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10 Ancients Symbols that You Probably don’t Know The Meaning

Icons have become a part of human contact since the very first day of human life, from pigments to printing presses. The imperfection of speech, which certainly enabled the sharing of ideas and stimulated invention, ultimately led to the creation of new forms of communication, enhancing both the range at which people could express themselves and the longevity of information.

Symbols are nowadays so popular, that we hardly ever ask how they started. A symbol will tell you a thousand more words about an individual, a group of people, an organization, or even a philosophy of religion and politics. Most of us are well aware of what those symbols mean and in certain situations, a simple hand gesture or greeting is sufficient to give you a direct meaning. For starters, every December millions of people around the world decorate their homes with mistletoe and kiss under it. The initial definition of this plant, though, has nothing to do with love, or Christmas. Mistletoe was seen by ancient Norse myth where the mistletoe originates 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.

The Middle Finger

It is unnecessary to explain the modern meaning of this highly disrespectful gesture since pretty much everyone already knows it. Yet perhaps you weren’t sure this sign is from ancient Greece. Although it wasn’t seen as offensive or hostile at the time, as it is today, it was associated with sexual intercourse and fertility. Specifically, it represented a phallus.


Another popular hand gesture of our times is a thumbs-up that few people know the true meaning and origin of. It is seen as an approval or disapproval representation, depending on whether the thumb is extended upwards or downwards, respectively. This symbol today has little connection to its origins when it voted to save the life (or not) of a Roman gladiator. Roman audiences used the hand gesture to decide whether a vanquished gladiator should survive or die at the close of a gladiatorial battle, as all of you have already seen in a film.


‘Pollice Verso’ , 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum).

The Pentagram

The pentagram is the simplest regular star polygon in ancient Greece and has been associated with the golden ratio and architectural perfection. But nowadays, when they see a pentagram, most people think of evil and black magic-since the symbol ended up tied 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.

The V Sign

The V sign is a hand gesture that people widely use nowadays to show their peaceful intentions or to express victory. Nevertheless, the origin of this sign 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, because every English archer caught by the French usually had his index and middle fingers cut off his right hand, making sure he couldn’t kill another French soldier in battle.

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous ‘V’ sign.

The Heart Shape

The shape of the heart is a symbol that is strictly associated today with love, romantic relationships, and most recently Valentine’s Day. But that had nothing to do with these things in ancient Greece. We first meet the heart shape as a symbol for silphium, a species of giant fennel that once grew near the Greek colony of Cyrene on the North African coast. First, the ancient Greeks used silphium to flavor food and as a medicine, but later it would become the most popular form of birth control.





Silphium integrifolium.

The Barber Pole

You probably don’t know this, but it’s not random the colors on the old-fashioned, almost iconic Barber pole. They symbolize a medieval bloody legacy when people went to barbers not only for haircuts and rasping but also for bloodletting and other medical procedures. See, bloodletting was a common treatment for a wide range of diseases during the Middle Ages and barbers were apparently as trusted as doctors to perform the procedure.

16th century barber-dentist. 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 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.

The “Two-fingered Salute”

The two-fingered salute — not to be confused with the V sign — is not a popular way to greet someone, but mostly instinctively some people will do it. This hand gesture, no matter how it is viewed today, goes back to ancient Rome, where defeated gladiators used it to ask the Lord of the Spartacus for mercy

Spartacus performing a “Two-fingered salute.”

Mudras (Hand Gestures)

It may sound ridiculously funny to those who know the origins of mudras, but there are indeed many people, especially in the U.S., who think that some of the mudras originated in American ghettos and represent certain gangs such as the Bloods or Crips. Of course, the original mudras have nothing to do with violence or gangs and originated in India where, among other positive things, they symbolize peace, harmony, and good mental health.


A popular mudra.

The Swastika

In most parts of the West, the swastika is synonymous with Nazism, fascism, and racism, but in reality, for the past twelve thousand years, this symbol of good fortune and well-being has been a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eurasian religions.


A collage of swastika styles found in four different cultures.

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