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11 Popular Symbols That Changed Meaning Over Time

Symbols are powerful as they represent greater things, ideals and values—but they don’t last forever. Many of them have existed for centuries, and as cultures change, their meanings also change. We have rounded up the most popular symbols that have changed in meaning, and no longer represent what they used to do.

The Swastika

Swastika symbol

What It Means Today:

One of the most potent symbols of hate and oppression today, the swastika reminds us of the Nazi propaganda and fascism following World War II. In the 1920s and 1930s, Adolf Hitler adopted the symbol to represent his belief in an ancient Aryan race. For the Jewish people, the swastika is a reminder of the Holocaust, making it a symbol of fear and extermination. After the war, it was banned in Germany.

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What It Used to Mean:

However, the swastika symbol has a prehistoric origin and positive meaning. In Sanskrit, the term swastika translates to wellbeing, making it a sacred symbol in Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The swastika was also used by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and Anglo-Saxons. In the past, it was thought to ward off evil and was even used as a fertility symbol.

By the late 1800s, archeologists discovered over thousand variations of crosses with bent arms, which became a good luck symbol in the West. It even appeared on the uniforms of Canadian hockey teams, Carlsberg beer bottles and Coca-Cola advertisements by the early 20th century. The swastika had a variety of uses before its tainted association with the Nazis.  

The Heart Symbol

Heart symbol

What It Means Today:

Nowadays, the heart symbol is the most recognized representation of romantic love and affection, making it a popular motif in love notes and Valentine’s Day cards. Called the ‘love heart’, this symbol is used around the globe for the same purpose. However, its ancient symbolism has nothing to do with love.

What It Used to Mean:

In ancient Greece, the heart shape was used as a symbol for the plant silphium, which was utilized as a seasoning, medicine, perfume and an early form of birth control. The ancient city of Cyrene, which became rich from the plant trade, even incorporated the heart symbol on its money.

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Also, some medieval drawings in medical texts featured the heart symbol, suggesting that it was a literal representation of the human heart. Scholars say that it’s rooted in the writings of Aristotle, who described a human heart with three chambers and a small dent in the middle. However, another viewpoint is that the heart symbol was inspired by the shape of women’s buttocks, when viewed from behind.

The Cross

Christian cross meaning change

What It Means Today:

The most familiar symbol of Christianity, the cross is commonly associated with Jesus Christ’s life, along with the beliefs of salvation, resurrection and eternal life. However, the symbol predates the “Christian” churches, and carried different meanings.

What It Used to Mean:

According to The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, a variation of the symbol called St. Anthony’s cross was fashioned like a capital T, deriving from the symbol of the Babylonian god Tammuz. From ancient Babylon, the use of the cross spread into Egypt, Syria, India and China.

In the Roman times, the cross was used for persecuting disgraced soldiers, slaves and political activists. Since it was the most brutal and shameful way to die, it carried darker meanings and became known as a symbol of persecution, racism and violence.

The Triquetra

triquetra symbol

What It Means Today:

Nowadays, the triquetra has gained universal meaning as a symbol of eternity and eternal love, as well as longevity because of its continuous shape. In some Christian denominations, it’s even thought to represent the Holy Trinity.

What It Used to Mean:

While it has several interpretations, the triquetra symbol is noted for its association with the Celtic culture. Three was a sacred number to the Celts, and it’s thought to symbolize important things that came in threes such as the three elements, three-fold form of the Goddess and so on.

The Peace Symbol

Peace symbol

What It Means Today:

Although it didn’t start out that way, by the mid-1960s, the anti-war protesters and the counterculture movement known as the hippies adopted the peace symbol. Later, it became associated with women’s and gay rights and environmental movements. The peace symbol might have lost its original meaning, but it matters to be reminded of it. After all, the nuclear threat has not gone away and it became stronger than ever. Today, the symbol with three lines and a circle generally symbolizes peace, along with freedom and justice.

What It Used to Mean:

So, what did the peace symbol originally mean? It began with an anti-war association – specifically nuclear disarmament. In a semaphore alphabet—a visual communication used by sailors from a distance with flags or lights—the peace symbol is a representation of letters N and D, which means nuclear and disarmament respectively.

Gerald Holtom, the designer of the symbol, stated in his interview that he drew a man in despair with hands outstretched before the firing squad. It was specifically for the protest against nuclear weapons in 1958, when the United Kingdom conducted the string of test blast and joined the club after the United States and USSR.

The Caduceus

Caduceus and rod of asclepius

What It Means Today:

Frequently used by medical and healthcare organizations, the caduceus is now regarded as a symbol of cure, healing and recovery. It’s commonly depicted as a staff with wings, in which two snakes coiled around it. However, using it in a medical context is a big mistake.

What It Used to Mean:

In Greek mythology, the caduceus is the symbol of Hermes—the patron god of merchants, travelers and thieves—who had nothing to do with medicine. In fact, it’s just being confused with the rod of Asclepius, who was the Greek god of healing and medicine. The rod features only one coiled snake without wings.

The confusion started when the US Army Medical Corps used the caduceus as their symbol of neutrality, which inspired many medical organizations to incorporate it as their emblem. Unfortunately, it resulted in the misuse of the symbol in our modern times.

The Infinity Sign

Infinity symbol

What It Means Today:

Representing the concept of eternity, the infinity sign is now widely used as a statement of eternal love or friendship. It’s often used in jewelry, artwork and fashion.

What It Used to Mean:

However, the infinity symbol was first used in mathematics as a representation of infinity during the 17th century. Later, it was used to represent eternity in a variety of contexts. It even gained the meaning of balance and harmony, as the union of the two circles is thought to represent two opposing forces that come together.

Skulls and Crossbones

Skull crossbones pirates meaning change

What It Means Today:

As a warning sign of danger, the symbol of the skull and crossbones is now used on labeling poisonous and deadly chemicals. The skull and crossbones has long been a symbol of death, but it’s also gaining the representation of eternal life and revival.

What It Used to Mean:

However, this wasn’t it’s meaning in the past. During the Middle Ages, the Knights Templars introduced the symbol to honor their master who was burned alive in a persecution. By the 14th century, the skulls and crossbones marked the entrances of Spanish cemeteries and tombstones, reminding the people of the fragility of life.

The symbol became associated with pirates, due to the Jolly Roger flag they used as a symbol of terror for centuries. It’s said that a black flag with skull and crossbones showed that they would give quarter, while a red flag signaled that they wouldn’t spare lives.

The skull and crossbones symbol was also represented in military uniforms as a symbol of sacrifice, called as Totenkopf, which is a German for death’s head. By the mid-1700s, it became respectable enough to represent the motto of death or glory.

The Jack O’ Lantern

jack o lantern

What It Means Today:

The iconic symbol of Halloween, the jack-o’-lantern is now used to represent the festive and welcoming spirit of the season. It’s a staple object, one that invites feelings of warmth, fun and excitement.

What It Used to Mean:

However, the jack-o’-lantern has a macabre origin that can be traced back to early Celtic rituals. In northern European cultures, there was a tradition of carving vegetables or a round fruit to depict a human face, but many believe that it was for symbolizing the severed heads of one’s enemies.

By the 18th-century, the Irish folktale of Stingy Jack became popular. It narrates the story of a man who tricked the devil twice. After his death, he wasn’t allowed into heaven or hell, so he wandered the world with his turnip lantern. In Ireland, people started to carve faces out of turnips to ward off Jack’s wandering soul, associating it with protection.

Since pumpkins were native to North America, they were used by Irish immigrants for making jack-o’-lanterns. The tradition coincided with the country’s rising interest in Halloween, so the carved pumpkin has been an integral part of the holiday ever since.

Card Suit Symbols

Suit of card symbols meaning

What It Means Today:

There are several interpretations on the card suit symbols in our modern times. While the spade is often associated with the discrimination between error and judgment, the club represents power and command. On the other hand, the heart symbolizes the source of life, while some associate the diamond with eternity. Regardless, when we see the suit, we it represents entertainment, gambling and fun.

What It Used to Mean:

It’s widely believed that the four French suits are stylized images of certain objects in the past: diamonds are coins, hearts are cups, spades are batons, and clubs are swords. However, the symbolism varies as different cultures used different suit marks.

Many historians believed that the suits represented the four classes of medieval society. The diamonds might have stood for the merchants; the hearts for the clergy; the spades for peasants and the clubs for the nobility or military.

The Trident

Trident poseidon symbolism

What It Means Today:

In modern usage, the trident is often associated by many with the devil’s pitchfork, especially in Christian countries, but it was regarded as a sacred symbol in the past.

What It Used to Mean:

In Greek, the term trident means threefold, and it has long been associated with Poseidon, the god of the sea. Often depicted in the hands of the powerful deity, the trident is regarded as a fearsome weapon that represents power and authority. During the Roman times, it became a popular gladiatorial weapon. By the 17th and 18th centuries, it was used as a weapon in Korean martial arts of the Joseon Dynasty.

Wrapping Up

As we have seen, symbols that have specific meaning today didn’t always symbolize the same thing in the past. Many symbols mean different things for different cultures, but their evolution reveals a lot about the values of the time, both old and new.

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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.