What Does a Ship’s Wheel Symbolize?

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The ship’s wheel is a popular symbol with symbolism that transcends the nautical world. While the wheel can have an indefinite number of spokes, it’s typically featured with eight. This overlaps with the dharma chakra symbol, which is also very similar. Let’s take a look at the history and symbolism of the ship’s wheel and how it differs from the dharma wheel.

History of Ship’s Wheel

Before the ship’s steering wheel became popular, ships and boats typically used a tiller or whip staff, which wasn’t very efficient. When the ship’s wheel was invented, it was a major leap forward in nautical navigation.

While the widespread use of the ship’s wheel is relatively recent, dating back to the 18th century, the origins of the ship’s wheel is unclear as it wasn’t properly documented. Scholars believe that the ship’s steering wheel was invented by the British Royal Navy and is believed to have come into use around the early 1700s. However, as there is little evidence, it’s not possible to say whether the steering wheel was used prior to the 1700s.  

Although today many modern nautical inventions are starting to replace the ship’s wheel, it continues to be an important part of seafaring history and an instantly recognizable icon.

Symbolism of a Ship’s Wheel

A ship’s wheel is a highly symbolic image, with layers of meaning. Here are some:

  • Destiny – Although the helmsman charts the direction the ship takes, they can’t control the power of the ship. This is provided by nature, in the form of wind and waves. Thus, no matter how well prepared or capable a person is, there are other forces beyond them that have a say in their lives. Taken this way, the ship’s wheel can be seen as a symbol of finding your way through unknown waters and uncontrollable forces to meet your destiny.
  • Victory – The ship’s wheel is a symbol of victory and achieving your goals, by successfully finding your direction and making the right decisions.   
  • Taking Control – The helmsman or the captain of the ship often has to act independently, making difficult decisions in critical moments. The wheel thus symbolizes taking charge, being independent and taking responsibility for your actions.
  • Direction and Navigation – The ship’s wheel is a symbol of finding your path regardless of troubled or stormy waters. Like the compass, it’s a symbol of always finding your way.
  •  Staying on Course – It can be difficult to maintain your course in stormy waters, and requires holding the wheel steady. So it is in life also, when staying the course becomes important and you will need to be steady and calm simply to maintain your direction.
  • Purpose – The ship’s wheel is also a representation of your goals and ambitions, symbolizing where you need to go and how you have to get there.
  • Discovery – A symbol of journeys and voyages, the ship’s wheel signifies discovery, as a device that assists in taking you to new places.
  • Life’s Path – Just as it’s a symbol of destiny, the ship’s wheel is a symbol of the path of life – often unpredictable and uncontrollable.
  • Perseverance – In order to be successful at the ship’s wheel, a helmsman has to persevere, even when the going gets tough. Likewise, in life, you have to stay true to your ideas, principles and values regardless of the obstacles that may crop up on your path.

The symbol of the ship’s wheel is often used as a metaphor in literature. Here are some popular quotes:

You are the captain of your own ship; don’t let anyone else take the wheel – Michael Josephson

Marriages, like ships, need steering and steady hands at the wheel – Emma Straub

Ships wheel symbolism and meaning

Ship’s Wheel vs. Dharma Chakra

The ship’s wheel and the dharma wheel (also called a dharma chakra) are similar in design. Both can have an indefinite number of spokes, but eight is the most common. The difference is that the ship’s wheel is a practical and secular symbol, whereas the dharma wheel is more metaphorical and religious in nature.

A dharma wheel with eight spokes symbolizes the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. This includes the following practices:

  1. The right view
  2. The right speech
  3. The right resolve
  4. The right conduct
  5. The right livelihood
  6. The right effort
  7. The right mindfulness
  8. The right samadhi (meditative absorption)

Because of how similar the dharma chakra and the ship’s wheel are, these two symbols are often confused. What distinguishes them is the context.

Ship’s Wheel in Use Today

The ship’s wheel is a symmetrical and beautiful design that’s often adapted into jewelry designs, tattoos and decorative items.

As a unisex jewelry design, it’s most commonly used in pendants, on bracelets as well as earrings. Most ship’s wheel designs typically feature eight spokes and sometimes are combined together with an anchor for added nautical symbolism. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the ship’s wheel symbol.

As a tattoo, traditionally the design has been popular among sailors and lovers of the sea. However, due to the universal nature of its symbolism, tattoos featuring ship’s steering wheels are becoming increasingly popular.

Ship’s wheels are a must for any nautical collection. Overall, the design is an excellent choice as a gift for a range of occasions, especially as a Valentine’s Day, graduation, wedding, anniversary or goodbye gift.

Wrapping Up

The ship’s wheel has become a cultural icon and prominent symbol of the nautical world. Its universality makes it a much-loved symbol. Even if ship’s wheels eventually lose their practicality, with the advent of modern, more efficient nautical navigation inventions, it’s safe to say that the symbol will remain alive and well.

Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.

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