7 Diverse Meanings Of The Pirate Skull and Crossbones Symbol

If you’re human and at least somewhat aware, the image of a human skull over two crossed bones is probably associated to danger and death, from pirates to poison bottles. Typically pirate skull and crossbones is used as a warning sign for anything poisonous or harmful potentially leading to death.

Were you aware that this style of symbolism was first used on tombstones as a memento mori? Which literally translates in Latin for “remember that you shall die.” A mental note to help you focus on the present and some sense of urgency on your goals and where you spend your life energy. We spend most of our time dead, afterall. This practice dates back to Ancient Greek and Roman symbolism. More recently it has become very popular as a symbol of modern stoicism and stoic practice.

This person clearly didn’t heed the warning on the bottle

The Jolly Roger, the classic banner of European and American pirates, also contained the emblem or a version of it. To demonstrate how widespread this symbol has become, try and connect the dots between these (amongst many others);

  • The “Skull and Bones,” a covert Yale University organization, also uses it.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Skull and Crossbones are the team crest of the Poole Pirates Speedway Team.
  • The British Army also makes use of it. When the 17th Lancers were formed in 1759, the skull and crossbones were selected as their cap emblem, earning them the nickname “Death or Glory Boys.”

The solely recognized emblem for poison is still the pirate skull and crossbones in use today. However, compared to before, it is now less widespread outside of industrial applications. In addition to its detrimental marketing impact on customers that care about the environment. There has therefore been a proposal to swap out the skull and crossbones symbols (at least in the US) with the presumably more significant and less appealing ones.

Pirate Skull and Crossbones Meaning

Even though it is often used, the Skull and Crossbones symbol is one of the least clear-cut in terms of its meaning and importance. the designs that are most frequently linked to the Jolly Roger, a pirate ship identification flag that included a skull and crossbones.

The Jolly Roger Pirate Flag

On their badges and logos, several civilizations, secret societies, and military groups have utilized the symbol. The meaning of the pirate skull and crossbones for some of these diverse organizations include the following:

Portrait of “Death or Glory”

The emblem was deemed respectable enough to be adopted as a British regimental badge by the middle of the eighteenth century. The Royal Lancers have received combat training. When defending their country and its dependent regions, members are encouraged to wear the skull and crossbones pin, which symbolizes their slogan of “death or glory.”

Sign of Peril and Death

The horrific history of the pirate skull and crossbones emblem led to its association with fatality. It initially appeared on poison bottles in 1850 and was later used as an official sign to indicate deadly chemicals.

Frequently seen on Poison bottles like this

Symbol of Sacrifice

When worn as a badge on military uniforms, it signifies a person’s unwavering willingness to risk their lives for their nation or another important cause. In reality, the Nazi SS symbol included the Totenkopf, which is German for “death’s head.”

German SS Uniform Cap from 1930’s with Skull and Crossbones Symbol

Masonic Principle Symbol

It unveils the riddles relating to Masonic principles in the context of A Reflection on Mortality, a Masonic organization. As a symbol, it acknowledges their common human fear of mortality while encouraging them to carry out their obligations as Masons. In Chambers of Reflection, the emblem is present in Masonic lodges, as well as in their initiation ceremonies and jewelry.

Symbol of Independence and Rebellion

In recent years, the emblem has come to stand for independence, rebelling against the status quo, and breaking free.

Fast Facts About The Pirate Skull and Crossbones


  • A Jolly Roger is a name for the flag with a skull and crossbones flown atop a pirate ship. Red flag use is one explanation as to the meaning of the term “Jolly Roger,” although the genesis has been forgotten. A crimson flag was frequently used during maritime conflict centuries ago to indicate that no compassion would be shown and that anyone captured would be executed right away. Theorists assert that the French term for this, Joli Rouge, which means “beautiful red,” was then translated into English as “Jolly Roger.” Another legend holds that the Devil’s nickname “Old Roger” is whence the name “Jolly Roger ” originated. Oh, these pirates are so enigmatic! 


  • There were eye coverings on pirates. According to legend, eye patches were worn by pirates to keep one eye trained for night vision so they could see below the ship.


  • Rules and codes varied from pirate ship to pirate ship. Every pirate ship had its own set of rules that they all had to abide by. This covered who would receive what plunder, who would do what duties, and what was expected of everyone. Unbelievably, one of the most often observed guidelines prohibited fighting onboard. If two pirates disagreed, they would need to wait and engage in combat on shore.


  • The Jolly Roger was not flown by every pirate ship. While Blackbeard had his black flag bearing a skeleton with horns, the Bahamas-based pirates had their flags created specifically for them by a sailmaker’s widow who accepted brandy as payment. The skeleton wielded a spear pointed towards a heart that was dripping with three drops of blood while holding an hourglass in one hand and another.


  • An Appeal to Surrender: According to historians, the dark backdrop of the Jolly Roger flag served as a signal to give up. Before the creation of the Jolly Roger flag and its use on pirate ships, commanders frequently flew either white or black flags. Another ship was given the signal to surrender by the flying of a black flag. As a declaration of surrender, a white flag was raised.


  • Originates in the Seventeenth Century: The Jolly Roger flag has a history that at least stretches back to the 17th century. Around this period, the now-iconic flag was spotted flying from pirate ships. Famous pirate captains including Black Sam Bellamy, Francis Spriggs, Bartholomew Roberts, John Taylor, and Edward England have all flown the Jolly Roger. They increased the popularity of the Jolly Roger flag by drawing attention to it.
Often a very clear warning sign. We see it more it movies/tv shows than real life.

Today’s discussion of the deeper and varied meanings of the pirate skull and crossbones symbols comes to an end now. As we have seen, the skull and crossbones symbol has been linked to death, although certain cultures and groups also use it to signify a variety of uplifting symbols. The well-known motif is today viewed as hip and fashionable in tattoo, clothing, and jewelry designs as a statement of freedom and defiance. 

Be sure to read our post, Skull And Crossbones Symbolism, Meaning and Origin, if you’re interested in learning more about the meanings and history behind the skull and crossbones symbols. 

You may also be interested in our broader examination of the various Symbols of Death that have been used by humankind.

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Skull And Crossbones is often observed within sets of medicine and warning symbols like these

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