Symbols can be found everywhere, many established by ancient cultures. They are very much a part of our everyday life, although we have largely forgotten what they represent. The history of these symbols is fascinating, and some say that they can even impart deep understanding and wisdom into our psyche simply by us looking at them.
The thought is that these sacred symbols can speak beyond language, and communicate with our subconscious directly. We have gathered some of the most prolific symbols here with their common meanings. Interestingly some of these cross over more than one tradition. The Flower of Life in particular is seen in many cultures through the ages.
Ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character, often which is thought to represent eternal life, and the regeneration of life through water. It is also known as breath of life, the key of the Nile or crux ansata (“cross with a handle”). The loop at the top represents circulating holy water. The design of the symbol itself can be seen with slight variation in many other ancient cultures.
The Ankh is found in many Egyptian tombs and sarcophagi, as it was a prevalent part of funerals and preparation for the afterlife. Egyptian Gods and Pharaohs were often depicted carrying an Ankh.
It is also suggested that the Ankh was used during sexual practice to harness the regenerating powers of orgasm.
The Bagua (八卦 in Chinese) translates to “eight symbols”. It is used in Daoist cosmology, taiji philosophy, taijiquan and the wu xing.
It consists of eight trigrams, each made up of three lines, which represent the principles of reality. The three lines can be either broken (denoting yin energy) or unbroken (representing yang).
The Bagua is used analyse balance in astronomy, astrology, geography, geomancy, anatomy, the family, and is also used in Feng Shui as a map of health and home. In this instance, each trigram correlates to a specific area – of either a single room, the entire home or business premises, or the health of the individual. The ideal goal is to achieve balance as represented by the Bagua.
The word Bahá’ has a numerical equivalence of 9, according to the to the Abjad system, and therefore this 9 pointed star is frequently used to represent the faith. The number 9 is associated with perfection, unity and Bahá’, as shown in the following quote by Shoghi Effendi, who was head of the religion in 1944.
“Concerning the number nine: the Bahá’ís reverence this for two reasons, first because it is considered by those interested in numbers as the sign of perfection. The second consideration, which is the more important one, is that it is the numerical value of the word “Bahá’”…
“Besides these two significances the number nine has no other meaning. It is, however, enough to make the Bahá’ís use it when an arbitrary number is to be chosen.”
The Caduceus is the traditional symbol of Hermes, who was said to carry it in both Greek and Egyptian mythology. It depicts two snakes winding around a winged staff. This ancient symbol is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius, which is used as a symbol of medicine.
The Caduceus represents the planet Mercury and is used to represent an individual’s own primal life force energy. The snakes, represent Kundalini energy (one masculine and one feminine). As the snakes rise and intertwine as person is filled wth life energy and opens the wings of new life.
Confucianism, represents by this symbol, while often described as a religion is more accurately a system of socio-political and philosophical teachings. Confucius was thought to be the author of the Five Classics which were the basic texts which underpin the system. The five ‘constants’ of the system are humaneness, righteousness, proper rite, knowledge and integrity. These are accompanied by a whole host of other forms of ethical behaviours which are thought to result in social harmony when adhered to.
The sign of the cross, both in symbology and also the gesture of ‘crossing oneself’ has it’s roots in Christianity and is recognised worldwide. It is chosen as it represents the crucifixion of Christ, the well known narrative from the Bible.
The cross represents the power of Jesus, who is said to have died to cleanse the sins of mankind. This is worn as a reminder of that sacrifice. The gesture, where the sign of a cross is made with the hands over the body is used as a form of prayer.
The Buddhist tradition maintains that the path to enlightenment is 8-fold, and these are represents by the spokes of the Dharma Wheel (or dharmachakra) as seen here. It is one of the oldest Buddhist symbols found in Ancient Indian art. The paths are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
It is also used by in Hinduism (as the “Wheel of Time” with 24 spokes representing the 24 hours of the day) and Jainism.
Also known as Double Happy, this is a traditional Chinese ornament design, often used as the symbol of marriage. It is comprised of 2 characters of the Chinese alphabet which translate to ‘Joy’. Double Happy is said to attract a special relationship, romance, and bliss.
It is frequently used in branding today, on everything from jewellery to soy sauce.
Many cultures use the symbol of the Eagle to represent great or eternal spirt. It is particularly prominent in Native American Tradition, where it was thought to be the creator or all, and ruler of the skies.
Earth Medicine Wheel
The Earth Medicine wheel is a Native American symbol, representing harmony and peace between all beings and the four elements of the earth. It is thought to also incorporate spiritual energy and inner vision.
The Christian fish symbol is actually named ichthys or ichthus. It was used as a secret symbol of the Christian religion, although its origins are pagan.
Ichthys was the offspring of the ancient Sea goddess Atargatis, and the symbol was used to represent link to fertility, birth, and the natural force of women.
Fish are mentioned throughout the Gospels, with a few of the disciples being fishermen too. Today the “Jesus Fish” is frequently used as an icon of modern Christianity.
Flower of Life
The Flower of Life is one of the main symbols of sacred geometry, and I urge you to watch this video to explain how it is created. It is found in many many ancient cultures across the Globe and in almost all religions, on architecture, in art, scriptures and more.
The symbol is thought to represent patterns of creation from the earliest beginnings of Earth. The interlocking rings can be connected to equations defining mathematics, medicine, music and the fundamentals of space and time.
It is thought to be a contain the most sacred secrets of the universe…and if you watch the video below you can see why.
The Gayatri Yantra is a symbol of absolute truth, representing the illumined mind and far-sighted wisdom. It also represents a sound, or affirmation which vocalises wisdom about all elements of earth, and everything living on the planet – providing understanding of life and creation.
The Hamsa, a palm shaped amulet, is used by many cultures as a sign of protection especially when combined with the Evil Eye – it wards off those who might do the wearer harm. Hamsa is the Arabic word for five, as shown by the five fingers of the hand.
The Khanda represents the Sikh doctrine Deg Tegh Fateh, and is made up of four weapons. A double-edged khanda (sword) in the centre, a chakkar and two single-edged swords, or kirpan, crossed at the bottom. The weapons represent the dual characteristics of Miri-Piri, which shows integration of spiritual and temporal sovereignty.
The lotus is considered an important symbol in the Buddhist tradition, it is seen as a sign of enlightenment. The petals symbolise harmony, unlimited potential and spiritual illumination. The journey of the lotus lily, as it rises from the sludge at the bottom of the water to realise it’s full glory above the surface is what gives the lotus it’s connection with resurrection and transformation.
It is used to remind us that difficulties will pass, and encourages forgiveness, compassion and gratitude. The lotus also teaches us to remember our roots, and therefore stay humble and grounded. The fact that water slides easily off the petals also teaches us the importance of detachment.
The symbol of Om represents a primordial sound and mantra, which is thought to be the catalyst to creation.
Om can be found in ancient and medieval era manuscripts, temples, monasteries and spiritual retreats in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. When chanted, Om is thought to blend time – past, present and future. The consciousness is said to be freed to remember its state of connection to the infinite source of creation. The symbol represents this all encompassing sound beyond the scope of language.
There are a number of signs and symbols that are used to signify peace. This one is used almost universally, and was originally the logo for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an organisation which encourages unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The Pentacle, or five pointed star inside a circle, with one point aiming upwards is a traditional Wiccan symbol. The upward point of the star is used to represent the spirit, and the other four are related to the elements of earth, air, fire and water.
It is often used during evocation ceremonies to draw energy from the source, and can be worn as a protective talisman.
Shinto is the religion of the people of Japan, which is characterised by public shrines devoted to the worship of many gods. It is described as an action-centred religion made up of repeated practice of set rituals. These rituals are thought to cleanse impurities caused by wrong thoughts and deeds.
The snake is one of the most established spiritual symbols known, worshipped in some religions and detested in others. In Christianity the snake was help responsible for luring Eve to eat the forbidden fruit – which changed the entire course of mankind. While in Eastern cultures, the snake is considered to be a symbol of regeneration, death and rebirth.
The spiral is another ancient sign that has been used in many spiritual practices through the ages. It is often used to represent the goddess, the womb and fertility – as it reflects the pattern of new growth in its shape.
The Fibonacci spiral is found frequently in the natural world, in minerals, plants, human biology, weather and much more. This symbol is thought to connect us to the source of all life and energy.
Star and Crescent
The Star and Crescent combination has been used in many symbols throughout ancient civilisations. It was used as the national symbol for the Ottoman Empire during the 19th Century and since the 1950s was embraced as the symbol of Islam and the Muslim community.
Star of David
The Star of David, originally named the Shield of David, is a Jewish symbol, symbolising the connection between God and Man. The centre of the star represents the heart of power.
It is also used in Kabbalistic practices, signifying the union of opposites, with spiritual energies of heaven pointing down, and man pointing up.
Tree of Life
The Tree Of Life is a symbol that can be found in many contexts throughout time. Mythology, philosophy and religion in many cultures place huge importance on the tree as a connection between the four earthly elements and the infinite source of energy.
With roots reaching deep into the Earth and branches stretching upwards to the skies…heaven, the universe, it is no wonder that it is considered this way. Many connect trees with the death and rebirth cycles of life.
The trial spiral, or triade is a symbol that is found in ancient Celtic folklore and architecture. It is created using a single continuous line, which represents the movement of time. It is thought to relate to the elements of earth, water and ski – body, mind and spirit.
Yin Yang is a well known Taoist symbol representing the flow of opposing primal forces in the universe – good and evil – or darkness and light.
Yin is passive, cold, receptive feminine energy and Yang is masculine, movement, force and heat. They maintain a balance between opposites, and each contain a little of the other within. Together they are in harmony, the dual forces in unity.
These symbols are some of the best known, although the meanings are frequently shrouded in mystery. It is fascinating to uncover their secrets. Are there any that we have missed? Please let us know in the comments. We would love to hear from you.