Flags have been around for a very long time. You probably saw a bunch of them at the Opening Ceremonies in Rio last week. The oldest flag ever found dates back to the 3rd millennium BC in present-day Iran, and was made out of bronze. Their purpose was to give people information and became especially useful during battles, in order to tell friend from foe. Usually of rectangular shape, national flags today stand to represent the country they belong to and have a strong patriotic link attached to them.
Either simple or complicated, each color or symbol stands for something, usually stemming from way back in history. Most often they represent a religious or military aspect of that particular nation, even if they aren’t perceived as such today. Below we’ll be discussing ten such national flags and their meanings.
The French flag is the greatest source of inspiration for other national flags. Pretty much every other national flag in the world with three equally wide vertical bands was inspired directly or indirectly by the French. But where did it come from, and how come it’s so easily recognizable? Well, technically the French weren’t the first to adopt a tricolor flag. Or, for that matter, to use red, white, and blue as its colors. That was the Dutch, but we’ll be getting to them shortly. The famous French flag stems from the French Revolution in 1789. And like every other conflict, the opposing sides needed to have distinct banners so they could tell each other apart. Pre-revolutionary France had a white flag adorned with many fleur de lis.
The white is strongly linked with the monarchy and dates back to Joan of Arc during the 1400s. She used a white banner with a picture of Jesus in her battles against the English. In 1789, the revolutionaries sought inspiration from the flag of Paris, which is made out of two vertical bands of blue and red. They then added the historic white between the two as a symbol of the monarchy being subdued by the people. The blue of the Parisian flag comes from St. Martin of Tours and the legend surrounding his cloak. The red represents the banner of the Abbey of St. Denis, and is more commonly known as the “Oriflamme,” or “golden flame.”
France did, however, change flags several times during the Napoleonic period, when the old Bourbon monarchy was brought back to power. From 1815 to 1830 France had a plain white flag, until the July Revolution, when King Louis Philippe I came to power and reintroduced the tricolor.
9. The Netherlands
The Dutch flag is the oldest tricolor in existence and dates back to Charlemagne’s time during the 9th century, but in a somewhat different arrangement. A more similar variant has been in use since 1572 when the Netherlands went into a rebellion under William I, Prince of Orange, fighting a war of independence against King Philip II of Spain.
Similar to the present day flag, the one back then used orange instead of red. Orange was the color of the Prince’s coat of arms. However, the orange dye was quite unstable and turned into red after a while. Fortunately, red was the original color used by the region during the previous centuries, and the flag was officially changed in 1630.
The Dutch flag became the inspiration for many other flags and banners around the world, especially in their own colonies. New York City’s flag is based on the old Dutch flag. So are the flags of Orange and Nassau Counties in New York State. Another country that drew inspiration from the tricolor was Russia, which rearranged the colors and adopted it as its national flag in the late 17th century. Many other Slavic states in Europe including Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Croatia modeled their banners on Russia’s, using the so called Pan-Slavic Colors: horizontal stripes of red, blue, and white.
Though unrecognized by many other nation states, the flag of Palestine presents a striking resemblance to the original flag of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule at the end of WWI. The colors used for both the Palestinian flag and that during the Arab Revolt are also used by several other Arabs states today. They’re commonly known as the Pan-Arab Colors.
Also very similar to Jordan’s flag, the Palestinian tricolor is made out of three horizontal bands and a red triangle issuing from the hoist. The four colors used here were first mentioned together in a verse by 14th century Iraqi poet Safi Al-Din Al-Hilli: “White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords.”
When the colors were chosen during WWI, red represented the Khawarij. That was the first Islamic group to revolt against Caliph Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The red banner became the symbol of the Islamic rulers of Andalusia (756-1355). Green represents Caliph Ali, who once covered himself in a green quilt instead of the Prophet, in order to thwart an assassination attempt. The Fatimid Dynasty (909-1171) was the one to take up this color for its banners. White stands for the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), which took up the color as a symbol for the Prophet’s first battle at Badr. Black stands for Muhammad himself.
7. South Korea
Officially adopted 1949, though in existence since the early 1880s, the South Korean flag is known as Taegukki, or “Great Extremes.” The flag is a plain white field, which itself represents peace and purity. Then, in its center there is a red and blue Yin-Yang symbol, which represents opposites (or extremes).
Part of the Chinese I Ching divination text from 900 BC, the earliest use of the Yin-Yang symbol can be found within the Cucuteni – Trypillya Culture in Eastern Europe. This dates back an extra 1,000 years before its Chinese version. The symbol here represents the belief that all aspects of the universe have a duality of positive (red) and negative (blue) that cannot exist without the other.
Surrounding the Yin-Yang, there are four groups of three long and short black bars called Kwae. These are also part of the I Ching text. They represent the four classical elements and the natural form in which they’re presented. The broken bars represent yin (dark and cold) and the unbroken bars symbolize yang (bright and hot). These four Kwae stand for: heaven – air (three unbroken bars), earth (three broken bars), the moon – water (one unbroken line between two broken bars) and the sun – fire (one broken bar between two unbroken bars). Each of these kwae are placed opposite of its counterpart for balance.
The Venezuelan flag dates back to their War for Independence (1810–1823) against the Spanish Empire. The colors and design used are attributed to Francisco de Miranda, who unsuccessfully tried to liberate Venezuela in 1806. In 1811, however, the first variation of the flag came into being. It had unequal yellow-blue-red stripes and a white canton showing a complex emblem. Throughout the duration of the war, some other variations were used, and in 1821 the tricolor was adopted by the region of Gran Colombia. This region was a temporary a republic that later broke off into present-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Both Colombia and Ecuador use a similar layout and identical colors for their flags today.
From 1864 until 2006, the Venezuelan flag had a seven-star arch in the middle. These represented the seven provinces that supported the war for independence. The country’s coat of arms was located in the top left corner. The red is said to represent courage, or possibly Spain. Blue is for Venezuela’s independence from the Spanish Empire. It could also represent the Atlantic Ocean, which separates the two. Yellow stands for the country’s riches and new opportunities.
The latest modification to the flag was brought on in 2006 when an additional star was added in memory of the country’s hero, Simón Bolívar. It stands for the historical region of Guyana.
5. United Kingdom
We’re not sure just how “United” this Kingdom is after Brexit, but that’s neither here nor there. Also known as the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom is made out of the individual flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The flag of England can also be called St. George’s Cross. It is believed that Richard the Lionheart was the one who adopted a red cross on a white field during the Third Crusade, when it was used by the French.
The Scottish flag is also known as St. Andrew’s cross, or the Saltire. Its origins revolve around the martyr St. Andrew, who is the patron saint of Scotland. According to legend, he was crucified on an “X” shaped cross. This symbol first began to appear in Scotland in 1180 during the reign of William I. The first confirmed historical use of the white X on a blue field was in 1542. The English and Scottish crosses merged together in 1606 after James IV of Scotland became the ruler of all three British Isle Kingdoms.
The Irish St. Patrick’s Saltire began to be associated with Ireland as a whole only in 1783, and was adopted as an emblem by the Order of Saint Patrick, which itself was created by the English King George III. As a result of this, many Irish nationalists disregard this symbol. They consider it an English invention. In 1801, with the inclusion of Ireland into the Kingdom, the Union Jack took on the form it has today.
The Danish flag, or Dannebrog (“cloth of the Danes“), is the oldest flag still in use today. A simple design, it represents a cross in a rectangular field. The center of the cross is shifted towards the hoist. The shifted cross is known as a Scandinavian cross and was subsequently adopted by the other Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, as well as the Shetland and Orkney archipelagos. Each has its own color variations. Within the Danish flag itself, the colors don’t have any specific symbolism. But the white of the cross is believed to represent honesty and peace, while red stands for valor, bravery, and strength.
Legend has it that during the Battle of Lyndanisse in 1219, when the Danes were waging a Crusade against the Estonians, and the fighting was shifting in favor of the “pagans,” the Dannebrog fell from the sky. This gave the Danes enough courage to win the battle. The first recorded use of this flag, however, was in the 1300s. Greenland is the only Nordic region which has a different flag design.
3. United States of America
The Star-Spangled Banner can trace its roots back to the American Revolution. The original 13 colonies are represented by horizontal red and white stripes on the flag itself. Initially the “Old Glory” had the Union Jack in the upper left corner (the Grand Union), but this was quickly replaced by 13 stars on a blue field. Today that field has a total of 50 stars, representing the 50 states. But the history of the American flag, similar to its revolution, is a bit more complicated than that.
The Revolution started off as a mere protest, which ultimately ended up in independence. The horizontal stripes can be traced back to the beginning of the protest, to the Sons of Liberty. Better known as the guys who threw the tea into Boston Harbor. In 1767, the Sons of Liberty adopted a flag called the rebellious stripes flag with nine vertical stripes of red and white.
The star pattern, on the other hand, can trace its origins to George Washington’s Headquarters flag in 1775. This was a plain blue banner with 13 six-pointed stars, arranged in a 3-2-3-2-3 horizontal pattern. The story of Betsy Ross designing the first American Flag with 13 stars, after the nation declared its independence, is mere speculation. More likely to have designed the flag is Francis Hopkinson, who also signed the Declaration of Independence.
Up until 1912, Congress didn’t set the specifics on where the blue field would be positioned, how many points the stars should have, or how the parallel white and red stripes be arranged. Due to this, there have been a number of variations.
Ethiopia has always identified itself with its green-yellow-red national colors. Its flag draws inspiration from the Book of Genesis. It associates these colors with the rainbow, from the story of the Flood. The same colors were used for the flag of the Ethiopian Empire in 1897, one year after they decisively defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. These three colors have been in use in Ethiopia as early as the 17th century. They were part of the official banner of the Ethiopian Empire’s Solomonic dynasty. Red represents sacrifice for freedom and equality. Green is equated with labor, development, and fertility. Yellow stands for hope and justice.
Except for a brief period under Italian control during the 1930s, Ethiopia remained outside European control during the colonial era. Because of this, the country and its national colors drew admiration and offered inspiration for many other African nations in their struggle for independence. As a result, the three colors of the Ethiopian flag, plus black, are considered today to be the Pan-African colors. The first state to adopt a red, gold, and green flag upon independence in Africa was Ghana in 1957.
The South African flag is a combination of these colors and the flag of the Netherlands. On February 6, 1996, the final addition to the Ethiopian flag was added: an outlined, golden, five-pointed star within a blue disc. This blue stands for peace, and the star represents the equality of all Ethiopians regardless of race, creed, or sex.
Nepal’s flag is the only one in the world to not have four sides, and instead has a shape formed by two intersecting triangles. Its red color is that of the Rhododendron, Nepal’s national flower. The blue border around it symbolizes peace. Adopted in 1962, the unusual shape of the flag was designed to show the Himalayan Mountains; a very important aspect of Nepal.
The sun within the lower triangle represents determination and a fierce resolve. The moon in the upper part stands for peace, tranquility, and harmony. Both of these elements stand together representing the hope that Nepal will be as everlasting as these two heavenly bodies.
It’s also the only country whose flag design and construction are written into the Constitution. It gives a 24 step-by-step mathematical walkthrough for designing the intricate flag. The previous flag of Nepal, prior to 1962, was of similar shape and somewhat more intricate design. It was in use for more than 2,000 years.