Show a Hindu the Swastika and he might look at it in reverence. Flash the devil’s horn at a metal-head from the Baltic region and he might come after you with a vengeance! Confused? Many symbols mean different things for different cultures.
Did You Know?
Not just symbols, but words too have had their meanings changed over time. For instance, the word awful once meant something that was worthy of awe. There was even an old expression – ‘the awful majesty of God’. Today, however, awful means something that is simply bad or unpleasant.
Where words alone are not enough, we humans make use of signs and symbols. And just like words, these symbols too are a double-edged sword. It is important, therefore, that we be careful about their exact meanings, before deciding to actually use them.
But meanings change with time, place, and context. What these symbols might have meant in the past doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as what they mean in the present, or the future. Their meanings are also subject to change depending on different regions and situations.
In the lines that follow, we examine ten widely used symbols that have changed their meanings over time.
The Swastika is an ancient symbol, which has been around perhaps even before recorded history. It has appeared on numerous excavated artifacts, such as ancient pottery, sculptures, etc., the word ‘Swasti’ means auspicious or benevolent. For Hindus, the Swastika is associated with the Sun, or Lord Vishnu. It is believed to represent the ‘Sudarshana Chakra’ (the Lord’s wheel), which symbolizes constant change in the universe.
Most Westerners would cringe if you show them the Swastika. This is because, it brings back the bitter memories and horrifying tales of Germany in World War 2 under the regime of Hitler and the Nazis, who had made it their official symbol. However, this isn’t what the Swastika originally represented.
It features in old religious scripts as well. Its oldest known depiction was back in the Vedic times (4500 – 2500 BC).The Swastika, in this religion, is considered auspicious, and since ancient times and even today is painted on the doors of houses to ward off evil.
The Star Of David
Long before its adaptation in the Jewish faith, the symbol of a six-sided star was used by many other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. In particular, for the Hindus, it represents the Anahata, which is supposed to be an energy point in the human body, recognized as the fourth primary chakra.
Like the menorah or the shofar, the Star of David is one of the most easily recognizable Jewish symbols. However, if you thought that this symbol is unique to Judaism, think again.
The actual shape of the symbol, which comprises two opposite equilateral triangles interlocking with one another, is quite basic. This indicates towards the possibility that, all of these different religions could have actually come up with the idea of this symbol independently.
The Ichthys, commonly known today as the Jesus fish, is considered to be an old Christian symbol. Its history in Christianity dates back to the time when Christians were persecuted by the Romans.
Back in those days, Christians would use this symbol as a means of identifying other Christians. Typically, when two strangers would meet, one of them would draw one arc of the symbol. If the other person was a Christian too, he would know that he had to draw the other arc to complete the symbol.
History however tells us that, this fish symbol was in use long before the advent of Christianity, among the different pagan cultures, and would symbolize a number of different things. One prominent use of it in these cultures was to represent the womb of the ‘Great Mother’.
The OK Sign
It is to indicate that he is ‘alright’ or ‘fine’.In most of Europe, it is an offensive gesture, meaning that the person it is directed at is a ‘zero’. In the Mediterranean and South American nations, it symbolizes the anus. On the positive side, historically, it is also a mudra or a ritual gesture in Buddhism and Hinduism. Particularly, it is the Vitarka mudra, which represents decision, teaching, and reason. Many old sculptures of the Buddha too depict Him making this sign.
Ask an American if he’s okay, and if he is, he will probably make the hand sign shown above. However, this isn’t the universal meaning of this symbol. In many countries, this symbol is meaningless, and not even known.
The Skull and Crossbones
We associate it with danger. It is commonly seen imprinted on containers of hazardous substances. It is also believed to be ‘the’ symbol on pirate flags, though in reality, most pirates actually had their own design patterns for their flags. Historically, the skull and crossbones design was used by the Spanish to designate cemeteries. Pirates originally must have chosen this design, because of the fact that people already feared it due to its association with graveyards and death.
The Barber Pole
Traditionally, the barber pole is white colored, and has equidistant red-colored stripes snaking up through it in the form of a helix. While barbers today are only responsible for grooming, throughout most of history, they have had an alternate task – bloodletting!The barbers would then proceed to hang these bandages outside their shop as a form of advertisement. When it was windy, these red bandages would wrap themselves around the poles, which was how this symbol came into existence.
When people got sick, they believed that they could cure themselves by expelling the ‘bad’ blood from their bodies.
They would go to the barber and have themselves intentionally wounded to let the blood flow out of their bodies. This blood was then sopped up using clean bandages and towels.
The Devil’s Horns
It was Ronnie James Dio,who made the devil’s horns sign popular, which today is synonymous with rock and metal. This symbol, which was originally called the Corna, actually had a superstitious meaning. In fact, it is an ancient mudra which was made to ward off evil. However, if you are in the Baltic region, be careful before using this gesture on someone, as there, it indicates that you have had intercourse with that person’s spouse.
Ronnie James Dio, a heavy-metal vocalist and songwriter of yesteryears. He allegedly had learned from his grandmother that this symbol, which was originally called the Corna.
This is frequently used by medical and healthcare organizations. The fact is that, the use of the caduceus symbol is actually a mistake. The US Army Medical Corps had, more than 100 years back, decided to use the rod of Asclepius (the Greek God of Medicine and Healing) as its insignia. This symbol consists of a staff without wings,and just one snake coiled around it. Hermes, which is actually a sign of commerce,the rod of Hermes lost its original meaning, and is today synonymous with medicine.
The caduceus, or the staff of Hermes, it comprises a winged staff with two snakes coiled around it. A strange and rather creepy choice to symbolize ‘health and medicine’.
The Inverted Cross
This symbol is used to depict the anti-Christianity. The upside-down cross is also used by rock and metal artists to signify anti-authoritarianism. The inverted cross is also known as the Cross of St. Peter. When St. Peter was crucified, he felt that he wasn’t worthy of dying the same way as Jesus Christ, and therefore requested to be crucified upside down. Since then, the inverted cross was recognized as a pro-Christ symbol, also symbolizing humility.
Think of the devil, and along with horns and hellfire, most would invariably picture an inverted cross. This is probably due to several popular horror movies, including The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, etc.,Only in recent years has it been associated with anti-Christianity.
The Peace Symbol
This symbol was made popular by the hippie movement of the 1960s, and would frequently be displayed on hippie buses, clothes, tattoos, and graffiti, among other places back in those times. Consequently, it has today become the icon of peace and freedom. This symbol was designed by Gerald Holtom, who had originally made it to represent British nuclear disarmament.
According to him, this drawing shows a man in despair with his arms stretched down on both sides. He made it by combining the flag semaphore characters for ‘N’ and ‘D’, indicative of nuclear disarmament. Holtom never copyrighted this symbol, and over the decades, it lost its original meaning, being now associated with peace.