A sym­bol that has a spe­cif­ic mean­ing today did not nec­es­sar­i­ly have the same mean­ing in the past. Many sym­bols have exist­ed for cen­turies, and their mean­ing has changed under the influ­ence of all sorts of events. Oth­ers sim­ply van­ished into obscu­ri­ty until they were returned with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent mean­ing. In this arti­cle, I will tell you about those pop­u­lar sym­bols that have par­tial­ly lost their mean­ing today.

symbols and their meaning

Star of David

The Star of David is the most iden­ti­fi­able sym­bol of Judaism. How­ev­er, unlike ele­ments such as the meno­rah or the sho­far, the star is not tru­ly Jew­ish. Before becom­ing a Jew­ish sym­bol, it fea­tured in Bud­dhism, Hin­duism, and Jain­ism. At the same time, Hin­duism used the star for the longest time. For Hin­dus, it rep­re­sents the ana­ha­ta, the fourth main chakra, the ener­gy point of the body. It is not known whether these sym­bols share a com­mon ori­gin or were con­ceived inde­pen­dent­ly by dif­fer­ent peo­ple. This is a sim­ple hexa­gram — a fig­ure where equi­lat­er­al tri­an­gles are con­nect­ed into a six-point­ed star with a hexa­gon in the mid­dle. Even though the use of the Star of David by the Jew­ish peo­ple dates back cen­turies, it was not offi­cial­ly accept­ed as a sym­bol until 1897.

Ichthys

Most peo­ple rec­og­nize ichthys by anoth­er name. The “Jesus fish” is a com­mon and rather strong Chris­t­ian sym­bol. You can often see her in the form of bumper stick­ers, which is quite cor­rect in terms of his­to­ry. Dur­ing the times when Chris­tians were per­se­cut­ed by the Romans, they often used ichthys as a secret sym­bol to iden­ti­fy each oth­er. Sup­pos­ed­ly, when two strangers met for the first time, one of them drew the first arc of the sym­bol. The oth­er per­son, being a Chris­t­ian, knew to draw the sec­ond one. How­ev­er, var­i­ous pagan cul­tures have been using the sym­bol since before Chris­tian­i­ty even exist­ed. It had many dif­fer­ent mean­ings, most asso­ci­at­ed with abun­dance. The sym­bol belonged to the “Great Moth­er”, and accord­ing to some, sym­bol­ized her womb. For Chris­tian­i­ty, ichthys actu­al­ly dis­ap­peared from com­mon use, but then became pop­u­lar again thanks to par­o­dies such as the “Dar­win fish” that has legs.

Cross of Saint Peter

The cross of St. Peter, or the invert­ed cross, is prob­a­bly the most pow­er­ful anti-Chris­t­ian sym­bol in the world. How­ev­er, he was pre­vi­ous­ly one of the most pow­er­ful pro-Chris­t­ian sym­bols in the world. When Peter was exe­cut­ed, he felt that he was not wor­thy to die like Jesus Christ. He asked to be tor­tured upside down. After that, the invert­ed cross became a sym­bol of humil­i­ty. You can still find the upside down cross on var­i­ous church­es, and this does not mean at all that the peo­ple there wor­ship Satan. The invert­ed cross has only recent­ly come into use as an anti-Chris­t­ian sym­bol. The sym­bol has been fea­tured in hor­ror films such as The Exor­cist and Rose­mary’s Baby, and has also been used in the punk and heavy met­al move­ment, where it stands for anti-author­i­tar­i­an­ism.

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Symbol Skull and Bones

This sym­bol has two known mean­ings that most of us know today. First, the mod­ern mean­ing: poi­son. The sym­bol is placed on chem­i­cals and oth­er harm­ful sub­stances. So peo­ple know not to drink it. The oth­er sym­bol is his­tor­i­cal and refers to pirates. The Jol­ly Roger, the flag of the pirates, is usu­al­ly depict­ed with a skull and cross­bones on it. And this is despite the fact that most pirates actu­al­ly had their own per­son­al ver­sion of the sym­bol. How­ev­er, the Span­ish had pre­vi­ous­ly used the sym­bol to mark ceme­ter­ies. Today you can still find old church­es with skull and cross­bones on them. In fact, the pirates adopt­ed the skull and bones pre­cise­ly because of their asso­ci­a­tion with ceme­ter­ies.

barber pole

The tra­di­tion­al design of the bar­ber pole is a spi­ral of red and white stripes. The red stripe sym­bol­izes blood. Through­out his­to­ry, bar­bers have done much more than cut hair and shave. Many were also sur­geons, and their num­ber one pro­ce­dure was blood­let­ting. Peo­ple thought they could free them­selves from dis­ease by bleed­ing, and this tech­nique was very crude and not ster­ile at the time. Bar­bers soaked up the blood with clean ban­dages or tow­els. Lat­er, they often hung these ban­dages out­side for pub­lic­i­ty. If it was windy out­side, then the ban­dages wrapped around the counter, and this sym­bol appeared from here.

“Ok” symbol

For many, the afore­men­tioned ges­ture sym­bol means “okay”, or “I’m fine”, or “I agree”. How­ev­er, you should avoid using this ges­ture abroad because it is not viewed as favor­ably in some coun­tries.

In most coun­tries, the sym­bol will mean noth­ing at all, but in some Euro­pean coun­tries, the ges­ture is offen­sive. Thus, it can be hint­ed there that the per­son to whom it is direct­ed is “zero”. Things are even worse in sev­er­al Mediter­ranean and South Amer­i­can coun­tries, where it is a sym­bol of the anus.
Regard­less, the ges­ture does have an ancient pos­i­tive con­no­ta­tion. This mudra is a rit­u­al ges­ture in Bud­dhism and Hin­duism. The sign sym­bol­izes learn­ing and many Bud­dhist exhibits depict the Bud­dha with this ges­ture.

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Goat gesture

Nowa­days, the goat, or dev­il’s horns, is the main ges­ture at any heavy met­al con­cert. And so it has been for many decades. Ron­nie James Dio pop­u­lar­ized the use of the goat in his con­certs. You will be sur­prised to know that such a ges­ture dates back cen­turies and is not at all satan­ic. This is actu­al­ly a super­sti­tious ges­ture, orig­i­nal­ly called the “corn”. Ron­nie learned the true mean­ing of the sym­bol from his grand­moth­er. Like the Ok sym­bol, the horns of the dev­il rep­re­sent an ancient mudra, a ges­ture that ward­ed off evil. But in some coun­tries it has a vul­gar mean­ing. If you go to the Baltic coun­tries and send a goat to some­one, then you con­vey your not entire­ly flat­ter­ing atti­tude to the addressee.

Caduceus

The caduceus is often used by health orga­ni­za­tions or med­ical pro­fes­sion­als. He is depict­ed as a staff with wings and two snakes wrapped around him. How­ev­er, every time you see a caduceus, you are look­ing for an error. The staff of Her­mes in med­ical con­texts is con­fused with the rod of Ascle­pius, with­out wings and with just one coiled snake. Ascle­pius was the ancient Greek god of med­i­cine and heal­ing, so it makes sense to use his sym­bol for health­care.

A symbol of peace

Most of us strong­ly asso­ciate this sym­bol with the coun­ter­cul­ture and hip­pie move­ment of the 1960s. Unlike the oth­er sym­bols on this list, the peace sym­bol is not of ancient ori­gin. Ger­ald Holtom cre­at­ed it for a sin­gle pur­pose, now for­got­ten. He want­ed to con­vey the mes­sage of British nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment to the world. Accord­ing to Holtom him­self, the draw­ing rep­re­sents the man him­self in despair, fright­ened by the nuclear race and the threat of the col­lapse of the world. Lat­er, he styl­ized the sym­bol using sev­er­al lines and drew a cir­cle around it.

For decades, the sym­bol remained pop­u­lar because Holtom nev­er copy­right­ed it. The sym­bol became a spe­cial way of sym­bol­iz­ing free­dom, and even­tu­al­ly it came to mean the world. There have been attempts to link the sym­bol to old­er and dark­er ori­gins such as satan­ic bro­ken cross­es or Nazi signs, but all sim­i­lar­i­ties here are actu­al­ly coin­ci­den­tal.

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Swastika symbol

Many peo­ple in West­ern coun­tries have trou­ble asso­ci­at­ing the swasti­ka with any­thing oth­er than the Nazis. In fact, the swasti­ka (also known as the gam­ma­dion cross) is a tru­ly uni­ver­sal sym­bol and one of the old­est signs in the world with a deep mean­ing. It was used in ancient reli­gions such as Bud­dhism, Hin­duism and Jain­ism. The swasti­ka was revered by many ancient civ­i­liza­tions such as the Greeks, Egyp­tians, Romans and Celts. She is even depict­ed on ancient pot­tery that pre­dates record­ed his­to­ry.

Some old­er descrip­tions of the swasti­ka appear in Hin­duism, where it was the sym­bol of the god Vish­nu. In fact, it is still often used in Hin­duism and Bud­dhism. The sign can have dif­fer­ent mean­ings, depend­ing on the direc­tion of rota­tion: clock­wise is the sym­bol of Vish­nu, and coun­ter­clock­wise is the sym­bol of Kali. The swasti­ka has had many uses in mod­ern times, pri­or to its asso­ci­a­tion with the Nazi move­ment. It has been used by an old laun­dry in Ire­land, by the Dan­ish brew­ers Carls­berg and even by the Finnish and Lat­vian Air Forces.