Symbols can have very strong connotations. Connotation is a fancy word for ‘meaning’ or ‘undertone’ or even ’emotional value’‘. Take a symbol that resembles an apple. In a direct sense, this symbol means ‘apple’, but indirectly it can be a sign for humans of Adam and Eve, and the abandonment of the Eden. Symbolism has been part of humanity ever since we started writing.
In fact, most early writings were often based on symbols that depict something in reality (think Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example!). The use of symbols has never been replaced by text, nor by the much later invention of sound and image. The last few centuries have seen some incredibly powerful (positive and negative) symbols emerge,
We have chosen a number of very controversial symbols, as well as a few symbols that we all think we know, but whose original meaning is in fact very different than we suggest. Let’s start with that.
1. The heart
A heart, a shape that many teenage girls (and perhaps boys) draw on passing notes in the boring math (French) block hours. The theme of Valentines, and also a frequently used theme for organizations that deal with health, relational or physical. You can find candy in this shape, and pillows, and who knows what else, all over the world.
The heart is the organ in your chest that pumps blood through your body. As such a vital organ, without your heart you cannot live. No wonder one feels like dead when the heart is broken (although relationship problems have nothing to do with your heart at all, just your brain!). Two curious things are, first, that we ascribe emotions, feelings, and even value to an organ that has nothing to do with these things at all. Second, even if a human’s biological heart had to do with such things, it still doesn’t look at all like the picture of the heart in our symbolism. How did this crazy image come about?
Historians don’t quite agree (when are they?) but there are theories that the heart shape comes from an image of the seeds of the Silphium plant. These seeds were used as birth control in ancient Rome. Mind you, love, contraception, there’s a connection, but you can’t name it directly, can you? In addition, the Romans made the imagination of these seeds resemble another (male) genitalia. So next time you give someone a box of heart-shaped chocolates, think about this!
2. An inverted pentagram
A pentagram is a schematic representation (a ‘gram’) with five (‘penta’) points, and as such the sign has been used by many cultures and major religions, over the centuries. Even Christians have adopted the symbol as a reflection of the five senses. But we know the inverted pentagram mainly (almost exclusively) as a symbol for the occult, and often dark, in humanity. Thanks in part to the use of this symbol by the Satanist Anton LaVey, and the magician Aleister Crowley, who liked to call himself ‘The Great Beast’, we now associate an inverted pentagram with evil, with demons and anti-Christianity.
In fact, it was eliphas Levi, a French occultist of the 19th century, who “marketed” the symbol by repeatedly mentioning it in connection with evil, black magic, and other sinister intentions. He contrasted it with the normal upright symbol, as a sign of man, or a microcosm.
3. Flag with the rising sun
The national flag of Japan, which has been around since the Edo period in the 15th century, may not be very controversial to us Westerners. Maybe you recognize the flag from the current pop culture hype, or maybe you remember something from geography lessons in elementary school. But this is no doubt different for people (especially older generations) who lived in China or South Korea.
These are countries, among others, that suffered enormously from the aggression of Japan, in the second world war. Europe was too busy saving itself to notice that on the other side of the world a war was just as bad (hence ‘world’ war). However, this was the case, and for many elderly Chinese and South Koreans, the flag of the rising sun still symbolizes the countless grief and suffering that came with these occupiers. Believe me,
3. The Peace Sign
The peace sign, a circle with a vertical line through the middle, and two legs that form ‘pie pieces’ (see the picture, but I’m sure you get what I’m talking about!), is one of the most widespread relatively modern symbols in the world. usage. It is a sign that has inspired many people and, although it is strongly associated with hippies, it is also still a sign of peace, hope and conviction. Not quite what the symbol originally meant, however.
Rather, not at all.
We wouldn’t be writing about it if there weren’t a radically different meaning for this sign before it became our international peace sign. The symbol was created by Gerard Holtom, a British graphic designer who protested against nuclear weapons in 1958. As a pacifist, he thought that his symbol could have a double meaning (he had clearly overestimated the mental capacity of the mob). One meaning, more or less in line with the current meaning of peace, is a combination of the flag symbols for the letters N and D. N for Nuclear, and D for disarmament.
The other meaning Holtom had in mind was that his symbol would portray a person in distress and despair. A figure who throws his arms in the air and also spreads his legs… This side of his symbol, however, has never managed to touch the public as much as the underlying connotation of the Nuclear Disarmament. And so a sign of despair became a sign of peace and prosperity.
4.The Hammer and Sickle
Also known as the mark on the Russian flag, the hammer and sickle was first produced in 1917, during the Russian Revolution. It was widely used as a symbol of Communism well into the Cold War, into the 1980s. The symbol was initially a sign of cooperation between the ‘poor’ in Russia, the factory workers (hammer) and the peasants (sickle) . Today, however, it is a symbol for communism, for the state of degradation that most communist countries fell into, and restriction of freedom. At least, that’s what we Westerners see. Within the Russian borders it is still a popular symbol, even now that Russia is no longer a Communist Association.
5. The Inverted Cross
The Jesus cross itself is fairly untouched in its connotation; it still symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus, and all that he suffered for (Christianity). However, a common symbol for Satanists, and other antichrist figures in this world, is the inverted cross. How this came about is not entirely clear, because the symbol actually comes from a very Christian, and very virtuous, lineage. We owe the original sign to Saint Peter.
Saint Peter was, like Jesus, condemned to crucifixion. However, Peter saw that he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus (many other convicts had less of a problem with that). Peter, however, requested his executioner to crucify him upside down. His act was praised and honored as a sure sign of humility, and his inverted cross was also accepted as a symbol of humility. In fact, if you look closely you will even find inverted crosses here and there in old churches. We really only owe it to modern films like the Exorcist, and partly to the heavy metal scene, that it is seen as a sign of evil, of Satan and of anti-authoritarianism.
6. The Swastika
Here we are at last, the Swastika. Not number one, as this list is completely unranked. I expect my readers to take the extra step and read through everything in italics at the very least. The persistent among you have arrived at the symbol you have most likely been waiting for. Or maybe you already know that the Swastika didn’t always mean what it means now?
Just before the Second World War, Hitler came to power in Germany, and with him he brought, among other things, a symbol that he left ‘standing for his principles’‘. With Hitler, this symbol grew in prominence and transformed into the horrifying sign it is today, the sign for hatred of people, genocide, Arianism, discrimination, genocide and so on. So not a good sign.
If we take a little step back in time, we see that the sign was also once used as a symbol for dirty laundry, in Ireland, by the Danish brewer Karlsberg, and even by the Finnish and Latvian military air forces.
Stepping even further back in time, we find this sign in many cultures around the world. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism used it, as did the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Egyptian tribes. In Hinduism, the swastika (also called the gammadion cross symbol for Vishnu, and by its orientation means either the god Vishnu or Kali. It also represents the four directions of the world, and the four faces of the supreme god Brahman. No genocide.
In Buddhism it (under the name yungdrung) stands for eternity. No hatred of nations. And in Jainism, the sign stands for four places where a soul can be reborn, heaven, hell, humanity or flora-and-fauna. Celts most likely used the sign as an ornament, a nice IUD. Similarly, it is used in many Roman buildings, as a decoration of stones. Like for example in Palazzo Roncale, a Venetian palace. And finally, American airmen wore a Swastika medallion during their flights in the early 20th century, as a symbol of happiness and a safe return home.
Next time you see a shaven, tattooed and booted hooligan with a swastika symbol on his arm, maybe ask which of all these meanings he had in mind?
7. The Rainbow Flag
Perhaps this is one of the lesser known symbols in this list, but I foresee great possibilities for both the sign and the things it stands for. Everyone has their own opinion on that, of course, but the fact is that the rainbow flag stands for ‘gay pride’, or openness to home and bisexuality. Strange, then, that the flag has a Christian background, among other things.
Namely, Noah sees a rainbow as a sign from God that there will never be such a massive genocide again after the flood (not by the Hand of God, at least).
Therefore, the rainbow flag was often used as a symbolism for change, hope, a new era and for social change. In Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, the seven-color flag called Wiphala is used in formerly Inca territory. Even today you can still find this Inca flag in Cusco, a Peruvian city. Although the flag is associated with earlier Inca areas, there is no conclusive evidence that the original Inca population actually used this flag.
Buddhists also used the rainbow flag. Adopted by the International Brotherhood of Buddhists in 1950 as a symbol of Buddhism around the world, their version has six stripes, mostly blue, yellow, red, white, and orange, followed by a mix of all of the above. Buddhists, however, are open to variations.
We could mention a number of other organizations that used this flag, but the most striking nowadays is really the adoption of the LGBT commune (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender). They adopted the flag in 1978, and this version is often referred to as the freedom flag. He originally had eight, but now six colors, mostly red on top, orange, yellow, green and blue following, and finishing with purple. These colors represent life, healing, sunlight, nature, harmony and finally the spirit respectively. The other two (removed) colors were pink and turquoise, and these stood for sexuality and magic.
8. Skull and Bones, aka the ‘Jolly Roger’
This symbol is obvious to anyone exposed to Western civilization: it is the pirate flag. Whether it’s old-fashioned sea pirates, or pirates on the internet, it doesn’t matter. The flag represents piracy, but also freedom and independence.
In addition, this symbol is often used on bottles with toxic substances. After all, nothing says ‘dead’ than a skull and bones. Clear enough, I think.
In its origin comes the skull-and-bones of an allegory from the Middle Ages called Danse Macabre (The Macabre Dance), a story about how death reduces all, rich and poor, to one and the same unit. The symbol was subsequently adopted by military units who had to be tagged for their recklessness and aggression (of which the concerned troops were often very proud). Moreover, in Spain this symbol was used to indicate that one was in a cemetery. All that symbolic connotation has almost disappeared these days, we immediately think either: “don’t drink this stuff” or “Pirates, protect your valuables!” (or “Oh Johnny Depp, swoon,…”).
Excuse me? Health? No, labarum is the name for the Christian sign that looks a bit like a P and an X, drawn in the same place. It is also called the Chi Rho, because the letters used in the Greek alphabet are the Chi (x) and Rho (p-shaped curly letter). Chi and Rho together are the first two letters in the Greek word Christ spelled. It also stands for the Latin initials Christus Rex (Christ is king).
Labarum as a word may come from the Latin word ‘labare’ (to stagger, to falter), or the Celtic word ‘llafar’ (eloquent), or the Cantabri dialect word ‘labaro’ (four heads). It first appears in history as the sign we know of, in stories of Emperor Constantine the Great, who had to make a great battle in the year 312 AD. He had, according to some legends, a vision of God telling him that he would be victorious if he went to war in the banner of Christianity.
No sooner said than done, and Constantine fought in a more or less ad hoc produced ‘flag of Christianity’. This is where the Latin saying ‘in hoc signo vinces’ comes from, also ‘in this sign thou shalt be victorious’. The sign on the flag was presumably also transmitted to Constantine by God. Or maybe he made it up on the spot. In any case, it has become a very successful symbol, and can be found in almost all churches in the world.
10 Sex Symbols
Chances are you just scanned through the text in italics, but I suspect this last symbol (actually two symbols) caught your eye. Good too, because it’s an interesting history. The sex symbols are simply the circle with a protruding arrow (man) and cross (woman), and they are quite universal for these genders.
However, the symbol for man does not represent all men at all, originally it was just the symbol for the god Mars, or Ares (depending on whether you look at the Greek or Latin pantheon). The feminine sign represents Venus, or Aphrodite respectively. These gods were also planets, as well as astrological signs. And as such, symbols were needed, because it was too much to put the names or the whole characters on paper every time. In the Renaissance they came to be used not only astrologically, but also as a symbol for iron and copper.
The Mars symbol reflects an iron spear, something only used by male warriors in ancient Greek times. The Venus symbol represents a bronze mirror, or a distaff, typical feminine attributes. In other words, the symbols for man and woman are nothing less than a spear and a distaff. And they do not stand, as many people seem to think, for the different sex organs of men and women respectively…
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