It is estimated that in only 8 percent of recorded history have humans been entirely free of conflict. (1)
Yet, the concept of war and aggression as we know and understand could not have existed without us having first conceptualized peace.
Throughout the ages, various cultures and societies have come to employ different symbols to communicate peace, harmony, and reconciliation.
In this article, we’ve compiled together a list of the 24 most important symbols of peace and harmony in history.
Table of Contents
- 1. Olive branch (Greco-Romans)
- 2. The Dove (Christians)
- 3. White Poppy (Commonwealth Realms)
- 4. Broken Rifle (Worldwide)
- 5. Rainbow Flag (Worldwide)
- 6. Pax Cultura (Western World)
- 7. Peace Sign (Worldwide)
- 8. Orizuru (Japan)
- 9. Lion and Bull (Eastern Mediterranean)
- 10. The V Gesture (Worldwide)
- 11. Peace Bell (Worldwide)
- 12. Mistletoe (Europe)
- 13. Mpatapo (West Africa)
- 14. Boar (Norse)
- 15. Kauri Tree (Maori)
- 16. Rain (Hawaii)
- 17. Three-point Zemi (Taíno)
- 18. Cubic Stone (Ancient Arabia)
- 19. Cornucopia (Romans)
- 20. Palm Branch (Europe and Near East)
- 21. Yin and Yang (China)
- 22. Bi Nka Bi (West Africa)
- 23. Broken Arrow (Native Americans)
- 24. Calumet (Sioux)
- Over to You
1. Olive branch (Greco-Romans)
While any concrete evidence regarding its origin remains elusive, one theory speculates that it may have been derived from the Greek custom of supplicants holding an olive branch when approaching a person of power. (2)
With the rise of the Romans, the association of the olive branch as a symbol of peace grew even more widespread, being used officially as peace tokens.
It was also the symbols of Eirene, the Roman goddess of peace, as well as the Mars-Pacifier, the peace aspect of the Roman god of war. (3) (4)
2. The Dove (Christians)
Today, the dove is easily one of the most widely recognized symbols of peace.
However, its original association was actually with that of war, being a symbol in ancient Mesopotamia of the Inanna-Ishtar, the goddess of war, love, and political power. (5)
This association would spread onwards to later cultures, such as that of the Levants and the ancient Greeks.
It would be the coming of Christianity that would influence the modern meaning of the dove as a symbol of peace.
The early Christians often incorporated in their funerary arts the image of a dove carrying an olive branch. Often, it would be accompanied by the word ‘Peace.’
Likely the early Christian association of the dove with peace may have been influenced by the story of Noah’s ark, where a dove carrying an olive leave brought news of land ahead.
Taken figuratively, it could mean the end of one’s difficult ordeals. (6)
3. White Poppy (Commonwealth Realms)
In the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth Realms, the white poppy, alongside its red counterpart, is frequently worn during Remembrance Day and other war memorial events.
It has its origin in the 1930s in the UK, where, in the midst of widespread fear of an impending war in Europe, they were distributed as a more pacifist alternative to the red poppy – a form of a pledge to peace that war must not happen again. (7)
Today, they are worn as a way of remembering the victims of wars, with the added meaning of hoping for the end of all conflicts.
4. Broken Rifle (Worldwide)
The official symbol of the UK-based NGO, War Resistors’ International, the broken rifle and its association with peace actually predates the history of the organization.
It first surfaced over a century ago in 1909 in De Wapens Neder (Down With Weapons), a publication of the International Antimilitarist Union.
From there, the image would be quickly picked up by other anti-war publications across Europe and become the symbol it is widely recognized for today. (8)
5. Rainbow Flag (Worldwide)
Interestingly, while much more recent in origin (first making an appearance in 1961 in Italy), like the dove, the rainbow flag as a sign of peace was also inspired by the story of Noah’s ark.
At the end of the Great Flood, God sent a rainbow to serve as a promise to men that there won’t be another calamity like it. (9)
In a similar context, the rainbow flag serves as a promise towards the end of conflicts between men – a symbol of struggle in the pursuit of everlasting peace. (10)
6. Pax Cultura (Western World)
The Pax Cultura emblem is the official symbol of the Roerich Pact, perhaps the first international treaty in existence dedicated to the protection of artistic and scientific heritage.
But its meaning extends beyond the confines of the treaty’s goal to represent peace in all forms. Because of this, it is also referred to as the Banner of Peace (11)
The three amaranth spheres at the center represent unity and the ‘totality of culture’ and the circle around them entirety, thus encapsulating the idea of all races of man forever united and free of conflict. (12)
7. Peace Sign (Worldwide)
The official peace symbol of today’s society, this sign has its origin in the anti-nuclear movement that emerged in Britain in the late 50s in response to the country’s nuclear program. (13)
A few years later, it would be adopted across the Atlantic in the United States by the anti-war activists opposing the country’s intervention in Vietnam.
Not copyrighted or trademarked, the sign would eventually become employed as a generic peace sign, being used by various activists and human rights groups in the wider context beyond war and nuclear disarmament. (14)
8. Orizuru (Japan)
Since ancient times, the crane has been seen as a symbol of luck in Japanese society.
According to a legend, anyone who manages to fold a thousand Orizuru (origami cranes) can have one of their wishes fulfilled.
It is for this reason why Sadako Sasaki, a girl struggling with radiation-induced leukemia in the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, decided to do exactly that in the hopes that her wish of surviving through the disease would be granted.
However, she would only manage to fold 644 cranes before succumbing to her illness. Her family and friends would complete the task and bury the thousand cranes with Sadako. (15)
Her real-life story made a powerful impression in people’s minds and facilitated the association of the paper crane with anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. (16)
9. Lion and Bull (Eastern Mediterranean)
In history, among the first coins to be minted was the croeseid. Depicting a lion and a bull facing each other in a truce, it symbolized the peaceful alliance that existed between the Greeks and the Lydians.
The lion was a symbol of Lydia, and the bull was a symbol of Zeus, the chief Greek deity. (17)
The Persians that succeeded the Lydians would carry on this association, featuring the two animals in coins in times when the relationship between the Empire and the Greek city-states were amicable. (18)
10. The V Gesture (Worldwide)
A widely recognized peace sign worldwide, the history of the V gesture ✌ is fairly recent, with it first being introduced by the Allies in 1941 as a rallying emblem.
Originally a sign meaning “victory” and “freedom,” it would only start to become a symbol of peace three decades later once it gained widespread adoption in the American hippie movement. (19)
11. Peace Bell (Worldwide)
Cast from coins and metal donated by people from over 65 nationalities, the Peace Bell was an official gift from Japan to the United Nations at a time when the country was yet to be admitted to the newly formed Intergovernmental organization.
Having been ravaged by war, this gesture heralded the changing ideals of Japanese society, away from militarism towards pacifism. (20)
It has since then been adopted as an official peace symbol of the United Nations and is said to embody the “aspiration for peace not only of the Japanese but of the peoples of the entire world”. (21)
12. Mistletoe (Europe)
A plant renowned for its medical properties, the mistletoe was considered sacred in Roman society.
It was typically associated with peace, love, and understanding, and it was a common tradition to hang mistletoe over doorways as a form of protection.
The mistletoe was also a symbol of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Likely, this could have been the influence behind the plant’s association with the later Christian festival of Christmas. (22)
The plant also plays an important symbolic role in Scandinavian mythology. After her son, Balder, would be killed by an arrow made out of mistletoe, the goddess Freya, in honor of him, declared the plant to be forever a symbol of peace and friendship. (23)
13. Mpatapo (West Africa)
In Akan society, adinkra are symbols convening various concepts and ideas and are a frequent feature in Akan art and architecture. (24)
The adinkra symbol for peace is known as the Mpatapo. Represented as a knot with no beginning or end, it is a representation of the bond that binds disputing parties to a peaceful reconciliation.
By extension of this, it also a symbol of forgiveness. (25)
14. Boar (Norse)
Certainly, an astonishing mention here on our list, for boars are anything but peaceful.
Nonetheless, among the ancient Norse, the boar served as one of the symbols of the Freyr, the god of peace, prosperity, sunshine and good harvest.
In Norse mythology, Freyr was the twin brother of the goddess Freyja and is said to be “the most renowned of the Æsir.”
He ruled over Alfheim, the realm of the elves, and rode a shining golden boar named Gullinbursti, from which his association with the real animal may have been influenced. (26) (27)
15. Kauri Tree (Maori)
The Kauri is a large tree species native to the North Island of New Zealand. They are a particularly long-lived but slow-growing tree species and are also said to be among the most ancient, appearing in fossil records as far back as the Jurassic period.
He is said to have given life to the first man and be responsible for creating the modern form of the world by managing to separate his parents – Rangi (Sky) and Papa (Earth). (29)
16. Rain (Hawaii)
In the Hawaiian religion, rain was one of the attributes of Lono, one of the four main Hawaiian deities to have existed before creation.
He was also strongly associated with peace and fertility as well as music. In his honor, the long festival of Makahiki was held, lasting from October all the way to February.
During this period, both war and any form of unnecessary work were said to be Kapu (forbidden). (30)
17. Three-point Zemi (Taíno)
The three-point Zemi was one of the symbols of the Yakahu, a deity worshipped by the Taíno, a culture indigenous to the Caribbean.
In their religion, he was considered to be one of the supreme deities and among his attributes included rain, the sky, the sea, good harvest, and peace.
Thus, by extension, this symbol also bore this association. (31)
18. Cubic Stone (Ancient Arabia)
In the pre-Islamic Arabian society, there were various deities worshiped by the nomadic tribes residing in the region.
Among the more notable ones was Al-Lat, the goddess of war, peace, and prosperity.
One of her primary symbols was the cubic stone, and in the city of Ta’if, where she was particularly venerated, it was this form in which was venerated at her shrines. (32)
19. Cornucopia (Romans)
In Roman mythology, Pax was the goddess of peace, born from the union of the Jupiter and the goddess Justice.
Her cult particularly grew in popularity during the time of the early Empire, a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Roman society. (33)
In arts, she was often portrayed holding a cornucopia, symbolizing her association with wealth, opulence, and peaceful times. (34)
20. Palm Branch (Europe and Near East)
In various ancient cultures of Europe and the Near East, the palm branch was considered a highly sacred symbol, being associated with victory, triumph, eternal life, and peace.
In ancient Mesopotamia, it was a symbol of the Inanna-Ishtar, a goddess whose attributes included both war and peace.
Further westwards, in Ancient Egypt, it was associated with the god Huh, the personification of the concept of eternity. (35)
In the later Greeks and Romans, it was widely used as a symbol of victory but also what came after it, that being peace. (36)
21. Yin and Yang (China)
In Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang symbolize the concept of dualism – of two seemingly opposing and contradictory forces actually being interrelated and complementary to each other.
Harmony lies in the balance of the two; should either the Yin (receptive energy) or the Yang (active energy) become too overbearing compared to the other, the harmonic balance is lost, giving rise to negative outcomes. (37)
22. Bi Nka Bi (West Africa)
Roughly translating to “no one should bite the other,” the Bi Nka Bi is another adinkra symbol used to express the concept of peace and harmony.
Depicting the image of two fishes biting each others tail, it urges caution against provocation and strife, given that the outcome is always in some form harmful to both parties involved. (38)
23. Broken Arrow (Native Americans)
North America was home to a diverse range of cultures, many having different symbols for expressing similar concepts.
However, common to many of them was the use of a broken arrow sign as a symbol of peace. (39)
The bow and arrow were a ubiquitous weapon in Native American society, and a variety of arrow symbols were employed for expressing different thoughts, concepts, and ideas. (40)
24. Calumet (Sioux)
In Sioux mythology, Wohpe was a goddess of peace, harmony, and meditation. One of her chief symbols was a ceremonial smoking pipe called a Calumet.
Among the settlers, it was more popularly known as the ‘peace pipe’, likely because they only saw the pipe being smoked on such occasions.
However, it was also used in various religious ceremonies and in war councils. (39)
Over to You
What other symbols of peace in history do you think we should include on this list? Tell us in the comments below.
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