Natural disasters, diseases, vicious wildlife, and conflicts – humans have always known the world to be a dangerous and frightening place.
Where physical protection could not be guaranteed, people have often come to seek safety in the supernatural – rituals, incantations, and symbols.
The third, being the oldest practice and most universally featured in all human cultures.
Below is our compilation of the top 24 most important ancient protection symbols, and their significance through history.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Eye of Horus (Ancient Egypt)
- 2. Pentagram (Europe and Near East)
- 3. Hamsa (The Middle East)
- 4. Dreamcatcher (Native Americans)
- 5. Inanna’s Knot (Ancient Mesopotamia)
- 6. Turtle (Native Americans)
- 7. Scarab (Ancient Egypt)
- 8. Single Arrow (Native Americans)
- 9. Cactus (Native Americans)
- 10. Flint Knife (Ancient Egypt)
- 11. Tyet (Ancient Egypt)
- 12. Wreath (Ancient Greece)
- 13. The Helm of Awe (Norse)
- 14. Akoko Nan (West Africa)
- 15. Bear (Native Americans)
- 16. Rooster (Ancient Persia)
- 17. Dragon (Mesopotamia)
- 18. Drangue (Albania)
- 19. Ankh (Ancient Egypt)
- 20. Shaligram (Hinduism)
- 21. Cornucopia (Ancient Rome)
- 22. Bow and Arrows (Greco-Roman)
- 23. Shield Knot (Celts)
- 24. Algiz (Norse)
- Over to You
1. The Eye of Horus (Ancient Egypt)
Pharaohs would often be entombed wearing Wadjet amulets, and it was intended to protect them in the afterlife and ward off evil forces. (1)
The history behind the association is unclear. However, it may have likely arisen from a particular tale found within Egyptian mythology.
According to it, while fighting with Set over the throne of Osiris and ultimately the fate of Egypt, Set gouged out one of Horus’s eyes.
However, Thoth would manage to restore the majority of the eye. Upon its recovery, Horus is said to have offered it to Osiris in hopes of restoring him back to life.
Thus, a symbolization of restoration and protection. (2)
2. Pentagram (Europe and Near East)
While today usually associated with witchcraft and the occult, the pentagram symbol didn’t always suffer from such negative portrayals.
In ancient times, stretching as far back as the 3500 BC, it was widely perceived as a sacred symbol and hence widely employed as a protection against demons and black magic.
Across cultures, it held various meanings. Among the ancient Hebrews, each of its points depicted the five books of the Pentateuch and thus, by extension, was a repetition of the truth.
To the north, in Europe, the Celtics employed the pentagram was a representation of the sacred nature of five and was also the symbol of Morrigan, the goddess of death, fate, and war. (3)
The pentagram was also an important symbol among ancient Christian, representing the five wounds of Christ, and like the Hebrews, also was associated with truth. (4)
3. Hamsa (The Middle East)
Also known as the ‘Hand of the goddess,’ the hamsa is a palm-shaped amulet that has, since ancient times, been widely employed in Middle Eastern societies as a symbol of protection and to ward off the negative influences of the evil eye.
Over time, the hamsa symbol and its association as a divine protection charm would eventually be syncretized into other cultures as well, including the Romans (Hand of Venus), the early Christians (Hand of Mary), and among the Arabs and Berbers (Hand of Fatima).
It is also a sacred symbol among the Jews, although associated with religion itself rather than a goddess or an important religious figure. (5)
Likely it may have also been the influence behind the Mano Pantea, a similar protection amulet popular among the ancient Egyptians. (6)
4. Dreamcatcher (Native Americans)
In Ojibwe culture and other Native American groups, the dreamcatcher is typically used as a protective charm for infants, shielding them from bad dreams and influences.
According to Ojibwe folklore, the dreamcatcher has its origin with the Asibikaashi (Spider-Woman), a mythical guardian of children.
When the Ojibwe people began to spread all across the continent, it became difficult for the Asibikaashi to reach all of the children, so mothers would weave webs on willow hoops as a symbol of her protection. (7)
5. Inanna’s Knot (Ancient Mesopotamia)
Inanna was an important Mesopotamian deity associated with beauty, war, justice, and political power.
A stylized knot of reeds depicting the doorpost of a storehouse served as one of her divine symbols.
It also symbolized the reed boat Inanna built for humanity to save it from the flood the mischief god Enki send to wipe them out. (8)
Given its associations, it was often utilized as a talisman of protection and good luck.
6. Turtle (Native Americans)
Among many Native American tribes, because of its hard shell and long lifespan, the turtle often served as a symbol of protection and perseverance.
Native shamans would also often use turtle shells to dispense medicine as it was believed to contain spiritual healing qualities.
In addition, turtles may have also symbolized refuge for mankind.
In Mohawk and Cheyenne traditions, the earth was carried on the back of a World Turtle swimming through the great celestial sea; earthquakes being a sign of it stretching beneath the great weight it carried. (9)
Interestingly, the World Turtle myth is also found to be independently featured in Hindu mythology. (10)
7. Scarab (Ancient Egypt)
Throughout the history of Ancient Egypt, scarab beetles were widely popular as symbols used as amulets, pendants, and seals.
This may have largely stemmed from their association with the Sun god, Khepri. The beetle rolling dung across the sand served as a depiction of Khepri rolling the sun across the sky every day. (11)
Though various used in various functions, they were also often employed as a form of protection, particularly in the context of the departed in their travels to the underworld.
It was believed that when a person died and was sent to the underworld, the gods would ask of them highly intricate and detailed questions that had to be answered correctly and in the right manner.
In this regard, as part of the funeral rituals, priests would read the answers to scarab beetles and place their dead mummified bodies in the deceased’s ear so that the bug’s ghost could whisper the answers to them when needed. (12)
8. Single Arrow (Native Americans)
Arrow symbols carry immense cultural significance in many Native American cultures, being seen as the main object with which they gathered food and defended themselves.
Depending on how they are depicted, arrow symbols can hold various meanings.
The single arrow, for instance, symbolizes protection and defense while a broken arrow, on the other hand, represents peace. (13)
9. Cactus (Native Americans)
Among some Native American tribes, the cactus was considered a sacred plant and held various meanings, varying by tribe and culture.
Nevertheless, a common symbolism of it related to protection and endurance. Likely, this may have been because of its spikes and its ability to grow and thrive in the harshness of the desert environment.
The cactus was also widely used as a symbol of maternal love – the plant being a source of nourishment in a largely hostile landscape and helping treat various wounds and illnesses. (14)
10. Flint Knife (Ancient Egypt)
In Ancient Egypt, the flint knife was a symbol of protection and retribution and served use in many religious rituals.
Several protective deities such as Bes and Tauret were often portrayed wielding a flint knife.
There are many tales within Egyptian mythology that highlight the flint knife as a protective weapon.
For instance, in one story, Ra, in the form of the cat, uses such a knife to slew the serpent Apep when it threatened to destroy the sacred Persea tree (symbol of the sun).
Given the symbol’s association, creatures considered evil and ruinous such as scorpions and snakes, were often depicted with cuts made with a knife to render them powerless. (15)
11. Tyet (Ancient Egypt)
By extension, as her symbol, the Tyet was widely used as a representation of the concept of protection.
Ancient Egyptians would often bury their mummies with Tyet amulets in the belief that their bodies would remain guarded with the blessing of Isis. (17)
12. Wreath (Ancient Greece)
While wreaths nowadays are used purely as a decorative item, particularly for such occasions as Christmas, the custom of hanging them on the doorstep can trace its root back to ancient times.
In Ancient Greece, the wreath was a sacred symbol associated with various gods related to the harvest, such as Dionysus and Helios.
Them being hung at the door was intended to provide protection against crop failure and plagues. (18) (19)
13. The Helm of Awe (Norse)
In Norse mythology, the Helm of Awe (also known as the Helm of Terror) is a magical item worn by the dragon Fafnir, who attributes much of his invincibility to its power.
As a symbol, it is depicted by eight spiked tridents radiating outwards from a central point.
This aggressive depiction is meant to represent protection and defense against hostile forces. It may also symbolize concentration and hardening. (20)
14. Akoko Nan (West Africa)
Adinkra symbols are a ubiquitous aspect of Akan culture, being featured on walls, fabrics, potteries, and jewelry.
Each of these symbols encapsulates different concepts, proverbs, and ideas. (21)
The Akoko Nan, depicted in the shape of a hen’s leg, is an adinkra symbol representing parental protection and care.
It stems from the observation that even though a hen may tread on her chicks, it does not harm them – an exhortation to the desired form of parenthood; protective but also corrective. (22)
15. Bear (Native Americans)
Known for its size, strength, and ferocity, the American grizzly was held to be a sacred animal by many Native American tribes.
Among the Zunis people, it was a common tradition to curve stone bears to serve as a talisman of good luck and protection.
In Pueblo folklore, the bear was one of six directional guardians of earth, representing the West.
Because of a bear’s ability to become heavily wounded and still continue fighting, Native Americans also believed the animal to hold immense magical powers.
As such, various parts of a bear would often be worn in the belief that it would grant a person invincibility, good health, and spiritual powers. (23) (24)
16. Rooster (Ancient Persia)
In Ancient Persia, the rooster was considered among the most sacred of animals, associated with light and the struggle of good against evil.
It was also a protective symbol, said to guard the devout against harm and the influence of evil spirits. (25)
The significance of the bird remained even after the region had converted to Islam.
It was said that the crowing of a rooster indicated a visit by an angel. (26)
17. Dragon (Mesopotamia)
In Sumerian mythology, there existed a beast with the horns of a goat, the body of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind-legs of an eagle.
Known as mušḫuššu or mushkhushshu (furious serpent), it is one of the first depictions of what could be classified as a dragon.
The creature was linked with a number of important deities such as Ninazu, the god of the underworld, and Marduk, the god of creation, water, and magic.
Given his strong association with such deities, the dragon was also popularly used as a general protective symbol in Sumerian society. (27)
18. Drangue (Albania)
Among the most ancient tales in Albanian folklore is the story of the Drangue.
Described as Drogue, a semi-human winged divine being, the Drangue serves as the protector of humans against the Kulshedra, a demonic serpent said to be the cause behind droughts, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.
It is said that the occurrences of heavy thunderstorms are a result of such battles and hence, by extension, may have symbolized protection. (28)
19. Ankh (Ancient Egypt)
Among the oldest and recognizable symbols of Ancient Egypt, the Ankh signified the concept of life itself.
It was a common motif in Ancient Egypt to have deities or the pharaoh to be holding an ankh to signify their power to give and sustain life. (29)
It was common for people in the kingdom to wear protective amulets in the shape of the ankh to ensure they lived a long and safe life.
The ankh symbol was also commonly depicted with the was and djed sign – the trinity representing the concept of “all life, power, and stability.” (30) (31)
20. Shaligram (Hinduism)
Shaligram is a form of a fossilized shell that serves as one of the symbols of the chief Hindu deity, Vishnu.
As a god of preservation, he is tasked with protecting the world against chaos, evil, and destructive forces and preserve the dharmic principles.
As his symbol, the Shaligram is often perceived imbued with his divine blessings and thus used for seeking protection against harm and negative energies. (32)
21. Cornucopia (Ancient Rome)
Although not well-known today, Bona Dea was considered an important deity during Roman times and was popularly worshipped by members of all classes.
The reason her mentions are rare in most ancient sources is that her worship was mostly exclusive to women only.
In Roman society, women were not often given the opportunity to learn reading or writing.
Much of her descriptions come from male authors working with very limited knowledge of her rites and attributes. (33)
22. Bow and Arrows (Greco-Roman)
The bow and arrows were a commonly associated symbol of the Greco-Roman deity, Apollo.
Among the most celebrated of the Olympian gods, Apollo was linked with many aspects, including music, youth, archery, truth, and more. (34)
As a benevolent god known to help those in need and to avert evil and diseases, his symbols were often used as a talisman of protection and good health.
He also served as the protector god of the Greek city-state of Sparta. (35)
23. Shield Knot (Celts)
Among the celts, a vast range of stylized knot symbols was used both as decorative motifs and as representations of various important aspects.
The shield knot was a symbol of protection and was often incorporated into various items to ward off evil spirits or other dangers.
It also a common practice among warriors to paint the symbol on their shields to seek divine blessing while out fighting on the battlefield. (36)
24. Algiz (Norse)
Among the ancient Nordic and Germanic tribes, runes were more than just a form of a writing system; each letter itself served a representation of various cosmological principles.
Shaped like a human with their arms raised upwards, the Algiz rune signifies divine consciousness, spiritual awakening, and protection.
The symbol was often curved on various items and objects to invoke its protective power for the owner. (37)
Over to You
Do you know of any other ancient symbols of protection that you would like us to add to the list?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. If you enjoyed reading the article, be sure to share it with others as well.
- Chapter 14: Egyptian Art. [book auth.] David P. Silverman. Ancient Egypt . s.l. : Duncan Baird Publishers.
- Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. s.l. : Oxford University Press, 2004.
- The Morrigan: Phantom Queen and Shape-Shifter. Ireland Information . [Online] http://www.ireland-information.com/irish-mythology/the-morrigan-irish-legend.html#:~:text=The%20Morrigan%20(also%20M%C3%B3rrigan%20or,%2C%20destiny%2C%20fate%20and%20death..
- Octora, Willy. A Brief History of the Pentagram. [Online] https://willyoctora.wordpress.com/tag/pentagram/.
- Sabar, Shalom. From Sacred Symbol to Key Ring: The Hamsa in Jewish and Israeli Societies. Jews at Home: The Domestication of Identity . p. 144.
- Sonbol, Amira El-Azhary. Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies.
- Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. s.l. : Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979.
- Inanna’s knot. Ancient-Symbols.com. [Online] https://www.ancient-symbols.com/inannas-knot.
- Stookey, Lorena L. Thematic Guide to World Mythology. s.l. : Greenwood Press, 2004.
- Ball, Catherine. Animal Motifs in Asian Art. s.l. : Courier Dover Publications, 2004.
- Hart, George. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2005.
- Ward, John. The Sacred Beetle: A Popular Treatise on Egyptian Scarabs in Art and History. 1902.
- Native American Arrow Symbol. The Ancient Symbol . [Online] https://theancientsymbol.com/collections/native-american-arrow-symbol.
- Cactus Symbol. Native Indian Tribes. [Online] /native-american-symbols/cactus-symbol.htm.
- Knife (des). Ancient Egypt – The Mythology . [Online] http://www.egyptianmyths.net/knife.htm#:~:text=Meaning%3A%20The%20knife%20was%20an,type%20shown%20in%20the%20hieroglyph..
- Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. s.l. : Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- al, Goelet et. he Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going forth by Day. s.l. : Chronicle Books, 2015.
- Mitchell-Boyask, Robin. Plague and the Athenian imagination: drama, history and the cult of Asclepius. s.l. : Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Hastings, James. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 16. s.l. : Kessinger Publishing, 2003.
- THE HELM OF AWE. Norse Mythology for Smart People. [Online] https://norse-mythology.org/symbols/helm-of-awe/.
- In my father’s house : Africa in the philosophy of culture. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. s.l. : Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Akoko Nan . West African Wisdom: Adinkra Symbols & Meanings. [Online] http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/akok.htm.
- The Bear Symbol. Native Indian Tribes. [Online] https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/bear-symbol.htm.
- Native American Bear Mythology. Native Languages of the Americas . [Online] http://www.native-languages.org/legends-bear.htm.
- al, Page Smith et. The Chicken Book: Being an Inquiry into the Rise and Fall, Use and Abuse, Triumph and Tragedy of Gallus Domesticus. 2000.
- Sahih Bukhari Book 54. 522. Vol. 4.
- Black, Anthony Green & Jeremy. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. s.l. : The British Museum Press, 1992.
- Elsie, Robert. A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture. s.l. : Hurst & Company., 2001.
- Tobin, Vincent. Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion. 1989.
- What is an Egyptian Ankh? – Meaning & Symbol. Study.com . [Online] https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-an-egyptian-ankh-meaning-symbol.html.
- Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. . s.l. : Thames & Hudson, 1992.
- Narayan, M. K. V. Flipside of Hindu Symbolism. [book auth.] Jeanne Fowler. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices.
- Brouwer, Hendrik J. Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult. 1989.
- Krauskopf. The Grave and Beyond.” The Religion of the Etruscans. s.l. : : University of Texas Press, 2006.
- Graf, Fritz. APOLLO, THE YOUNG, AND THE CITY. Apollo. 2009.
- Celtic Knots – History and Symbolism. Ancient-Symbols.com . [Online] https://www.ancient-symbols.com/celtic-knots.html.
- 37. Algiz. Symbolikon . [Online] https://symbolikon.com/downloads/algiz-norse-runes/.
Header image courtesy: pikist.com