Swastika Symbol: History of its usage and meaning across the world
Over the past three millennia years or so, the Swastika symbol has taken different styles and meanings across many cultures over the world. Find out more about the meaning and history of swastika symbol from around the world.
Why was it found across several ancient cultures?
The ubiquitous appearance of the swastika symbol across the world is staggering. On virtually all the continents of the world, archaeologists have discovered the swastika symbol in one form or the other. Many of those discoveries date back thousands and thousands of years ago. Ancient cultures either used them for decorative or religious purposes. For years, modern historians have pondered why the symbol was such a staple in so many ancient cultures and civilizations.
Carl Sagan’s 1985 book Comet states that a comet may have flown so close to the earth in ancient times that it was made very visible to the inhabitants of the earth. And it was possible that the comet’s rotation was shaped almost like a swastika. He picked up the idea from a Han-dynasty manuscript from the 2nd century BCE.
Where was it used?
It has been estimated that the usage of the swastika symbol goes back more than three millennia ago. It has featured in countries such as Nepal, India, Mongolia and China. It has also appeared in Japan, Greece, Celtic communities, West African tribes, and Native American clans (Maya and Navajo people). Alchemists at one point even used the symbol. So did pre-Christians as well as Byzantine societies.
In Hindu culture, the swastika originates from the Sanskrit word Svástika, which means “conducive to well-being”. It is often used in homes, hanged before entrances and doorways to temples. As a sign of luck, it is used during wedding ceremonies or naming ceremonies for newborns. Both the clockwise and counterclockwise iterations feature; however, the counterclockwise swastika (sauvastika) is less used owing to its slightly negative associations.
In Jainism, the symbol is associated with Suparshvanatha – the seventeenth of twenty-four Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers or saviours). The symbol has also been seen as one of eight auspicious symbols. Many Jain temples and holy books have the swastika symbol, which represents the four places where the soul could be reborn. Those four places are svarga (heaven), naraka (hell), manushya (humanity), and tiryancha (flora/fauna).
In China and Japan, the symbol is commonly associated with the number 10,000, implying abundance and riches.
Buddhists on the other hand believe that the arms on the swastika are the footprints of the Buddha. They also tend to sculpt the symbol on their temples and worship sites. Tibetan Buddhists often use the symbol on their garments and other spiritual clothes.
In Indo-European cultures, the symbol was associated with the lightning bolts of thunder gods such as Zeus in ancient Greek religion; Jupiter in ancient Rome and; Indra in Vedic Hinduism. Similarly, the Norse god Thor and his hammer in ancient Germanic religion were linked to the right-facing swastika symbol.
In ancient Greece, the swastika, which was called tetraskelion in Greek, takes the form of horses with a circle in the center. The circle represents the sun. The ancient Greek god Helios is believed to have dragged the sun with his powerful chariot, which were pulled by four powerful horses – Pyrois, Aeos, Aethon, and Phlegon.
Other places in mainland ancient Europe did not always depict the swastika with arms or horses; some used wings, snakes and other features from nature. For example, the four elements – fire, air, water, and earth – were used in some cases.
In Scandinavian areas, the symbol represented the path dead souls take in the afterlife. Hence, the symbol was commonly found on Scandinavian grave sites.
Native American tribes plastered the symbol across stone structures in places such as present-day New Mexico and Arizona. The symbol to those tribes denoted the origin and destination of their tribes. The center cross represented the center of the world (Tuwanasavil). It also represented the center of the soul. The Hopi clans for example considered themselves the center of the world. They believed that in time the clans moved in four directions – North, South, East, and West. That movement also symbolized the departure from the spiritual realm into the physical realm. However, after the death, the individual returned to the center and became one with Tuwansavil.
In the West African country of Ghana, the swastika constitutes one of the adinkra symbols of the Akan tribe. Called nkontim, the symbol is associated with loyalty and general preparedness for a task.
When was the symbol re-discovered in modern Europe?
The swastika symbol and its accompanying variations featured across Eurasia for millennia. It was not until 19th century that it made a bold entry into mainland Europe, beginning its re-emergency in Germany, England, France and Scandinavia. One man was responsible for the symbol’s resurgence in Europe. He was the German businessman and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Bent on linking the ancestors of modern German to the ancient inhabitants of ancient Troy, Schliemann went on an archaeological trip to the Aegean coast and discovered close to 2,000 ancient artifacts that bore the swastika symbol and other iterations of the hooked cross.
Back then, Europeans spelled it as svastika or suastika. Heinrich Schliemann was also one of the first scholars to shed light on the swastika symbol in his 1871 publications.
Couple with Schliemann’s spectacular discovery was also European’s increased interest in ancient civilizations and religions of the East.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century, there was a growing view that the Germans were somehow connected to the ancestors of Troy. Soon radical and racist groups coined the term, “master race” or “pure race”, which they believed were the inheritors of the ancient Aryan culture – a notion which remains very much discredited to this day.
However, there were also a number of European countries, military and civilian organizations that stuck to the ancient meaning of the symbol – a symbol of well-being and prosperity.
Symbol of Nazi Germany’s hate and crimes against humanity
After World War I, a defeated Germany was in dire need of something or someone to lift them up from the ruins of the Great War. In came the Nazi Party, which espoused the doctrines of a “Master Race” and the “Aryan Identity”. The Nazi Party and other racist organizations such as the Thule Society quickly incorporated the scholarly works of archaeologists and historians on the swastika symbol.
In 1920, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis appropriated the swastika, which would go on to serve as a symbol of Nazi Germany’s nationalist pride. The Nazis designed their flag by incorporating the colors from the German Imperial flag (1871 – 1918), which were red, black, and white.
Some have argued that the symbol used by the Nazi was not an actual swastika. Some authors claim that it was instead a hooked cross (hakenkreuz).Hitler’s Mein Kampf contained no usage of the word “swastika” in an attempt to differentiate the Nazi Party from swastika iterations in Christianity.
By 1933, the Nazi swastika flag was flown side by side with the old German Imperial flag of black, white, and red.
Regardless, the Nazi took a symbol, which was universally associated with peace and auspiciousness, and turned it into one of pure hate and a propagandist ideology of racially “clean” state. The flag quickly spread like wild fire, getting an indelible place on Nazi Party souvenirs, medallions, badges and arm bands of its paramilitary wing. The rest they say is history; the Nazi Party brought down the Weimar Republic and wiggled its way into full control of the country.
Did you know that the Nazi Party and the Communist Party were the only parties to have a political logo?
The Nazi swastika and organizations were outlawed by Allied forces after the Nazis surrendered in 1945. With the exclusion of using it for educational purposes, reproducing Nazi swastika was criminalized in Germany as well as several European countries.
In May 1933, the Nazi regime banned the private usage of all “symbols of German history, of the German state, and of the national revolution”. They feared that unapproved private companies’ usage of the swastika symbol could damage the appeal of the Nazi government.
The Reich Flag Law, which was passed on September 15, 1935, made the swastika flag the official flag of Nazi Germany. Hitler also banned Jews from using the swastika in any form or shape whatsoever.
The swastika symbol today
The symbol remains a very contentious issue in many Western countries. In Germany for example, the swastika remains largely banned, except when used for educational purposes. However, this has not stopped alt-right hate groups from using it to spew hateful speeches and white supremacist ideologies.
Other Interesting Facts about Swastika
- In ancient Mesopotamia, the swastika symbol was a very common feature on coins in the region.
- The school that Hitler went to as a boy had swastika symbols on the buildings. The school was Benedictine school, located in Upper Austria.
- The symbol is found on the seal of the Theosophical Society. The seal is still in use to this day.
- Denmark’s Carlsberg Group frequently used the symbol in its logo from the 19th century to the 1930s when the Nazi Party began to rise.
- The swastika was also related to Hellenic concept of In Hindu cultures, it was seen as the great sacred sound of life and inner self or soul (Atman). Similarly, in Chinese, the swastika inspires notion of the “Great One” known as Taiyi.
- With perhaps the exclusion of Australia, the swastika had been long used in all the continents of the world, from the Akan people in Ghana all the way to the Navajo tribe in the Americas. And in many of those ancient societies, the symbol was often associated with peace and well-being.
- Many historians have stated that the symbol made its appearance in Eurasia as far back as 7000 years ago.
- The swastika symbol has featured in virtually all the major religions of the world (and the ancient world) – i.e. Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, West African traditional religions, Jainism, and Odinism.
- The Nazi Hakenkreuz was a 5 x 5 diagonal grid fitted with uncut legs of crosses.
- Owing to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, usage and propagating of Nazi symbols and swastika are completely legal. This falls under the free speech rights in the United States.
- Before the Nazi Party adopted their iteration of the swastika, the symbol was quite ubiquitous, appearing on a host of things from food to medals to sports jerseys. At one point, Coca-Cola even used it on one of their secondary product. In simple terms, the symbol back then was universally seen in similar light as the four-leaf clover is today.
- Earliest form of the swastika is believed to go back to around 10,000 BCE—it was found on a mammoth ivory in Mezine, Ukraine.
- Post-World War I, an anti-Semitic organization known as the Thule Society was an active player in promoting nationalistic ideologies. They, like the Nazi Party, used the swastika in its logo. Many Thule Society members even went on to join the Nazi Party, sponsoring Hitler’s obnoxious quest for German superiority and the “pure” race.