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Symbols are an important part of modern Paganism. They are used in jewelry, as tokens during rituals and are used to connect the lives and practices of pagans to important elements and ideas. In this article, we describe the most popular Pagan symbols that are still used widely today, as well as their origins and meanings.
What is Paganism?
‘Paganism’ refers to the spiritual or religious practices that are not associated with one of the main world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism, to name a few). Common pagan beliefs include nature worship and witchcraft – sometimes referred to as Wicca.
Paganism and Wicca beliefs stem from pre-Christian traditions and can be found in many cultures from Northern Europe, Western Europe, and Africa. This wide breadth of influence means that each symbol can derive its meaning from different histories and traditions.
Air is one of the main nature elements commonly used, particularly in nature worship. Traditionally, air is associated with various spirits and elemental beings that are connected with wind, and are believed to harness the powers of wisdom and intuition. In Wiccan ritual, air is connected to the soul and ‘breath of life’.
It is most commonly depicted as an upright triangle with a horizontal line through the tip. The colors of yellow and white are associated with air.
Earth is another one of the main nature elements and is most commonly depicted as an inverted triangle with a line through the tip.
The earth element is linked to ideas of the ‘divine feminine’ and of ‘Mother Earth’. As such, meanings associated with earth are fertility, abundance, new growth, and life. Shades of green and brown and most commonly used to depict earth symbols.
Earth symbols are used particularly in rituals asking for blessings of fertility (in the past, for good crops) and in modern practice is used for blessings for stable family life and a comfortable home.
The Pentacle or Pentagram is a five-pointed star in a circle. Each point represents earth, fire, air, water, and spirit and the surrounding circle represents a protective womb. This is why the pentacle is most often seen as a protective symbol, particularly to ward off evil spirits.
All five points should touch the circle in a pentacle, and this is symbolic of the interconnectedness of all things. The tip of the star represents the most important element – the spirit, or self. Moving clockwise from the spirit, the elements are placed in order of density – fire, air, water then earth.
With its five points, the pentacle is also imbued with beliefs relating to the number five. The number five is regarded as a mystical human number. Humans have five fingers and toes at the end of each extremity and five senses. The pentacle is also sometimes overlaid with a human body over the star with the head and each limb corresponding to each point.
When worn, the pentacle can symbolize protection for a traveler and connection to the elements. The pentacle was also traditionally placed over the doorway to protect pagan homes from evil spirits.
The Horned God is the masculine deity in Wicca (as opposed to the feminine Triple Goddess described next) that represents wilderness, sexuality, and hunting. Depictions of the deity vary but usually consist of a beast or animal with horns or antlers. This represents a union between the divine and earthly beings. In its simplest form, the symbol is depicted as a circle topped with a crescent moon on its side as horns.
The connection between the deity and earthly being ties into the Wiccan belief that the Horned God guides and protects spirits as they pass into the afterlife. The horned God ‘Osiris’ was the God of fertility, rebirth, and the underworld.
In Celtic Paganism, ‘Cernunnos’ was depicted with horns and was also the God of fertility, the underworld, life, and also animals, and wealth. In monotheistic Christianity, worshipping other deities is forbidden, so pagan belief systems and symbols were often construed as ‘anti-Christian’. This is why theologists have theorized that the misconstrued image of the Pagan Horned God is where imagery of the ‘devil’ was derived from in Christianity. It is important to note that the two are not related.
The balance of the feminine Triple Moon Goddess and the masculine Horned God was the base of traditional Wiccan beliefs with both gods being equally as powerful and important. Seasonality in Wiccanism is believed to follow the relationship between the Horned God and Triple Goddess: the Horned God is born in winter, impregnates the Goddess, dies in Autumn, and is reborn by the Goddess in December.
The Horned God symbol is mainly used in modern Paganism and Wiccanism as a symbol of fertility. However, modern Wiccanism which is influenced by feminist ideologies places more emphasis on the Goddess, so the Horned God symbol is used less.
Triple Moon Symbol
The Triple Moon is the symbol associated with the feminine counterpart of the Horned God. It consists of a waxing crescent moon, a full moon, and a waning crescent moon. The symbol represents three separate feminine unities uniting as one. These are: the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and each is representative of a phase in a woman’s life.
- The Maiden (new waxing moon) embodies youth, new beginnings, purity, and creation.
- The Mother (full moon) embodies nourishment, fertility, responsibility, and power.
- The Crone (fading waning moon) embodies fulfillment, culmination, wisdom, and endings.
As one the symbol encapsulates a connection to womanhood and the aspects of creation, intuition, and sensuality – sometimes refered to as the ‘Divine Feminine’.
Traditionally the Triple Moon has been used to adorn crowns worn by Pagan high priestesses. Modern-day use of the Triple Moon Symbol is not limited to religious beliefs but extends to spiritual women wearing the Triple Moon in jewelry or as tattoos to remain connected to their femininity.
Hecate’s Wheel (also known as the Stropholos of Hecate) is another visual representation of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The symbol gets its origins from Greek legend, where the Goddess Hecate was known as the guardian of crossroads, magic, and knowledge. The Goddess Hecate was commonly depicted as three-formed or triple-bodied, which translates to the simplified triple symbol.
The symbol consists of a circular maze with three distinct whirls that are all connected. In Ancient Hellenic religions, Hecate’s Wheel is a symbol of knowledge and divine thought. Modern Wiccan has adapted Hecate’s Wheel to represent the Divine Feminine and the power and knowledge that comes with the cycle of life.
The Elven Star is a seven-pointed star, also known as a heptagram or Faery Star. One of the oldest recorded meanings of the Elven Star comes from the Kabbalistic tradition, where it represents the sphere of Venus and the power of love. It is also believed to be a visual representation of the significance of the number seven, which is revered in many religions and traditions.
In Christian tradition, the number seven corresponds with the seven days of creation; the Koran speaks of seven heavens; Muslim pilgrims walk around Mecca seven times; in Hinduism, there are seven higher worlds and seven underworlds; and in Buddhism, the newborn Buddha rose to take seven steps.
In modern times, the symbol has been called the ‘Elven Star’ by a group called “The Elf-Queen’s Daughters” that believe in the presence of folkloric figures such as elves, angels, demons, and dragons on earth. The Elven Star is a symbol related to these ‘otherkin’.
In Faery belief systems, the heptagram is an extension of the pentagram used in Wicca. It is believed that with two additional points, the heptagram extends human awareness from the known to include ‘Below’ and ‘Within’. The heptagram is a powerful symbol in Feary belief which is even understood to be a gateway to other realms, hence the references to the unseen ‘below’ and within’ points.
In its simplest form, the Sun Wheel symbol is depicted by a circle enclosing a cross. The four segments of this symbol were used in some pagan religions to mark solstices and equinoxes. It is sometimes referred to as the Solar Cross, Pagan Cross, or Odin’s Cross (in Norse culture). More complex portrayals of the sun wheel are used in Wiccan religions to correspond with the eight Sabbats (akin to seasons) in their ‘Wheel of the Year’.
In many cultures, the sun is revered as an all-powerful and supreme entity. The Sun Wheel is used as a symbol to invoke the powers of the sun, particularly in rituals for blessings of fertility, life, and abundance.
The triskele or triskelion is an interlocking three-faceted spiral. ‘Triskele’ is derived from the Greek ‘Triskeles’, meaning three legs, and was used as the emblem for Sicily as it is likened to the shape of the Island.
It is found in many Neolithic sites in Europe and is believed to have gained popularity in Celtic culture from 500BC. It is most commonly used in Celtic design and its meanings are derived from Celtic beliefs.
The exact meaning differs depending on the specific era and Celtic culture considered, but because of its triple-faceted design, the meanings almost always involve a trinity of subjects. It is thought to represent the three realms of earth, sea and sky; the spiritual world, present world and celestial world; the spirit, mind and body; creation, preservation and destruction; or past, present and future.
The interconnected spiral has connotations of movement and motion, which is believed to symbolize energy, cycles, and progress. The triskele is most commonly used in rituals to represent place.
The triquetra, or trinity knot, is another common Celtic triple-faceted symbol. It is also an ancient symbol, dating as far back as 500BC and was thought to represent the triple goddess; air, water and earth; the infinite cycle of life; and many of the same ideas as the triskele.
However, because of its interconnected design, the triquetra (also commonly known as the ‘Celtic Knot’) is believed to represent a bond between three elements. It is commonly used in modern Wiccan rituals to reference the idea of ‘tying things together’.
The Ankh symbol is an ancient Egyptian symbol that resembles a cross topped with a loop.
The Ankh is sometimes referred to as the ‘Key of Life’ and is symbolic of eternal life and resurrection. This is why it is often seen as a hieroglyph or as a relic found in tombs of Ancient Egyptians, who believed in the possibility of an eternal afterlife. The Ankh was used as a symbol of protection designed to guide the spirit in their journey towards paradise known as the ‘Field of Reeds’.
The cross represents a union of the God and Goddess, and the loop depicts the rising sun, which has connotations of infinity. This symbolism and Egyptian belief are why the Ankh is often used in Wiccan and Pagan religion as a symbol for eternal life. It is used in jewelry and ritual for protection.
The Yin Yang symbol is depicted as a circle with split by a curved line into black and white halves. Sometimes a small circle of the opposite color is placed in each half. It is symbolic of balance and harmony, particularly the balance of opposites.
The symbol is rooted in eastern spirituality and is used in Chinese culture and Taoism. Yin yan represents the polarity that is inherent with all things – light and dark, good and evil – and the constant quest for balance and connection between two opposing forces.
It is not usually used in rituals, but is more commonly worn or displayed as a symbol to guide the wearer or user toward balance.
The above symbols have significance in ancient cultures and have been used around the world at one time or another. Some of these symbols also have religious and secular meanings attached to them. However, their importance in paganism derives from their significance in terms of the natural and the self. These symbols are ancient and most have existed since before many of the religions that later adapted them.