The symbolism of a Yoke refers to the burden we must carry in waking life. Accordingly, if the burden is too heavy, our unconscious may be revealing the excess tasks and responsibilities which hold us down, or basically enslave us. Conversely, if the yoke is light and well-balanced, we may be illustrating the worthwhile nature of our supportive efforts concerning work, family or social commitment.
For reasons only too obvious, the yoke is the symbol of enslavement, oppression and confinement, and the Roman custom of making the vanquished pass under the yoke is self-explanatory.
However, it takes a fresh dimension in Hindu thought. The Indo-European root, yug, from which the Latin word for yoke, jugum, is derived, finds a well-known application in the Sanskrit Yoga, which has the meaning effectively of uniting, linking and yoking together. It is by definition a system of meditation which aims to harmonize and to unify the individual so as to obtain self-awareness and ultimately the one true marriage, that of the soul with God and the manifestation with the First Cause.
Buzyges, who invented the yoke which allowed oxen to be controlled and harnessed, was also one of the earliest Athenian law-givers. Yokes symbolize discipline in two of its aspects: the first is chosen of one’s own free will and leads to self-control, to inner unity and to oneness with God; the other is borne in a humiliating fashion (it is the dark aspect of the symbol) as in the famous case of the Caudine Forks. Here, a Roman army defeated by the Samnites was forced to crawl under a spear set horizontally over two others stuck into the ground, the jugum ignominiosum, the yoke of shame.
In Ancient Rome there was a place called Sororium Tigillum, the Sisterly Beam, under which murderers passed to expiate their crime. The first to do so was Horatius who had murdered his sister, Camilla, because she came out of the women’s quarters and shamelessly proclaimed her grief for the enemy whom he had killed. This very ancient expiatory and purificatory custom was essential if the person concerned was to regain a place in society - you had to pass beneath the yoke. However, this ancestral use of the yoke implied more than mere submission to the city’s laws. It was undoubtedly, as Beaujeu writes, ‘a survival of the secret or artificial gateways through which the young man, once initiated, passed from the supernatural world in which he had undergone his ordeal into the everyday world.’ It was thus truly the symbol of reintegration into society.