A symbol of well-being and long life. The Ancient Greeks used it to decorate their pots and vases. The ancient Druids and Celts also used the sacred sign, and, in Norse mythology, it represented Thor’s hammer.
The National Museum of the History of Ukraine houses a wide range of objects featuring the symbol. The oldest is probably a very large ivory figurine of a bird, found in 1908, with a form of the symbol on it. It was carbon-dated to 15,000 years ago.
It is found in the tombs of early Christians, in the catacombs of Rome, in the Lalibela Rock Churches of Ethiopia and in the Cathedral of Cordoba.
In Hindu philosophy it is said to represent various things that come in fours – the four Yugas, or cyclical times, the four aims, or objectives, of life, the four stages of life, and the four Vedas. It is even a girl’s name in certain parts of India.
Known as the manji in Japanese, the emblem signifies the Buddha’s footsteps.
In India today, it can often be seen, smeared in turmeric, drawn on thresholds and shop doors as a sign of welcome, or on vehicles, religious scriptures and letterheads. It is displayed at weddings and other festive occasions, to consecrate a new home, and even appears in the opening of account books at the beginning of the financial year, or starting a new venture.
In the early 20th Century, it was widely used in Europe as a symbol of good luck. The Danish brewing company Carlsberg, headquartered in Copenhagen, used the symbol as its logo from 1881 to the 1930s.
Until recently, the Finnish Air Force used it as an insignia on its badges. Rudyard Kipling featured the symbol on many of his book covers, because of his association with India. It was used as a symbol by the Boy Scouts in Britain until 1935 – like Kipling, Robert Baden Powell the founder of the Boy Scouts, may have picked it up in India. For the Navajo people in the US, it was a symbol of friendship.
Why, then, is it associated with evil, genocide, racial hatred and atrocities. Today, it is the antithesis of a symbol of well-being and long life.
The equilateral cross with legs bent at right angles – that looks like swirling arms or a pattern of L shapes – is the swastika.
When Adolf Hitler was looking for a symbol for his newly launched party, he used the hakenkreuz, rotating the swastika to the right and omitting the four dots. He then adopted it as the party’s emblem in 1920. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, passed a law in May 1933 that prevented any unauthorized commercial use of the hooked cross.
It has been suggested that Hitler’s adoption of the symbol may have had its roots in Germans finding similarity between their language and Sanskrit, and drawing a conclusion that Indians and Germans came from the same pure Aryan ancestry and lineage. During his extensive excavations in 1871, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered 1,800 variations of the hooked cross on pottery fragments at the site of ancient Troy, which were similar to artifacts from German history. The Nazis saw this as evidence for a racial continuity and proof that the inhabitants of the site had been Aryan all along.
The word swastika does come from the Sanskrit roots su (good) and asti (to prevail), meaning well-being, prosperity or good fortune. But over the decades, the swastika has become a contentious and controversial cultural icon. In his book The Swastika and Symbols of Hate, Heller says: “The swastika is an ancient symbol that was hijacked and perverted, twisted into the graphic embodiment of intolerance.” In many European countries, including Germany, public display of Nazi symbols is prohibited by law, and violating such terms is a criminal offense.
As Brian Levin puts it: “Unfortunately, but rightly, the most recent and widespread use of the swastika as a symbol of Nazi hatred and genocide will forever cast an indelible shadow over its lengthy history.” A symbol of well-being and long life gone bad.
Levin goes on to state a very important concept. He notes, even recommends that expanding our teaching of history and civics should incorporate not only the origins of symbols, but how they can be co-opted and rebranded to the most evil of ends. I would, perhaps, add that the resurrection of the teaching of history at all levels of schooling would help us learn from the past and, therefore, better plan for the future, symbols included.
If I may ask my audience, what other symbols can you think of that have been hijacked for narrow, and often nefarious, purposes? It would be interesting to hear from you.