Throughout history, symbolism has been used as a means to convey meaning and instill emotions in a way that an outright explanation cannot achieve.
Across ancient cultures, we can find a plentitude of engagement in symbolism, including in the depiction and means of acquiring wisdom.
Presented below are some of the most well-known and important ancient symbols of wisdom.
Table of Contents
- 1. Tyet (Ancient Egypt)
- 2. Ibis of Thoth (Ancient Egypt)
- 3. Owl of Athena (Ancient Greece)
- 4. Mandala Outer Circle (Buddhism)
- 5. Raven (Norse)
- 6. The Head of Mímir (Norse)
- 7. Serpent (West Africa)
- 8. Spider (West Africa)
- 9. Oak Tree (European Paganism)
- 10. Capricorn (Sumer)
- 11. Lotus Flower (Eastern Religions)
- 12. The Scarecrow (Ancient Japan)
- 13. Symbol of Saraswati (India)
- 14. Nyansapo (West Africa)
- 15. Bodhi Tree (Buddhism)
- 16. Bagua (Ancient China)
- 17. Diya (India)
- 18. Wisdom Eyes (Buddhism)
- 19. Trishula (Oriental Religions)
- 20. Jnana Mudra (India)
- 21. Biwa (Ancient Japan)
- 22. Pen and paper (Ancient Mesopotamia)
- 23. Gamayun (Slavic)
- 24. Stalk of Wheat (Sumer)
- Concluding Note
1. Tyet (Ancient Egypt)
The Tyet is an Egyptian symbol that is associated with the goddess Isis, who was known for the magical powers she possessed as well as her great knowledge.
Isis has been described as being “more clever than a million gods.” (1) The Tyet represents a knot of cloth and is similar in shape to the widely recognized Egyptian hieroglyph, the ankh, which symbolizes life.
It was a common practice in the Egyptian New Kingdom to have mummies buried with a Tyet amulet. (2)
2. Ibis of Thoth (Ancient Egypt)
Alongside goddess Seshat, Thoth was the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, knowledge, and writing.
He played many prominent roles in Egyptian mythology, such as maintaining the universe, providing judgment to the dead, and serving as the scribe of the gods. (3)
Being a moon god, he was originally represented by a moon disk, but his symbolic depictions changed to that of an Ibis, a bird considered sacred in the religion of ancient Egypt and already a symbol of the scribes. (4)
3. Owl of Athena (Ancient Greece)
In Greek mythology, a little owl is usually depicted accompanying Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare.
The reason for this is unclear, although some scholars believe that the owl’s ability to see in the dark serves as an analogy of knowledge, allowing us to see through the darkness of ignorance instead of being blinded by our own perspective. (5)
Regardless, because of this association, it has come to serve as a symbol of wisdom, knowledge, and perspicacity in the Western world.
It is also perhaps the reason why owls, in general, have come to be considered as wise birds in many western cultures.
4. Mandala Outer Circle (Buddhism)
In Buddhism, the circle of the Mandala (a geometric pattern representing the universe) symbolizes fire and wisdom.
In the context of it, both fire and wisdom are used to signify the essence of impermanence. (6)
A fire no matter how great the flames, they eventually die out and so is the case of life itself.
Wisdom lies in realizing and appreciating this state of impermanence.
The fire also burns away impurities, and thus, by moving through the circle of fire, one burns away their impurity of ignorance.
5. Raven (Norse)
Accompanying the chief Norse God Odin are two ravens – Huginn and Muninn. They are said to fly all over Midgard (Earth) every day and bring back all the news to him that they see and hear.
Their association with the Odin is old, going way back, even before the Viking age.
One reason may be that as carrion birds, they would always be present in the aftermath of a battle – death, war, and victory were the realm of Odin.
However, this wasn’t the only association. Ravens are extremely intelligent birds, and Odin was known to be an exceptionally intelligent god.
The Ravens Huginn and Muninn symbolized ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ respectively.
Thus, they can be said to form a physical representation of the Norse god’s intellectual/spiritual capabilities. (7)
6. The Head of Mímir (Norse)
In Norse mythology, Mímir is a figure famous for his knowledge and wisdom. However, he was beheaded in the Æsir–Vanir War, and his head was sent to Asgard to Odin.
The Norse god embalmed it with herbs and placed magic over it to prevent it from rotting and gave it the power to speak again.
From there on, the severed head of Mímir provided counsel to Odin and divulged to him the secrets of the universe.
The head of Mímir had thus come to symbolize a source of wisdom and knowledge.
7. Serpent (West Africa)
Since ancient times, the serpent has symbolized wisdom in West Africa.
Perhaps it is due to how a snake moves before striking its prey. It gives off an appearance of it pondering its actions.
Spiritual healers in many West African cultures mimic a serpent’s movement in their revealing of a prophecy. (8)
8. Spider (West Africa)
In Akan folklore, the symbol of a spider represents the god Anansi because he would often take the shape of a humanoid spider in many of the fables. (9)
He is known to be a clever trickster and to hold immense knowledge.
In the New World, he was also used to symbolize survival as well as slave resistance because he was able to turn the tide on his oppressors using his tricks and cunning – a model to be followed by the many enslaved working within the confines of their captivity. (10)
9. Oak Tree (European Paganism)
Oak trees are known for their size, longevity, and strength.
Throughout ancient Europe, many people revered and worshiped the oak tree. Oak trees can live for several hundred to over a thousand years.
As old age is associated with wisdom, the ancient oak tree came to be associated likewise.
It is also the reason why many cultures, from the Celts to Slavs, gathered near oak trees to make important decisions – hoping that the wisdom of the great tree would aid them in this regard. (11)
10. Capricorn (Sumer)
Enki was the Sumerian god of life, water, magic, and wisdom.
He is said to be a co-creator of the Cosmos and keeper of the divine powers. He was said to be charged with the fertilization of the lands and the birth of civilization.
A common symbol associated with him is the goat-fish Capricorn. (12)
11. Lotus Flower (Eastern Religions)
In Buddhism and Hinduism, the blooming of the lotus flower symbolizes an individual’s path towards attaining enlightenment.
Just as the lotus starts to grow in the dark, stagnant waters but manages to rise out towards the surface to produce a perfect, our journey too can be similar.
Through the pit of ignorance, we have the potential to crawl out and reach the highest state of consciousness. (13)
12. The Scarecrow (Ancient Japan)
Kuebiko is the Shinto deity of knowledge, scholarship, and agriculture.
He is said to stand guard over the farm fields and although “his legs do not walk… knows everything” (14)
As such, he is depicted by a scarecrow, which also stands still all day, observing everything.
13. Symbol of Saraswati (India)
Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, wisdom, the arts, and learning.
These four aspects are symbolically represented by her four hands holding specific items, namely the Pustaka (book), mala (garland), veena (musical instrument), and a Matka (water pot).
Her aspects of knowledge and wisdom are also represented by a very distinct symbol comprising one-half of vertically upwards pointed triangles making up Purusha (mind) and another half of Prakriti(nature).
The base triangle depicts a though arising from an observation/knowledge out of which emerge many more triangles symbolizing contemplation.
At the peak, the triangles stop multiplying and from each then flows a stream, which together represents the eventual emergence of wisdom. (15)
14. Nyansapo (West Africa)
Nyansapo means ‘wisdom knot’ and is an adinkra (Akan symbol) for representing the concepts of wisdom, intelligence, ingenuity, and patience.
As an especially revered symbol among the Akan, it is often employed to convey the belief that if a person is wise, then they have the capacity in them to choose the best means of attaining their goal.
The word ‘wise’ in the idea is used in a very specific context, meant to imply “broad knowledge, learning and experience, and the ability to apply such faculties to practical ends.” (16)
15. Bodhi Tree (Buddhism)
Bodhi was an ancient fig tree located in Bihar, India, under which a Nepalis prince named Siddhartha Gautama mediated and is known to have reached enlightenment. (17)
Just as Gautama became known as Buddha, the tree became known as the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening). (18)
In religious iconography, it is often made distinct by featuring it with heart-shaped leaves or having its entire shape being that of a heart of both.
16. Bagua (Ancient China)
Tao is a Chinese word signifying the ‘way.’
It represents both the natural order of the Cosmos, whose character a person’s mind must discern in order to realize the true potential of individual wisdom and the journey one takes for such a pursuit.
The concept of Toa is typically represented by the Bagua – eight characters, each representing a principle of reality around the symbol of Ying-yang, the cosmic duality of two opposing forces governing the universe. (19)
17. Diya (India)
The lighting of a small lamp twice a day during the festival of Diwali is an Indian practice that can be traced back to ancient times.
It is very symbolic in nature depicting the ultimate victory of good over evil.
The oil represents the sins and the wick the Ātman (self).
The process of attaining enlightenment (light), the self must get rid of worldly passions similar to how a lighted wick burns away the oil. (20)
18. Wisdom Eyes (Buddhism)
In many Stupas, one will often come across giant pairs of eyes casting down, as if in a mediation state, drawn or carved on the four sides of the tower.
Between the eyes depicted a curly question mark-like symbol and a teardrop symbol above and below respectively.
The former encompasses the unity of all things in the world while the former represents the inner eye (urna) – one that sees into the world of Dhamma (spirituality).
The whole of it taken collectively symbolizes the all-seeing wisdom of Buddha. (21) (22)
19. Trishula (Oriental Religions)
The Trishula (trident) is a common symbol in Hinduism as well as Buddhism.
The three prongs of the Trishula holds varied meanings, commonly representing various trinities depending on the context it is viewed.
In Hinduism, when viewed in association with Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, they represent his three aspects – creation, preservation, and destruction.
In its own independent context, it is typically employed to symbolize the three powers – will, action and wisdom.
In Buddhism, a Trishula placed on top of a wheel of law symbolizes the three virtues – wisdom, purity, and compassion. (23)
20. Jnana Mudra (India)
Some Hindu deities, or their aspects, may often be depicted with the fingers of their right-hand bent and touching the tip of their thumb.
This hand gesture is known as the Jnana Mudra, a symbol of knowledge and wisdom.
The forefinger represents the self, and the thumb represents Brahman – the ultimate cosmic reality.
The rest of the three fingers represents the three gunas (passion, dullness, and purity).
To connect with the ultimate reality, the self has to transcend three gunas. (24)
21. Biwa (Ancient Japan)
Benzaiten is the Japanese goddess of everything that flows, e.g., water, music, words, and knowledge.
Thus, throughout Japan, she has come to represents the personification of wisdom.
She is usually depicted holding a Biwa, a type of Japanese flute that has, by extension of its association with the deity, come to symbolize wisdom and knowledge. (25)
22. Pen and paper (Ancient Mesopotamia)
Throughout the world today, the pen and paper have come to symbolize literary, wisdom, and science.
Yet, it is a very ancient association stretching back to the time of the earliest civilizations.
The ancient culture of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia worshipped Nabu, the patron god of the above three aspects, as well as that of vegetation and writing.
One of his symbols was the stylus and clay tablet.
It is from this original depiction that the relation writing tool and a writing medium has come to universally symbolize these aspects across Eurasian culture and through the centuries. (26)
23. Gamayun (Slavic)
In Slavic folklore, a Gamayun is a prophetic bird and deity with a woman’s head that is said to live on an island in the mythical east and delivers divine messages and prophecies.
She, like her counterpart, the Alkonost, is likely to have been inspired by Greek myths, particularly those of the Sirens.
Because of her role and that she is said to know everything of all creations, the Gamayun has often been used as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. (27)
24. Stalk of Wheat (Sumer)
In ancient Sumerian cities of Umma and Eres, Nisaba was worshipped as the goddess of grain.
However, as writing became more and more important for documenting the trade of grain and other staples, she eventually became associated with writing, literature, knowledge, and accounting as well. (28)
She is often symbolized by a single stalk of grain, which by extension, also symbolizes her aspects. (29)
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Header image: An owl that’s been carved into stone