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Spiritual Symbols Through the Ages: Their Meanings and Histories

Symbols play an important role in spirituality. They are a reminder of the values that people seek to achieve through their spiritual practices and have many different uses.

Indeed, a single symbol can take on many different meanings depending on the specific beliefs, as many symbols are ancient.

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In this article, we describe the most common spiritual symbols as well as their history, uses, and meanings.

1. Om Symbol

om symbol
Om symbol: spiritual symbol

The Om symbol (sometimes ‘Ohm’ or ‘Aum’) is the visual representation of the meaningful ‘om’ mantra used in spiritual practices and Hindu practices.

Om mantra or chant is believed to energize the body’s energy centers (Chakras) and can envelop the practitioner in a powerful energetic glow.

The Om sound is a ‘seed mantra’ and is believed to be the sound of the universe. The Om’s visual symbol bears similar importance.

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The symbol has been found etched onto relic coins and written into ancient scripts throughout South and Southeast Asia. Modern use has seen the symbol on national flags and emblems of civil importance.

Om is displayed as a reminder of peace and harmony in the universe, and the unification of the self. 

2. Hamsa

Hamsa hand necklace
Hamsa hand necklace. See it here.

The Hamsa symbol is an image of an open right palm that is believed to bring protection. ‘Hamsa’ translates to five in Hebrew.

In Judaism (as well as in Islam) the Hamsa is believed to protect against the negative energy of the evil eye. This is why the Hamsa is often depicted with an eye in the center, known as the Nazar Boncugu.

The Hamsa is commonly worn as jewelry to protect the wearer, but it is also painted above doorways (particularly over the room of an expectant mother) and displayed as a token around the home.

When the fingers point downward in a Hamsa, it is used more as a symbol of luck. The downward-pointing fingers welcome abundance, fertility, and the manifestation of prayers.

Buddhist and Hindu practitioners believe that the five fingers of the Hamsa connect to an element of the chakra. From the thumb, each finger connects to fire (solar plexus chakra), air (heart chakra), ethereal (throat chakra), earth (root chakra), and water (sacral chakra). 

3. Lotus Flower

Pink and White Lotus Flower
Lotus Flower, another spiritual symbol

The lotus flower is a widely used symbol throughout history. The lotus plant is an aquatic, flowering plant that is found growing throughout the world in muddy waters.

The emergence of a beautiful flower from these surroundings has seen it adopted in many cultures as a symbol of enlightenment, growth, and peace.

We now know that the flower loses old blooms and adds new blooms daily, but Ancient Egyptians mistakenly believed that the lotus flower sank at night and rose again in the morning.

This is why many scholars believe that lotus flower symbols depicted ‘rebirth’ and ‘reincarnation’ when carved into the walls of tombs.

Buddhist and Hindu beliefs surrounding the lotus flower are similar as it is viewed as a symbol of eternity.

However, it is also related to purity and peace. The lotus flower is often seen placed at the feet of Hindu deities, and Brahma (the creator God in Hinduism) is believed to have emerged from a lotus flower.

The color of the lotus can also imbue meaning. A white and pale pink lotus depict purity; red, purple, or blue are related to enlightenment or rebirth, and green is analogous to new beginnings.

4. Tree of Life

Tree of life necklace. See it here.

The tree of life is an archetypal symbol in many world cultures and mythologies. Also known as the ‘world tree’ or the ‘cosmic tree’, it is depicted as a large tree, with roots and branches that spread into the earth and sky.

The tree of life is associated with the cycle of birth, life, and death; the connection of heaven and the underworld; the interconnected nature of all things, and our connection to mother earth.

Occasionally, the tree of life is illustrated as a tree within a sphere with roots growing deep into the bottom hemisphere and branches spreading into the top.

This depiction is believed to show the bonding of the physical realm that we know and the spiritual realm that we reach for. 

5. Double Happiness

Double happiness symbol

The traditional Chinese symbol of double happiness consists of two identical copies of the character for ‘joy’.

It is a symbol of attraction that is worn or displayed to invite relationships, romance, and bliss to those looking.

For those already in a relationship, it is believed to bring strength and vibrancy, and for those that are recently married, it is believed to bring luck. These days, it is also commonly used as an ornamental design for businesses to bring good luck.

6. Dharma Wheel

Dharma wheel symbolism
Dharma wheel

The Dharma Wheel, Dharma Chakra, or Wheel of Dharma is a symbol used widely in Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

In its simplest form, it is depicted as a circle with a central hub, eight spokes, and a rim. The central hub represents ethical teachings that center the mind; each spoke represents one of the major stages of Buddha’s path to enlightenment, and the rim represents concentration gained through meditation which encompasses the wheel and allows it to move forward.

Together, the three aspects of the Dharma wheel are also believed to symbolize the three aspects of Buddha’s teachings of integrity, wisdom, and attentiveness.

Because of its all-encompassing symbolism, the Dharma Wheel is displayed as a reminder of the central goals and beliefs of Buddhist spirituality. It is often found at the center of the mandala’s Buddhist representations of the universe.

7. Mandala

mandala pattern
Mandala design

In Sanskrit, ‘mandala’ literally translates to a circle and is usually configured with several geometric shapes interlaid and enveloped by a circle.

In Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, a mandala is used as a meditative tool to aid focus and guide a person into a sacred space.

The geometric shapes are a representation of the universe and patterns of nature. It is a common practice for Buddhists to draw intricate mandalas, only to later destroy them as a reminder of the mortality of human life.

In new-age spirituality, mandalas represent the cosmos and the wholeness and interconnectedness of all things.

8. The Flower of Life

flower of life

The flower of life is another circular symbol, more commonly used in new-age spirituality.

It is made by drawing a single circle, followed by drawings of circles all around it. The result is a geometric design of concentric circles enclosed by a larger circle that resembles a flower.

The way in which the flower of life comes to be is where it derives its meaning – that is a symbol representative of the creation of life from the great void.

It is also commonly referred to as the ‘pattern of creation’, and the cycle of circles bearing more circles is believed to represent the fruit, seed, and tree cycle – the cycle of life in nature.

The flower of life is seen throughout history in the relics of many cultures – from ornaments in Ancient Rome, to Islamic art, to medieval architecture.

9. Spiral

Spiral symbol

The spiral is another archetypal symbol used in cultures throughout history worldwide. It is one of the oldest spiritual symbols and can be found in cave paintings and stone carvings dating as far back as 8000 BC.

Many believe that the widespread use of the spiral is due to its common occurrence in nature – the unfurling of a fern for example.

The spiral represents many things to different cultures, but most use the spiral to depict ideas relating to growth.

As a talisman, the spiral is worn as a reminder of the evolving journey of life as it happens; it represents the growth of consciousness.

In Eastern spirituality, it is the ‘Kundalini’ (coiled serpent) that rises through the body to energize the chakras.

The spiral is also associated with the mathematical principle of the ‘golden spiral’. The golden spiral or Fibonacci spiral is a logarithmic spiral that increases by the sum of the two preceding numbers.

It is seen in nature through the growth of a fern, the curve of the human ear, and the spiral in a nautilus shell – the mathematics of this growth allow an organism to grow without changing its overall shape.

Its widespread occurrence in nature leads many Greek philosophers to refer to the Golden Spiral as the ‘key to the physics of the cosmos’.

10. Yin Yang Symbol

yin and yang meaning
Yin Yang Symbol

The Yin Yang symbol represents the duality and balance found in the universe. The symbol is a visual depiction of this duality – each half of the symbol contains some of its opposites.

It represents that all types of energy have equally strong opposing energy. The important point is that these opposing forces are complementary, and one needs the other to exist successfully.

This symbol is a reminder that the path to harmony requires balance.

Spirituality and Religion

Put simply, spirituality is an individual person’s search for deeper meaning, purpose, or direction in life. Many believe that the essence of spirituality is to understand the nature of the soul – our truest form – and thus experience our nature in order to live an authentic life.

Spirituality often touches on profound questions such as ‘what is the purpose of life?’; ‘who am I?’, or ‘where did I come from?’ Symbols are a reminder of spiritual teachings that can guide a person towards the answers.

Similar questions are posed in many of the world’s major religions, which leads many to question:

What is the difference between spirituality and religion?

Religions are often more organized and sectarian, that is, they operate to a specific set of organized beliefs and practices.

Spirituality is more of an individual practice where beliefs and teachings are tailored to a person’s circumstances and level of growth.

Some spiritual symbols have religious roots and can be used in both organized religions and individual spiritual practices. This wide use span means that each symbol can derive meaning from different religions, histories, and traditions.

Wrapping Up

The above symbols have existed for centuries and have re-emerged as spiritual symbols with relevance in modern-day societies.

They offer universal applicability and don’t require a subscription to religious faith in order to be appreciated. These symbols have something for everyone and their meanings are relevant to everyday lives.

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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.