Ancient History > Ancient Symbols > 23 Important Symbols of Time With Meanings

23 Important Symbols of Time With Meanings

Antique hourglass.

Time is perhaps the most elusive of human perceptions. Throughout history, humans have remained intrigued by the passage of time. A phenomenon we can experience but never touch or control.

But still, we realize its importance, seeking patterns throughout the universe to explain its repetitive and fleeting nature

The measurement of time became an important aspect of life since the dawn of civilization. Ancient cultures had unique ways of determining time.

Keeping time held significance in day-to-day activities, such as determining sleep and activity cycles, as well as gauging times of harvest, religious ceremonies, and preparing for seasonal changes through the months and years.

The explanation of time in history has led to many symbolic representations that capture its nature. As a result, many tools and modes of measurement sprang up that somewhat accurately depicted the notion.

These concepts rely on pre-existing phenomena that eventually became synonymous with time. Let’s take a closer look at some of the symbols of time and explore the meaning behind them.

Below are 23 of the most important symbols of time through history:

1. The Moon – (Multiple Ancient Cultures)

Moon on night sky
Moon as a symbol of time
Robert Karkowski via Pixabay

Recording the phases of the moon became an obvious indication of time passage in ancient cultures. The moon regularly changed the way it appeared in the night sky, owing to its revolution around the Earth and subsequent Lunar eclipses.

It became a somewhat accurate way to keep time and led to the formation of the lunar calendar, which spans around 29 days. 

Though it is unknown where this mode of timekeeping began, it is still relevant today in Islamic traditions, as seen by their use of the Hijri calendar.[1]

It doesn’t span the complete 365/366 days of the Gregorian calendar; instead, the number of days in years and months vary on account of the moon’s inexact cycle of 29.53 days per revolution around the Earth.

2. Mechanical Clocks – (Modern)

Big Ben clock in London, England.
Big Ben in London, England
Photo by PIXNIO

Mechanical clocks for timekeeping became a standard piece of equipment for the most part of modern civilization. Its origins lie in 13th-century medieval religious institutions that required an accurate model of timekeeping for determining daily practices.[2]

The clocks themselves were heavy and required counterweights to operate. It was until a couple of centuries later that the technology became more compact, utilizing springs to store energy for movement. 

Clocks are still in use today; however, they rely on electronic means to tell time more accurately. Remnants of old mechanical clocks can still be seen today, the most famous being Big Ben in London, England. 

3. The Sun – (Ancient Egypt)

Sundial in garden.
Sundials as a symbol of time
Image courtesy: pxfuel.com

The earliest use of sundials can be observed in ancient Egyptian ruins. It consisted of an obelisk that cast a shadow as the sun moved across the sky. It helped divide days into hours, allowing ancient cultures to govern daily activities like scheduling trade, meetings, the start of work, and social practice. 

The sundial developed in other ancient cultures like the Babylonians using a concave design. The Greeks used Gnomons with their knowledge of geometry, a technology that spread to the Roman, Indian, and Arab cultures who made their own variations to the underlying concept. [3]

It is rare to find sundials today, but the symbols can still be found in ancient ruins, as well as, on castle walls. It became a symbol of human ingenuity. Additionally, several Old Testament passages describe the sundial of Ahaz.

The biblical account tells of how Yahweh, the Hebrew God, caused the shadow to go back ten degrees on the dial.[4] The account signified the power of God to control heavenly bodies.

4. Candles – (Ancient China)

Candles
Candles as a symbol of time
Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known use of candles for timekeeping comes from a Chinese poem in the 6th century. Candles with markings were used to measure segments of time at night. The candles, when lit, would melt away their wax and come down to a pre-marked level, signifying a certain passage of time has occurred. [5]

The device could be customized to hold nails embedded in the wax. As the candle melted, the nails would drop down in a metal pan, giving a sort of rudimentary alarm.

The melting candle acts as the perfect metaphor for the flow of time, and as such, it can be seen as a symbol for time. Unlike the candle flame that governs its function, we are still puzzled by the phenomenon that governs time.

5. Sand – (Ancient Greek)

An hourglass
Sand as a symbol of time
Image from piqsels.com

The flow of a particular quantity of sand to mark the passage of time can be attributed to the ancient Greeks form, where it was adopted by the Romans. It was thought the sand clocks were used to limit time in speeches and discussions in the Roman senate.[6]

It wasn’t until the 8th century that hourglasses appeared, a transparent vessel with two bulbous containers with sand inside. It was tipped over to allow sand to pass through a constriction. When the sand emptied one of the vessels, it indicated that a certain amount of time passed.

It could be constructed in various sizes to segment time. Owing to the English idiom “the sands of time,” it became synonymous with time, where the hourglass symbolizes the limited nature of our time, that is, life Or the eventual reality of a beginning and an end to all things.

6. Infinity – (Ancient Egypt)

Infinity as a symbol.
The Infinity symbol as a symbol of time
MarianSigler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Infinity is a concept most people don’t understand. But its relation with time is one that points towards eternity. The questions we’ve pondered about time are with regards to the age of the universe. Does it have an end? Where does it start? As a result, many ancient cultures had realized the concept and personified it with their Gods. 

For example, the ancient Egyptians symbolized eternity by their God Heh. An essential force governing the universe and symbolizing prosperous years. [7]

Chronos, in Greek mythology, was the personification of time, whereas Eon was considered the chief deity of time much later in Hellenistic times.

Eon is largely associated with the concept of infinite time, while Chronos is connected to the progression of time and its linear nature.[8]

7. Orion –(Ancient Egyptian)

Orion
Orion as a symbol of time
Mvln, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The celestial sky has been a source for timekeeping, with heavenly bodies like the sun and moon being used to mark the passage of time. Similarly, the stars also held great importance for keeping track of time. Particularly constellations that made discernable patterns in the night sky. 

One of the most famous is the constellation now known as Orion, as outlined by the ancient Greek. According to Greek mythology, Orion was cast into the night sky by Zeus after his defeat at the hands of a giant Scorpio. [9]

However, the constellation was first observed by the ancient Egyptians, who particularly noted the three stars that form Orion’s belt. 

There is much debate surrounding the archaeological community between the position of these stars and the pyramids of Giza. It appears that the stars line up at the tip of the pyramids after their motion in the night sky, making it seem like they symbolize an important event in ancient Egyptian culture.

8. Water – (Ancient Egyptian)

Ancient Egyptian water clock.
Ancient Egyptian water clock as a symbol of time
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like the flow of sand, the flow of water was also used to signify the flow of time around 1500 BCE. [10] A bucket of water with a hole in the bottom allowed water to flow out and collect into another bucket. Once the water ran out, a segment of time was considered to have passed. 

This instrument is the most basic of water clocks. The technology was further refined by the Greeks but its variations can be seen throughout different dynasties like the Islamic, Persian, Babylonian, and Chinese. 

Like with an hourglass, this instrument too draws parallels with the fleeting nature of time and gives a visual metaphor for its passage.

9. The Wheel – (Ancient Indian)

Konark sun temple wheel
Ancient Indian wheel as a symbol of time
Amartyabag, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of perpetuity is discussed within Greek and Indian cultures, but drawing parallels from the wheel is a notion touched upon by ancient Indian Vedas. [11] The wheel of time is a concept that symbolizes the perpetual notion of time as a continuous force that waits for no one, a symbol for mortality. 

Additionally, the wheel also runs in a circle, signifying the cyclical changes in the universe, a representation of change in natural phenomena like the progression of seasons and the changing of tides. And the process of rebirth, where life is conceived and, at the same time, dies out. 

10. Saturn – (Ancient Roman)

Saturn
Saturn as a symbol of time
Kevin Gill from Los Angeles, CA, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The name Saturn predates the planet and most likely the inspiration of the gas giant with the longest time to orbit the sun. Saturn is considered derivative of the Greek God Cronus.

According to Roman mythology, Saturn taught agriculture to the people of Latium after he fled from Jupiter, where he was worshipped as a deity who oversaw nature. [12]

His association with the Golden Age where the people of Latium enjoyed a time of prosperity due to a higher standard of living. This linked him with the progression of time, particularly times of rejoicing.

As a result, he held dominion in calendars and the seasons, marking significant events that occurred through the year, most notable of these was the harvest.[13]

11. Scythe– (Various Cultures)

The Greek God Cronus with his Scythe.
The Greek God Cronus with his Scythe
Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The scythe can be seen throughout various cultures. The Greek God Cronus, Roman God Saturn, and Christian figure Father Time, are all depicted carrying a scythe. Additionally, the popular figure grim reaper also appears to be carrying a scythe. [14]

The scythe is an agricultural tool for harvest. Why does it hold such importance? And, what is its relation with time? 

It represents the end of time and its unstoppable flow, like how the motion of a scythe is used to pluck crops out. The grim reaper is a personification of death and harvests souls.

Here, the scythe can be seen as an instrument that symbolizes the end of life and how mortality is a characteristic of nature that no one can escape.

12. Merkhet – (Ancient Egyptian)

Merkhet ancient egypt
Merkhet as a symbol of time
Science Museum Group, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The merkhet was an ancient Egyptian instrument that was an improved design over the sundial. It consisted of a plumb line attached to a bar for alignment with stars to obtain a true reading of time during nighttime. It is one of the oldest known instruments that relied on astronomy for timekeeping.[15]

Two merkhets were used in tandem and aligned with pole stars. Two give an accurate reading of time relative to the position of other stars. It must have held significance among the Egyptians as a tool for conducting religious ceremonies during a particular time of the year.

Additionally, it was used as a construction tool to mirror the Duat (the residence of Gods) on Earth by marking building sites that aligned with constellations in the night sky. [16]

13. Music – (Origins Unknown)

Music notes on paper.
Music as a symbol of time
Image from piqsels.com

We take for granted the role music plays in our lives; however, the relationship between music and time may not be common knowledge. One of the fundamental aspects of music is rhythm, the placement of sounds at regular intervals. That’s how it is created.

Particularly good music has the effect of entrancing us, tricking our perception of temporal time. The phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” is a testament to this fact. How time seems to become a more subjective thing rather than something that is progressing at its own speed.

It is unknown where the music originates from, but it can be considered as one of the earliest forms of human engagement that transcends time itself.

14. The Symbol t – (Modern Science)

The symbol t as a symbol of time.
The symbol t as a symbol of time
Image courtesy: pxhere.com

The importance of time in Science cannot be understated. Given the innovations in timekeeping, it has become a quantifiable natural phenomenon that denotes past, present, and future events. In scientific terms, time is represented by the symbol t, and its base unit of measurement is the second. 

A second is defined as the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 cycles of electrons between the excited and ground states of the cesium 133 atom. Though the definition is concrete, time is considered a 4th dimension in the space-time field. As a result, it is a relative phenomenon that can be proved depending on the state of observation. [17]

The concept holds true for GPS technology. Satellites in orbit experience time more slowly than an observer on Earth on account of time dilation.[18]

15. Pendulum – (Italian Renaissance)

A pendulum clock.
Pendulum as a symbol of time
(David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Galileo was perhaps the most noteworthy scientist during the Italian renaissance. Other than inventing the telescope and observing the moons of Jupiter, he experimented with pendulums to find a fitting discovery.

His observation included that the time for each oscillation of a pendulum is related to the length of the string it’s attached to and the gravity at that point.

This information was vital for timekeeping, as seen by the development of pendulum clocks by Christiaan Huygens in the 17th century. [19] As a result, the movement of pendulums and their counterpart metronomes can be seen as a symbolic representation of the passage of time.

Since their length can be adjusted, pendulums can be programmed to swing faster or slower. 

16. Arrow – (Modern)

An arrow.
Arrow as a symbol of time
SimpleIcon http://www.simpleicon.com/, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The way we experience time implies a direction to it. However, the equations that explain natural phenomena are also applicable in the backward flow of time, yet time moves from past to present to future. 

The scientific community is in agreement with the Big Bang as the point of creation. However, it’s hard to discern whether or not the universe had life before this event. Nevertheless, time has been considered to have started since then, and the direction it moves is relative to it.

The reason we experience in one direction is correlated with entropy; that is, the total energy of a system must decrease or stay the same with time.[20]

The arrow of time phenomenon was posited by Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington in his book The Nature of the Physical World. It summarized the idea of the arrow of time concept noting how the physical world would seem nonsensical if time were to be reversed.[21]

17. Time Machine – (Science Fiction)

Back to the Future, the DeLorean Time Machine.
Back to the Future, the DeLorean Time Machine
JMortonPhoto.com & OtoGodfrey.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Traveling through time is a grand concept observed within fiction. Back to the future, 12 Monkeys, and recently, Tenet are just some of the films that exhibit a machine that allows one to travel through time. 

What’s most important to realize in these concepts is how they explore creative ways of the resultant effects of time travel. It may lead to paradoxes, a change in future events, or no change at all. 

The reason a time machine lies in the realm of science fiction is that it conflicts with how the universe governs itself. It is uncertain whether future technology will permit time travel as scientists are still researching possible theories.[22]

But, it shows the ingenuity of human thought and brings new discussions to the table. Who knows if the representation of an idea becomes the basis of truth?

18. Pictures/Images – (Throughout History)

Photographs
Pictures/Images as a symbol of time
Image from piqsels.com

Art is one of the most diverse subjects known to man. Ever since humans banded together to form the basis of civilization, depictions in paintings have given us insight into the kind of life they must have been living. Effectively, making them capture an instance of time.

This notion can be extended to images captured by a camera, landscape portraits, and other artwork throughout history. When compared with the world of today, they give us an indication of the time passed, where we stand today, and how society has changed over time.

19. Calendars – (Various Cultures)

An ancient Aztec Calendar, as a symbol of time.
An ancient Aztec Calendar, as a symbol of time
Image courtesy: pxfuel.com

The ancient Egyptians employed the use of a calendar based on lunar cycles; however, it failed to predict the annual flooding of the river Nile. However, they noted that the star Sirius appears in the sky just before the sun rises.

The event coincided with the flooding of the Nile. As a result, another calendar was adopted around 4200 BCE, making it one of the most accurate calendars. [23]

The Sumerian, Gregorian, and Islamic calendars are just some used to symbolize the passage of time throughout history. Each marking significant events over the years that hold religious or civil importance.[24]

20. Yin Yang – (Ancient Chinese)

Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang as a symbol of time
Gregory Maxwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yin and Yang are two complementary forces in Chinese philosophy that span millennia. It sheds light upon the concept of duality in nature like right and wrong, good and evil, and even day and night. 

The concept itself doesn’t explain the passage of time. Instead,it highlights the cyclical order of things as we experience them with time. Its origins can be traced to the timekeeping mechanism that differentiated between day and night. [25]

It was important to distinguish the two on account of the moments experienced during both halves. Yin symbolizes different qualities from Yang and is believed to influence human activity to that degree. [26]

21. The Stonehenge – (Neolithic Period)

Stonehenge
Stonehenge as a symbol of time
Frédéric Vincent, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Stonehenge is perhaps the greatest monument of the ancient world that has perplexed archeologists to this day. It consists of series of pillars arranged in a circular fashion that dates back to around 3100 BCE. [27]

Scientists are still unsure about the purpose it served, but one possible theory suggests that it was used as a calendar. The alignment of the sun and moon with the pillars as reference could be used to indicate seasonal changes, harvest times, and agricultural activity.

It still holds significance among the present-day Druids, marking the celebration of the summer solstice. [28]

22. Time is Money – (Common Idiom)

Coins with clock blur background
Money as a symbol of time
Image from pixabay.com

This common idiom is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, of the founding fathers of the United States. In his essay titled Advice to a Young Tradesmen, he first coined the idiom. [29]

Time in itself is not physical currency; however, the idiom serves to highlight the importance of time. It can be argued that time is more important than money owing to its irreversible nature, that lost time cannot be brought back.

Any actions leading to undesirable effects cannot be changed and may become a source of regret as time passes by.

23. Immortality – (Ancient Greek)

Immortality is not a question of eternal life but can be argued as one of eternal existence that transcends time. The monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all claim the soul to be an immortal aspect of life even after the bodies die. The way their life goes on in the afterlife depends on the action one performs during their physical life. [30]

Similarly, the concept was touched upon famously by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates before he was forced to drink hemlock that ended his life.

His argument for immortality came after he discussed the cyclical nature of things in existence, like if something was hot, then it must have previously been cold, if something was asleep, then it must have been awake. He drew from this that his life would continue on and come into existence. [30]

Though immortality is a concept that cannot be proved, it symbolizes the thought of perpetuity with time. 

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Header image courtesy: piqsels.com

Cite this article

The Editors of Give Me History, "23 Important Symbols of Time With Meanings," Give Me History, September 27, 2021, https://www.givemehistory.com/symbols-of-time.

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