A thumbs up is the universal symbol for approval while connecting your thumb to your index finger and holding the other three fingers straight or in a relaxed manner is the universal symbol for okay. These are symbols that have roughly the same meaning all over the world.
What is it about symbols that captivates people so much?
Is it because they are interesting to try and master, or do they transcend any language barrier? Maybe it’s because they are an efficient way to communicate.
For some reason, humans have been obsessed with symbols for at least 70,000 years. Symbols drawn in caves from a time before modern languages were discovered. They’ve been a big part of human communication even in the past.
What Are Universal Symbols?
Universal symbols can be explained as symbols that mean roughly the same thing to multiple cultures across the globe. Some cultures might interpret these symbols differently, but by and large, if you were dropped in a land where you don’t speak the language, those people would still understand that symbol.
A good example of modern universal symbols is:
- A white dove symbolizes peace
- A white flag symbolizes surrender or truce
- A heart symbolizes love
Many of these symbols are contemporary, but many others always lean toward religion.
Ancient Universal Symbols
Today, we are more conversant with modern symbols that hold meaning in our world, society, or culture. In the past, ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Mayans, and almost every other you can think of had their own common symbols and meanings.
But even with these societies that seemingly had no contact with one another, some symbols still held universal meaning. Let’s take a quick look at some of these common symbols and their meanings.
The Raven: A Symbol of Death or a Bad Omen
The raven is a jet-black bird that habitually feeds on corpses. It’s easy to see why this bird was and continues to be associated with death or a bad omen.
While the raven was a common symbol in most ancient cultures and societies, it was perhaps more prominent in Norse mythology. The raven was believed to hold cosmic secrets that could foretell the future or reveal omens to mankind.
Even though it’s considered a symbol of foreboding doom in many cultures, to the Vikings, the raven was much more than that, as it was a valid companion of the All-father, Odin (King of the gods).
Odin famously had two ravens: Muninn and Huginn, meaning “thought” and “memory,” respectively. These ravens would famously fly over Earth (Midgard) and bring Odin news of everything they saw and heard.
To the Native Americans, the raven was considered a magical bird. Holy men would regularly invoke it to receive perspective and foresight. The Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo tribes considered this bird a bringer of creation and light.
This stems primarily from the belief that a raven created the world. It did so by tossing stones into the sea, forming islands and bringing sunlight to mankind.
The Dove: A Symbol of Love and Peace
The dove has been universally associated with love and peace. There are many different depictions of the dove in ancient cultures, but perhaps the very first instance of a dove being used as a symbol of peace and love is in the Bible.
A dove brought Noah an olive branch as a sign that the flood had receded and that God had stopped punishing or vanquishing mankind.
The dove has also been depicted as a symbol of peace since the early Bronze Age. The dove has also been associated with a number of goddesses.
For example, it was considered the physical incarnation of the goddess Inanna-Ishtar in ancient Mesopotamian culture. Inanna-Ishtar was a complicated goddess. She was known as the goddess of love, sexuality, and war.
In Greek mythology, doves were associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. In Slavic folklore, however, the dove was tasked with transferring dead souls to the underworld.
The Phoenix: A Symbol of Rebirth
The phoenix is a world-famous symbol of rebirth. This mythical bird is known to erupt in flames and rebirth from its own ashes. Many cultures have their own version of the phoenix, and they all roughly mean the same thing: rebirth.
The phoenix symbol is also referred to as the “Bennu symbol” and carries significant symbolism in Greek and Egyptian cultures. It’s now believed that the reference to such a bird in Egyptian culture predates that of the Greeks. Regardless of who came up with the phoenix first, the point is that this mythical bird symbolized rebirth or renewal in both cultures.
According to legend (in Egyptian and Greek cultures), the phoenix was a magnificent bird whose cry signified the beginning of time. The legend says that a phoenix would live for 500 years and that only one of these birds could be alive at a time.
When the phoenix’s time came, the bird would build a nest and set itself on fire. A new phoenix would be reborn from those ashes, and that bird would live for 500 years and repeat the ritual.
Both cultures also associated the phoenix with the sun. The Greeks claim that the dawn song of a phoenix was so captivating that Apollo (the Greek sun god) would stop his chariot and the sun to listen.
The Owl: A Symbol for Wisdom, Protection, Death, and More
The owl is perhaps one of the most complicated symbols in the history of man. This largely nocturnal bird holds so many meanings, some of which overlap, to many different cultures.
For most African cultures, the owl is believed to symbolize evil or a bad omen. For example, the Zulu people of South Africa believe that the owl is a sorcerer’s bird. This is similar to some early European cultures. In West African cultures, the owl is considered a messenger of evil; its hoot is associated with impending danger.
In East Africa, on the other hand, the owl is considered the angel of death. In ancient Ethiopian culture, for example, whenever a man was sentenced to death, he was required to sit at a table with a large painting of an owl and was expected to end his own life.
In ancient European cultures, such as the Celtics, the owl was considered a symbol of the underworld. According to legend, owls were believed to be the only birds brave enough to fly to heaven and look God in the face.
The Celtics believed that that was why owls became blinded by the bright light of day and could only see at night.
Finally, central American cultures, such as the Aztecs, associated the owl with evil, while the Incas looked upon owls with reverie as they considered them beautiful.
As you can see, the owl is most often associated with death, evil, and impending doom in most cultures. However, what it’s really known for is wisdom. The owl is considered a symbol of wisdom thanks to Greek mythology, where the owl is often seen alongside the goddess of wisdom and warfare strategy, Athena.
Yin and Yang: A Symbol for the Interconnectedness of the Universe
Even though the Yin and Yang symbol is specifically ancient Chinese, it has become a universal symbol for the universe’s interconnectedness. In ancient Chinese philosophy, this symbol has a big circle bisected by a simple and clear S-shape dividing the circle into two parts: the light and the dark segments, with each segment containing a seed of the other.
In ancient Taoism, the big outer circle symbolizes the universe or the source of all existence. The white half of the circle (the Yang) is the masculine force, representing positive energy. The dark side is the Yin qi, which represents negative feminine energy.
Therefore, the Yin and Yang symbol represents the continuous interconnectedness of both energies and how they can influence one another. The small seed in each half shows just how inseparable these two forces are and their ability to transform one another—night gives way to day, birth comes to death, and so on.
The Skull: A Symbol for Danger or Death
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see a skull and crossbones symbol? For many people, this always means danger or death. The skull and crossbones symbol has been used for centuries, and it was popular in Aztec and Mayan cultures and Indian, Celtic, and Buddhist societies.
In many of these cultures, the skull was closely linked to death and associated with the opposite of danger: power, protection, and gratitude.
For example, Mexico has a day called “Día de Los Muertos” when they traditionally celebrate the dead. On this day, skulls are colorfully decorated and artistically placed on tombstones to appreciate and commemorate death instead of mourning their long-lost loved ones.
In this sense, the skull represents the dead, but it’s not something to be feared. The same is the case in Christianity, where some rosaries have a skull, representing “Memento Mori,” Latin for “Remember that you shall die.” This is more of a warning to the living that these days will pass and judgment will come. As such, you are advised to live a full life while being conscious of that fact.
In Hinduism, skulls are a big part of religious illustrations as they are used to ornament ancient goddesses and gods, illustrating their ability to transcend and conquer death itself.
The Swastika: A Symbol for the Sun and Good Existence
Before Hitler and his Nazi party appropriated the Swastika for their own gains, this symbol was long associated with many positive attributes by a wide range of global cultures.
Some of the oldest Swastikas date back around 7,000 years in Eurasia, where it’s believed that the design was supposed to symbolize the sun’s journey across the sky and that it signified wellbeing and kinship. This is true when viewed through the lens of Sanskrit.
In Sanskrit, Swastika is a word that combines “su,” which means “good,” and “asti,” which means “to exist.” Put together, it translated to “all is well.”
The Butterfly: A Symbol of Transformation
The butterfly has long been a symbol of transformation in a wide range of cultures across the globe. The butterfly’s journey from being an egg to becoming a larva, pupa, and finally, a beautiful butterfly signifies how much a person can transform their lives from something society might consider ugly to beautiful.
There are some cultures, such as the Aztecs, where the butterfly symbolizes the dead souls of warriors. These beautiful creatures were considered precious.
Many other universal symbols hold a common meaning for many different cultures. Some might not be the exact symbol, but they are close enough to mean the same thing. For example, African cultures have long considered the lion a symbol of strength and courage. In Aztec culture, the Jaguar, part of the big cat family, held the same meaning.
Mostly, you will find that some of these symbols overlap or mean something a bit more to different cultures. If someone from a different culture sees these universal symbols, there’s a good chance that they will arrive at the same conclusion or something close enough to the particular subjective meaning or interpretation as that of the originating culture.