Today’s post is about a symbol most of us are familiar with thanks to the legends of fearsome pirates and their adventures at sea. It is none other than the skull and crossbones symbol. Here is everything you need to know about it, including the legends about its origin which happens to involve the Knights Templar, its different interpretations and use as the Jolly Roger flag.
The skull and crossbones is an ancient symbol comprising a white skull and crossbones against a black background. It has been and is still used to denote danger and piracy. Over the years, this symbol has signified different ideologies in various cultures, religions, and geographical locations.
The Origin of the Skull and Crossbones Symbol and Flag
The skull and crossbones symbol has a history rooted in ancient times dating back to two thousand years. It is believed to be seen on the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.
It depicted the leader with his arms crossed, holding a staff, crook, and flail. The flail was used to beat animals and people and show authority and power in that era, while the crook was used by shepherds to gently pull stray animals in the right direction without harming them.
The Legend of the Order of the Temple, The Knights Templar
The original iteration of the skull and crossbones symbol was first used in the Middle Ages by the Knights Templar, also known as the Order of the Temple.
It was the biggest charity for about two centuries after being endorsed by the Catholic Church in 1129. The pacifist members of the Templar introduced the skull and crossbones symbol.
As the masonic legend has it, the skull and crossbones symbol depicts the bones of Jacques de Molay. The Church ordered the society to be disbanded in 1312 so that it could benefit from its riches. Pope Clement V burned Molay alive as he was the last Grand Master of the Templar Knights.
The legend says that three Templars (while some accounts suggest it was Molay’s brothers) went looking for his remains, but all they could find were his femurs and skull.
By the thirteenth century, the Templars owned the biggest naval fleet in the world and were widely known as accomplished mariners. To celebrate Molay’s legacy, they used his skull and femurs as their nautical emblem that they displayed on their flags. It came to be known as the Jolly Roger flag.
The Legend of the Skull of Sidon
Another legend regarding the origins of the skull and crossbones symbol connects the Skull of Sidon to the Knights Templar.
Lord Sidon was a Knights Templar who lost his beloved when she was quite young. On the night of her burial, a grief-stricken Sidon snuck up to her grave, dug up her body and violated it.
Then, he heard a voice telling him to return to the grave in nine months to find his son. The Templar returned after nine months, dug up the grave, and found a head resting on the skeleton’s femur.
That same voice from nine months earlier told him to take and guard the skull as it would become the provider of blessed things and help him defeat his enemies. That is how the symbol of the skull and crossbones become the emblem for the Templar.
Historical Association with Funerals and Remembrance of Death
The skull and bones symbol was one of the earliest symbols used by adherents of Christianity toward the end of the Roman Empire.
Through the Middle Ages, devout Christians used the symbol to denote death or the passing of life. This symbol was discovered in many Christian catacombs in Italy. Some of them date as far back as the second century.
One could also say the skull and crossbones symbol is a symbol of death, a reminder our mortality as humans, a visual representation of “memento mori,” a Latin term that means “remember death”, in a sense.
The entrances of Spanish graveyards were marked with the skull and femur bones. Throughout the Middle Ages, many people from various religions began carving this symbol on the tombstones of their loved ones.
The Skull and Crossbones Meaning and Symbolism
The skull and crossbones symbol has different meanings in various cultures. For instance, in the Indian tradition, Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva wear garlands made of skulls and bones in their wrath-inducing forms. Meanwhile, in Nepalese and Tibetan cultures, goddesses such as Kurukulla wear skull necklaces as well.
In many religions, this symbol also signifies death and is a reminder that every human has to die. Moreover, it is also a prominent Neo-Nazi symbol. Totenkopf or Death’s Head was a symbol of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS), whose purpose was to guard concentration camps. The latest use of the Nazi skull and crossbones was to indicate that an individual belonging to the movement was killed by its enemies.
At the other end of the world, the skull was honored and revered among the Mexican and Aztec tribes in pre-Columbian America.
Today, this symbol has become a signifier of danger and poison. It’s used to label poisonous and hazardous substances. However, its symbolism hasn’t always proven to be effective or widely known. Before the War on Terror, bags of corn with arsenic were widely distributed among residents and led to many fatalities despite the label of the skull and crossbones symbol on the bags.
The Skull and Crossbones Flag Also Known As The Jolly Roger Flag/The Pirate Flag
During the 1400s, the skull and bones symbol began its journey to becoming a thing of the past until some of the most dreaded pirates adopted it in the next century. Originally, pirates used a fiery red flag on top of their ship masts to symbolize bloodshed and the concept of no mercy.
However, during the 1500s, many pirates changed the color of their flag from red to black and added the white skull and crossbones emblem to them. That was the true initiation of the Jolly Roger Flag. This flag symbolized death and was used by feared pirates to warn off other ships. The emblem became the flagship symbol of pirates and filled sailors with dread.
The first recorded use of the skull and crossbones flag dates back to the 17th century. In 1724, Richard Hawkins, a man captured by pirates, saw a black flag with a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear.
The sailors called it the Jolly Roger. Soon after, it became the nickname for any pirate flag with a skull and crossbones or its various iterations that included other elements such as knives, hearts, goblets, and swords.
Modern Uses of The Skull and Crossbones Symbol
After the decline of piracy, the skull and crossbones symbol was largely used to signify danger and poison. In 1829, the New York State Law made it mandatory for anything poisonous to be labeled with this symbol.
The skull and crossbones symbol started appearing on poison bottles in 1850. Today, the symbol is used less and less to label poisonous materials due to its anti-environmental connotations.
During the 1900s, the skull and crossbones symbol was also used by a secret students’ society formed at Yale University. The Skull and Bones Society has been a part of the prestigious university since 1832 and continues to use the symbol as its official emblem. To them, it represents mystery rather than death.
In 1870, the symbol was adopted by a sports team. Even though this symbol was already quite popular among football fans in Great Britain, The Rugby Unions made it their official symbol.
The Cardiff Rugby Football Club added it to the uniform of its players for a brief period in 1876. However, the club removed the symbol after facing pressure from the players’ parents.
In the world of fashion, this symbol is used to symbolize resistance and gothic elements. It’s used in rings, necklaces, charm bracelets, and even graphic tees. It was also the emblem of a political party known as the Pirate Party.
This ends our detailed article on the skull and crossbones flag/symbol, its origin and various meanings. If you liked reading it, you will probably enjoy our post on the ancient symbol called the ouroboros here.
If you are interested in reading about other symbols used by the Knights Templar, you should definitely check out our piece on the Maltese cross here and the Jerusalem cross here.