From pigments to printing presses, symbols have been part of human communication from the very first day of mankind’s existence. The imperfection of speech, which undoubtedly allowed the sharing of ideas and stimulated invention, eventually resulted in the creation of new forms of communication, improving both the range at which people could express themselves and the longevity of information.
Nowadays, symbols are so common that we hardly ever wonder how they started. A symbol can tell you more about a person, a group of people, an organization, or even a religion and political ideology than a thousand words. Most of us are perfectly aware of what certain symbols represent and in many cases a single hand gesture or salute is enough to give you a clear message. Each December, for example, millions of people worldwide decorate their houses with mistletoe and kiss beneath it. The original meaning of this plant, however, had nothing to do with kissing or Christmas. Ancient Norse myth, where the mistletoe originates, saw mistletoe as a symbol of ritual castration.
Here are ten more symbols from antiquity that probably don’t represent what most of us may think they do in modern times.
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The Middle Finger
It’s unnecessary to explain the modern meaning of this highly disrespectful gesture since pretty much everyone knows it already. But you may not have been aware that this symbol goes back to ancient Greece. Though it wasn’t seen as offensive or hostile then, like it is today, it was associated with sexual intercourse and fertility. Specifically, it represented a phallus.
Herm with erect phallus. Marble, ca. 520 BC. From Siphnos. (Ricardo André Frantz/CC BY SA 3.0)
A thumbs-up is another popular hand gesture of our times whose real meaning and origin few people know. Depending on whether the thumb is extended up or down it is seen as a representation of approval or disapproval respectively. Today this symbol has little connection to its origins, when it voted to save the life (or not) of a Roman gladiator. As many of you have probably seen in films, Roman crowds used this hand gesture at the end of a gladiatorial event to decide whether a defeated gladiator should live or die.
‘Pollice Verso’, 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum). (Public Domain)
The pentagram is the simplest regular star polygon and it was associated with the golden ratio and architectural perfection in ancient Greece. Nowadays, however, most people think of evil and black magic when they see a pentagram – since the symbol ended up linked to Satanism.
Image of a human body in a pentagram from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘Libri tres de occulta philosophia.’ Symbols of the sun and moon are in center, while the other five classical “planets” are around the edge. (Public Domain)
The V Sign
The V sign is a hand gesture that people widely use nowadays to show their peaceful intentions or to express victory. The origin of this sign, however, has nothing to do with peace or victory. It dates back to the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) when English archers used to taunt their French enemies by raising their two fingers, well only if they had both, that is, since any English archer caught by the French usually had his index and middle fingers chopped off his right hand, ensuring that he wouldn’t be able to kill another French soldier in battle.
Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous ‘V’ sign. (Public Domain)
The Heart Shape
The heart shape is a symbol that today is strictly associated with love, romantic relationships, and most recently Valentine’s Day. But in ancient Greece it had nothing to do with these things. We first meet the heart shape as a symbol for silphium, a species of giant fennel that once grew on the North African coast near the Greek colony of Cyrene. The ancient Greeks first used silphium to flavor food and as a medicine, but it would later become the most popular form of birth control.
Silphium integrifolium. (Public Domain)
The Barber Pole
You probably don’t know this, but the colors on the old-fashioned, almost iconic barber pole are not random. They symbolize a bloody legacy from the medieval period, when people went to barbers not just for a haircut and a shave but also for bloodletting and other medical procedures. See, during the Middle Ages bloodletting was a common treatment for a wide range of diseases and apparently barbers were as trusted as physicians to carry out the procedure.
16th century barber-dentist. (Public Domain) During the Middle Ages bloodletting was performed by barbers and physicians.
The Devil’s Horns
Most of us think of hard rock music when we see the devil’s horns, but this symbol’s history goes all the way back to ancient India where it was used as a gesture by the Buddha to expel demons and remove obstacles such as illness or negative thoughts.
Devil’s horns hand sign. (Ra Boe/CC BY SA 3.0)
The “Two-fingered Salute”
The two-fingered salute—not to be confused with the V sign—is not a popular way to salute someone but some people will do it, mostly instinctively. Regardless of how it is viewed today, this hand gesture goes back to ancient Rome, where defeated gladiators used it to ask for mercy from the Lord of the Arena.
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Spartacus performing a “Two-fingered salute.” (Taringa!)
Mudras (Hand Gestures)
It might sound ridiculously funny to those who happen to know the origin of mudras, but there are indeed many people, especially in the United States, who think that some of the mudras originated in American ghettos and represent certain gangs like the Bloods or Crips. Of course, the original mudras have nothing to do with violence or gangs and they originated in India where they symbolize peace, harmony, and good mental health, among other positive things.
A popular mudra. (CC0)
In most parts of the West, the swastika is synonymous with Nazism, fascism, and racism, but in reality this symbol of good fortune and well-being has been a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eurasian religions for the past twelve thousand years.
A collage of swastika styles found in four different cultures. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Top Image: Acollection of ancient signs and symbols: Buddha’s hands forming a mudra. (CC BY SA 3.0) A heart. (Public Domain) Devil’s horns hand sign. (Ra Boe/CC BY SA 3.0) Thumbs up and down. (CC0) A barber’s pole. (Dave Barr/CC BY SA 2.0) A pentagram. (Sam Kelly/CC BY 2.0)
The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (Book). Available at:
J. E. Cirlot. (2014). A Dictionary of Symbols. Available at:
Theodoros Karasavvas. (2016). 25 Modern Symbols That Have Lost Their Original Meaning. Available at:
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