Ancient History > Ancient Symbols > Top 24 Ancient Symbols of God and Their Meanings

Top 24 Ancient Symbols of God and Their Meanings

An image showing a brown Egyptian statue with a purple light strip illuminating in the background.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have reasoned the existence of God. As a result, many religious traditions throughout history have different notions of the concept of God, the power they attribute to this divine being, and the mythology surrounding it.

Most ideas surrounding God are based on metaphysical descriptions of venerated spirits, divine beings, or even spiritual ideas, employing symbolism and iconography to capture the true essence of the nature of God. 

Considering how frequent these symbols appear in texts, runes, and scriptures of various religious traditions, we take a look at some of the most important ones and reflect on their meaning.

Below are 24 of the most important symbols of god through ancient history:

1.Djed – Osiris (Ancient Egyptian)

Djed amulet.
Djed amulet
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Osiris was one of the five original Gods of the ancient Egyptian Pantheon of Gods. Osiris is credited with bringing civilization to the people of ancient Egypt, making it become a paradise with structure, organization and prosperity. [1]

The Djed symbol associated with Osiris is one which represents reincarnation and rejuvenation.

Recovered artefacts depict it as a pillar with sections running out of it representing the spine of Osiris.

Statue of Osiris.
Statue of Osiris
Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris’ spine was used to resurrect him after he was killed by the mischievous God Seth. Thereafter, he served as the God of the Underworld. [1] [2]

The symbol was converted into an amulet and used during funeral rites to represent one’s journey of rebirth in the afterlife. 

2. Sun – Inti (Inca Mythology)

Inti on the flag of Peru.
Inti on the flag of Peru
User:Orionist, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Inca Mythology, Inti is deemed an ancestor of the Inca people and their sun God. [3]

The sun was considered as a manifestation of Inti, who governed worldly affairs, showing his benevolence towards his people.

The Inca believed that solar eclipses were a result of Inti’s rage, demanding ritual sacrifice to appease him. [4]

Depictions of Inti show the sun as a personification of Inti, showing facial features on a round disk with rays of light emerging from it.

Inca priests and kings would adorn masks made from Gold (considered Inti’s sweat), showing similar depictions and carry out worship.

The symbol can still be seen today in many festivals and flags, representing South American culture. [3]

3. Om – Ganesha (Hindu Mythology)

Om Symbol .
Om Symbol
The Unicode Consortium, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Known as the God of the intellectuals, Ganesha – or Ganesh – is a highly revered God in the Hindu religion.

Described as an elephant-headed figure, Ganesha’s physical properties are rich in different forms of symbolism.

For instance, Ganesha’s vehicle of choice is often described as a rat which, combined with his elephant head, indicates that the God is a remover of obstacles. [5]

The god Ganesha.
God Ganesha
Image by SUMITKUMAR SAHARE from Pixabay

In terms of the sacred aum (also known as om) symbol, Ganesha is known as the embodiment of this symbol.

In most scripture, aum is believed to be the first sound to be created with the inception of the universe. [6]

In popular mythology, Ganesha is believed to be directly connected to this symbol.

In most literature, there have been connections made between the shape of Ganesha’s head – the symbol when inverted has a maddening likeness to the shape of the elephant headed God.

4. Spider – Anansi (African Folklore)

Spider symbol.
Spider symbol.

Like Loki, Anansi is a trickster God, but is rooted in the West African traditions of the Ashanti people. He is the son of the sky God Nyame, the god supreme. [7]

He is known for carrying out his mischievous deeds in the form of a spider, influencing prominent figures in African folklore and playing tricks with them.

His cunning and sly nature isn’t depicted in a negative way; it serves as a means to impart wisdom among people.

According to African folklore, Anansi made a deal with his father to release stories to the world, in exchange, he would bring him four creatures.

He used his trickery to use the creatures’ strength against them and entrap them for his father, and bring the art of storytelling to the world. [8]

5. Trident – Poseidon (Ancient Greece)

Poseidon with his trident.
Poseidon with his trident.
Chelsea M. via Pixabay

In Greek mythology, Poseidon is the brother of Zeus and the God of the seas and rivers. He was one of Zeus’ siblings freed by him from Cronos’ belly. [9]

The Cyclops also invented a trident for Poseidon, a spear-like weapon with three prongs. After winning the Titanomachy, Poseidon was placed in charge of the seas where he resided in beautiful palaces.

According to Greek belief, Poseidon was responsible for natural calamities and that the movement of his trident accounted for earthquakes, storms, and floods.  [10]

To honor Poseidon, the people of ancient Greece would hold the Isthmian games. It was a festival of games and music for protection against calamities and a good harvest.

His symbol, the trident, can be seen on coins from that era and in the statues that depict him. [11]

6. Moon – Diana (Roman Mythology)

Diana as Personification of the Night.
Diana as Personification of the Night
Anton Raphael Mengs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Diana was the huntress Goddess of the Roman Pantheon, taking inspiration from her Greek counterpart, Artemis.

The etymology of her name comes from the Latin words for sky and daylight and means the Goddess of light. [12]

Her association with the Moon, considering her as the Moon itself, was essential to what she represented – hunting.

Light during the night was considered crucial to a successful hunt, providing light and was considered to aid tracking dogs in picking up scents. [13]

7. Veena – Saraswati (Hindu Mythology)

A woman playing Saraswati veena.
A woman playing Saraswati veena
Image courtesy: pixahive.com

The veena is one of the most ancient instruments belonging to the Indian subcontinent.

It is lauded for being a finished instrument – the strings of the instrument are designed to cover all the components of classical music.

Vedic literature traces its progression to the forms it has taken before. [14]

The veena is closely associated with the Goddess Saraswati, so much so that it is oftentimes referred to as the Saraswati Veena.

Goddess Saraswati.
Goddess Saraswati
Image courtesy: flickr.com

Saraswati is depicted to be the Goddess of wisdom and the arts and is known to Lord Brahma’s consort.

Saraswati holds significant importance in the Hindu religion to the extent that the annual worship of this Goddess is an important festival in the months of February/March. 

In most depictions of the Goddess, Saraswati holds a veena. [14] [15]

It is said that when the veena is played, knowledge emanates in each direction. The music of this instrument is comparable to the human voice, and the strings represent human emotions and feelings.

It is said that knowledge should be divided similarly to the playing of this instrument – skillfully and with grace. [15]

8. Hummingbird – Huitzilopochtli (Aztec Mythology)

Hummingbird.
Hummingbird
Image by Domenic Hoffmann from Pixabay

The sun and war God, Huitzilopochtli, was considered as the supreme deity in the Aztec Pantheon.

The sun God was revered among the Aztecs who would offer human sacrifice as a source of sustenance and success in battle. [16]

God Huitzilopochtli.
God Huitzilopochtli
Eddo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most depictions of Huitzilopochtli depict him as a hummingbird or a warrior wearing its feathers in his helmet.

His association with the hummingbird comes from his name’s meaning, the hummingbird of the south.

The Aztec believed that when warriors died in battle, they were considered to belong to him and would reincarnate as hummingbirds and become part of his entourage. [17]

9. Cat – Bastet (Ancient Egypt)

Cat Goddess Bastet, depicted in cat form.
Goddess Bastet, depicted in cat form
Image by Gabriele M. Reinhardt from Pixabay

Daughter of the Sun God Ra, Bastet gained popularity as an aggressive yet just Goddess.

She is one of the many Gods in the Egyptian pantheon depicted as having the head of a cat and the body of a human.

She was the center of veneration among the people of Bubastis in southern Egypt. [18]

Most of her depictions show her as a house cat surrounded by a litter of kittens as a symbol of protection.

Festivals were held in her honor, where she was worshipped as a symbol of fertility among women who frees them from the social restraints of society.

People would flock to these festivals bringing their domesticated cats’ dead bodies to be mummified and entombed in the city as a form of worship and respect. [19]

10. Lightning – Zeus (Greek Mythology)

Zeus holding lightning.
Zeus holding lightning
Image by Jim Cooper from Pixabay

In Greek mythology, Zeus was considered the God of Olympic Gods. His association with lightning originate from Titanomachy – a great war between the Titans and the Olympic Gods. [9]

Among the Titans was Cronos, Zeus’ father. He would eat his offspring to prevent rebellion in the future. Zeus’ mother, Rhea, in an effort to protect her child, offered Cronos a stone in his stead.

When Zeus came of age, he freed his siblings who were growing inside of Cronos and fought the Titans in the Titanomachy.

The Olympic Gods were successful at defeating the Titans to gain control of the world. [20]

During the war, Zeus went to Tartarus, the deepest pit in the underworld, to free the Cyclops and other beings in return for help in defeating the Titans.

The Cyclops crafted the lightning bolt as a weapon which became an instrumental weapon for winning the war.

Thereafter, Zeus led the other Olympic Gods and was considered as the controller of the weather and sky. [9]

11. Net/Web– Loki (Norse Mythology)

The association of a net or web to Loki is not borne of a physical symbol but instead has been the subject of study surrounding Loki’s name and nature.

In Norse mythology, Loki is described as a mischievous God whose antics lead to trouble for much of the other Gods in the Norse Pantheon. [21]

Scholarly studies have tried to pinpoint the meaning of Loki’s name, coming up with theories that serve to symbolize Loki’s name itself.

Some Viking age texts account Loki as constructing knots and tangles into a web that represent his scheming nature of self-preservation and self-interest.

Prominent tales depict him as a hindrance to the Gods, leading him to flee from Asgard. When the Gods came to capture him, he threw his fishing net into a fire.

The Gods then fashioned a net to capture Loki, who had assumed the form of a salmon. Eventually, he was caught and trapped.

Come Ragnarok, Loki is destined to escape and will lead the giants in ending the world of men and Gods. [22]

12. Lotus – Various Hindu Gods (Hindu Mythology)

Lotus Flower.
Lotus Flower
Image by Sirawich Rungsimanop from Pixabay

The Lotus flower holds immense religious significance among those of the Hindu faith.

Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, was born out of a Lotus flower on Lord Vishnu’s navel and is often depicted as meditating on a lotus flower. [23]

It is one of the divine elements depicted in other Hindu Gods such as Parwati, Saraswati, Krishna, and Ganesha.

The flower serves to symbolize life energy and the awakening of spiritual consciousness.  [23]

13. Cerberus – Hades (Ancient Greece)

Cerberus.
Cerberus
Illustration 164417081 © Insima | Dreamstime.com

Art found on ancient Greek vases depicts Hades, the God of the Underworld, and a creature called the Cerberus.

It had the appearance of a multi-headed hound and serpent’s tail. Greek scholars give conflicting accounts of the number of heads Cerberus had; however, in most depictions, he was pictured with three heads. [24] [25]

Hades was given charge of the underworld after Titanomachy. To help rule the underworld, Hades put up his hound as a guard to prevent the dead from leaving. [9]

According to the legend of Hercules, son of Zeus, capturing Cerberus was his final and most arduous labor.

Hades allowed this on the condition that Hercules defeated him with nothing but his bare hands. Although he was bitten, he managed to subdue Cerberus, bringing it to Eurystheus.

Later, Cerberus was returned to Hades and resumed its role as watchful guardian of the gates of the underworld. [24]

14. Sun Disk – Ra (Ancient Egypt)

Depiction of Ra-Horakhty, a combined deity of Horus and Ra.
Depiction of Ra-Horakhty, a combined deity of Horus and Ra.
Image Courtesy: Jeff Dahl [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Many civilizations saw the significance of the sun as the bringer of life. Similarly, the ancient Egyptians also associated great importance to it, as seen in the depictions of their God Ra, the creator of the world. [26]

Egyptian artifacts depict Ra with the head of a falcon and a human body with a sun disk on his head.

Ra was considered as the greatest of all Gods, overseeing his creation by taking the form of the sun during the day and nourishing them with his light.

At night, he would take his original form to sail across the underworld to protect his creation from those who seek to destroy it. [27]

15. Spear of Mars – Mars (Roman Mythology)

Spear of Mars symbol.
Spear of Mars symbol
Image courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org / CC BY-SA 3.0

Referred to as the God of War – or in other literature, the protector of Rome – Mars comes second only to Jupiter in terms of his importance in the holy hierarchy.

The myths surrounding this particular God parallel quite a bit to the Greek God Ares. [28]

Nevertheless, Mars is highly esteemed and revered in Roman culture. The beginnings and the closure of many military campaigns are often associated with an attribute to Mars.

Portrait of Hadrian as the god Mars.
Portrait of Hadrian as the god Mars
Louvre Museum, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

One such instance relates to the spears of Mars, where a commander – before leaving for battle – shook the holy spears kept in the Regia to aid the army towards an easy victory. [29]

In more recent times, the symbol for the spears of Mars is used to represent the male gender, the planet Mars and as the alchemical symbol for iron. [30]

16. Rama – Bow and Arrow (Hindu Mythology)

Rama with Bow and Arrow.
Rama with Bow and Arrow
Author, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

Rama, referenced as an incarnation of Vishnu, appeared in the early Century CE. However, it was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that Rama became the most popular recipient of adoration among the Bhakti group.

He is perceived as a model of reason, right action, and desirable virtues. Rama’s popularity was greatly increased by innumerable retellings of epics and art forms like dance dramas.  [31]

Rama’s incarnation as Vishnu indicates the incarnation of all the divine qualities in human life.

He is adorned with ornaments symbolizing divine qualities in corporeal form. Rama’s weapon of choice is the bow and arrow.

At a particular instance where Janaka asks Rama to string Shiva’s bow, he not only strings the arrow but also snaps it, symbolizing his great strength.

During the battle of Rama and Ravana, Rama’s arrow neutralizes and deflects all the evil weapons symbolizing his goodness, worthiness, and divine origins. [32]

17. Gye Nyame – Nyame (African Folklore)

Gye Nyame symbol.
Gye Nyame symbol
Yellowfiver at English Wikipedia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nyame is the God of the sky and defines the concept of God within the Akan people of Ghana.

Much like monotheistic notions of God, Nyame is also an ideal representative of the omnipotence and ephemeral nature of God rather than his physical manifestation. [33]

The Gye Nyame is a symbol associated with a word that means nothing but God and is used in many contexts to describe the omnipotent nature of God.

It is a symbol of the Akan that gives people strength in difficult situations and serves to show one’s faith in Nyame. [34]

18. Spear – Athena (Ancient Greece)

Athena column, holding a spear.
Athena column, holding a spear
Leonidas DrosisYair Haklai, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Greek traditions, Zeus bore a daughter without a mother, Athena, who emerged from his forehead.

She was considered the favorite child of Zeus; hence, she gained a prominent role and power in the pantheon of Olympic Gods. [35] [36]

One of her duties was to overlook the conflicts of man. It is, therefore, the reason for the spear being part of many of her depictions in Greek Art.

She was considered as the Goddess of war, but more to do with the wisdom and strategies it entailed instead of the warmongering nature associated with Ares, another God of War and Athena’s brother. [37]

Ancient Greek men would often pray to her before going to battle and reflect on what she represented in Greek mythology – a protector and helper of prominent Greek heroes such as Perseus and Hercules. [38]

19. Wadjet – Horus (Ancient Egyptian)

Eye of Horus (Wadjet).
Eye of Horus (Wadjet)
Image courtesy: ID 42734969 © Christianm | Dreamstime.com

Horus was the son of Osiris and is seen as a prominent figure in Egyptian mythology.

After Seth seized power over Egypt by killing Osiris and bringing in chaos, Horus, his mother Isis, his aunt Nephthys, and his cousin Anubis, set out on a journey to collect Osiris’ body parts for proper burial and passing into the underworld. [2] [39]

Horus depicted in gold plated armor.
Horus depicted in gold plated armor.
Image by Wolfgang Eckert from Pixabay

After a successful mission, Horus was able to defeat Seth in battle at the cost of losing his eye.

After the event, the eye of Horus was restored by Hathor, whence it became a symbol of healing and restoration, much like how Horus was able to gain control of Egypt, bringing order to the region. [39]

20. Valknut – Odin (Norse Mythology)

Valknut symbol.
The Valknut symbol
Nyo and Liftarn, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Valknut is a symbol dating back to ancient times and is associated with the cult of the dead.

The symbol consists of three interlocked triangles and appears readily in depictions of Odin, the primary deity in Norse mythology.

Additionally, the symbol also appears with the animals associated with Odin, the wolf, horse, and raven. [40]

It is unsure what the symbol represents; however, most runes and gravestones associate it with the war God nature of Odin and his magical prowess.

Depiction of Odin.
Depiction of Odin
Victor villalobos, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As a possible explanation, historians have posited that it points to Odin’s ability to use magic as a way to bind the mind of soldiers in battle.

In contrast, another explanation points to freeing a warrior’s mind of fear and anxiety as the knots become loosened by Odin’s inspiration. [41]

21. Conch – Vishnu (Hindu Mythology)

A carved shankha.
A carved shankha
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vishnu is one of the most revered Gods in Hindu Mythology, so much so that a monotheistic practice, Vaishnavism, is still in practice today.

According to sacred texts and epic in Hinduism, Vishnu has many incarnations, acting as the protector of the Universe along with an advisor to other Gods. [42]

A painting of Vishnu.
A painting of Vishnu
University of Toronto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Depictions of Vishnu show him with blue skin color with multiple arms. In one of his hands, he holds a (shankha) conch.

There are conflicting accounts for what the conch represents. Some accounts depict it as a war trumpet, but the sound it makes holds significance as a primordial sound of creation.

The open conch is blown during worship and used in many Hindu rituals that signify the prophesized last incarnation of Vishnu, where he’ll return to protect the world and rid it of evil. [43] [44]

22. Rose – Venus (Roman Mythology)

Beautiful Red Rose.
Beautiful Red Rose
Angelynn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Known as the counterpart to Greek Aphrodite, the Goddess Venus is associated with a rose for its symbolism of love, beauty, fertility, and passion. [45]

The association of the red rose linked to Venus comes from an assassination attempt against her lover, Adonis.

As she ran through a thorn bush to warn him, she cut herself on the ankles, causing her to bleed and turning her blood into blooming red roses. [46] [47]

The Birth of Venus - Painting.
The Birth of Venus – Painting
Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Roman times, the statues of Venus used to be adorned by red roses as a sign of respect to the Goddess and a way to keep up with the moral duties that fall upon husbands and wives.

Today, the red rose has become a popular expression of love and passion among lovers.

There’s no denying the exuberant beauty of the rose, providing a multi-sensory experience of sight, smell, and touch. [48]

23. Hammer – Thor (Norse Mythology)

Drawing of a Viking Age gilded silver Mjölnir pendant found in Sweden (Thor’s hammer).
Drawing of a Viking Age gilded silver Mjölnir pendant found in Sweden (Thor’s hammer).
Prof. Magnus Petersen / Herr Steffensen / Arnaud Ramey / Public domain

Of all the Norse symbols, Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, is perhaps the most well-known today.

The hammer holds great significance in Norse myth. It is said to have been forged by dwarfs, who were exemplary craftsmen.

The hammer served Thor with his role in protecting Asgard (the realm of the Norse Gods) and as the controller of lightning and thunder. [49]

Depiction of Thor.
Depiction of Thor
Image courtesy: pxfuel.com

The hammer attained symbolic importance in ritualistic and ceremonial displays during funerals, marriages, and times of war to receive Thor’s blessings.

Additionally, it was used as an instrument for protection, to ward off the chaos of Utangard (the disorder in the cosmos) and bring something or someone into the confines of order. [50]

24. Latin Cross (Pagan & Christianity)

Detail of an old silver crucifix and rosary with wooden beads. On a wooden table with an old Holy Bible.
Detail of an old silver crucifix and rosary with wooden beads. On a wooden table with an old Holy Bible

The Latin Cross is also known as the crucifix and is said to be a representation of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Before the advent of Christianity, the cross was used as a pagan symbol in African and Asian regions. It could have been symbolic of four things: fertility, good luck, life itself, and the connection between the earth and heaven. 

After the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Latin Cross took upon a new meaning. It began to symbolize Jesus Christ’s selflessness and his devotion to his people.  [51]

Before the emperor Constantine’s era in the 4th century, Christians were hesitant about openly portraying the cross in fear of being exposed or persecuted. After Constantine converted to Christianity, the cross crucifixion as a death penalty was abolished, and the Christian religion was promoted. The cross also became symbolic of the name of Jesus Christ. 

The symbol of the Latin Cross became extremely popular in Christian art from c.350. After Constantine’s era, Christian devotion to the symbol of the cross continued. It represented notions of the victory of Christ over the powers of evil. [52]

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Cite this article

The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 24 Ancient Symbols of God and Their Meanings," Give Me History, September 9, 2021, https://www.givemehistory.com/god-symbols.

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