10 Famous Symbols (And What They Really Mean)

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Symbols are meant to stand for something. We see them every day, and without even thinking about them, we know what they mean… for the most part. They make our lives easier and we don’t give them enough credit for it. We don’t even know the origins for most of them, or what they really represent. For some of them, we may even have it completely wrong. We’ll now be taking a look of 10 of these symbols and their intended meaning, their origins, and maybe even some misconceptions we might have about them.

10. The Heart Symbol

The heart shaped symbol is known throughout the world and it usually stands for love and romance. But why do we instinctively see it as a heart, since the symbol itself doesn’t even come close to its real counterpart? There are several theories of where it may have originated and how it got to where it is today. Firstly, there are some speculations whether the heart symbol may actually stand for some of our private parts, both male and female. If we are to invert the heart and look at it upside down, you can more clearly see where we’re trying to go with this. While this theory might hold some water, there are some older depictions of the symbol that stood for something else. For instance, some believe that the symbol is a representation of ivy leaves, since they both look kind of similar, and the ivy is associated with fidelity.

An even more plausible explanation comes in the form of the now-extinct plant of Silphium. This plant once grew in abundance over a small stretch of the North African coastline. It was acclaimed by both the Greeks and Romans for its medicinal properties, particularly for being a great form of birth control. The Greek colony of Cyrene, located in the area that’s now present-day Libya, became rich because of it and even stamped the plant and its seedpod on its coins. The seedpod depicted on the coins is identical to the heart symbol today. But because of the small distribution of Silphium and the great demand for it, the plant went extinct by the 1st century BC.

The third and final theory comes from the Middle Ages. Based on Aristotle’s writings where he describes the heart as having three chambers and a dent, the 14th century Italian physician Guido da Vigevano made a series of anatomical drawings where he portrayed the heart in this manner. This design grew more popular during the Renaissance with the heart symbol making appearances in religious art. From there it found it’s way in today’s world as a denotation of love and affection.

9. The Yin-Yang

The Yin-Yang symbol is deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy and a key element in the Taoist religion in China. You can find this one everywhere in the world, from T-shirts, tattoos, the South Korean flag, and Taoist temples. Its meaning is as straightforward as it is complex, but we’ll try to be as concise as possible. The concept of yin and yang took off during the 3rd century BC with an increased interest in philosophy. The two sides don’t represent the good and the bad, per se, but rather the two sides of the same coin. Yin can change into Yang and vice versa, with the little dots in the centers of each representing this potential; the seed of the opposite. Yin is the feminine side, shown with things like black, darkness, north, water, transformation, the moon, cold, softness, passivity, introspection, valleys, and it is what gives the spirit to everything.

Yang, on the other hand, stands for light, fire, mountains, warmth, the sun, action, movement, and offers form to all things. Taoism believes in the idea of embracing both of these aspects of life and “go with the flow” as it were, finding the balance in everything. To give you an example of yin and yang put into practice in China, we only need to look at some of the names they gave their settlements. Villages on the sunny side of valleys or mountains have names like Liuyang or Shiyang, whereas those located on the other side have names like Jiangyin.

An interesting fact about the Yin-Yang symbol is that China wasn’t the first place it actually appeared. The oldest example comes from a prehistoric culture located in Eastern Europe, over a territory now part of Moldova, southern Ukraine, and northeastern and central Romania. Known as the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, this society existed between 5,400 and 2,700 BC, and several pottery objects have been discovered with the Yin-Yang as well as the Swastika symbols on them. Now, since they didn’t have a written language, we can’t know whether they saw the symbol the same way as the Chinese, or whether it is a mere coincidence.

8. The Bluetooth Symbol

At first glance, there isn’t any conceivable connection between this wireless technology and an actual blue tooth; nor with the symbol itself. But believe it or not, they are all connected – pun intended. This technology was invented back in 1994 by the Swedish telecom company Ericsson. And in accordance with Sweden’s Viking past, the symbol is made out of two runes pushed together. Firstly there’s the H rune, also known as Hagall, and then there’s the B rune known as Bjarkan. These two put together make the Bluetooth symbol. But what do H and B have to do with Bluetooth, you may ask? Well, they are the initials of Denmark’s first Viking King, Harald Blåtand. And the Swedish word Blåtand means Bluetooth in English.

Harald Blåtand lived from around 910 to 987 AD, and during his lifetime managed to unite (connect) all of the Danish tribes and later take over Norway, ruling over them as king until his death. He is also credited for Christianizing the Danes. He had done it more for political and economic reasons than anything else, so as to avoid invasion by the Holy Roman Empire to the south, as well as to keep their trading relations going. His byname, Bluetooth, is a mystery. Some presume that he may have had a fondness for blackberries that gave his teeth a bluish tone. A more plausible explanation is that Bluetooth was actually a misinterpretation medieval historians and his byname was actually something like “dark chieftain.”

7. The International Flag of Planet Earth

Each mission to space today uses different national flags, depending on which country is funding it. And while this is all fine and good, astronauts, regardless of their country of origin, stand for the planet as a whole, not just that particular country that’s funding them. This is why a flag for planet Earth was designed to be used when we ultimately (theoretically) travel to Mars and colonize the Red Planet. Made out of seven white interlocking rings over a blue field, they are meant to represent all life on Earth. But the symbol itself is much older than this flag and is more commonly known as “The Seed of Life.” Considered to be part of “Sacred Geometry”, a term used to represent universal geometrical patterns often times found in nature, the Seed of Life bears a striking resemblance to a cellular structure during embryonic development.

What’s really interesting about it is the fact that the Seed of Life, as well as the larger Flower of Life, was found throughout many places of the world. The oldest example was discovered in the Temple of Osiris in Abydos, Egypt and is dated back to about 5,000-6,000 years ago. But the design was also used in Buddhist temples in China and Japan, in present-day Turkey, in India, all throughout Europe, in Iraq, and many other places. The Seed of Life also plays an important role in various major religions. In old Slavic religions, the Seed of Life symbol stood for the sun.

6. The Great Seal of the United States

Here is a symbol, or rather a combination of symbols, that have sparked countless conspiracy theories over the years. This is in regard to the Great Seal of the United States. The seal first appeared in 1782 and is used by the government to authenticate certain documents, especially with regard to foreign affairs. But what many don’t know, especially those who’re not US citizens, is that the seal has two sides. Its front side is also the country’s national coat of arms and has served as inspiration for the President’s own seal, as well as other government agencies. The backside, however, is more commonly known from the one dollar bill. In fact, both sides of the seal appear on the reverse of the bill since 1935, but not that many people know that they’re actually two sides of the same thing.

The front, or obverse, is made out of the bald eagle; the country’s national bird. In its beak there’s a scroll inscribed in Latin with the words “one from many”, making a reference to one nation created from 13 colonies. The eagle also holds an olive branch in one of its talons and thirteen arrows in the other. These stand as symbols for power in both peace and war. Next there’s a shield supported by the eagle, which stands for the nation relying on its own virtue. Finally there’s a cloud above the eagle’s head, surrounding 13 stars on a blue field. These denote the US taking its place among the other nations of the world.

The reverse side is the one with the many conspiracy theories. First there’s the 13-step pyramid with Roman numerals on its base. These stand for the original colonies, and the number 1776, which stands for the year of independence. On the pyramid’s top there’s the Eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye of God. This symbol, which stands for God watching over mankind, became widespread in Europe during the Renaissance and made frequent appearances in religious art. Its inspiration probably comes from Ancient Egypt with the Eye of Horus. Freemasons also use it in their iconography with the same meaning as the US seal. The first time they used it, however, was in 1797. There’s also a Latin motto at the top, Annuit Coeptis, which means “favor our undertakings”, referring to God aiding the US. And lastly, there’s a scroll underneath the pyramid reading “New Order of the Ages.” This symbolizes 1776 as being the start of a new era for America.

5. Political Animals

While on the subject of American symbols, let’s take a look at the country’s two political “mascots”: the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. Both appeared during the 19th century, but the donkey was first with Andrew Jackson, the democratic presidential candidate in 1828, who was oftentimes called a “jackass” by his opponents. Knowing how to cleverly turn things around, Jackson used the jackass in his campaign posters. With it, he was able to win the elections and become the first Democratic president in the country’s history. During the 1870s, Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist, popularized the donkey and made it a symbol for the entire Democratic Party.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president in 1861, six years after the party’s creation. But the elephant didn’t start with him, even though “seeing the elephant” was a phrase commonly used by soldiers during his time to mean experiencing combat during the Civil War. In 1874, Thomas Nast made another political illustration entitled “The Third-Term Panic.” This was meant to satirize President Ulysses Grant’s rumored third bid at the presidential seat. In the cartoon, Nast portrayed various newspapers and interest groups as animals, including a scrambling elephant labeled “the Republican vote”, which was shown over a pit partially covered with broken planks called Inflation, Repudiation, Home Rule, and Re-construction. Over the following years, the cartoonist used the elephant to depict the Republican Party several more times, so that by 1880 it had become its symbol. Today the Democrats say the Donkey is smart and brave, while the Republicans say that their Elephant is strong and dignified.

4. The Hammer and Sickle

The Soviet Hammer and Sickle are arguably the most recognizable political symbols, next to only the Nazi Swastika and American Stars and Stripes. And even though their meaning is seemingly straightforward, there may be some hidden messages attached that not even Lenin himself knew about. The obvious symbolism behind them is that they stand for the proletariat (blue collar workers) in the form of the hammer, and the peasantry in the form of the sickle. Together they represented unity and a symbol for the Soviet state. But coming up with the emblem wasn’t as easy as it might seem. The hammer was indeed easier since it was traditionally associated with workers all over Europe. But the sickle was harder, and there were a number of other variations before this one. A hammer with an anvil, a plough and a sword, or a scythe and a wrench were among them.

The intriguing part here is the designer himself, Yevgeny Kamzolkin. He reportedly wasn’t even a communist at heart and was a deeply religious man. He was a member of the Leonardo da Vinci Society and as an artist he was well versed in symbolism. It isn’t then so farfetched to think that Kamzolkin may have used the hammer and sickle to send a completely different message, even if nobody else would get it. For instance, in Hindu and Chinese culture, the hammer is oftentimes linked with the triumph of evil over good. The sickle, on the other hand, was commonly associated with death in various religions. Before the scythe was introduced, Death was pictured with a sickle in medieval Europe. Old Slavic religions, as well as Hindu religions portray their respective gods of death while holding a sickle in their left hand. Could Kamzolkin have meant these when he designed the Soviet Hammer and Sickle? Probably not, but it’s still an intriguing notion.

All of this, of course, is mere speculation and we have no way of knowing whether it is right or wrong. Nobody asked Kamzolkin and the answer died with him back in 1957. But this can be seen as a great exercise when looking at other symbols, particularly older ones that we know very little about. Interpretation is the key here, and depending on the context and one’s point of view, a simple thing like this Soviet emblem can mean two completely different things.

3. The Jesus Fish

Officially known as vesica pisces, the Jesus Fish has a long history attached to it. Today, the Ichthys, as it is sometimes called, is primarily associated with the Christian faith, and you can occasionally find one either on someone’s porch or as a bumper sticker. The symbol is oftentimes accompanied by the ancient Greek letters IXOYE which stand for Ichthys, or Fish. The letters are an acrostic which represents “Jesus Christ, God’s son, savior” and early Christians used it as a way to symbolize their faith in a time when the religion was still an underground organization. But the symbol itself is much older and had another, totally different meaning, even to the early Christians themselves.

In previous religions, the glyph was associated with the goddess Venus and stood for fertility since it kinda resembles a lady’s private parts. Some early representations of Jesus show him as an infant within a vesica pisces, which in this context is known as the mandorla, meaning “shaped like an almond.” And the mandorla was said to represent the “doorway” between the heavens and the material world. In architecture, Gothic-style arches are based on the mandorla as a representation of passage between the two worlds. The symbol is created by intersecting two circles, which again signify the connection between the worlds. By adding a third circle, we get the triquetra, or three interlocking vesica pisces, which symbolizes the Holy Trinity. By adding a few more circles we get the before mentioned Seed of Life.

2. The Pentagram

It wouldn’t be fair to our fellow Satanists if we talked about the Ichthys but left out the infamous Pentagram. The symbol today is commonly associated with Wicca (contemporary witchcraft), Satanism, and Masonry. But unbeknownst to many is the fact that the Pentagram is far older than any of these practices and has been in use since ancient times. The five pointed star was found scratched on a cave wall in Babylonia, and in ancient Greece it was believed to hold magical properties. The Pentagram is thought to have originated from the path Venus takes on the night sky in relation the Earth, in an 8 year long cycle. The Pentagram was even the official seal of Jerusalem for a while and during medieval times it stood to represent the five wounds Jesus suffered during his crucifixion. It also stood for the proportions of the human body, as well as the five basic senses.

Only during the 20th century did the Pentagram begin being associated with Satanism, probably because it was used by the Wiccans. Here, the five points of the star represent the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire, plus spirit. But while for the Wiccans the Pentagram is pointing upwards, symbolizing the spirit’s triumph over the four material elements, in Satanism, the five-pointed star is oriented downwards. This stands for each individual’s victory over dissolution, being in fact a material being.

1. The Anarchy Symbol

To properly understand the Anarchy symbol, we must first look at what Anarchy is and what it actually stands for. Anarchy is a political ideology just like democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, communism, or liberalism. It evolved alongside democracy in ancient Greece and derives from the ancient Greek word anarchia, which translates to “without a ruler.” What this means is that Anarchy doesn’t cite lawlessness or chaos; rather, a society with proper rules and regulations put in place, but without an authoritarian ruler over everyone else. Anarchy was further developed and improved upon during the French Revolution period at the end of the 18th century. This was also the time when Anarchy got its negative connotations, as the ruling elites obviously didn’t what it to happen.

On a standard political chart, besides the usual economic left and right, there is also an authoritarian up and a libertarian down. All famed dictators like Stalin, Mao, or Hitler, are all found at the very top of the chart, either on the left or the right, depending on their economic principles. On the bottom of the chart is anarchy in various forms like Anarcho-communism, Syndicalism, Mutualism, Anarcho-capitalism or Anarcho-socialism, among others. In fact, Karl Marx envisioned Communism as being a form of Anarchism with a state and class-free society. Problems arose, however, when it was put into practice. While fellow anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that the state should be abolished from the start, Marx preferred a Big Government first to act as a provisional intermediary that would put everything in order and ensure eventual Anarchy in the end. But as we all know, once in power, people rarely relinquish it and thus Communism ended up being the exact opposite of what was intended. Striving towards a form of Anarchy applies, in principle, to all modern political systems that state to uphold and promote liberty or equality.

Now, the symbol itself was designed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French journalist and libertarian socialist from the 19th century. The symbol is made out of the letter A which obviously stands for Anarchy, and a circle around it that is actually the letter O for order. It’s quite often to see this symbol spray-painted on walls, or people waving an Anarchy flag while wreaking havoc on a city street. But you can be sure that these people have no idea what Anarchy really is, and all that they end up doing is enforcing the idea instilled by the ruling classes from the 18th and 19th centuries; the idea that Anarchy is chaos. Civic duty and volunteerism are the driving forces behind Anarchy, not violence, as so many believe.


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4 Comments

  1. If you really did write about famous symbols, how come the cross and the crescent moon and star (associated with Christianity and Islam) respectively did not make the list?

    These symbols are more famous and better known than many of the symbols you listed. For example, the cross is a much more popular symbol among Christian believers and non-believers than the Jesus fish.

    Both symbols can be found on millions of buildings all over the world.

    I think the author needs to review the article.

    • Good thing the author didn’t call the article “10 Most Famous Symbols (And What They Really Mean)” because then you might have been right.

      • This site is about top ten things about other things right?

        If it is, then I can assume that every article is written to reflect that fact.

        This article doesn’t.

        • What does “top ten things about other things” mean? Are you referring to the idea that this site is about stating facts regarding 10 various things that all related to a subject?

          Because if you do, then you are right. And this article here is about stating the facts regarding 10 famous symbols. It’s not solely about famous religious symbols, or famous political symbols, or famous tech symbols, but famous symbols in general.

          You are right to say that the cross symbol is more famous than the fish when it comes to Christianity, but the fish is famous too and this article is not about the “most famous” symbol of any kind, be it religious or not. It’s just famous and easily falls into this category of “10 Famous Symbols”

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