Table of Contents
Before there were alphabetic languages, ancient civilizations relied on pictographic and ideographic symbols to represent secret meanings, mythologies, spirituality, and religious beliefs. Some of these symbols are derived from, or related to, one another, revealing the underlying connections of different faiths. Let’s uncover the greatest mysteries of the world’s most sacred symbols.
One of the oldest symbols in Egyptian culture, the ankh is a symbol of life and the key to immortality. In Egyptian art, gods and rulers were depicted holding the symbol, which suggests that it served as a key to avoid death, or even unlock reincarnation. In some contexts, it also symbolized the divine right to rule, since pharaohs were seen as the living embodiment of gods.
There were amulets and talismans in ankh designs too, which scholars believe were worn to promote health and long life. Ancient Egyptians even used the symbol as a greeting to wish someone an eternal life. By the 1960s, the ankh became popular in the West, due to interest in spiritual and mystical traditions of ancient cultures.
The central symbol of Zoroastrianism, the Faravahar has its roots in ancient Egyptian and Persian symbols. It was named after the fravashi or guardian spirits, which were thought to be the representations of Egyptian and Persian gods who had been adopted as their god Ahura Mazda. The central part of the symbol was derived from the Egyptian winged sun, accompanied by a male figure.
In modern interpretations, the Faravahar symbolizes the balance between the paths of salvation and destruction, as well as the harmony of material and spiritual worlds. While the head represents wisdom and freewill, the hand pointing upwards is symbolic of spiritual fulfillment. Also, the central ring symbolizes the eternity of the universe and the soul.
In Buddhism, the dharmachakra or the wheel of dharma represents the path to enlightenment and the teachings of the Buddha. It’s also regarded as one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Historians believe that the dharma wheel originated as a solar symbol, since it’s similar to the ancient Harappan wheel symbols around 2000 to 2500 BCE.
In Vedic mysticism, the wheel is referred to as the Sudarshana Chakra, the symbol of the Hindu sun god Vishnu and his weapon for defeating evil. Eventually, the symbol carried over into early Buddhism and became known as dharmachakra. It’s also notable that the dharma wheel resembles the ship’s wheel, which reminds one to steer towards the goal of enlightenment.
One of the most sacred plants in the world, the lotus represents purity and transformation. The flower’s ability to grow out of mud yet remain unstained is likened to the Buddhist life, not influenced by the impurity of the material world.
In ancient Vedic religion, the lotus was the symbol of creation and eternity. In Hinduism, it’s featured into many mandalas and yantras with different symbolic meanings. For instance, the blooming flower represents birth or spiritual awakening. In Japanese Shinto, the lotus symbolizes renewal or resurrection.
In Hinduism, the om symbol is the sound of creation, and the representation of Brahma. In many Hindu writings, it’s described as a vibration and the primordial sound of the universe. It’s said to be experienced through the spoken and heard sound of the word. Since the sacred sound is significant to meditative awareness, it’s often chanted during yoga, Indian meditation and other forms of worship.
The character used to represent the om symbol is called omkar, which is a yantra or the visual representation of a mantra. It’s believed that the omkar originated from an ancient hieroglyphic symbol and even predates the Sanskrit language. When used in rituals, practitioners trace the shape of the symbol with their eyes to enhance focus and meditation.
In many Eastern religions, the swastika is a sacred symbol with positive meanings. The term is derived from the Sanskrit svasitka that means wellbeing or conveying good fortune. In ancient Vedic texts, it’s associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, as well as the four potential fates of the human soul, and the four castes of Hindu society.
Eventually, the swastika became significant in Buddhist tradition. In North America, the Navajo people also use it as a religious symbol.
Unfortunately, it was adopted by Nazi Germany based on the belief that the Aryan race (Indo-European people) were superior to all other races. As a result, the swastika is now seen as a symbol of hate, oppression, fear and extermination.
Star of David
The symbol of the Jewish faith, the Star of David is a reference to the biblical king. However, its origin has nothing to do with King David in the 10th century BCE, and it wasn’t originally a Jewish symbol. During the Middle Ages, this six-pointed star was prominent in the art and architecture but didn’t have any religious significance.
In 1357, Charles IV gave the Jews in Prague permission to use a flag to represent their community, and it resulted in a red flag with the Star of David. At the time of Nazi persecution, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star to distinguish them from the rest of society. Later, it became a symbol of heroism and martyrdom of those who suffered during the Holocaust.
Nowadays, the Star of David is the symbol of Judaism, associated with God’s protection. In a Jewish legend, it’s said that David had a shield with a six-pointed star, made with two overlapping triangles. Even though it wasn’t mentioned in Talmudic literature, the dual triangles have several associations in Kabbalah.
Many view the cross as the central symbol of Christianity because they believe that Christ died on the cross to save all people from their sins. For them, it represents the passion of Christ, which refers to his arrest, conviction, and execution by Roman authorities. Some Christians regard it as an instrument of salvation, so they show respect and adoration for the symbol.
Still, some Christian denominations don’t use the cross and other iconography in worship. According to the book Crucifixion in Antiquity, the instrument of Jesus’ death suggests one piece of wood not two. In fact, the Greek terms used by Bible writers when referring to the instrument on which Jesus was killed were stauros and xylon, meaning upright stake and a piece of wood respectively. A crux simplex or a single stake was used for the execution of criminals.
The use of the cross as a religious symbol was also evident in pre-Christian times, and many regard it as a universal symbol for worship. According to the book The Cross in Ritual, Architecture, and Art, a cruciform device also symbolized the Roman god Bacchus, the Norse Odin, the Chaldean Bel, and the Babylonian Tammuz.
Star and Crescent
Featured on the flags of several Muslim countries, the star and crescent symbol represents the Islamic faith. In 1453 CE, the Turks conquered Constantinople and adopted the city’s flag and symbol. It’s also said that the founder of the Ottoman Empire had a dream of a crescent moon, which he regarded as a good omen. Eventually, he decided to keep the crescent and make it the emblem of his dynasty. Many historians believe that this was the origin of the Islamic symbol.
By the time of the Ottoman-Hungarian Wars and Crusade, Islamic armies used the star and crescent symbol to counterpoint the cross emblem of invading Christian armies, making it more political and nationalistic than religious. Historically, Islam had no symbol, so many still reject the star and crescent as a representation of their faith.
One of the sacred symbols of the Baha’i faith, the nine-pointed star represents the nine concepts of the divine. It has a sacred numerological association with the number nine, deriving from ancient Arabic numerology called the Abjad System. The number nine is associated with perfection and completion, likely because it’s a single-digit number with the highest value. The nine-pointed star or enneagon can be constructed with overlapping arms, or solid arms.
The Flower of Life
One of the most popular sacred geometry symbols, the flower of life represents creation and the logical order of the natural world. It’s often found at several sacred sites around the world, including The Temple of Osiris in Egypt.
Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci also showed interest in the flower of life, and found out that other symbols such as the Fibonacci spiral, the five Platonic solids, and the golden spiral were within the symbol. It’s also one of the universal symbols for spiritual growth and awakening.
The Medicine Wheel
In Native American culture, the medicine wheel or the sacred circle represents the cosmological features of the universe, the four cardinal directions, and other spiritual concepts. It’s said to have been derived from prehistoric observations of nature, as most of the elements of the wheel were aligned with astronomical phenomena. Eventually, it was used for gatherings and rituals. In the 1800s, the term medicine was used to refer to various type of healing, be it spiritual or physical.
Pentagrams and Pentacles
While the pentagram is a five-pointed star, the pentacle is a pentagram set within a circle. These symbols have been linked to ceremonies and magical rites, and seen as a positive symbol of divine influence. They have been linked to the harmony of all five elements, golden ratio, the patterns of five, and other mathematical associations.
Historically, pentagrams and pentacles appeared in the symbolism of prehistoric Egypt, as well as in those of the Babylonians and Sumerians. In Wicca and American neo-paganism, they’re used as charms for spells and prayers. In the modern media, they’re often associated with witchcraft and magic, and became a symbol of protection against evil.
The Triple Goddess
Linked to Celtic, Greek, and Roman traditions, the triple goddess symbol represents the concept of femininity in spirituality. It consists of the waxing moon, full moon, and waning moon to illustrate the three stages of a woman’s life known as the maiden, mother, and crone.
The maiden is represented by the waxing moon, the mother is symbolized by the full moon, and the crone is represented by the waning moon. While the waxing moon represents the youth, the full moon is associated with fertility, maturity and growth. Lastly, the waning moon symbolizes wisdom.
Many different cultures worshipped the moon as a goddess, and women and the moon have long been compared. The triple goddess symbol can also represent the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. This may have stemmed from the belief that the number 3 is sacred and meaningful.
Sacred symbols have been used to convey spirituality and religious beliefs for hundreds of years. Many these have been influenced by culture, art, language, or even the exploration of spiritual symbols. While some of these symbols are closely associated with certain cultures or faiths, others are universal and can be used by anyone to strengthen his or her spirituality.