun. The Nazis made the mistake of assuming it to be an Aryan symbol above all else, and proved a connection between the mythic white Aryans (real Aryans, AKA Proto-Indo-Europeans, almost certainly weren't blonde-haired, blue eyed Nordics, and resembled North Indians or Iraniansnote ) and the Scandinavian cultures they admired.
  • FIFA thought it would be a great idea to release a football bearing the flags of the countries that had classified for the 2002 World Cup. And it would have, if one of those countries wasn't Saudi Arabia, which has the 'Shahada'—the fundamental Islamic declaration of faith ("There is no god but God and Muhammad is His prophet")—sewn into it, taken straight from the Quran. Add to that that hitting something with your shoes or feet is a supreme insult in Middle Eastern culture and you can figure where this is going.
    • Even setting aside the specifics of Arab culture, one must admit that kicking around a copy of anyone's most holy images would offend them.Important note 
    • The South Korean organizers also run into trouble when they painted the flags in the ground of a hall, ensuring that visitors would step on them.
    • And ISAF then went and made the same football mistake in Afghanistan.
  • Some coins made in Britain during the Dark Ages like those of Offa of Mercia have Arab inscriptions reading "there is no God but Allah" or claiming to have been struck in Damascus a number of years after the Hegira. It is believed that the engravers just copied contemporary Abassid gold dinars and mistook the writing for decoration.
  • Often seen in tattoos or posters of a Yin-Yang symbol with a tiger and Chinese dragon battling it out. Chances are, the dragon will be in the black part of the symbol, while the tiger will be in the white part, likely to match their colors (the tiger will always be a white tiger, in this case). This would be a mistake in Taoist philosophies, as this is quite backwards; while the tiger and dragon do indeed represent Yin and Yang, they do so respectively. The tiger represents Yin (the black area), while the dragon represents Yang (the white area). Likely, the mix-up comes from Western views of dragons as evil creatures, automatically placing it in the "dark" side of the symbol, while the strong and noble white tiger is placed in the "good" side. Just remember this handy rule of thumb to keep them straight: the tiger waits in the darkness to strike at its prey, while the dragon charges forth brashly into the light of the sky.
    • Additionally, Dark Is Not Evil and Light Is Not Good. Yin-Yang is not about Good vs. Evil, but about achieving balance between two opposing and complimentary forces. Birth (dark) must be balanced by death (light), or else populations would explode or wither away. Masculinity (light) is balanced by femininity (dark).
  • As part of a 2000 report on the Basque Country, an Italian newspaper published a photo of a traditional aurresku dancer during the inauguration act of the Basque regional government and identified it as "martial arts practice in the Guardia Civil barracks".
  • The real Fallas run into trouble in 2013 when one participant made one that included depictions of two Hindu gods, Shiva and Ganesh. Following protests from the Hindu community, the ruling council made the author take out the figure of Shiva (which was donated to an Hindu temple) and the crown and extra arms of Ganesh, thus turning it into a common elephant, before the structure was burned down.


This page... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
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