This is a gesture known as the Christogram, and is considered the original “sign of the cross.” The fingers are positioned to form the Greek letters ICXC, an abbreviation of the Greek name of Christ: IHCOYC XRICTOC. This gesture is ubiquitous in Renaissance images of Christ and the apostles, as well as in portraits of Saints and clergy.

The Christogram is used today as a traditional gesture of blessing by priests in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Curiously, the same gesture is known in Hindu and Buddhist traditions as the prana mudra, a symbol of healing.


Hans Memling, Christ blessing

Related Symbols:


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The Shamrock is the ubiquitous symbol of all things Irish. Although today it is usually regarded as a simple good luck charm or a St. Patrick’s day decoration, it is one of the oldest Celtic symbols.

The shamrock is a native species of clover in Ireland. A Catholic legend holds that St. Patrick used it’s three lobes as a device for teaching the Holy trinity. To the Druids who came before, it symbolized a similar “three in one” concept- the three dominions of earth, sky, and sea, the ages of man, and the phases of the moon. In Celtic folklore, the Shamrock is a charm against evil, a belief that has carried over in the modern reliance in the four leafed clover as a good luck charm.

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As symbols of the Christian faith, the Crown of thorns and the three nails of the crucifixion are emblematic of the passion- the suffering and death of Jesus. According to biblical accounts, the crown of thorns mocked Christ’s claim to the throne of David.



The nails, of course, refer to the nails of the crucifixion. Nails are sometimes worn by modern Christians as an alternative to the crucifix, although some evangelical Christians view the nail as a symbol of the Devil.

Curiously, the symbolism of the three nails arrayed as pictured above pre-exists Christianity; it is found occasionally on amulets to solar deities and may have once had a different meaning.

Related symbols:

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bride's crossUsually known as “Bride’s Cross,” this equal-armed cross is traditionally woven from straw in honor of Ireland’s Saint Bridget (Also known as: Bride, Brighid, Brigid) on her holiday, Candlemas, observed on the second of February.

There is a very strong likelihood that there never was such a personage as St. Bridget, and that she may have been a cover for worship of the Celtic Goddess of the same name.  In the legends, Brighid was a particularly wise and powerful Abbess.

The cross itself is a type of solar cross, and both the symbol and the woven representation probably predate Christianity in Ireland. Another clue to the identity of Brighid lies in the timing of her holiday, formerly Imbolc (“In milk”), the Celtic observation of the coming of spring with the lactation of the ewes, and sacred to the goddess as protector of livestock.



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Mistletoe’s (Old English, “Misseltan,” meaning, “missel twig”) standing as an icon of the winter holiday stems from very ancient beliefs. How did this rather ugly, poisonous plant became so popular?

The answer lies in ancient sun worship, particularly of the Celtic Druids. The mistletoe has several qualities that made it attractive to these tree revering ancient Celts. The Celtic Druids were skilled in herbal medicine and magic; mistletoe was by far the most sacred of their magical plants. It grew amongst the branches of the sacred trees, seemingly without sustenance. Having no roots, and thus no connection to the earth, it was considered the sacred plant of the sun.

A tree that hosted a mistletoe plant was a tree marked as particularly sacred by the gods. With its golden color, and growing high off the ground without roots, it was naturally associated with the sun. Most specifically, it was considered to be the sperm of the solar deity Taranis, the promise of the sun God’s rebirth.

It was believed that mistletoe took on the properties of its host tree (this has much truth to it, as mistletoe feeds on its host tree), containing its essence and power. The most powerful mistletoe, of course, grew on the sacred oak. (The name Druid is believed to be a compound of two words, Dru and Vid, strength and wisdom- oak and mistletoe!)

Old Norse tales of mistletoe’s origin blame the plant for the death of the sun-god Baldur, who is felled by a dart made of mistletoe, the only plant his mother neglected after a prophecy of the god’s death; some versions of the story tell that the plant became a tree-dweller after the wrathful goddess flung it there. druids

Cutting the Mistletoe at the Solstice

When the weather turned cold the leaves dropped from deciduous host trees, revealing the sacred leaves and waxy white berries- a promise of the return of the sun. During the period of the Winter Solstice, branches were harvested with great ceremony and used for a variety of magical and medical purposes- protection from lightning and fire, curing of poisoning, etc. Branches would be cut from the trees on a day sacred to the moon, and sacrifices of livestock offered in return for the precious gift. Belief in the magical powers of mistletoe has long outlived the Druids.

In medieval times, the plant was called allheal, and used medicinally for a variety of ailments, from epilepsy to cancer. Sprigs were hung in stables to protect livestock from the mischief of fairies, and over cradles to protect babes from the vexation of witches. In Scandinavia, its branches were fashioned into dowsing rods to search for treasure. An old English superstition held that as long as a sprig was retained in the home, so would love be retained. It became popular in some households to insure that a fresh sprig was installed in the household every year, and this is probably where the origin of the kissing ritual can be found.

A Druid priestess

A priestess with sickle and crown of mistletoe

The uniquely English tradition involved hanging clumps of the plant in halls and doorways, where it served as a bit of a love charm- and as an ice breaker between interested couples. As the superstition went, one who wasn’t kissed would not be married within that year- an incentive for the romantically inclined to be sure to find themselves underneath a sprig at a convenient moment. According to this same tradition, the plant was burned at the end of the season, to prevent the charm from backfiring and creating enemies rather than friends. As late as the early twentieth century, a sprig of mistletoe was believed to bring dreams of a future husband when placed under the pillow of a hopeful young woman.

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attistreeIn most parts of the world, Winter is cold and harsh; the Christmas tree, with its ornaments and twinkling lights, is a sign of warmth and gaiety. The Christmas tree is such a popular symbol of the winter holiday that it has been adopted by people of many faiths all over the world. The custom of decorating an evergreen with lights and ornaments is ostensibly Christian, but its roots lie deep in the Pagan past.

Many ancient cultures perceived trees to be symbols of the universe, and trees were often associated with the many pagan solar deities whose birthdays were celebrated during the winter solstices. In ancient times, the survival of mankind was wholly dependent on the seasons, and solstice rituals encouraged the sun god’s return to power. Evergreen trees in particular were seen as symbols of divinity and immortality, because they do not ‘die’ as other trees do. Thus, the return of the sun at the winter solstice was symbolized by the evergreen.*

In ancient Greece, the God Attis, the son/consort of the Mother Goddess Cybele, was believed to have died and been resurrected.** His birthday was celebrated on December 25th, and decorated evergreen trees were carried in processions in his honor.

The evergreen tree has also been long associated with gift giving- citizens of ancient Rome celebrated the Saturnalia, a week long December festival honoring the God Saturnus, by exchanging gifts attached to evergreen branches. These branches, called strenae, were part of a week long festival that was so popular, it was retained largely intact by Christians. Pope Liberius of Rome, in 354 A.D., ordered the date of December 25th be observed from that time on as the birthday of Christ, citing the Pagan festival of Saturn. (incidentally, the image of Saturnus, the Roman God of time, is the origin of the image of ‘father time,’ meaning that father time and father Christmas are closer than one might expect.) The actual birth of Jesus, according to biblical inference, would have been in the spring.

Other evergreen traditions come from pagan sources as well. In an old Norse tradition, evergreens were burned to encourage the return of the sun. A direct descendant of this practice, which is still carried out in remote parts of Europe, is the Yule*** log. (These same Norse traditions also inspired the popular notion of stealthy nocturnal gift giving by sleigh-riding elves!)

A similar custom, which is the ancestor of the modern Christmas tree, took place in Pagan Germany- the twelve ‘raunacht,’ or wild nights, were commemorated with a decorated evergreen. This custom of burning a tree was eventually replaced with trees or wooden pyramids decorated with burning candle, which are still common in many households in Europe.

As trees have long been a symbol of rebirth, the Christmas tree became a natural symbol for the resurrected God of Christianity. The first known record of a decorated tree honoring the Christian nativity was a sixteenth century description of a tree decorated with “roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil and sweets,” which was burned in the old tradition. The tree was now said to represent the tree of paradise, representing the vision of ehaven. This was the tree The idea caught on quickly, and soon Christmas trees were almost universally popular.

Strong opposition to Christmas trees by the Puritan settlers kept Christmas trees out of American territory until the nineteenth century, when German settlers popularized the tradition. Until recent years, the Christmas tree was hung upside-down, suspened fromt he ceiling.

*Not always! To the ancient Celts, the symbol of the sun god’s return was the mistletoe, whose white berries were viewed as his sperm, the promise of the return of the sacred oak.

**For more about pre-Christian resurrected gods, see: The Mysterious Dying God

***Yule is from the old Norse, Yul, meaning ‘wheel.’ A custom of rolling a burning wheel downhill at Yule time has survived into modern times in many parts of europe. A similar practice was enacted in honor of the celtic sun god Taranis.

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The Christmas Tree, Decking the Halls

The so-called Christmas Tree is one of the most purely pagan of the modern holiday observances. Modern whitewash attributes the custom of lighted Christmas trees to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, with with a charming tale wherein he glimpses the starry sky between evergreen branches. It’s sweet, but hogwash. (Luther, who railed against excess, doesn’t seem a likely promoter of frivolous decor). The custom of decorating trees in honor of the gods is in fact so old it is specifically prohibited in the Old Testament*- which is why our Jewish friends don’t have Hanukkah trees**)

The Christmas tree, like many Christmas customs, originated in the ancient Roman new year festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated much the same as we do Christmas today. Home decoration was emphasized, and the decorations were the evergreen trees sacred to the sun- pine, holly, etc.

Gift giving was also another popular part of Saturnalia festivities- friends and families exchanged gifts of decorated branches, evergreen wreaths, incense, candles, and religious figurines. Caroling, Wassailing, and masked processions were other Saturnalia staples that long outlasted the Roman Empire.

Saturn is still honored at the new year as “father time.” Even the image of the Christmas angel was borrowed from Roman iconology- there were no female angels in Hebrew of Christian scriptures. (wrathful creatures with multitudes of eyes with animal bodies and wings or flaming swords, yes. Kindly feminine angels in flowing dresses, no.)



What about the Mistletoe? Mistletoe was held sacred to the sun to the Norse and the Celts of Europe, whose beliefs about the magical virtues of mistletoe survived into the Christian era. It was for this reason that England’s churches banned its use within their walls.

Fortunately for hopeful romantics, the prohibition didn’t stick.


St. Nick with demon helperThe pagan Norse Solstice celebration, Yule, gives us both the Yule log and the “Twelve Days” of Christmas. The burning of a tree, a log, or a wheel was a widespread custom in European pagan Solstice ceremonies. The burning of the Yule log is a symbolic sacrifice of the sun’s sacred evergreen, and its sacrifice gave energy to ensure the rebirth of the weakened sun. The celebration of Twelfth Night is also drawn from ancient Yule practices, although the King Cake custom came later, a symbolic recreation of the ancient custom of the sacrificial king- The “Lord of Misrule” who presided over so many Christmas parties was an echo of the seasonal “king” who long ago was sacrificed at the end of the season to ensure plentiful crops and the fertility of both man and livestock.


See: The Evolution of the Christmas Tree, Saturnalia- the real “Reason for the Season”


The Gnome Tomten

Santa Claus

Santa Claus is something of a syncretic figure, a patchwork of legendary characters. While most accept that Santa is evolved from fourth century Catholic Saint Nicholas of Myra (The name Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Dutch name for Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”), that’s really a bit of a gloss. In truth, traditions of elves, witches, or other supernatural gift-givers pre-existed in European tradition.

The Scandinavian gift-giving gnome Tomten (Also known as Julesvenn, Julnissen, Knecht Ruprecht) contributed the archetypal peaked red hat and associations with reindeer. Tomten was a little more volatile than today’s Santa- he could leave gifts or play tricks depending on the quality of the offerings for him Sometimes, he is portrayed as a demon who whips bad children; in Germany he’s Krampus, a ragged devil figure.

After the advent of Christianity in the North, the cantankerous elf became sidekick to the Saint -Belsnickel, ‘furry Nicholas,’ he being responsible for the distribution of whippings and coal to the naughty children. The Christmas imp was eventually absorbed, leaning only his red cap and sleigh behind. (I suspect he may now be seen working as sidekick to the white witch in the Narnia Books; he is also the close relation of Riumpelstilzkin) (and speaking of evil elves…)


Knecht loading his sack with naughty childrenSomehow stories of the generous St. Nicholas (well, mostly so- Nicholas was also reputed to have socked a rival in the jaw over a dispute about the virgin Mary) were muddled with the Scandinavian elf. According to his legend, St. Nicholas was a political activist who championed the poor, prisoners, and children. His association with Christmas giving is almost certainly cover for less acceptable pagan characters.


Santa Claus as we visualize him today sprang from the imagination of American political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Santa’s British counterpart, Father Christmas, is a little bit St. Nick and a little bit Father time. Italian children don’t know Santa; they await gifts from Befana, a kindly witch. German children leave shoes out and hope for a small gift from the Kriskind, an angel representing the Christ child (another name for Kriskind is ‘Kris Kringle,’ so referring to Santa by that name creates a sort of Jesus/elf-angel hybrid).


Some Invented Legends


Candy Canes are the subject of an annual pass-around email, but they were never the special creation of a pious Christian candymaker. When the Christmas tree became popular in Germany, it was commonly decorated with sweets and colored paper. Cane-shaped candy fits over a tree branch. Their popularity with children might have led some to take advantage of their shepherd’s crook shape to teach some religious lessons.


Connections are often touted between Santa Claus and the Norse god Odin, usually centered around the coincidence of eight reindeer and the eight legs of Odin’s magical horse. The problem with that similarity is, Santa only had one reindeer companion, until a New York writer upped it to seven, along with inventing the idea of Santa -then portrayed as a tiny elf- slipping down the chimney.) However, there is some connection- early Scandinavian pictograms of Odin often portray him on a reindeer, which is certainly a good way to leave people scratching their heads around the punchbowl..


*Well, maybe not. After all, the Hanukkah menorah is, in a sense, a representation of the Tree of Life.


**See Jeremiah 10:3

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The Solar cross is probably the oldest religious symbol in the world, appearing in Asian, American, European, and Indian religious art from the dawn of history. Composed of a equal armed cross within a circle, it represents the solar calendar- the movements of the sun, marked by the solstices. Sometimes the equinoxes are marked as well, giving an eight armed wheel. The swastika is also a form of Solar cross.

The sun cross in its most simplified form (shown above) is known in Northern Europe as Odin’s cross, after the Chief God of the Norse pantheon. It is often used as an emblem by Asatruar, followers of the Norse religion. The word “cross” itself comes from the Old Norse word for this symbol: kros.

The Celtic cross is a symbol of the Celtic Christian Church, borrowed from the pre-Christian Celtic Pagan emblem of the sun God Taranis:

The Celtic Taranis with his wheel
The Celtic Taranis with his wheel

Carew Cross
Celtic solar cross


The Etruscan God Ixion was often depicted crucified on a solar wheel (note the similarity to the Chi-Ro cross):

A similar symbol is the emblem of the ancient Assyrian God Shamash:

The Lauburu (four heads), a traditional Basque emblem, is also a form of solar cross:

The lauburu’s origin is unclear, although it is undeniably a solar emblem.  In recent times, it most often used as a charm for good luck and protection, and an emblem of Basque pride. The Aztec solar deity Quetzalcoatl, depicted crucified on an equal armed cross:



Related Symbols:
Helm of aweJormungander

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The lulav and etrog (literally, palm-branch and citron) in Judaism is a symbolic bundle of plants (the “four species” or Arba Minim) used to fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, an agricultural festival commemorating the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert.

The bundle contains:

  • Lulav, a frond from a date palm
  • Hadass, a branch of myrtle
  • Aravah a willow branch
  • Etrog, a citron, the fruit of a citrus similar to lemons

The bundled plants are waved ritually on all seven days of Sukkot, as prescribed in the book of Leviticus:

“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day , the fruit of the citron tree, tightly bound branches of date palms, the branch of the myrtle tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.”

A blessing is recited with the branches in the dominant hand (usually the right) and the fruit in the favored hand.

From an early synagogue floor

Related Symbols:


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Medieval and Renaissance art made use of a number of emblems to symbolize death and mortality. Although a central theme of Christianity for hundreds of years the was triumph over death, the onset of the black plague altered public perception, and the emphasis was placed on the triumph of death over life and the necessity of repentance. Symbols of resurrection common in Christian art became less popular as reminders of the impermanence of life and the punishments of hell became ubiquitous.

The most common symbols of mortality were the grim reaper and his scythe, the death’s head, and the hourglass, all appropriated from icons of Greek and Roman Paganism. Slogans such as “remember death” and “all is vanity” were omnipresent- death was around the corner, and one had better repent if one was to avoid an eternity of damnation. The source of these macabre symbols was, ironically, the paganism that Christianity had supposedly replaced.*

In ancient times, the emblem of the God Saturn (Chronos to the Greeks) was the scythe, which represented the nature of the cycles of time. The scythe symbolized not only impermanence (all things living will be cut down), but the nature of the life cycle- plants must die to feed animals, and the tool of the harvest is depicts the necessity of death for the renewal of life. Thus, death was depicted as a natural part of the passage of time. The image of Chronos devouring his children seems macabre, but illustrates that the the Greeks believed the passage of time is so inevitable that even the gods were consumed by it.

The hourglass is another emblem of time, although hidden within is the promise of life- because the hourglass is reversible, it held within a promise of resurrection, a symbolism not lost on everyone- all of these emblems later became symbols of resurrection to Freemasons and Rosicrucians who grasped their true ancient meanings.

The skull was a frequent companion to ascetic desert saints in numerous Christian artworks, and was often paired with the book, a symbol of studiousness. In this manifestation, the death’s head was less ominous, and symbolized the rejection of the impermanent material world for the life of the spirit. Mary Magdalene is probably the best known example of these two emblems in art.

*Some scholars theorize that the appropriation of ancient symbolism was a subconscious (or even deliberate) attempt to appease the old gods.

In later times, death was depicted as a process of the alchemical arts. Common alchemical emblems included the crow, the skull, and the tomb as symbols of the necessary death of the ego/personality.

Emblems of death are also prevalent in Masonic art and symbolism. Contemplation of mortality is a frequent theme in Masonic ritual and practice (see V.I.T.R.I.O.L. and Skull and Crossbones)

More symbols of Death

Symbols of the Day of the Dead

Related resources:

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Unification Church

The symbol of the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon (commonly referred to by the derogatory term “Moonies”), a group often accused of cult-like tendencies. According to church literature, the different parts of the symbol have various meanings:

“The center circle symbolizes God, truth, life, and light. Those four elements reach out or radiate from this origin to the whole cosmos in twelve directions. The number twelve indicates the twelve types of human character. Historically, the number twelve has been important in God’s dispensation; for example, Jesus had twelve disciples. The significance of the symbol, then, indicates that truth (the Principle) is able to spread out in twelve ways. According to Father, the structure of the heavenly kingdom is also patterned after this basic system; i.e., twelve tribes and twelve character types. The outer circle represents the harmony of giving and receiving action, the principle of the cosmos.”

The central wheel in this emblem is related to the kuruma, or carriage wheel, a traditional Japanese heraldic symbol.

Related Symbols:

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The word fasces comes from the the Roman word meaning bundle. The fasces itself is an axe or pointed weapon surrounded by bundled rods of wood- usually elm. It’s original use and true meaning is lost, although it probably originated as a phallic emblem.

The fasces was a symbol of authority in ancient Rome, most often associated with magistrates. Bundles of rods without a weapon were called bacilli, the emblem of the duumviri, magistrates without the power to pass a sentence of death. It is supposed that the bundles rods represented the unified people; the axe, authority and power, especially over death.

The fasces has remained a popular heraldic emblem.  It was frequently used as a symbol of government, unity, and order. It was  adopted as an emblem by Mussolini’s Fascist party during World War two, and is the origin of the word “fascist.”Today it is as likely to be used by neo-fascist groups as normative governments.

On early American coins and other symbols, the fasces symbolizes the unity of the colonies- strength in numbers (A single stick may be broken, but a number of sticks bound together are invincible).


Related symbols:

Labrys, sacred axe



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The Shofar is a musical instrument, usually created from a ram’s horn (or that of any kosher animal), used by the ancient Hebrews in war and during events of special significance. The shofar is the legendary horn that “blew down the walls of Jericho,” allowing the wandering Hebrews to take the city.

The shofar is blown to signal the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the most important feast day in the Jewish religious calendar. The shofar is blown 100 times in a specially prescribed manner to commemorate the Holy Day.

The shofar is also blown at the outset of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as directed in the Book of Leviticus:

“Then you shall transmit a blast on the horn; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, the day of Yom Kippur, you shall have the horn sounded throughout the land…And proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

Related Symbols:


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The spirit ship is a common theme of Norse pictograph stone carvings, some dating as far back as the fifth millennium CE.

The spirits ship is most commonly found on funerary monuments, where it represents the journey to the afterlife. The symbol has obvious connections to the Viking practice of sending the deceased into the afterlife aboard a burning ship.

Interestingly, the form of the boat in the ancient carvings is identical to the Viking longship. Similar carvings have been found in Canada, dating as far back as 800 BCE.


Related Symbols:
Wolf's CrossTriskeleJormungander




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sglossarywyrdA modern representation of the Web of Wyrd, the matrix of fate (wyrd) as woven by the Nornir, the fates of Norse legend. The emblem, nine staves arranged in an angular grid, contains all of the shapes of the runes and therefore all of the past, present, and future possibilities they represent. The web of wyrd serves as a reminder that the actions of the past affect the present and that present actions affect the future; all timelines are inextricably interconnected- in a sense, it is a representation of the tree of life.

Rune Stones used for divination


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This ostentatious symbol served as a name for the musician Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson) for more than five years after a publishing dispute with his recording company (Warner Brothers) left him unable to use the “Prince” moniker- which happened to be his given name. Adapted from the alchemical symbol for soapstone (by the addition of a circle) as illustrated in a Dover Clip Art Book, the symbol was most likely chosen for its resemblance to the planetary symbols of Mars and Venus, making it a particularly fitting symbol for the androgynous artist.

The glyph was unpronounceable and caused much consternation in popular media, who took to referring to him as “The Artist formerly known as Prince,” a mouthful eventually shortened to the acronym “TAFKAP.”

Related Symbols:

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This image represents the throne headdress and namesake of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The name Isis is the Greek derivative of the Egyptian name Aset, (or Auset), meaning throne or seat of authority.

To the ancient Egyptians, Isis was the embodiment of the earth, and divine right to rule was by her authority. Osiris reborn is often depicted as an infant on the lap of Isis, where she is the literal personification of a throne- a theme carried on in Christian art centuries after the Egyptian religion died out.


Isis with her throne head-dress

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hallowsA fictional symbol described in the Harry potter series, the Deathly Hallows.  It is popular amongst fans of the series and can be found on tattoos, stickers, jewelry and other products.

In the books, it is a symbol worn mainly by wizards engaged in the search for the three “deathly hallows,” a set of magical tools.  These are an “Elder Wand,” (vertical line) the “Resurrection Stone,” (circle) and the Cloak of Invisibility.  (triangle) Together, these are rumored to make the owner invincible or immortal.


Related Symbols:





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This gesture accompanies the Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing, an ancient Jewish custom. The Blessing is administered by members of the Kohanim, or priestly class, usually on holidays. The hands are spread into two “V” shapes, in the form of the Hebrew letter Shin () and symbolizes the light of the Shekhina, or Presence of God.

The blessing itself is taken directly from that given in the Book of Numbers:

“The Lord bless and keep you.
The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

The resemblance of the gesture to the “Live long and prosper” salute of the Star Trek character Spock is not coincidental. Actor Leonard Nimoy has remarked on several occasions that the gesture was a nod to his Jewish heritage.

Related Symbols:

Heart in Hand

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Pictish symbolThe Celtic dragon and serpent were ancient symbols of fertility, wisdom, and immortality. A hybrid horned dragon/snake figure was connected to the torque collar, a symbol of kingship and status, and to the horned deity Cernunnos. The serpent was related to the dragon, and was connected with healing pools and springs. The Romans observed that the Druids especially revered the serpent for healing, and that they ascribed the same powers to the “serpent’s egg,” a particular sort of egg-shaped stone. A number of old tales feature magical treasure-guarding serpents who reside in wells- a common motif is the horned snake who guards a golden torque, a reference to divine authority.

The dragon represents the untamed forces of nature, and often dwelt deep within the earth or sea. A red protector dragon has been a symbol of Wales for more than a thousand years, and dragons of various sorts featured heavily in late heroic tales, especially those of the exploits of Merlin. After the advent of Christianity, the dragon was more likely to symbolize chaos, and many tales of the saints pit the holy men against rampaging dragons who cause natural disasters, stories in which the dragons are not too subtle analogies of the pagan religions- Christians who came to evangelize the Druids took the sacred serpents as sure signs that the Druids were devil worshipers.

Pictish carving Serpent capital from the Book of Kells

One of the best known tales of St Patrick is the driving of the serpents from Ireland, a myth that purports to explain Ireland’s lack of snakes, but also carries overtones of religious conflict. If one views the snakes as the emblems of the Druids, the tale takes on another level of meaning, namely, that the serpents are not animals, but the Pagan way of life. This interpretation is borne out by many other references to battles with dragons or serpents undertaken by the saints, which invariably occur on sites formerly sacred to the Druids. This is not to say such battles necessarily took place at all, but may be poetic license to deal with the embarrassing reality of many a church sited on former Pagan holy grounds, which may have mattered much more as the centuries passed.

More Celtic Symbols

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