Symbols of Justice and What They Mean

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Symbols of justice are among the earliest symbols ever created. Many can be dated back to ancient times, originating in Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. Although they began hundreds of years ago, the symbols of justice still remain as a link between the rational law and the natural law in the justice system.

Today, the most recognized symbol of justice is the statue of a blindfolded woman with a scroll or sword in one hand and scales in the other hand, but there are several other symbols associated justice and law which are obscure. In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at these symbols, where they come from and what they symbolize.

Themis

Themis, also known as ‘the Lady of Good Counsel’, is a Titaness from ancient Greece, famous for being a much-used symbol of justice. She was an organizer of communal affairs of the ancient Greeks. Her name, Themis, means ‘divine law’ and the Scales of Justice are her most important symbol, used to demonstrate a pragmatic and balanced outlook.

Themis is the personification of fairness, natural law, divine order and custom in Greek religion. Since the 16th century, she’s mostly been depicted wearing a blindfold which represents impartiality, the idea that justice should always be applied without bias.

One of the most famous statues of Themis sculpted by Chariestratos in 300 BCE currently stands in the temple of Nemesis Rhamnous Attica, Greece.

Justitia

Lady justice

Justitia, also called Lady Justice, is the Roman goddess of justice and the equivalent of Themis. Like Themis, she’s typically portrayed as blindfolded, holding a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. Sometimes, she’s depicted holding a flame in one hand and in the other a bundle of rods tied around an axe known as the fasces which symbolizes judicial authority.

There were several statues of Justitia sculpted in North America in the 19th and 20th century to symbolize the equal and fair administration of the law without greed, corruption, prejudice or favor. Today, she’s a common sight on legal institutions and court houses all over the world.

Fasces

The fasces, a bundle of rods bound around an axe by leather thongs, was an ancient Roman symbol of authority and power. It was said to have originated in the Etruscan civilization and then passed on to Rome, where it was symbolic of jurisdiction and a magistrate’s power. The axe of the fasces was a symbol that was originally associated with the Labrys, one of the oldest symbols of ancient Greece.

As a whole, the fasces is symbolic of strength through unity: that a single rod can easily be broken while a bundle of rods cannot. However, the bundle of birch twigs also symbolizes corporal punishment and justice. 

The Sword

sword

The Sword of Justice (carried by Justitia), is a symbol of authority, vigilance, power, protection and might. It’s with a sword that one can mete out punishment as deserved.

The double-edged sword usually seen in Justitia’s left hand, recognizes the power of Justice and Reason and can be wielded either against or for any party. It’s a reminder of the power of law, the need for real punishment and the power over both life and death and reinforces the concept that justice can be swift and final.

Justitia’s sword is also a symbol of authority wielded throughout history by emperors, kings and generals which is why it’s one of the earliest known symbols for justice.

The Scales

Scales of justice

Strongly associated with the legal system and principles of equity and fairness, scales have long been used as a symbol of fairness, balance and an objective outlook. 

This symbolism goes back to ancient Egyptian times. According to the legends, the powerful Egyptian god Anubis used a set of scales to weigh the soul of deceased people against a feather (the Feather of Truth).  

Today, the scales relate to the fairness in a judicial process. They show that both sides of a case should be considered in court without bias or prejudice and that any decisions taken should be done by weighing the evidence fairly. They imply a rational, mechanistic process: too much of evidence (weight) on one side of the scale will cause it to tilt in favour of guilt or innocence.

The Blindfold

Blindfold justitia

The blindfold is another famous symbol of Blind justice that’s often seen worn by Lady Justice. Although it was used throughout history, it only became popular in the late fifteenth century. 

It symbolizes that justice should always be rendered without prejudice or passion and only the facts on the scales should be considered. The blindfold also implies that no emotional impressions of the defendant should be taken into consideration and that justice should be applied without being impacted by power, wealth or other status.

Overall, like the scales, the blindfold symbolizes impartiality and equality in justice. 

The Scroll

scroll

Scrolls have a long history, dating back to ancient times. In ancient Egypt, (3000 BC) scrolls were made from papyrus and were the first form of records that could be edited.

The scroll is a famous symbol closely associated with law and justice, signifying knowledge, learning, the extent of life and passing of time. It also represents continued learning as life unfolds and education as a responsibility of the society and everyone in it.

Although scrolls have been superseded by the book format, they’re still made for religious or ceremonial purposes.

The Feather of Truth

The Feather of Truth belonged to the Egyptian goddess, Maat, and often depicted worn in a headband. It was used in the Land of the Dead to decide if the dead were worthy of afterlife. If a soul weighed more than the feather, it meant the person was unworthy and would be eaten by Ammit, the ancient Egyptian ‘Devourer of the Dead’.  

Although the feather was a popular symbol associated with justice in the past, it’s no longer used in the justice system today.

The Gavel

Gavel

The gavel is a small mallet typically made of hardwood, fashioned with a handle and used in the courthouse. It’s usually struck on a sounding block to intensify its sound. The origin of the gavel remains unknown but it has been used for decades in courts of law and legislatures to keep calm and order in the court.

A symbol of authority in the courtroom, the gavel gives its user the right to officially act as a presiding officer. Today, its use isn’t restricted only to the courtroom but has extended to auctions and meetings as well.

Veritas

veritas canada
Veritas outside the Supreme Court of Canada

Veritas is the goddess of truth in ancient Roman mythology, often depicted as a young woman dressed entirely in white. According to the myths, she hid in a holy well because of her elusiveness. She had delicate features, wears a long, flowing gown and is portrayed pointing at a book in her hand with the word ‘Veritas’ (meaning truth in English) inscribed on it.

The statue of Veritas (Truth) is commonly associated with the legal system and stands with the statue of Justitia (Justice) outside the Canadian Supreme Court. It represents the highest court of Canada and is well-known as a justice symbol in many other countries as well.

Summing Up…

Some of the symbols on our list are in common usage in the justice system all over the world (the Lady of Justice) whereas others which were once used, are now obsolete, like the Feather of Truth. These symbols are not only used in the justice system but are also popular designs for jewelry and fashion, worn by people from all parts of the globe.