The Surprisingly Layered Symbolism of Keys

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All our lives, we humans seem to always be chasing after keys – the key to a paramour’s heart; the key to our first home, our first car, our first business; the key to wisdom, success, and happiness; and ultimately, the key to a fulfilling life.

Physically, there has never been any confusion about what keys can do: they open locks, doors, passageways, chambers, and even restricted sections in libraries. However, because of all the things they can open (and close) these small, nifty gadgets are thought to hold great power beyond their purpose in the literal sense.

Symbolically, keys are always associated with new milestones, monumental achievements, and so much more. In this article, we’re taking a look at the most popular symbolic representations of keys.

Symbolic meaning of keys
  • A Symbol of New Beginnings/Transitions

Since keys are used to unlock things, they represent the opening of places and achievements that were previously locked or out of reach. For instance, when a Girl Scout ‘graduates’ from one level to a higher one, she is awarded a silver key while the leader declares: 

I present to you a Silver Key, which symbolizes that you are seeking to unlock the doors to Cadette Girl Scouts as you begin work on the Silver Leadership and Silver award. Wear it as a symbol that you are passing through the doorway to new experiences where you will gain an understanding of your own self-worth and individuality. 

Many deities and mythical creatures are likewise depicted with keys, among them the two-faced Roman god Janus, after which the first month of the year is named after. Therefore, Janus represents the transition to a new year, which in turn represents new beginnings.

As the mythical god of beginnings and transitions, he is often drawn holding a key. The same is true for Anubis, the Egyptian god of death. Using his keys, the jackal-headed deity is said to help souls transition from their earthly life to eternal rest in the underworld.

  • A Symbol of Freedom

Holding on to a key, especially a skeleton or a master key, depicts freedom to do whatever one wants to do, and to go wherever one wishes to go. Ancient ‘walled’ cities used to present esteemed guests and residents with a symbolic ‘key to the city’ to represent their unique freedom to roam the city and enter or leave it as they please.

This tradition has been carried over to modern times, as countries such as the United States still present a similar ornamental key to honor the age-old tradition. 

In many instances, a key is all one needs to be free from being bound or incarcerated, which is why it is a universally recognized symbol for freedom. 

  • A Symbol of Authority

Aside from freedom, dignitaries who hold the ‘key to a city’ may also have peculiar power or authority over it, stemming from the tradition of presenting the keys of a city under siege as proof of surrender to its conqueror.

Kings, emperors, and other royalty are likewise presented with elaborate and intricate ‘chamberlain keys’ to symbolize their ascent to a position of power. 

In modern times, we usually carry keys hidden in pockets or purses, but in the olden days, carriers prominently displayed keys in their outer clothing to symbolize their status as persons of authority. The Duchess of Marlborough, for instance, wears her gold key on her belt, to display her status.

In Catholicism, keys are also among the most frequently used symbols. The Pope is given crossed keys as an emblem of his papal authority.

  • A Symbol of Stewardship/Wardenship

At times, the bearer of keys does not possess the highest authority – they’re just the ones entrusted with stewardship or wardenship over properties and kingdoms. This doesn’t mean that they’re not powerful, though, as Keeper of the Keys is still an esteemed position across all traditions.

Hestia, the Celtic keeper of keys, lords over supplies, the hearth, and the home to make sure the household always runs smoothly. 

In the Bible, one character associated with keys was Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary. She is ever busy and eternally hospitable as the patron saint of housewives, butlers, innkeepers, cooks, and homemakers.

  • A Symbol of Trust/Loyalty

Closely related to the attributes of power and stewardship is the virtue of trust and loyalty. Being entrusted with the key to someone else’s kingdom and property is no small achievement and tells of utmost trust and loyalty from the ruler to his/her most trusted staff.

In Christianity, for instance, Peter’s greatest accomplishment was Jesus giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, allowing him to open it up for people he deemed worthy, and closing it on people who do not deserve a life beyond the pearly gates.

In the parlance of the romantics, entrusting someone with the key to one’s heart is essentially giving them power over you, while fully trusting them not to use such power to hurt you. 

  • A Symbol of Knowledge

Keys don’t just open doors to places, they open doors to new knowledge, too. In Harry Potter, the door to the Ravenclaw common room is opened by answering a riddle, depicting that in many situations, knowledge is quite literally the key to opening new worlds, which hold answers to curious questions.

The great Hindu god, Lord Ganesh, is often associated with keys, and is known to move obstacles in unlocking a path or new knowledge. The key-bearing Ganesh is called on for wisdom and knowledge.

  • A Symbol of Truth and Justice

Unlocking the truth is a special kind of enlightenment that brings about a bounty of positive things like justice. This is closely related to freedom, too, as exemplified by the saying The truth shall set you free.

Through this symbolism, truth is seen as the actual key, without which those bound by lies and pretence can never be liberated.

  • A Symbol of Mystery

On the flip side of knowledge and enlightenment stands mystery. This speaks to the nature of locks and keys, in which neither can be useful without the other. 

Coming across a key without knowing which lock it opens represents mystery, as does encountering a locked door or place without possessing the key to it.

  • A Symbol of Success and Opportunity

Janus is not just the deity for new beginnings – he also grants successes and new opportunities. Furthermore, all over the world, skeleton keys are used as amulets, since they are thought to make wearers’ most precious dreams come true.

Wearing or bringing a key is thought to help people open doors of opportunities to reach new heights of success. Therefore, many people wear a key charm or necklace when searching for jobs or interviewing for any opportunity like a prestigious college or a fellowship application. 

Key charms are likewise popular coming-of-age gifts to signify the opening of doors to successful careers and love pursuits.

  • A Symbol of Love

Winning one’s affections is usually referred to as finding the key to one’s heart. In the medieval and early modern times, a key hanging around a young girl’s neck symbolized that she was a virgin and hadn’t yet been spoken for. Therefore, bachelors had to win the key to her heart, which, by symbolism, remained closely guarded around her chest.

  • A Symbol of Life

With the myriad of all things symbolized by keys, the most important could be none other than life itself. The Egyptian symbol of Ankh, for one, is an intricate kind of key, and is used to unlock the path to eternal life.

Wrapping Up

Keys hold incredible significance to the life of humans, ancient and modern alike. Even with the emergence of technology like remote-controlled locks and digital technology, it seems unlikely that the symbol of keys will lose its value in the collective memory of humans. So, here’s to finding more keys and unlocking the best things life can offer.