The entire history of humankind can be best summed up as a dialectic of control and helplessness.
In their state of helplessness, they have sought refuge in the supernatural as a means to regain a sense of control.
To this end, they have ascribed various powers and abilities to runes and symbols. In this article, we’ll explore the 22 most important symbols of faith and hope in history.
Table of Contents
- 1. Shining Light (Universal)
- 2. Christian Cross (Christianity)
- 3. Star of David (Judaism)
- 4. Crescent and Star (Islamic World)
- 5. Dove (Abrahamic Religions)
- 6. Anchored Cross (Christianity)
- 7. Swallow (Old World)
- 8. Swastika (Dharmic religions)
- 9. Sun (Old World)
- 10. Yellow Butterfly (Native Americans)
- 11. 8-Pointed Star (Native American)
- 12. Djed (Ancient Egypt)
- 13. Easter Lily (Ireland)
- 14. Awen (Neo-Druidism)
- 15. Peacock (Christianity)
- 16. Four-leaf Clover (Ireland)
- 17. Cornucopia (Ancient Greece)
- 18. Olive Tree (Christianity)
- 19. Almond Blossom (Judaism)
- 20. Ichthus (Early Christianity)
- 21. Nyame Biribi Wo Soro (West Africa)
- 22. Om (Hinduism)
- Over to You
1. Shining Light (Universal)
Humankind is a diurnal species, being heavily reliant on their sight for carrying out tasks and sensing danger.
Taken in relation to darkness, which itself serves as a symbol of evil, destruction, chaos, and death, it comes to represent hope and faith – a beacon of safety and salvation.
There are many religious festivals that celebrate this symbolism. In Hinduism, we have the festival of Diwali, in Judaism, the Hanukkah, among certain Christians sects, the Paschal Vigil.
It is also interesting to note that in numerous cults and religions, the chief deity always had some form of association with light, being it directly or indirectly such as in the form of the Sun, lightning, and fire. (2)
2. Christian Cross (Christianity)
Represented in various forms, the Christian Cross symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus and the Christian Faith.
Interesting, early Christians were reluctant to use the cross symbol, being that it depicts that particularly gruesome and painful form of execution. (3)
Rather, the association actually began in anti-Christian literature of the time, and it would not be until centuries after the death of Christ would the use of the Cross in Christian iconography begin to appear. (4)
3. Star of David (Judaism)
Represented in the shape of a Hexagram, the Star of David is a prominent symbol of Jewish identity and faith.
Interestingly, however, this association is actually rather young in historical terms.
While it has occasionally appeared in Jewish decorative motifs as far back as the 3rd century, (5) its official use as a symbol of the worldwide Jewish community actually dates back to 1897, when the first Zionist Congress was held and where it was decided upon as such. (6)
4. Crescent and Star (Islamic World)
The use of the Crescent and Star today as a symbol of the Islamic faith remains contested among theological scholars.
However, at least the use of the Crescent in Islamic iconography does go back to the earliest times of the religion.
Following the conquest of the Persians by the fledgling Islamic empire, among many other influences, it also took on the use of the Crescent symbol as a military and religious emblem. (7)
The use of the crescent, in combination with a star, a symbol, is much more recent.
It first gained prominence in the 19th century as the official state symbol of the Ottoman Empire.
Initially, a product of an erroneous association among early Western Orientalists with Islam, (8) (9) it soon became so in many Islamic societies as many of their emerging nationalist leaders, educated in Western Universities, also came to think of it as such. (10)
5. Dove (Abrahamic Religions)
In various religions of the old world, doves have been considered a sacred animal. However, in early societies, rather than hope or peace, the bird was more typically associated with love, beauty, and surprisingly, war. (11)
Its more contemporary symbolism first appeared with the emergence of the Abrahamic religions.
The greatest influence behind its more modern association being largely stemming from the story of Noah’s ark.
After the storm had subsided, Noah released a dove to find land. It came back carrying a freshly plucked olive branch, indicating the presence of land nearby and thus, hope for the continued survival of mankind. (12)
In Islam, another story further illustrates the symbolism of hope and divine favor.
When the Prophet Muhammad and his companion, Abu Bakr, hid in a cave to hide from their enemies, a pair of doves made a nest there and laid eggs at once, and a spider had woven cobwebs, making it appear as if the cave entrance had not been disturbed for a long time. (13)
6. Anchored Cross (Christianity)
Another prominent symbol in Christianity, the anchored cross serves as a metaphor for the security of the soul in uncertain times and thus, symbolizing hope, steadfastness, and composure.
Its usage is ancient, dating back to the earliest days of the religion. (14)
There are many explanations on how it came to be among the earliest Christian symbols.
One posits that the early Christians likely may have adopted the symbol from the Jews living in the Seleucid Empire, among whom the use of the symbol was common. (15)
7. Swallow (Old World)
Among sailors, the swallow carried great symbolic importance, signifying hope and good luck.
Since the bird would never travel far out to the sea, seeing one indicated the presence of land ahead and the conclusion of one’s voyage.
It was a common tradition among sailors to have one swallow tattooed on their body before setting out on a long voyage, and a second one tattooed once they had returned from the journey.
Should a sailor perish at sea, it was believed that the swallow would carry his soul to the heavens to be laid to rest in peace. (16) (17)
8. Swastika (Dharmic religions)
While assigned a highly negative association in the West because of its appropriation by the Nazi movement, in the East, it still retains its original and more positive meaning.
In Dharmic traditions, it is seen as a symbol of divinity, faith, good luck, and spirituality.
In South Asia, it is common to find the depiction of the symbol at entrances, walls of temples, on holy books, and even on the starting pages of financial statements, believing it to invoke divine favor. (18)
9. Sun (Old World)
Across various cultures, the sun has come to serve as the physical manifestation of the Supreme Being and thus, by extension, a symbol of divinity and faith.
Among the ancient people of Sumer, the sun was a symbol of Utu, the helper deity who came to the aid of those in distress. (19) Westwards, in Ancient Egypt.
It was a symbol of Ra, who, among many other things, was a god associated with hope, order, and creation. (20)
Further northwards, among the pagan faiths of the early Indo-Europeans, the sun was personalized by the goddess Sol (21).
Among the most powerful of deities, she was associated with life, warmth, and health as well as served as the chief patron of the most unfortunate, instilling in them hope. (22)
In the Greco-Roman religion, the sun was a symbol of Apollo, an important deity associated with healing and protection. (23)
10. Yellow Butterfly (Native Americans)
The native Americans were a deeply spiritual people and assigned various different meanings to objects and animals.
Among many tribes, butterflies, in general, were considered a symbol of good luck and transformation, and killing them was considered a taboo.
The color of the butterfly also influenced its association, with brown signifying important news, red an important event, and yellow the aspect of hope. (24) (25)
11. 8-Pointed Star (Native American)
Also referred to as ‘Star Knowledge,’ the 8-pointed star symbolized hope and guidance among the Native American cultures.
The symbol is actually an amalgamation of other important symbols and meanings.
The circle around the star signifies protection, the inner star signifies the four-cardinal point – North, South, East, and West while the outer star marks its connection to the solstice and equinox.
Together, the eight points of the star come to represent balance. Lastly, the inner circle may have meant to imply renewal and transition. (26) (27)
12. Djed (Ancient Egypt)
Shaped in the form of a spine or pillar, the Djed is one of the more commonly occurring symbols in Ancient Egypt iconography and is meant to represent stability in life and hope in the Afterlife.
An annual festival was held where an actual Djed pillar was created and then raised, the act symbolizing the triumph of Osiris over Set, and by extension, of harmony and order over violence and disorder. (28) (29)
13. Easter Lily (Ireland)
Easter lilies were sold in front of Churches before Easter on Sundays as a means to help support families who had lost their men in the conflict.
Wearing one signified hope and peace for the future as well as a remembrance of those who had lost their lives in the struggle for freedom. (30)
14. Awen (Neo-Druidism)
Represented as three rays of light encased in a circle, the Awen symbol invokes the concept of trinity in various aspects e.g. sky, land, and sea; mind, body, and spirit; hope, faith, and prosperity.
While the invention of the symbol is recent, being attributed to an 18th Welsh Poet Iolo Morganwg, the history of the concept itself is far more ancient, with records of its mention going as far back as the 9th century. (31) (32)
15. Peacock (Christianity)
The beautiful and resplendent bird has in various cultures symbolized highly positive aspects.
In certain Christian sects, it was a tradition to spread peacock feathers over the deceased as it was believed to protect a pure soul from corruption. (33) (34)
16. Four-leaf Clover (Ireland)
The leaf of a shamrock plant is perhaps among the most recognizable symbols of Irish culture and identity.
Its use as a symbol in the region goes back to pre-Christian times. The three petals of its leaves symbolize hope, faith, and love.
Occasionally, a four-petal leaf will emerge on the plant, which is believed to bring good fortune to anyone finding it. (35)
17. Cornucopia (Ancient Greece)
In Greek Mythology, Elpis is the personification of the aspect of hope. When Pandora opened her box and released all forms of misery and sickness on mankind, one aspect remains behind – hope. (36)
In Greek arts, Elpis is usually depicted carrying flowers and a cornucopia, which may have served as her symbol. (37)
18. Olive Tree (Christianity)
In various cultures and religions, the olive tree has been considered a particularly sacred plant and has been assigned various meanings.
In the religion of Christianity, the plant was associated with hope, stemming from its mention in the story of Noah’s ark, where a dove sent to find land came back to the prophet carrying an olive branch – the first emblem of new life signifying hope for the future. (38) (39)
19. Almond Blossom (Judaism)
The almond tree, magnificent in its beauty when it blossoms, has held various positive associations in different societies.
Particularly sacred among the Jewish, it is a symbol of renewal, hope, and diligence.
The instance of an almond tree blossoming has been mentioned numerous times in the Torah, often meant to imply the intervention of the Divine.
Because the tree was the first to blossom after winter, it was used as a reference to count the age of trees. (40)
20. Ichthus (Early Christianity)
Back when Christianity was being persecuted in Rome, adherents adopted the Ichthus (today more commonly known as ‘Jesus fish’ in North America) as a secret symbol to identify members of their faith and find meeting places. (41)
As to why this specific symbol was adopted by the early Church may likely be due to its association with the miracle of feeding the multitude where Jesus took five loaves and two fishes and multiplied them to feed thousands. (42)
21. Nyame Biribi Wo Soro (West Africa)
Among the Akan, adinkra are symbols meant to signify various important ideas and concepts. Nyame Biribi Wo Soro (directly translating to ‘God in heaven) is the adinkra symbol of hope.
The Biribi Wo Soro looks like two ovals that are joined together to look like the infinity sign.
This shape implies that even though times may be hard for a person, they should remember that God is always watching out for them. (43)
22. Om (Hinduism)
In Hinduism, Om is among the most sacred of symbols representing both Atman (soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) as well as the Dharmic faith in general.
The symbol is frequently found within Hindu scriptures and is uttered as part of puja (worship).
The origin of this symbol remains obscure but it is found mentioned in among the oldest Hindu texts such as the Chandogya Upanishad, where its utterance is recommended as part of meditation, and its meaning is defined as the essence of everything. (44) (45)
Over to You
Do you know of any other important symbols of faith and hope? Tell us in the comments below, and we’ll consider adding them to the list above. Also, don’t forget to share this article with others if you found it to be a worthwhile read.
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