Often more subtly placed in paintings, coral was quite popular among Renaissance elites. Not only were the shells exotic and expensive, but the vibrant red hue symbolized significant religious and secular beliefs. In some Madonna and child scenes coral can be found strung above the figures or worn by the infant Christ
as a necklace, foreshadowing the Passion. The precious stone was thought to have mystical qualities and beaded necklaces were gifted to children as protective amulets (it also doubled as a teething toy). For women, the brightly colored beads symbolized their fertility and vitality.
First of all, thanks to @marypsue for listening to my ramblings and giving some feedback about this a few days ago and to @eregyrn-falls for talking about Alex’s Q&A, which reminded me to write it up and post it.
Warning: this is going to be long. Sorry.
One of the things that I’ve always hoped would get an explanation from Alex (but possibly never will?) is the meaning behind the symbol on Stan’s fez/the Cipher Wheel.
First, a bit of a tangent, but I hope a productive one: in GF fanfic, a common issue when Bill and Stan appear together in a fic is that we never canonically heard Bill’s nickname for Stan (assuming he would have given Stan one, which, given Bill’s character, seems like a safe bet). Fic authors usually get around this by having Bill call Stan “Fez,” which makes sense given that’s where his symbol is and it’s a pretty distinctive element of his appearance.
But Bill doesn’t call Dipper “ballcap,” or Mabel “sweater,” or Soos “t-shirt,” even though that’s where their symbols are found. Their nicknames are based on what the symbol IS, and the symbols (at least roughly?) represent who they are as characters.
So, ultimately, thinking about what Bill’s nickname for Stan might be sort of helps clarify what Stan’s symbol might mean vis-à-vis his character. Ahem. Back to the symbol.
The clearest direct mention of the symbol is in Journal 3, when Ford writes that Stan’s fez is from Filbrick’s membership in the “Royal Order of the Holy Mackerel.” It’s totally possible this is all there is to it, it’s a funny fish symbol. Alex’s old DeviantArt account is reportedly holymackerel, so it’s possible it’s just something he thought was funny and that’s that.
But, we all know how much Alex loves to misdirect people – almost as much as he likes to have multiple layers of mysteries and meaning in GF. So I think it’s more likely this is just a superficial meaning for Stan’s symbol.
Looking at the symbol, there could be a few different interpretations, so I’ll present the three most interesting ones I came up with, in order of what I think is the likelihood it’s the real meaning of the symbol.
First, another look at the symbol as it appears on the fez:
Now what if we do this:
Looks like an eye, right? Just one eye?
The least likely theory is that the symbol has something to do with Stan’s character being connected to Bill’s in some way. It’s a cool interpretation, considering how important the idea of the “beast with just one eye” was, and the fact that, as Mr. Mystery, Stan wore an eyepatch (and so had just one eye visible). If you’re a subscriber to the Same Coin theory, this interpretation might work for that.
I personally don’t think this is it, though. So let’s turn the symbol this way:
Notice the symbol in canon art is always represented with these proportions. Now what does it look like? A bit like the portal casting a shadow? Who lived (figuratively and literally) in the shadow of the portal for 30 years? Yeah.
Stan, with his long-standing self-esteem and self-worth issues, saw himself as just “part of a dynamic duo,” essentially Ford’s shadow, not capable of accomplishing anything on his own. So, this interpretation is a little more likely to me, and I headcanon that Bill’s nickname for Stan would be something like “Shadow,” because it’s not only thematically appropriate, it’s snide and hurtful.
But this still doesn’t seem like it’d be an appropriate symbol for Stan’s character. After all, reductively thinking of him as Ford’s shadow would only represent most people’s (and his own self-) perception of Stan in the first (admittedly long) part of his character arc. So what represents the culmination of his character arc?
Let’s turn the symbol one more time:
Well, first of all, there are some similar-looking symbols in the history museum in SotBE:
And on the ur-Cipher Wheel in Mabelcorn:
I personally don’t think it’s related to the symbol that’s similar to the Freemason symbol, because that seems on-the-nose and superficial to be on a secret society fez (though a cute reference), and more related to Dipper’s character than Stan’s. I think the other symbol gives a clue as to its meaning, since it’s also incredibly similar to Stan’s symbol’s shape.
…what legendary bird is often represented in this shape? And the shape on the fez? Wings upraised in a circular shape?
So…my best guess is that this is a simplified, stylized version of one of the best symbols for Stan’s character: a phoenix. The imagery of Stan burning is present throughout the series, and of course, Stan is literally immolated and reborn in the finale. I absolutely headcanon that this is what Stan’s symbol really means. (But I don’t think Bill would ever call Stan “Phoenix,” do you?)
All this is just speculation, though. You’d have to have actually been in the writer’s room (or Alex’s brain), or have done a lot of research into ancient symbols (in so many cultures and historical contexts, seriously – Egyptian symbolism, indigenous American tribal symbolism, secret society symbolism, alchemy symbols, etc) to suss out what everything related to Stan and his symbol (the flag/banners for the Royal Order of the Holy Mackerel, the first symbol in comparison to the second symbol – both work for the Phoenix symbolism, the color symbolism in the series, etc) might mean.
I sometimes suspect that the reason Pogs have become such a post-ironic icon is that they’re symbols of an era that never happened.
No, seriously. The popular notion of what “the 90s” were like actually starts around 1999 or so, and mostly occupies the early 2000s. Blink-182? Didn’t go mainstream until 1999. Shrek? 2001. The Tony Hawk series? Debuted in 1999 and peaked in popularity around 2003. You’ll struggle mightily to find a cultural touchstone of “the 90s” that dates earlier than maybe late 1998.
On the other end, everything up until about mid-1992 can be lumped in with the waning days of “the 80s”, but everything in between? That entire stretch from late 1992 through early 1998? As far as our collective cultural consciousness is concerned, it’s a big blank - and that’s right about when Pogs hit it big.
And that’s where the tension comes from. It feels like we ought to remember their context, but there’s just nothing there; trying to chase down that thread of cultural memory is like opening a door into an endless void.
Culturally speaking, Pogs are a symbol without a referent.