A Zuni articraft with the sunface

The Importance of Ancient Symbols and Their Meanings

The world is home to millions of symbols. Symbols could be signs, marks or words that signify a deeper meaning than what meets the eye. Going beyond what is simply visible, symbols create links between otherwise completely different concepts, enable us to understand the world we live in, serve as vehicles for complex communications carrying multiple meanings. Different cultures and groups use symbols to denote their background. Cultural migration has now carried symbols far and wide from their place of origin.

Camunian Rose Symbol

The Camunian Rose symbol. Credit: Wikiwand

The Camunain Rose or the Italian Rosa Camuna was a symbol that was found in the rock carvings of Val Camonica (Brescia, Italy.) The symbol consists of a closed line wrapped around nine different cup marks. 84 rose symbols were found on 27 rocks at Val Camonica. There were three different shapes of the symbols- symmetrical, asymmetrical and swastika. The symbol came to be called Rosa Camuna in Italian as it resembles a flower.  

Archaeologists have determined that the swastika shape was the oldest. Various theories have been propounded by archaeologists about the meaning of the Camunian Rose. One of them states that the symbol was a religious solar symbol linked to the astral movement. According to another theory, the rose symbol is an ancient compass. Over the centuries, it has developed into a symbol that denotes positive power and can bring good luck and a long life.


The labyrinth symbol. Credit: Ancient Symbols

Labyrinth symbols were first found in Minoan palaces and usually accompanied the drawings of female goddesses. The Labyrinth is a circular maze and, during ancient times, it was a symbol of power. The word ‘labyrinth’ comes from the ancient pre-Greek word ‘ labrys,’ meaning ‘double-edged axe.’

Other than representing power during ancient times, the labyrinth symbol has other connotations too. Since the symbol itself is a complicated maze, it was used as a snare to capture evil spirits. The maze also meant a path when it was used in dances or rituals. The labyrinth has one entrance and a centre, so it also denotes the long and obstacle-filled path one takes to commune with God. The entrance stood for birth and the centre signified god.

Modern times have given us another set of beliefs about labyrinths. People use the symbol in meditation by walking around in circles, which will lead to a contemplative state and enable them to attain enlightenment. Another meaning behind the labyrinth is that it represents wholeness, which is achieved through the circles and the journey around them. For some people, the journey is a path to discover oneself and their centre. The complicated maze is also a pattern of sacred geometry, which allows the world to communicate with the spiritual realm.

Hammer and Sickle Symbol

The hammer and sickle. Credit: Wikipedia

The hammer and sickle are the symbols of communism. It represents the unity of the working class and the rural peasantry. The hammer stands for the industrial workers and the sickle for the agrarian ones. The symbol was born during the Russian Revolution and glorified the changing regime. It was a symbol of reinventing social order. Since the hammer and sickle symbol aimed to bring the working class to the forefront, it soon replaced the imperial images that had become embedded in the public for generations, thus capturing the ethos of the rebellion.

While the basic meaning behind the symbol remains the same, variations and extensions were added. The hammer denoted power and the sickle stood for efficiency, so the workers’ union signified the combination of power and efficiency. The symbol also denotes gender equality when used in the context of gender. The hammer stood for men and the sickle for women, and together, they emphasized the importance of men and women working together to improve society. Another meaning for the symbol is that while the hammer stands for city and urbanity, the sickle represents the village and rural backwardness. When combined, they signify the harmony between both. 

In 1924, Soviet Russia adopted the hammer and sickle symbol as its official symbol. Over the years, it has gained worldwide recognition.

Nautilus shell Symbol

The nautilus shell symbol. Credit: Dreamstime.com

The Nautilus is a water creature with a beautiful shell. It is one of the best natural examples of a logarithmic spiral. The Nautilus shell is the only shell that survived beyond the dinosaur era, due to its strength and ability to withstand high pressure. So this living fossil came to represent strength.

Besides strength, the Nautilus also stands for beauty and perfection. Unlike other creatures, the design or shape of the shell has not evolved. Each chamber in the shell follows the Fibonacci sequence, while the shape of the shell approximates a Phi spiral (believed to be an important aspect in Sacred Geometry.)

Lotus Carrying Namam

Lotus Carrying Namam. Credit: Ancient Symbols

Since the 1940s, the Lotus Carrying Namam has been the symbol of the Ayyavazhi religion (a branch of Hinduism). The lotus stands for the final chakra or crown chakra (chakra is the point of spiritual power in the body), while the flame or Namam denotes the soul or self. Together, it is the symbol of the pure consciousness of the soul.

The lotus has seven leaves below and seven petals pointing in an upward direction. The flower is the Sahasrara or the crown chakra (considered the seventh primary chakra in some tantric yoga traditions) which represents pure consciousness. The Sahasrara is the central chakra from which all the other chakras emanate. The flame or Namam represents the soul.

Rod of Asclepius Symbol

The modern version of the Rod of Asclepius (left) and the ancient version (left). Credit: DailyRounds

The Rod of Asclepius (or Staff of Asclepius) is the international symbol of medicine. This ancient Greek symbol consists of a snake curled around a staff or a tree limb. The symbol is linked with Asclepius, the demigod who was known for his superior medical and healing powers. According to legend, his medical knowledge was acquired through whispering snakes. Snakes can shed their skin and emerge healthier and bigger than before. So, the Rod of Asclepius is an apt representation of a physician’s ability to heal- the staff denotes authority while the snake represents rebirth, rejuvenation and fertility. An added point is that while the venom of the snake is fatal and poisonous, it does have certain medical properties. So the snake also symbolizes the nature of the physician’s work- it deals with life and death, health and sickness. The snake also signifies the dual power of medicine. Depending on the dosage and situation, medicine can either heal or kill.

The Rod of Asclepius isn’t without interpretations either. Some scholars claim that the staff and the snake stand for a parasitic work wound around a stick. In ancient times, one of the most common infections was that of parasitic worms. Physicians would treat this infection by piercing the skin and extracting the worm from inside. This is done by coiling them on a stick or rod. It is believed that the physicians advertised their service by painting a sign with a worm wrapped around a stick.

In the Greco- Roman world, the Temples of Asclepius bore the Rod of Asclepius as they were the healing centres during the time. Later, the symbol was adopted into the world of medicine by doctors.

Valknut Symbol

The Valknut symbol. Credit: Wikipedia

The Valknut symbol is made of three interlocked triangles and has its roots in Norse mythology. Runestones and memorial stones from the Viking Age are engraved with this symbol. Besides this, Germanic objects like cremation urns from the Anglo-Saxon Period also carry the Valknut symbol. While the symbol has existed for centuries, the term ‘Valknut’ is a modern Norwegian invention. The word is made of Old Norse words-‘Valr’ means slain warrior, while ‘knut’ means knot.

There are two types of formations of the Valknut symbol. The Borromean form consists of three triangles that are connected, yet separate. The other form has three triangles in a unicursal form.

While the exact meaning behind this ancient symbol remains unknown, there are theories. One theory states that the Valknut refers to ‘Hrungnir’s Heart’. This theory stems from the fact that the Prose Edda, the 13th-century book, describes Hrungnir the Giant’s heart as made out of stone and it has three corners. Another theory links the symbol with Odin, the Norse god, who has powers to bind and unbind the human mind. In Norse art, there has been evidence of Odin being represented by the Valknut symbol. Other theories believe that the symbol stands for reincarnation and the afterlife. The nine points of the three triangles are linked with the Nine Worlds in Norse mythology. The three triangles denote the three realms- heaven, earth and hell.

Genesa Crystal

The Genesa Crystal. Credit: Genesa Crystal

The Genesa Crystal was created in 1940 by Dr Derald Langham, an agricultural geneticist. It is a geometric circular sculpture holding the full potential for wisdom, infinite love, energy, eternal time and faith. Dr Langham discovered the shape by studying cell development. What he saw was that all living beings had cell development in eight stages. Using the Genesa Crystal during gardening and planting led to the plants growing better and healthier.

The design of the Genesa Crystal consists of four circles woven into a sphere of six squares and eight triangles. It is believed that the crystal has mystical powers that promote physical well-being, harmony, emotional and mental health and increase vital energy. People use life-sized Genesa Crystals during meditation and prayer. Others wear the crystal as a pendant to enhance both physical and spiritual healing.

Hand of Fatima

Symbol of the Hand of Fatima. Credit: Tarot Prophet

The Hand of Fatima is also known as Hamsa, Hamesh hand and the Chamsa. It is an Islamic symbol that honours Fatima Zahra, who was the daughter of Prophet Muhammad and later, the wife of Hazrat Ali. The symbol is an open hand with an eye in the middle of the palm. For centuries, it has been used as an amulet to keep away evil spirits and bring health, happiness and protection. It is hung in doorways and windows and also worn as a pendant.

Since Fatima is seen as pure and without sin, the symbol denotes faith, loyalty, peace, truth and goodness. There are two meanings behind the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima. It is said to represent Fatima’s family- the Prophet, Fatima, Hazrat Ali, and their two children, Hassan and Hussein. Another meaning is that it represents the Five Pillars of Islam- faith, prayer, pilgrimage, fasting and charity.

Other than Islam, the Hand of Fatima is also important to other religions and cultures. The Jews call it the Hand of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron. For Buddhists and Hindus, the five fingers represent the chakras or five senses.

Triple Crescent Moon

The Triple Crescent Moon. Credit: Ancient Symbols

The triple crescent moon symbolizes the Goddess in the Wicca religion of Pagan Witchcraft. The Goddess is the opposite divine cosmic force of the Horned God. The triple crescent moon consists of three moons- the waxing crescent, full moon and waning moon, and it denotes the three stages of womanhood- maiden, mother and crone.

The maiden or the new moon signifies youth, purity, nativity and new beginnings. The new moon invites you to explore your sensuality, spirituality and creativity. The full moon or the mother is an embodiment of love, fertility, patience, responsibility and power. It invites you to master the art of giving and receiving love. The crone or waning moon signifies endings, death, wisdom and acceptance. While pagan belief connects it to the Goddess, the Celts believe that the triple moon symbolizes the three fates- birth, life and death.

Bennu Phoenix Symbol

The Bennu phoenix bird of Ancient Egypt. Credit: Wikipedia

For the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the phoenix, also known as bennu, was a bird of great significance. Descriptions of the bird vary from that of a heron (with a long beak and feathered crests, like Ra and Osiris) to an eagle, a hawk and a yellow wagtail. However, a majority believed that the symbol resembled two common birds found in the Red Sea. One was the grey heron while the other was the goliath heron, slightly bigger than the first one. The bird in the symbol is depicted as wearing the Atef crown of Osiris or the crest of its head will bear the sun disk.

The ancient people believed that the bird was connected to the sun god, Ra, and the rising and setting of the sun. Another legend claims that the phoenix the bird was reborn after it brought its burnt body to Heliopolis (the City of Sun in ancient Egypt.) Other beliefs connect the bird to the Nile and the creation of humans. The bennu had sacred pillars called the ben-ben stones. It is on these stones that the bird rested when the primaeval water of chaos withdrew at the beginning of time. It is believed that the bird’s cry marked the beginning of time and creation.

Sun Face Symbol

A Zuni necklace with a sunface pendant. Credit: Pinterest

For the Zuni people (Native American Pueblo people native to the Zuni River valley), the Sun Face is an important cultural symbol. It represents the Sun Father, one of the three main deities of the Zuni people. The symbol is engraved or painted onto all kinds of Zuni objects, like art pieces, rugs, pottery and jewelry. The Zuni people were primarily agriculturalists and understanding the importance of the sun for agriculture led to them developing a deep understanding of crops and seasons.

The sun stands for abundance, positive energy, hope, stability, peace, hope and happiness. The warmth of the sun made life and growth possible and was believed to bring joy and good fortune to families. So praying and honouring the sun was an integral part of Zuni culture.

While incorporating the symbol in any art, jewelry or crafts, the sun face is designed as a circular motif with its centre representing the face of the sun. The forehead is divided into two parts to symbolize that a person existed both as a unique individual and as part of a family. It also represents the unending cycle of sunrise and sunset.

Importance of ancient symbols

Nearly all cultures and societies have symbols ingrained in their traditions, folklore and religion. The ancient Romans even linked them to magic. Much like written language, symbols are embedded with meaning that enables people or cultures to communicate with one another.

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