Symbols can have multiple layers of meaning, often rooted in cultural, historical, or religious contexts. They can represent a wide range of concepts, including emotions (like a heart symbol representing love), ideas (such as a lightbulb symbolizing creativity), or values (like a dove symbolizing peace). Let’s explore the meaning of 15 such symbols!
The traditional symbol of Hermes features 2 snakes coiled around a winged staff. It is often used in medical contexts, however, in this form, it is confused with the rod of Asclepius due to The US Army Medical Corps choosing the staff of Hermes as its motif over a century ago. In its true form, the caduceus has ancient associations with commerce, eloquence, and negotiation, since Hermes was the patron of tradesmen and merchants.
This early Christian symbol is colloquially known as the ‘Jesus fish’. Before the Christians adopted it, however, the ichthys was used by the Greeks, Romans, and many other pagans. In pagan beliefs, Ichthys was the offspring of the ancient sea and fertility goddess Atargatis, and they referred to the fish symbol as ‘the Great Mother’ and ‘womb’ establishing its link to fertility, birth and the natural force of women.
3. All Seeing Eye
This symbol has long been misunderstood and misused as one of control and surveillance by the elite. However, the symbol for the all-seeing eye of God universally represents spiritual sight, inner vision, higher knowledge and insight into occult mysteries. It has been widely used for centuries in religious symbolism in all parts of the world. In the modern era the eye can be seen on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the United States $1.
4. Peace Sign
What we now know as the peace sign has had a number of meanings and there have been attempts to associate it with older, darker origins including ‘Nero’s Cross’ as well as the ‘Death Rune’. However in the 1960s, the symbol was created by a man named Gerald Holtom to encourage British nuclear disarmament – he saw the symbol as a man, outstretched in despair. The hippies later used it to protest nuclear weapons, which brought about its worldwide link to global peace.
It has come to represent the atrocities of the Nazis in World War II, but its actual origins date back millennia. Deriving from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’, meaning ‘good fortune’ or ‘well-being’, it is believed first to have been used in Neolithic Eurasia to represent the movement of the sun through the sky. Even today a similar hooked cross is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism and is commonly found on temples or houses in India or Indonesia.
6. Hammer and Sickle
This communist representation was born amidst the Russian Revolution. The hammer symbolized industrial laborers and the sickle of the peasantry – when combined they stood for the worker-peasant alliance for society against socialism, reactionary movements, and foreign interventions. In the Soviet Union, the symbol took on a gendered meaning with the sickle standing for women, and the hammer for men; it is now globally recognized as a symbol of Marxism.
7. Evil Eye
References to the evil eye can be found in cultures across the world. It is believed to be a curse cast by a wicked glare given to an unaware victim which will inflict bad luck or injury. The earliest known evidence for the belief can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome where it was believed that the evil eye was most likely to strike someone who had been praised too much – a punishment from the Gods to those who had become too proud.
8. Yin Yang
In a nutshell, this Chinese symbol represents perfect balance and is the basis of almost all Chinese philosophy. Yin Yang is the most known and documented concept used with Taoism and it symbolizes two halves, which when combined, complete wholeness. It depicts the ancient opposing but complementary forces found in all things in the universe including dark and light, evil and good, and death and life.
The pentagram is an ancient symbol of Witchcraft and is made up of five points. The upward point represents a spiritual being such as Gaia or Mother Earth whilst the other four embody the basic elements (wind, water, earth, and fire). This simple symbol has long been believed to protect against evil and was often found on amulets and forms of jewelry to watch over the wearer.
10. The Heart
Synonymous with romantic love and affection, the historic origins of this symbol are hard to trace. Some believe it derives from ivy leaves associated with fertility, whilst another theory is that it originates from when the ancient Greeks and Romans used silphium, a giant fennel, as birth control. The silphium’s seedpod resembles a heart, resulting in speculation that its links to love and sex may have been what first made the symbol popular.
11. Masonic Square
The single most recognizable symbol of Freemasonry features a square and a set of compasses joined together. Both are architects’ tools and are used to teach symbolic masonic lessons including that Masons should ‘square their actions by the square of virtue’ and learn to ‘circumscribe their desires and keep their passions within due bounds toward all mankind’. When the two are placed together with God at the center, peace and harmony are the result.
12. Fleur de Lis
Also known as the Lily of France, it was at first a modification of the Gaulish lily which represented the Virgin Juno. Among goddess worshippers, it is believed to have several meanings including the Triple Goddess. More recently the stylised lily motif has come to symbolize French royalty along with perfection, light, and life.
13. Pi (π)
A mathematical symbol with a whole lot of meaning behind it. Defined as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter – (simple enough) – Pi is a so-called irrational number – its exact value is unknowable as there is no recognizable pattern to its sequence. Evidence of pi can be found in all walks of life – from classroom maths to navigation and flight path calculations, to the processing of radio and TV signals, and even sport!
14. The Phoenix
Universally accepted as a symbol of the sun, rebirth, resurrection, and immortality, the legendary ‘fire’ bird is linked to the worship of sun gods such as Aztec Huitzilopochtli. The Phoenix was believed to periodically die in its self-inflicted flames and then rise again from its own ashes.
15. Trinity Knots
The Celtic Trinity Knot (or ‘triquetra’) illustrates faith, devotion, and belief in God, and its 3 segments represent the Holy Trinity. The symbol can be found as far back as the 6th century on stone crosses, architecture as well as art, and metal work. Nowadays it is often featured on Celtic wedding and engagement rings as it is seen as appropriate as they make a lifetime commitment before God.