Religious symbol

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For other uses, see Religious symbolism.

A religious symbol is an iconic representation intended to represent a specific religion, or a specific concept within a given religion.

The Christian cross has traditionally been a symbol representing Christianity or Christendom as a whole. In the course of cultural relativism as it developed in the western world in the late 20th century, there have been efforts to design comparable "symbols" representing all of the world's religions.

Thus, the United States military chaplain symbols were limited to Christian and Jewish symbolism before the 1990s. In 1990, they were expanded by a wheel of dharma supposed to represent Buddhism, and in 1992 by a crescent moon supposed to represent Islam. Use of an Aum symbol representing Hinduism was in planning as of 2011.

Similarly, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs emblems for headstones and markers have been considerably expanded after a lawsuit was filed by Wiccans in 2006 (Stewart v. Nicholson). Until that time, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognized 38 symbols, including 16 variations of the Christian cross. In an out-of-court settlement, the VA accepted the inclusion of a greater variety of symbols, and as of 2013, the number of recognized symbols has risen to 57 (including a number of symbols expressing non-religiosity).

Symbols representing a specific religion[edit]

Symbolic representation of a specific religious tradition is useful in a society with religious pluralism, as was the case in the Roman Empire, and again in modern multiculturalism.

Religious tradition Name Symbol Origin Notes and references
Baha'i nine-pointed star
Bahai star.svg
According to the Abjad system of Isopsephy, the word Bahá' has a numerical equivalence of 9, and thus there is frequent use of the number 9 in Bahá'í symbols.[1] It was recognized as a grave marker by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2005.
Buddhism Wheel of Dharma
USVA headstone emb-02.svg
The Wheel has been used as a symbol for the concept of Dharma since at least the 3rd century BC. It has been defined as representing Buddhism as a religious tradition as one of the United States military chaplain symbols in 1990.
Christianity Christian cross
Christian cross.svg
2nd century CE The Christian cross was in use from the time of early Christianity, but it remained less prominent than competing symbols (Ichthys, Staurogram, Alpha and Omega, Christogram, Labarum, etc.) until the medieval Crusades. Early Christianity had use for such symbols due to the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, as the symbol allowed inconspicuous identification of one Christian to another.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Angel Moroni
USVA headstone emb-11.svg
1844 The Angel Moroni is an important figure in the theology of the Latter Day Saint movement, and is featured prominently in Mormon architecture and art. An angel with trumpet motif was first used as the weather vane for the 1844 Nauvoo Temple, and starting with the 1892 Salt Lake Temple, most LDS temples feature an Angel Moroni statue, including the rebuilt 2002 Nauvoo Illinois Temple.
Hinduism Om
The syllable "om" or "aum" is first described as all-encompassing mystical entity in the Upanishads. Hindus believe that as creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration manifesting as sound "OM".[2] Before creation began it was "Shunyākāsha", the emptiness or the void. The vibration of "OM" symbolises the manifestation of God in form ("sāguna brahman"). "OM" is the reflection of the absolute reality, it is said to be "Adi Anadi", without beginning or the end and embracing all that exists.[2] The mantra "OM" is the name of God, the vibration of the Supreme. When taken letter by letter, A-U-M represents the divine energy (Shakti) united in its three elementary aspects: Bhrahma Shakti (creation), Vishnu Shakti (preservation) and Shiva Shakti (liberation, and/or destruction).[2]
Islam Star and Crescent
500s The star-and-crescent was originally a symbol of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful Muslim empire of the modern era; it came to be re-interpreted as a symbol of Islam after the Ottoman Empire's collapse in the early 20th century.

Thus, the symbol was adopted by the All-India Muslim League in 1940 (later becoming the Flag of Pakistan), and it was used by the US American Nation of Islam from the 1970s.

Islam Islamic calligraphy (various) 1970s The strong tradition of aniconism in Islam prevented the development of symbols for the religion until recently (other than single-coloured flags, see Green in Islam, Black Standard). The lack of a symbol representing Islam as a religion paired with the desire to come up with national flags for the newly formed Islamist states of the 1970s led to the adoption of written text expressing core concepts in such flags: the shahada in the flag of Saudi Arabia (1973) and a stylized Allah in the Flag of Iran (1979). The Flag of Iraq (2008) has the takbir.
Jainism Jain emblem
Jain Prateek Chihna.svg
1974 An emblem representing Jainism was introduced in 1974.
Judaism Star of David
Black Star of David.svg
17th century CE Jewish flags featuring hexagrams alongside other devices appear from as early as the 14th or 15th century CE. Use of the Star of David as representing the Jewish community is first recorded in Vienna in the 17th century CE.
Mithraic mysteries Tauroctony 2nd century CE Mithraism is notable for its extensive use of graphical symbols, mostly associated with astrological interpretations. The central symbol is the scene of Mithras slaying the bull; Mithras could also be symbolized in simplified form by representing a Phrygian cap.
Norse polytheism Thor's Hammer
9th century CE During the gradual Christianization of Scandinavia, from roughly 900 to 1100 CE, there was a fashion of wearing Thor's Hammer pendants, apparently in imitation of the Cross pendants worn by Christians. These pendants have been revived since the 1970s are representing Germanic Neopaganism.
Roman imperial cult Radiant crown 2nd century CE Long used as symbol for Sun gods, the crown became the symbol of the divine status of the Roman Emperor, identified with Sol Invictus, around the 2nd century CE. The concept gave rise to the royal crowns familiar throughout the European Middle Ages.
Satanism Sigil of Baphomet
1960's The Sigil of Baphomet is the official insignium of LaVeyan Satanism and the Church of Satan. The Sigil was derived from an older symbol that appeared in the 1897 book "La Clef de la Magie Noire". This symbol was for a time used by the Church of Satan during its formative years. During the writing of The Satanic Bible, it was decided that a unique version of the symbol should be rendered to be identified exclusively with the Church of Satan. The complete graphic now known as the Sigil of Baphomet, named such for the first time in Anton LaVey's The Satanic Rituals, first appeared on the cover of The Satanic Mass LP in 1968 and later on the cover of The Satanic Bible in 1969.[3] The symbol is copyrighted by the Church.[4]
Shinto Torii
Sikhism Khanda
1920 A graphical representation of the Sikh slogan Deg Tegh Fateh (1765), adopted by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 1920.
Taoism Taijitu
Yin and Yang.svg
Thelema Unicursal hexagram
Crowley unicursal hexagram.svg
Unitarian Universalism Flaming chalice
Flaming Chalice.svg
1960s Originates as a logo drawn for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in 1940; adapted to represent Unitarian Universalism in 1962; recognized by the US Department for Veteran Affairs in 2006.
Wicca Pentacle
USVA headstone emb-37.svg
1990s? The pentacle or pentagram has a long history as a symbol used in alchemy and western occultism; it was adopted as a symbol in Wicca in c. the 1960s. There was a campaign to recognize it as a symbol representing Wicca as a religion on US veteran headstones since the late 1990s, and the symbol was recognized for use on such headstones in 2007.[5]
Zoroastrianism Faravahar
Regarded as a national icon in Iran, as well as a symbol among Zoroastrians.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith, Peter (2000), "greatest name", A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, pp. 167–168, ISBN 1-85168-184-1 
  2. ^ a b c Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, The hidden power in humans, Ibera Verlag, page 15., ISBN 3-85052-197-4
  3. ^ Lewis 2001, pp. 20–21.
  4. ^ Lewis 2001b, p. 21.
  5. ^ Wiccan Pentacles at Arlington, and Why Litigation Was Necessary January 31, 2012 By Jason Pitzl-Waters

External links[edit]