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Top 23 Symbols of Motherhood and Their Meanings

Brown bear cub standing with her mom close.

The importance of mothers cannot be understated. The role of mothers in guarding, nurturing, and upbringing has led them towards a position of deep admiration and respect in society. It becomes more and more apparent in the world of today as mothers juggle with a day job, take care of the house, and make sure their children receive the best quality of life

However, being a mother does not imply motherhood. It takes strength, patience, and resilience to perform one’s motherly duties. History is a testament to this fact. Here we explore the top 23 symbols associated with motherhood throughout different cultures in history. They showcase some of the qualities of a mother and why the role of motherhood is one of elevated status.

1. The Chalice – (Ancient Pagan)

A chalice.
The Chalice
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This symbol derives its meaning from the Latin word chalix, meaning cup. In ancient pagan rituals, the chalice was used in rituals to hold water, an element for cleansing and sacred duties. [1]

Given its shape, it is thought to resemble a mother’s womb, pointing towards fertility and women’s ability to create life. The chalice can also be seen in Christian traditions as the ware that held wine, symbolizing Christ’s blood. Unlike pagan traditions, Christians do not associate any qualities of motherhood with the chalice; however, it too is used in religious ceremonies of consecration. [2]

Additionally, the chalice sees a lot of importance in Christian traditions as the vessel of the last communion of Christ before his crucifixion. Communion can also imply a familial bond, one of the most important aspects of motherhood. 

2. Tapuat – (Native American)

Tapuat.
Tapuat

The Tapuat symbol depicts a labyrinthine circular shape and is one of the most readily found symbols of the Hopi tribe etched on rocks or painted on cave walls. It loosely translates to mother and child, symbolizing the Earth’s connection with nature, or nature as a child of Earth. 

Many meanings can be derived from the symbol. The meandering of the curves indicates life’s tumultuous journey. It can be used as a symbol for the umbilical cord, signifying the physical connection of mother and child during gestation.

The maze begins at the center and radiates outwards, representing the stages of life post-birth. In some depictions, the maze has multiple endpoints, signifying the hindrances one might have to face during their life. [3]

3. Triskele – (Ancient Celtic)

Triskele Symbol.
Triskele Symbol
XcepticZP / Public domain

The symbol depicts a triple spiral emanating from a shared center. It is an ancient symbol of Celtic origin that has been seen in other traditions as well throughout the world.

In Celtic traditions, the symbols represent the three phases of womanhood: maiden, mother, and crone. The maiden symbolizes the innocence and purity of adolescent women, the mother, known for her love and nurturing nature, and the crone, representing the wisdom of old age.

However, it is most likely associated with the Bridgid, Celtic goddess of fire. She represents motherhood, among other attributes, and the triskele became a charm for followers to associate with her. [4] Other traditions, like the Christians, associate concepts that come in threes with the like, the Father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, or the Buddhist notion of life, death, and rebirth

4. Mother’s Knot – (Ancient Celtic)

Celtic heart.
Celtic heart

The mother’s knot is a symbol that depicts two or more hearts entangled with each other in a knot without having any ends open. It is believed the symbol has Celtic origins that depict motherhood and its importance in a familial unit. [5]

It symbolizes a mother’s eternal bond with her progeny and the intense love of a mother. It exists to this day and can be seen in prominent Irish jewelry and tattoos, taking inspiration from the holy trinity knot. Additional dots, representing the number of children in a family, can be placed on one of the hearts. [6] 

5. Yellow Cactus Flower – (Native American)

Yellow Cactus Flower.
Yellow Cactus Flower
J RAWLS, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cactus is a plant of the desert and holds significance in Native American culture due to its ability to survive the harsh, arid climate. Additionally, the plant was used for healing purposes, applied on wounds, and as a cure for digestive ailments. 

Given the Native American connection with nature, the yellow flower of the cactus came to symbolize motherhood and became a metaphor for a mother’s endurance, protection, and patience. It signifies a mother’s’ unconditional love for her children, regardless of how they treat her. [7] 

Even today, the color yellow symbolizes warmth, an aspect of motherhood that highlights her caring nature.

6. Virgin Mary – (Christianity)

Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus.
Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus
License: CC0 Public Domain / publicdomainpictures.net

In Christianity, God‘s son, Jesus was born without a biological father and is believed to be the son of God. As a result, Mary, Jesus’ mother, holds great significance among those of the Christian faith, hailing her as the blessed of all mothers. There are many depictions of Mary holding Jesus in her arms and are commonly referred to as the Madonna and child. 

She signifies chastity and is considered a prime mother figure in Christian households. Her story is one of suffering as well. Jesus’ crucifixion shows the deep affection of a mother, standing by her child as he is tested. [8]

7. Taweret – (Ancient Egyptian)

Taweret Sculpture.
Taweret Sculpture
See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Egyptian times, mothers were confined to the household, taking charge of it and producing offspring, particularly a son. However, infant mortality was high during those times. As a result, the ancient Egyptians looked towards their Gods for protection.

One of these Gods was Taweret. A feminine figure depicted by the head of a Hippopotamus, lion, or crocodile. It is believed that mothers would pray to her and wear her amulets as a symbol for protection during pregnancy, for successful labor, and the postpartum period. [9]

One of her traits included her ferocity as a demon goddess. Perhaps an indication of the ferocity of mothers when protecting their children. 

8. Gaia – (Ancient Greek)

Mother Earth Sculpture.
Mother Earth Sculpture
Amber Avalona, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many traditions consider the Earth as a goddess. The ancient Greeks had a similar notion with their Gaia. In Greek Mythology, Gaia is one of the primordial Gods of creation. Together with Uranus, the sky God, she brought the Earth into creation and governed all life. [10]

She became a symbol of motherhood, given her exalted place as the ultimate mother. Parallels of creation can be drawn from her myth and associated with motherhood, one who creates and cares for life.

Modern notions of Gaia depict her as a personification of the Earth, symbolizing fertility and nourishment. Hence, she is also associated with agriculture, influencing the fertility of the Earth, its very own soul.

9. Triple Goddess – (Neopaganism)

Triple Goddess Symbol.
Triple Goddess Symbol
Nyo., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The triple goddess is a symbol depicting a full moon with a waxing and waning crescent to its left and right, respectively. It is one of the most widely used symbols in Neopaganism – a form of nature worship with roots that precede Abrahamic religions.

Like the triskele, the symbol represents the three main phases of a woman’s life, with the central moon representing motherhood, among other characteristics, like sexuality, fertility, and maturity. [11]

This is not the first instance where the moon represented a Goddess. In Greek traditions, Diana was considered an embodiment of the moon, the protector of mankind. Perhaps, this is where the association comes from and symbolizes the protective nature of mothers. [12]

10. Cow – (Hinduism)

Cow Sculpture.
Cow Sculpture
Kamdhenu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Owing to the number of God and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, it isn’t that you’d find one that is a symbol for motherhood. In Hinduism, the cow is closely linked with many Goddesses, the most prominent of those are Kamadhenu and Prithvi. 

Given the largely agrarian communities present in the Indian subcontinent, the cow came to hold a sacred place among those of the Hindu faith. The products from a cow, milk, butter, ghee for nourishment, dung for fuel, and urine for dyes, are considered essential resources. As a result, the cow became a source of much veneration, hailed as the symbol of motherhood. [13] 

To this day, the slaughter of cows for meat is considered a heinous crime punishable by law in most Indian states.

11. Angwusnasomtaka – (Native American)

Crow Mother Sculpture.
Crow Mother Sculpture
MarkThree, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Hopi mythology, kachina spirits are considered sacred beings that embody religious beliefs. They can represent natural elements in the physical, natural, or supernatural world, and it is believed that they make their presence known during certain periods throughout the year. [14]

One of the kachina spirits is Angwusnasomtaka, the mother of all kachina spirits, and is thought to take the form of a crow which sheds light on her name as crow mother. Dolls are carved in her likeness and given to mothers for safekeeping and as part of rituals. [14]

She is considered as a guiding spirit and is called upon in initiation rituals, a spirit of maternal leadership, signifying its importance in Native tribes.

12. Isis – (Ancient Egyptian)

Philae Temple Egypt Goddess Isis As Angel Mural Artwork.
Philae Temple Egypt Goddess Isis As Angel Mural Artwork
Image Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

The conventional familial unit can be readily observed in ancient mythology, owing to the pantheon of Gods, Goddesses, and their offspring exhibiting such behavior. Among them was Isis, one of the most important and venerated Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. She is depicted with a headdress and wings symbolizing her queenly stature, and her name translates to Queen of the Throne. [16]

She is one of the deities in the Egyptian pantheon who is revered as a mother and wife, given her dedication and commitment to collect her husband Osiris‘ body parts after he had been usurped and dismembered by his brother Seth

Other than having the power to control magic, she held an exalted position as a great mother to her son Horus and was worshiped as a protector of women. 

13. Lakshmi Yantra – (Hinduism)

 Lakshmi the goddess of wealth.
Lakshmi the goddess of wealth

In Hindu traditions, their gods have spiritual instruments associated with them called Yantras. They are represented using geometrical patterns with sacred texts and hymns written on them that signify human consciousness. The Yantra is a device used for worship and rituals in Hindu traditions, where followers use them to pray as a charm for protection. [17]

The Lakshmi Yantra, as its name implies, is associated with the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi. Like Gaia, Lakshmi too is a symbol for primordial creation. [18] The Lakshmi Yantra is used in special Hindu events like Diwali and Kojagari, where it is used to pray for good luck and fortune.

14. Circle – (Native American)

The circle is a prominent Native American symbol that makes a part of other symbols. On its own, it is used to signify equality and the cycle of life. [19]

When coupled with the symbol for a woman, that is the woman symbol surrounded by a circle. The resultant symbol is used as a description of motherhood. It represents the familial ties that start with a mother, has no breaks, and the protective perimeter she provides. In Native American culture, women hold great respect and admiration because their force of life connects them to primordial Earth deities of the sky and the Earth. [20]

There can be many variations to the symbol, depending on the tribe. Additionally, the symbol for a child may also be included within the circle. 

15. Frigg – (Norse Mythology)

Frigg wife of Odin painting.
Frigg Painting
Illustration 
200822544 © Matias Del Carmine | Dreamstime.com

Frigg, also known as Friia, Frea, and Freya, is the wife of Odin and mother of Balder in the Norse pantheon of gods. She was a considered mighty sorceress and a loving mother, protecting her child Balder from any harm.

The story goes that Frigg used her sorceress powers to go to every living and non-living thing and have them swear an oath such that no harm befalls her beloved son. All except the mistletoe agreed. Ultimately, Balder was led to his demise by the wrongdoings of Loki, but the story became a symbol for a mother’s yearning for the protection of her kin. [21] As a result, Frigg became a symbol for maternity, love, and motherhood.

16. Yemaya – (West African)

Yemaya Painting.
Yemaya Painting
Image Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

Yemaya is the deity that resides in water bodies. The literal translation of her name, her true name, Yey Omo Eja, means mother whose children are the fish. It is a metaphor that aligns with modern creation theories that life sprang from the Yoruba River – the largest river in ancient times and the womb of life. Hence, Yemaya was venerated as the greatest mother and came to embody the tenets of motherhood, care, and love. 

However, due to the colonialism of African nations and the subsequently forced introduction of Catholicism, Yemaya was reformed as the Virgin Mary. In other traditions, she is considered the ultimate expression of female power. [22]

17. Monumento a la Madre – (Mexican)

Mother's Monument.
Mother’s Monument, photo taken in 2012
Laura Velázquez, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the garden of art in Mexico City lies a monument dedicated to maternity called Monumento a la Madre, or Mothers monument. It was the conception of Mexican journalist Rafael Alducin and Secretary of Education at that time, Jose Vasconcelos. It took five years to build and was open to the public on the 10th of May 1949. [23]

The monument commemorates mothers everywhere, depicting a sculpture of a woman with an ear of corn, a mother with her child in her arms in front of a large pillar, and a man writing. It is a symbol of the love and care a mother bestows upon her child, with the ear of corn representing fertility.

Sadly, the monument was destroyed after an earthquake in 2017, but subsequent renovation projects restored it back to its original glory in 2018.

18. Turtle – (Native American)

Turtle on Sand.
Turtle on Sand
Jeremy Bishop tidesinourveins, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The turtle is a highly respected figure in many Native American traditions. Its association with motherhood comes from the legends of the great flood, where it is credited with saving mankind. It dove underwater and brought mud to the surface, from which Earth was fashioned.

In addition, most turtle species have shells with 13 sections in their underbelly. Some Native American tribes use this as a parallel for the 13 phases of the moon, the celestial body used to represent motherhood. By proxy, the turtle is also treated with respect, and many totem poles depict the turtle, serving as a monument to highlight a tribe’s culture. [24]

19. Lilies – (Ancient Greek)

Lilies.
Lily of the valley
liz west from Boxborough, MACC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though many flowers have a multitude of meanings associated with them, lilies represent motherhood and purity in Ancient Greek times. 

According to Greek mythology, Zeus was notorious for being an adulterer. One of his acts of infidelity led to the birth of the renowned hero Hercules. Some accounts foretell that Zeus intended for Hercules to attain godly powers suckling on the breast milk of his wife, Hera.

However, it had to be done discreetly as Hera would not approve of this. Hence, Zeus snuck baby Hercules while she was sleeping. But Hera woke up as he was nursing, and breast milk sprayed out into the galaxy, making the Milky Way and the drops that fell to the ground sprouted lilies for the first time. As a result, lilies came to be associated with motherhood and creation. [25]

In the Christian faith, lilies, particularly lilies of the valley, hold significance as well. It is believed that as Jesus was being crucified, Mary wept at the base of the cross. Where her tears fell, lilies sprung out of the ground, symbolizing the shared pain of a mother and her child. [26]

20. Carnations – (Modern)

Red Carnation Flower.
Red Carnation Flower
Rick Kimpel, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern societies around the world know the importance of mothers. Though conventional norms of women as birthing mothers and caretakers of household affairs have been shattered after feminist movements, Mother’s Day is still celebrated throughout the world.

The founder of Mother’s Day is reported to be Anna Jarvis, who held the event in 1908 in remembrance of the passing of her mother 3 years prior. She held carnations at the event on account of them being her mother’s favorite flower. 

Interestingly enough, a previous attempt at making Mother’s Day a holiday was put forward by Julia Ward Howe. It was envisioned as a reminder of the power women held in shaping society when they undertake the responsibility of nurturing and upbringing their children. However, it never took off; unfortunately, Anna Jarvis’ carnation drove the appeal, and it became a capitalist holiday celebrated on the second Sunday of May. [26]

21. Venus – (Ancient Roman)

Crouching Venus Statue
Crouching Venus Statue, 1st century AD
Andres Rueda, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Venus is the Roman God of love, fertility, motherhood, and domesticity. She takes her roots from her counterpart Aphrodite who, more or less, represented the same characteristics. 

Though Roman mythology accounts Venus as having a deviant character, taking many lovers. However, her depictions with her son cupid showcase her motherhood. In most paintings, cupid and Venus are depicted as nude, symbolizing purity.

Moreover, they depict the closeness they had for one another, with cupid playfully by her side or in her arms. It shows how motherly bonding is important for forming healthy relationships with your child. [27]

22. Bear – (Native American)

Brown mother bear protecting her cubs.
Brown mother bear protecting her cubs

Like the turtle, most Native American tribes also hold great respect for the bear and associate meaning with the animal. Other than being a symbol of strength, courage, and authority, the bear symbolizes motherhood as well. It was considered as one of the forms the Kachina spirits would take as they roamed the Earth. [28]

The Native American people drew parallels with the bear mother. Much like how Native American women protected their young, the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs was well known and feared. As a result, the mother bear became a symbol of motherhood as well, owing to her protective nature. [29]

23. Pelican – (Medieval Christianity)

Pelican in aachen cathedral.
Pelican in Aachen cathedral
Horst J. Meuter, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To most people, the pelican may simply be a large bird found near water bodies, but to Christians in the 7th century, it was highly revered. So much so that it can be found in important artworks of cathedrals and churches throughout the catholic world.

Most depictions of the bird show it plucking at its breast to feed her young with her blood. This is because of the commonly held belief that pelicans would commit such an act to save their young. Though this notion was later proved wrong, the allegory was quickly adapted within Christian beliefs to represent Jesus as the pelican who, in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, allowed himself to be crucified to atone for human sins. [30]

Before its meaning got reshaped, the allegory was used to denote motherhood and a mother’s self-sacrifice when caring for her young. [31]

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Cite this article

The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 23 Symbols of Motherhood and Their Meanings," Give Me History, January 25, 2022, https://www.givemehistory.com/symbols-of-motherhood.

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