A symbol is a device that conveys meaning or an idea in visual form. Symbols are often found in visual sources from the past, where they are used to identify particular people or groups, or convey certain ideas, qualities or meanings.
Some symbols are obvious and well known, such as the crucifix (a symbol of Christianity), the hammer and sickle (a symbol of communism or the Soviet Union) or the Union Jack (a symbol of Great Britain). Other symbols are less well known or more subtle in their meanings.
Students of history should familiarise themselves with what symbols are and how they are used in historical sources. It’s also worth learning some common historical symbols. This page contains brief descriptions of some symbols common in historical sources. If there is a symbol not listed here that you think should be, please let us know. For more information about symbols in historical sources, please visit this page.
Britannia represents Britain or the British people in female form. She is usually depicted as a young maiden or middle-aged woman, dressed in long stately robes, dignified or queen-like in her posture.
Britannia is often shown holding or seated alongside other symbols, such as the Union Jack (Britain), a lion (power) or a trident (domination of the seas). She sometimes sports symbols of military strength, like the Corinthian helmet, a shield, sword or lance.
Britannia was first used as the female personification of Britain in the 1600s. Since then she has appeared in art, political propaganda and cartoons, as well as on British stamps and coins.
Clothing or costumes are a common visual symbol employed in historical sources. Artists and propagandists use clothing to identify particular individuals, groups or classes.
In French revolutionary art, for example, royalty and the Second Estate (nobility) are depicted wearing culottes (knee-length breeches) with stockings on their lower legs. The urban radicals who emerged later in the revolution became known as the sans culottes because they wore long trousers.
When examining visual sources depicting people, pay some attention to what each is wearing. Consider also the colours of their clothing and any regalia, decorations or objects attached to it. By studying costume, students should be able to identify whether these people belong to royalty, nobility, the middle classes, religious orders, the rural peasantry, the industrial workforce or the military.
A cockade is a knot or tightly drawn bow, made entirely of ribbons. A cockade is worn on the lapel or breast of a coat or tunic, or the side of one’s hat.
Most cockades look similar: it is their colours that give them meaning and significance. The colours of a cockade can denote rank, status, connection with a particular group or region, or allegiance to a particular movement or idea.
Cockades were most commonly used during the 18th and early 19th centuries. They were particularly in vogue during the French Revolution, where participants used cockades to publicise their political loyalties. Probably the best-known cockade of this period used the tricolour (red, white and blue) to depict both national unity and support for the revolution. Some countries, such as the United States, still use coloured cockades during election campaigns.
Colours often have symbolic or political meanings. White, for example, has been used to represent royalty, purity, innocence or wisdom. Blue has been a colour of mourning, of the working class and, from the 18th century, military uniforms. Green has been used to symbolise nature, rebirth, fertility, youth and inexperience; it was also the colour worn by medieval merchants and bankers.
In ancient times through to the Middle Ages, the colour red was a sign of prosperity and wealth; by the late 18th century it had come to represent liberty and freedom, the working classes and, later, socialism.
National flags often employ symbolic colours – such as red, white and blue – to represent a union between different people or classes.
Columns or pillars are the vertical supports within a building that carry the weight of its roof or upper levels. They are most commonly found in older structures, such as temples, mansions or public buildings. Columns were also decorative as well as functional; their design was often based on ancient patterns and styles.
As symbols, columns are most commonly used to represent strength and stability. Because many columns are needed to hold up a building, columns are sometimes used to suggest co-operation or unity.
Columns can also be used to represent tradition or history (based on the principle that modern society is held up by its traditions). When columns are depicted in a broken or shattered state, this can suggest either a lack of unity or the destruction of old ideas in favour of progress.
A cornucopia is a large horn-shaped wicker basket or container, filled to overflowing with different foods, particularly colourful fruits and vegetables. Its name is derived from the Greek words cornu (horn) and copia (plenty). The cornucopia is a symbol of abundance, prosperity and fertility. It is sometimes used to represent spring or the harvest period.
Cornucopias can be found in ancient Greek and Jewish symbology, as well as in Western art, where they usually represent great economic success or good fortune. They have sometimes been used as political symbols. A cornucopia, for example, can be found on several American state flags and in the coat of arms of Victoria, Australia.
Crowns are associated with kings, royalty and leadership. Crowns come in many forms. They can be simple, capless headpieces – or more ornate devices made of precious metals, gemstones and velvet. Some crowns contain other symbols, such as crosses, crucifixes, oak leaves or fleurs-de-lys.
Crowns are largely symbolic devices. In practice, they are rarely worn by kings and queens, except for coronations and other ceremonial occasions.
As a historical symbol, crowns can have many meanings. They most commonly represent power, authority, victory or triumph. In art and propaganda, crowns usually denote the monarch or monarchical government. If a crown is shown as broken, dented or crushed underfoot, it usually symbolises the collapse or destruction of monarchy.
Devils and demons
The Devil (also known as Satan or Beelzebub) and demons are common symbols in historical sources. They are usually depicted with animalistic features, such as horns, wings, hooves and tails.
These figures are most often found in medieval imagery, where they symbolise evil, mortal sins, sexual temptation, promiscuity or imminent disaster. Being masters of deceit, devils and demons can also represent dishonesty or trickery. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Devil was often depicted as the ‘Evil Genius’. The Evil Genius was a philosophical rather than religious figure and represented temptation, a lack of conscience, bad advice or poor decision-making.
Dogs are loyal, affectionate and honest pets, qualities that have earned them the epithet “man’s best friend”.
Dogs have appeared in art since ancient and medieval times. When dogs appear in political imagery they usually symbolise qualities such as fidelity, loyalty, trust and friendship. They can also be used to represent strength, service and watchfulness.
In the American Revolution era engraving The Bloody Massacre (Paul Revere, 1770), a dog is shown standing at the feet of his master, who has been shot dead by British soldiers. In the 18th century, some satirical cartoons or engravings showed dogs urinating, as a means of symbolising distrust, disloyalty or scorn.
Dragons are mythical reptilian or snake-like creatures, usually depicted with wings and the ability to breathe fire. Dragons are a common symbol in civilisations and cultures around the world. The symbolic meaning of dragons varies. In Asian civilisations, such as China, dragons are benevolent figures representing wisdom, power and magic. In European and Christian civilisations, dragons were depicted as monstrous and destructive creatures who inhabited isolated or unknown places (medieval maps sometimes showed dragons in uncharted regions). Perhaps the most famous European representation of dragons is the mythical story of Saint George, the Christian soldier who killed a dragon that was terrorising a nearby village. Today dragons sometimes appear in national iconographies, such as the famous red dragon on the national flag of Wales.
The eagle is one of the most common of all historical symbols. Eagles have been used to suggest many noble or admirable qualities, including royalty, leadership, power, strength, courage and wisdom. Because of their ability to fly over a wide area, eagles have also been used as a symbol of empire or imperial rule. The standards of ancient Rome, for example, were topped by a golden eagle. The double-headed eagle is a European symbol that suggests devotion both to imperial power and religious faith. It has been used by a number of empires and dynasties, including the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, Tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eagles continue to be used in modern symbology, often in combination with other symbols.
The fasces is a symbolic object comprised of many small wooden rods, tightly bound together. An axehead is often depicted attached to the side. The fasces emanates from ancient Rome, where it was used as a symbol of political authority. In the modern world, it has come to represent strength from unity, the power of government backed by the people. One thin rod may snap or bend easily – but many thin rods, when bound together as the fasces, are strong and difficult to break. Not only that, the fasces – like the state- can be held, controlled and wielded by a single ruler. In the 1920s the fasces was used by the followers of Benito Mussolini, an Italian nationalist leader. Mussolini drew on it when naming his ideology and movement: fascism. Many American political institutions use the fasces in their symbols or livery, including the US Congress, White House and Supreme Court.
Flags are visual devices that represent a nation, state or political movement. Most flags use a design that draws on political and historical symbolism. The United States national flag, for example, features the national colours (red, white and blue) and contains 50 stars (one for each of the current American states) and 13 stripes (one for each of the original states). The British ‘Union Jack’ flag is a composite design that combines symbols of England (St George’s Cross), Scotland (St Andrew’s Cross) and Ireland (St Patrick’s Cross). The former flag of the Soviet Union and the current People’s Republic of China flag feature communist symbols, namely the hammer and sickle and stars on a red background. The Australian flag contains a British flag, the Southern Cross and a seven-pointed star, representing its states and territories.
Usually depicted on a red background, the crossed hammer and sickle is a symbol of communism. It was conceived by Soviet artists during the early 20th century and is now known worldwide. It represents unity or cooperation between the industrial workforce (the hammer) and agricultural farmers or peasants (the sickle). Some early forms used a hammer and plough, or a plough and a sword before the hammer and sickle came into regular use after the Russian Revolution (1917). It appeared on the national flag of the Soviet Union, the Soviet coat of arms and Soviet awards, medals and other regalia. The hammer and sickle were also used by communist nations in Asia and eastern Europe, including China, Vietnam and Laos. Many communist parties continue to use it as a symbol.
Lady Liberty – also known as Miss Liberty or simply Liberty – is a female representation of America, the American people or American freedom. Lady Liberty began as an American adaptation of the goddess Liberty and Britannia. Unlike her British counterpart, however, Lady Liberty usually appears as a maiden or younger woman. She is often depicted with other nationalist symbols, such as an American flag, Native Americans and eagles. She is also shown bearing symbols of freedom, such as the liberty cap and pole, or with military symbols. Though earlier examples can be found, Lady Liberty came into wide use as an American symbol in the early 1800s. The most famous adaptation of this figure is the Statue of Liberty, which stands on an island in New York Harbour.
The Liberty cap, sometimes known as a Phrygian cap or bonnet, is a symbol of freedom. It generally appears as a distinctively shaped capless bonnet, usually made of red felt. It can be worn by a person, carried atop a pole or stand on its own. The symbolism of the liberty cap dates back to ancient Rome, where Phrygian caps were reportedly awarded to liberated slaves, to denote their status as free men. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Phrygian cap was adopted as a symbol by several freedom-seeking movements. It was particularly prevalent during the American and French Revolutions, appearing frequently in propaganda. The United States Senate and Department of the Army both utilise the Phrygian cap in their official seals.
Like the eagle, the lion is one of the most common symbols found in historical sources. Lion symbols have been used by a great many civilisations in Africa, Europe and Asia – including places where lions themselves are not actually found. Perhaps the most common use of lions as symbols can be found in European heraldry. Lion can also be found in art, sculpture, architecture and political propaganda, particularly in Europe and Asia. They are most often used to depict royalty (the lion being ‘king of the jungle’), authority, strength and power. Lions can also symbolise other virtues, such as courage, wisdom, grace and gentleness. Lions feature in the royal coat of arms of England and on the flags and national symbols of several other nations.
Military objects, such as weapons and armour, often appear as symbols in historical sources. As might be expected they represent military prowess, protection, strength and security. Swords generally appear as symbols of strength and power – but they can also represent royal or political authority (for example, King Arthur’s Excalibur), fidelity, liberty and religious piety. Shields are symbols of defence, protection, freedom or trust. Axes can serve as symbols of military power, destruction or renewal. The bow and arrow represent military prowess, skill, accuracy and progress. If military objects are shown at rest or on the ground, this usually represents the end of conflict, peace or victory. When they are depicted as shattered or broken it is a symbol of defeat or surrender.
National symbols are associated with a particular country or nation. These symbols usually draw on some aspect of that nation’s history, culture or fauna. England, for instance, is often depicted as the female Britannia, or as John Bull, a stout patriotic Englishman sporting a top hat and Union Jack clothing. The United States has been variously represented by the bald eagle, Native American tribesmen or Uncle Sam (see right). Russia is usually depicted as a large bear (a symbol of great strength limited by slow speed) or sometimes a bearded peasant. France can be represented by the female figure Marianne or, more derisively, by frogs.
The snake or serpent is one of the oldest symbols in human history. Snakes have been used to symbolise many values and qualities, both positive and negative. Snakes can represent danger, deceit or treachery, something that stems from the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Because snakes are prolific and shed their skin, they have been used as a symbol of fertility and rebirth. Snakes can also be a symbol of medicine; they feature in the Rod of Asclepius and the caduceus, both symbols of modern healthcare professions (see picture). With no eyelids and the ability to strike if disturbed or stepped on, snakes can also be a symbol of guardianship, watchfulness and defence.
The swastika is a symbol with ancient origins, beginning on the Indian subcontinent. It is an equilateral cross with its arms bent at a 90 degree angle. The swastika was used as a religious symbol by several ancient civilisations, most notably Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. The name swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘lucky’. In medieval Europe the swastika was used in churches and as a decorative symbol or good luck charm. Many people, however, know the swastika only as a symbol of Nazism. In the early 1920s Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi Party) incorporated the swastika into the Hakenkreuz, a black swastika in a white circle atop a red background. The Hakenkreuz became the Nazi movement’s most visible emblem and transformed the meaning of the swastika, particularly in Western countries.