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Top 23 Ancient Greek Symbols With Meanings

Greek gods monumentPin
Greek gods monument

The ancient Greeks believed in polytheism (the existence of more than one god), basing their assumptions on the perceived reality that there were many gods and goddesses, along with supernatural beings of different kinds. 

There was a hierarchy of gods, with Zeus leading all the other deities as he was the king of all gods and had control over the others, even though he was not considered to be almighty.

The gods were responsible for different things on Earth; for example, Zeus was the god of the skies and had the power to send thunder and lightning, while Poseidon was the god of the sea and could send earthquakes to Earth. 

Numerous ancient Greek symbols can be found in legends and myths that come together to play on an assortment of emotions.

Below you will find the top 23 most important ancient Greek symbols:

1. Rod of Asclepius Symbol

Rod of Asclepius.Pin

Rod of Asclepius
Rod of Asclepius by David from the Noun Project

Also known as the Staff of Asclepius, the Rod of Asclepius is an ancient symbol of Greece that is today recognized as a symbol of medicine all over the world. It represents a serpent wrapped around a staff.

This staff is conventionally a tree stick. This Greek symbol is associated with Asclepius, the Greek demigod, who was well-known for his healing powers and medical knowledge.

Legend has it that snakes would whisper medical knowledge into Asclepius’s ears. These snakes could shed their skin and then appear bigger, healthier, and shinier than before.

A particular type of non-venomous snake was used during healing-the Aesculapian snake- that was left to exist freely in hospitals and dormitories where the sick and injured were admitted. In the classical world, these snakes were made part of each new temple of Asclepius. 

From 300 BCE and onwards, the cult of Asclepius gained a lot of popularity as pilgrims from all over the world would travel to Asclepius’s healing temples in order to find a cure for their illnesses.

They would offer sacrifices to the god as a form of ritual purification and then stay overnight in the holiest area of the sanctuary. In case of any dreams or visions, the supplicant would inform the priest, who would then interpret these and prescribe some form of therapy.

Some healing temples also adopted the practice of using sacred dogs to lick the wounds of the injured and sick.

2. Alpha and Omega Symbol

Alpha and omega stained glass on Church.Pin

A book of the Greek alphabets / stained glass on Church window
Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the alpha and omega are also part of the Book of Revelation as a title of Christ and God. This pair is part of Christian symbols and is usually used in combination with the Cross, Chi-rho (the first two letters for Christ in the Greek language), and other Christian symbols.

The alpha and omega symbols were made part of early Christianity. You will find them in early Christian paintings and sculptures, especially on the arms of the cross, and even in some jeweled crosses.

Despite being part of the Greek culture, these symbols are more commonly found in Western Christian paintings and sculptures than Eastern Orthodox Christian ones.

They appear on the left and right side of Christ’s head along with his halo and have been used as a replacement of the Christogram that was commonly found in Orthodox paintings and sculptures. 

The alpha and omega symbols on either side of Christ’s head are an indication that the end and beginning in Christ are linked into a single entity. 

3. Labyrinth

Theseus in the Minotaur's labyrinth.Pin

Theseus in the Minotaur’s labyrinth
Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was designed by the legendary artificer, Daedalus, and consisted of a complex confusing structure that was built especially for King Minos of Crete at Knossos.

It was built to hold the monster, Minotaur, that was later killed by Theseus. Daedalus had constructed the Labyrinth in such a complicated way so that Theseus could not easily escape it. 

In the English language, the word “labyrinth” is used interchangeably with the maze. However, due to an extensive history of the unicursal symbolism of the Greek Labyrinth, scholars and enthusiasts have now proposed a clear distinction between the two terms.

While a maze is a complicated branching multicursal puzzle that has numerous paths and directions to choose from, the unicursal labyrinth only has a singular path right at the center.

This means that the labyrinth has a routine from the center and back and is more complex to navigate through than a maze. 

4. Zeus

Zeus, god of sky and thunder.Pin

Zeus, god of sky and thunder
Prettysleepy via Pixabay

Zeus is the ultimate “Father of Gods and men,” according to Greek mythology. He was the ruler of the Olympians of Mount Olympus, just as a father was the ruler of his family. In Greek mythology, Zeus was famous as the god of the sky and thunder.

The Roman counterpart of Zeus was Jupiter, while his Etruscan counterpart was Tinia. The son of Cronus and Rhea, Zeus was the youngest in the family. Legend has it that he was married to Hera. However, at the oracle, Zeus’s consort was Dione. Moreover, the Iliad says that he is the father of Aphrodite by Dione. 

5. Apollo

Statue of Greek god Apollo.Pin

Statue of Greek god Apollo
After Leochares, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important and crucial Olympian deities present in Greek and Roman mythology, Apollo, is commonly known as the god of light and the sun.

He has been associated with truth and prophecy, medicine and healing, music, poetry, and art, as well as plague. Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto. The chaste huntress, Artemis, is his twin sister.

6. Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur.Pin

Sculpture of Theseus Fighting the Minotaur
Wmpearl, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a creature that was half man and half bull. It resided right at the center of the Labyrinth that was built especially for King Minos (see point 3 above).

Offspring of the Cretan Queen Pasiphae, the Minotaur was a glorious bull. The Minotaur had a humongous, frightening monstrous form, so King Minos ordered the construction of the Labyrinth to house the beast.

Built by the famous craftsman Daedalus, and his son, Icarus, the huge maze was constructed to imprison the Minotaur. Over the years, the Minotaur received annual offerings of young people and maidens. However, he was later killed by Theseus, the Athenian hero. 

Did you know that there are numerous coins from Crete that show the Labyrinth structure on the flip side? This can be linked back to the Labyrinth and Minotaur and could be derived from the Cretan admiration for bulls and the architectural beauty and complexity of their palaces. 

7. Gorgons

Three Gorgons on a building in Vienna.Pin

Three Gorgons on a building in Vienna
Image courtesy: en.wikipedia.org / CC BY 3.0

There are a number of descriptions of Gorgons in ancient Greek literature, each one different from the rest. However, in the early forms of Greek literature, the Gorgons symbol was associated with any of the three sisters whose hair was made of scary, venomous snakes and who had a terrifying expression.

The most common words associated with the Gorgons were “loud-roaring” and “terrible.” These vicious female monsters possessed long, sharp fangs. 

If anyone looked directly into their eyes, they would turn to stone. Legend has it that two of the Gorgon sisters, Stheno and Euryale, were immortal, while the last sister, Medusa, was not. Medusa was defeated and killed in a battle with Perseus, the demigod and hero. 

Since the Gorgons had an extremely terrifying expression, they were used to deter thieves and were placed on wine kraters in temples. A belt of serpents and snakes was used to bring the Gorgons together so that they could face each other. 

8. Hercules Knot

Hercules knot jewelry.Pin

A piece of jewelry with the Hercules knot
Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hercules Knot is known by a number of names, including the Knot of Hercules, Love Knot, and Marriage Knot. It is mostly used as a marriage symbol that represents eternal love and undying commitment.

The symbol of the Hercules Knot is made out of two intertwined ropes that, according to the Greek myth, symbolizes the fertility of God Hercules. 

Interestingly, the Hercules Knot was used in ancient Egypt as a healing charm. However, it became known as a token of love among the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as a protective amulet.

It was also made a part of a bride’s girdle that was later untied in a marriage ceremony by the groom. Moreover, the origin of the marriage phrase “tying the knot” is said to be made in association with the Hercules Knot. 

9. Hecate’s Wheel

Hecate’s wheel.Pin

Hecate’s wheel
Nyo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Hecate is a goddess who is usually shown as holding a pair of torches or a key. In later depictions, she appeared in triple form.

Hecate has been linked with crossroads, entrance-ways, light, magic, witchcraft, ghosts, sorcery, necromancy, and the knowledge of herbs and toxic plants. 

In Wiccan traditions, the Hecate’s wheel symbol represents three different aspects of the goddess, including the mother, maiden, and crone. 

According to feminist traditions, the wheel of Hecate symbolizes the power of knowledge and life.

10. Infinity Snake – Ouroboros Symbol

Ouroboros on a cemetery door.Pin

Ouroboros on a cemetery door 
SwiertzCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An ancient symbol, the Ouroboros or Uroborus, represents a serpent or dragon devouring its own tail. Arising in ancient Egyptian iconography, the Ouroboros became part of the western tradition through Greek tradition and was introduced as a symbol in Gnosticism, Hermeticism and alchemy. 

The symbol became a part of the Renaissance magic and modern symbolism through the medieval alchemical tradition and is usually used to represent contemplation, the everlasting return, or cyclicality, especially to refer to something continuously recreating itself.

The Ouroboros symbol is also used to portray the never-ending cycle of nature, its endless creation, destruction, life, and, ultimately, death. 

11. Solar Cross

Solar cross.Pin

Solar cross
Image courtesy: wikimedia.org / CC BY-SA 2.5

The ancient solar cross is often discovered in Bronze-age burial urns. Although a part of numerous cultures, the solar cross eventually became a part of Christianity and was associated with the crucifix. 

The solar cross symbol resembles the famous four-armed cross. Not only does it represent the sun, but it is also a portrayal of the repetitive nature of the four seasons and the four elements of nature.

Sun worship has existed as a concept since the advent of man. In ancient communities that were mostly agricultural and sustained by the sun for their livelihood, including food and drink, it is not surprising that the sun represented on the solar cross has been thought of as a god and hence, worshipped.

Since it is associated with the sun, the solar cross also bears a connection to the element of fire. It has been used in rituals that make the sun the center of worship and has been used as a replacement of heat or the energy of flames.

For the ancient Greeks, fire was considered to be a purifying element with the power to destroy. It creates and symbolizes masculinity, as well as the fertility of god. The solar cross symbol has also been used in getting rid of the old, or rebirthing the new rituals, and as a calendar to celebrate the solstices. 

12. Sun Wheel

Ancient sculpture of a sun wheel.Pin

An ancient sculpture of a sun wheel
Kinkiniroy2012, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The term “sun wheel” is derived from the “solar cross-” a calendar to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes in some ancient European cultures which were pre-Christian.

Along with being portrayed as a wheel or cross, sometimes the sun is represented as a simple circle or as a circle that has an apparent point in the middle. 

The sun has, for centuries, been a powerful symbol of magic and divinity. Due to its power, honey was used as an offering instead of wine because the ancient Greeks believed that it was dangerous for the universe to allow this powerful deity to get drunk and tipsy. 

Moreover, it was a common practice for the Egyptians to place a solar disc on the heads of their gods to portray that the deity was a god of the light. Imagine how powerful the sun was considered in some cultures! 

There is no denying that over time, the sun was associated with fire and masculine energy.  

13. Bowl of Hygeia

Bowl of Hygeia.Pin

Bowl of Hygeia
Bowl of Hygeia by David from the Noun Project

In Europe, the bowl of Hygeia is a common symbol found outside pharmacies. In the United States, a mortar and pestle symbol can commonly be found.

This symbol has been associated with pharmacies since 1796. In fact, it was also present on a coin that was minted for the Parisian Society of Pharmacy.

Hygeia was known as the Greek goddess of health and hygiene, as the name might suggest. She was associated with Asclepius, whose rod is now a symbol of health care all over the world. 

14. Labrys Symbol: Double Sided Axe

Labrys symbol / double-sided axe.Pin

Labrys symbol / double-sided axe
George Groutas, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The symbol of Labrys consists of a double-sided axe usually used in rituals. “Labrys” comes from Minoa and shares the same root as lips, or the Latin labus.

You can find the Labrys in ancient Minoan representations of the Mother Goddess. As the name may suggest, the Labrys has been connected to the labyrinth. 

The Labrys symbol was used on ancient charms in medieval times to attract women. Today, it is used as a form of identity and solidarity.

15. Omphalos

Omphalos.Pin

A unique stone statue / Omphalos
Юкатан, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to ancient Greek legend, God Zeus told two eagles to fly across the world so that they could meet at the center of the universe, more commonly referred to as the “navel” of the world. This is where the name of the religious stone, Omphalos, is derived from. In ancient Greek, Omphalos stands for “navel.”

The Omphalos was believed to be an object of power and was a symbol of Hellenic religion in Greek culture that represented world centrality.

16. Mano Fico

Pencil drawing Hand with Mano Fico/fig sign.Pin


Pencil drawing Hand with Mano Fico/fig sign
Illustration 75312307 © ImbrestockDreamstime.com

Commonly known as the fig sign, the Mano Fico symbol is used as a semi-obscene gesture in Turkish and Slavic cultures, along with some other cultures around the world.

There are a range of meanings that lie behind the Mano Fico symbol, some of which have slang connotations. The symbol represents two fingers and a thumb. It is a gesture that is mostly used to refuse any kind of request. 

However, the Mano Fico gesture is used to prevent evil eye and jealousy in Brazil. It is also a common symbol used on ornaments and jewelry as a good luck charm. 

The early Christians referred to the Mano Fico as the manus obscene, or “obscene hand.”

“Fig” was a term used by the ancient Greeks to denote the female genitalia. Hence, the Mano Fico gesture has been used to symbolize sexual intercourse. It is not uncommon for Roman amulets and ornaments to link both a phallus and a Mano Fico gesture together.

17. Solomon’s Knot

Ancient Roman mosaic of Solomon’s knot.Pin

Ancient Roman mosaic of Solomon’s knot
G.dallorto assumed (based on copyright claims)., Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The knot of Solomon has a number of symbolic interpretations because it has been used in different cultures and historical eras. Since the knot does not have any beginning or end, it is used to symbolize immortality and eternity, just like the Buddhist Endless Knot. 

It is common to find Solomon’s knot on tombstones and mausoleums, especially in Jewish graveyards and catacombs in several cultures. This is because Solomon’s knot is believed to represent eternity and the cycle of life.

The Solomon’s knot is also used on textiles and metalwork in Latvia to represent time, motion, and the sheer powers of pagan gods.

18. Mano Cornuto

Mano Cornuto / Sign of horns.Pin

Mano Cornuto / Sign of horns
Sign of horns by Symbolon from the Noun Project

The Mano Cornuto symbol is found in modern pop culture. It is associated with rock music and the satanic representation of the horned devil.

Interestingly, the Mano Cornuto has multiple meanings and representations, each different depending on the era and region it was used. In ancient Greece the gesture was used to express the meaning “horned”.

Hindus refer to the Mano Cornuto symbol as the “apana yogic mudra.” It represents the lion commonly found in classical Indian dance forms. Buddhists believe that the Mano Cornuto gesture protects them from evil spirits.

It has often been used to get rid of demons and problems, including negative thoughts. In pagan and Wiccan cultures, the Mano Cornuto is also associated with the Horned God. 

19. Fasces

Etruscan fasces.Pin

Etruscan fasces
F l a n k e r / Public domain

The word “fasces” portrays power, justice, and strength through unity. The conventional Roman fasces was made up of a number of white-colored birch rods that were bound together with a red leather ribbon, adopting the shape of a cylinder.

The fasces also came with a bronze ax that was placed on the side of the bundle, almost protruding from it. 

The fasces was a symbol of the Roman Republic and was hoisted in the arms of civilians, almost like a flat. It was a common possession during that era. 

20. Cornucopia

Cornucopia.Pin

Cornucopia / Symbol of Elpis
Jill Wellington via Pixabay

Commonly called the Horn of Plenty, the Cornucopia is an ancient Greek symbol that represents harvest abundance, prosperity, and nourishment.

It is portrayed as a horn-shaped basket in the shape of a spiral that is loaded with grains and fruits that the bountiful Earth has magically produced. 

The roots of the Cornucopia lie in ancient Greek mythology when the God Zeus was looked after and fed milk by a goat, Amalthea, when he was a baby. A few years later, when Zeus became god, he decided to reward Amalthea by allowing her to enter heaven as a constellation (Capricorn).

Zeus also gave his nurses Amalthea’s horn and promised them that they would receive a never-ending supply of whatever they wished for from the horn.

21. Caduceus

Caduceus.Pin

The Caduceus was Hermes’ staff in Greek myth.
OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay

An ancient symbol of commerce and trade, the Caduceus is associated with negotiation and eloquence. It is also connected to the smart and sly Greek god, Hermes, who is the agent of all gods.

Hermes is known to be the supervisor of souls in the afterlife and the one and only protector of travelers, merchants, and herdsmen. In the Hermetic Tradition, the Caduceus has been used as a symbol of wisdom and awakening.

The Caduceus represents two serpents wrapped around a winged staff. However, it must not be confused with the symbol of medicine, the rod of Asclepius. 

22. Chloris – Flora

Chloris.Pin

Chloris / A statue of the Greek goddess of flowers
Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, Chloris is known to be the goddess of flowers. Her name is Flora in Roman mythology. She is usually associated with the season of spring when all flowers bloom and turn to the light. 

Chloris is a representation of nature and flowers, particularly the May-flower. In Roman religion, she is one of the goddesses of fertility.

23. Hebe – Juventas

Portrait Hebe the goddess of youth.Pin

Portrait Hebe the goddess of youth
Ludwig Guttenbrunn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The daughter of Zeus and Hera, Hebe is the goddess of youth and is known as Juventas in Roman mythology. She is the cupbearer for the numerous gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus.

Hebe used to provide nectar and ambrosia to the divine deities. As she grew up, she went on to marry Hercules. Also commonly known as the goddess of forgiveness or mercy, Hebe possesses the power to convert older mortals to their younger selves. 

Summary

There are numerous ancient Greek symbols that have been used throughout history. Some of them remain popular even today, while others remain mere symbols of the past.

Together, all of these symbols and mythologies served as warnings, somber tales and legends during that era. 

References:

  • https://www.ancient-symbols.com/greek_symbols.html
  • https://symbolikon.com/downloads/category/greek-mythology-symbols/

Header image courtesy: Couleur from Pixabay

The Editors of Give Me History

The editors of Give Me History work with specific content that they’ve had considerable expertise within academic projects or study. The contents of this article have additionally been reviewed by external experts before publishing.

Cite this article

The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 23 Ancient Greek Symbols With Meanings," Give Me History, March 9, 2021, https://www.givemehistory.com/symbols-of-greece.

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