In line with mankind’s everlasting search for immortality, the concept of rebirth has been a very popular theme across many religions and systems of faith throughout history.
Inevitably, many symbols emerged to represent rebirth, reincarnation and transformation of life within cultures around the world. But what are the symbols of rebirth? In this post, we will delve into this very subject and aid you on your journey of knowledge.
Phoenix, The Legendary Bird In Greek Mythology As A Symbol of Rebirth And Strength
Let us start with an obvious and yet powerful rebirth symbol from Greek mythology, the mythical creature called as the Phoenix.
Phoenix is a majestic legendary bird with bright feathers (with popular colors cited being red, orange and yellow) which is believed to live between 500 and 1000 years.
The exact origin of the legend of phoenix is not known but it is mostly associated with Greek mythology.
That said, in the 5th century B.C., Herodotus stated in his written accounts that the ancient Egyptians believed in a legendary bird with characteristics similar to the phoenix.
Later on, in the 19th century, it was discovered that some people in ancient Egypt did actually revere a mythical bird called Bennu which was also a god associated with creation, rebirth and the sun.
As the accounts and findings regarding Bennu were open to different interpretations and somewhat problematic, it is not possible to say that the phoenix in Greek mythology was actually inspired by ancient Egyptian culture. In fact, it might have been vice versa, some sources say that the phoenix might have been an inspiration to Bennu.
But why and how does the phoenix symbolize rebirth?
The phoenix is one of the most common symbols of rebirth around the world because of its very nature, the way it lives, or more accurately, the way it dies and comes back to life.
According to the legend, the mythical bird, which is believed to live for several hundred years, bursts into flames when it dies and turns to ashes. From the ashes, another phoenix is reborn, starting a new cycle of life (although some sources suggest it is the same bird that is reborn).
This cycle of death and rebirth is what makes the mythical bird of fire a symbol of rebirth and reincarnation as well as strength, perseverance, life and eternity.
Today, phoenix tattoos are a very popular choice among tattoo lovers who would like to represent their strength, rebirth for a new life and new beginnings.
On a side note, if you would like to learn more about symbols that represent strength, you can read our extensive list of strength symbols including the phoenix here.
In general, creatures that can renew their bodies such as octopuses, lizards and starfish can all be considered as symbols of renewal.
When one of its limbs is cut off/lost, a starfish has the ability to regrow that limb and become a whole again. This is why these beautiful resilient creatures are considered a symbol of renewal.
In the sense that they survive significant losses and keep on living their lives, starfish are also a symbol of strength and perseverance.
Butterflies are just another very familiar symbol of rebirth and reincarnation from nature.
Native Americans thought of butterflies as symbols of change, transformation, rebirth and resurrection as well as joy. Some of them also thought that butterflies actually were a way to communicate with the loved ones they lost.
In Christian belief, although they were not explicitly and specifically mentioned in the Bible, butterflies are seen as a representation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Just like Jesus got resurrected after he died and was placed into his tomb, a caterpillar goes into its cocoon, goes through a process known as metamorphosis and gets transformed into something new, more beautiful and powerful than its old self. This is the reason why butterflies are a common symbol of reincarnation and transformation used during Christian ceremonies.
A tale of Kasai people in Central Africa tells us that a butterfly’s life mirrors the life of a human being. An infant is like a young caterpillar while an adult is like a large caterpillar getting ready to go into the cocoon. Then he/she gets old and goes into the cocoon in the chrysalis/metamorphosis stage. The human being dies but their soul flies away from this cocoon (the tomb) as a butterfly to be reincarnated later.
Lotus Flower, A Beautiful Symbol of Rebirth, Strength And Perseverance
Here is yet another fine example of rebirth symbolism we are borrowing from Mother Nature; the lotus flower.
As one of the most powerful symbols of rebirth, if not the most powerful one, the lotus flower has been a centerpiece of Buddhist symbolism.
The lotus flower rises out of dark and muddy waters and blooms every single day before it goes back in the mud only to repeat this cycle of life again the next day.
This daily rebirth of the lotus flower is quite the perfect way to represent the Buddhist belief about reaching nirvana.
According to Buddhist teachings, a person goes through many cycles of death and rebirth/reincarnation before they reach nirvana, the ultimate state of enlightenment.
In this sense, the daily rebirth of the lotus flower represents the struggles, deaths and reincarnations of this person during all these cycles of life they are supposed to have.
That said, Buddhists were not the only people who revered this beautiful flower. For ancient Egyptians, the lotus flower represented the sun, life, rebirth and creation.
In fact, according to one of the creation myths from ancient Egypt, a giant lotus flower was the first thing to emerge from the watery chaos at the beginning of the creation. Later, the sun rose out of this lotus flower to mark the first day ever.
Ancient Egyptians also believed that the lotus flower had the power to resurrect the dead. There are resurrection spells involving the lotus flower in The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
On a side note, since its daily cycle of rebirth mirrored the movements of the sun, they also considered the lotus a symbol of the sun.
If you would like to learn more about the lotus flower and the symbolism behind it, you might want to check out our detailed article here.
The Dharmachakra/The Dharma Wheel And The Buddhist Rebirth Symbolism Behind It
The word dharma has two different meanings in Buddhism. Firstly, it is used to define cosmic order and law. Secondly, it is used to define the teachings of Buddha.
Hence, as one of the most important symbols in Buddhism, the dharma wheel is considered to be a representation of Buddha’s teachings as well.
But what is the rebirth symbolism behind the dharma wheel?
As we mentioned above in relation to the symbolic meanings of the lotus flower for Buddhism, Buddhists believe that they have to go through many cycles of life in order to reach nirvana.
They believe they have to die and get reborn many times until they extinguish their cravings, reach enlightenment and get liberated through attaining nirvana.
The dharma wheel also represents these constant cycles of karmic rebirth called samsara and that is why it is a Buddhist symbol of rebirth.
Ouroboros, The Snake Eating Itself, The Infinity Symbol
Have you ever wondered the origin of the mathematical symbol for infinity? Wonder no more. The mathematical symbol was inspired by the actual symbol of infinity known as the ouroboros.
Being one of the most prominent ancient symbols widely used across cultures around the world, the ouroboros’s exact origin is unknown, although its earliest representations were discovered in works from ancient Egypt (in 13th and 14th centuries BC, to be exact).
But how exactly is the ouroboros a symbol of rebirth and reincarnation?
To answer that question, let us go back to the ancient times and provide you with a broader context about the symbolism behind ouroboros.
Ouroboros is not only a symbol of rebirth and renewal but also a symbol of unity and interconnectedness of every single thing in the universe. That is to say, it represents the idea of all parts of the universe, no matter how small or big, being connected with each other and comprising the whole.
In The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a single alchemical document written by the famous alchemist of the time, Cleopatra, who lived in the 3rd century AD (not to be confused with the Egyptian ruler), the ouroboros symbol was depicted alongside a phrase in Greek language, ‘ἕν τὸ πᾶν’ (latinized as hen to pān) meaning “the all is one” representing the unity of and the connection between all beings in the universe.
According to the same school of thought, everything comes from nature, ‘the whole’, and everything returns to nature in the end. Nothing gets completely destroyed and everything returns to life being transformed into something else.
In that sense, everything renews itself through death and eventually gets to be reborn into the universe, albeit in some other form.
Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, devouring it to renew itself and also forming a full and unbroken circle shape (which is also a symbol of rebirth) is just the symbol to represent this concept.
Snakes shed their skin to renew themselves in a periodical manner and their ‘new life’ comes with the end of the old one.
On a side note, ouroboros is also closely associated with Jormungandr in Norse mythology, a giant serpent which grew so big that it could encircle the whole world when biting its own tail.
That, however, is not the only other culture that ouroboros (also called ‘uroboros’) made its way into. Many different cultures across the world including Chinese, Indian, Greek and Egpytian cultures feature some version of the symbol (and the serpent which is sometimes a dragon).
Snakes As A Symbol of Renewal And Rebirth
It is only fitting to expand on snakes as a symbol of renewal right after ouroboros.
Snakes regularly shed their skin as they get older. There are two reasons behind this.
Firstly, they need a larger skin as they grow older and bigger. So, the old skin layer is shed and gets replaced with the new one.
Secondly, their skins may get a lot of parasites on them over time. So, they sort of clean themselves up with shedding their skins as well.
This is why snakes outgrowing their old skin and getting rid of it has always been an inspiration for human beings to grow into something different than their ‘past’ and leaving it behind. And it is exactly what makes snakes quite an obvious symbol of renewal and reincarnation.
On a side note, the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius (who might have been an actual historical figure according to some sources), who is known for his abilities to heal people/restore their health, has a snake/snakes on his staff, the Staff/Rod of Asclepius, which is also known as his symbol.
Let us continue with another symbol of renewal from nature; molting birds. Molting is the process during which birds shed off their older feathers and replace them with new ones, much like a snake shedding its skin.
Feathers are made of keratin and they stop producing living cells after a while. Birds must replace their old feathers with the new, warm and strong ones.
Just like snakes, birds get rid of their ‘dead weight’, their past, renew themselves and carry on their lives stronger.
That is why molting birds are considered a symbol of renewal, rejuvenation and rebirth.
Scarab Beetles Of Egypt
The next item on our list of rebirth symbols is yet another symbol from ancient Egypt. Scarab beetles were highly revered creatures in ancient Egypt because ancient Egyptian people closely associated them with the sun god, Khepri.
They thought a scarab beetle rolling a ball of dung resembled the sun moving from east to west. Scarab beetles laid their eggs in these balls. Young beetles hatching out of these balls were considered by Egyptians to be an act of rebirth, the beetle recreating itself.
They also believed that Khepri was reborn every morning at sunrise as a scarab beetle with wings to bring life and light to their lands.
Check out our extensive list of ancient Egyptian symbols and their meanings including the scarab beetlere here, if you would like to learn more about Egyptian symbolism.
Persephone the Goddess of the Spring and Fertility and The Queen of The Underworld
Let us carry on our list of rebirth symbols with another symbol from Greek mythology; Persephone the Queen of the Underworld.
According to the myth regarding the abduction of Persephone by Hades, which is cited in several accounts and literary works of ancient Greeks including Hesiod’s famous poem the Theogony, Hades was deeply in love with Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility.
Knowing Demeter would not allow Hades to be with her daughter, Zeus gave Hades permission to abduct Persephone to his kingdom in the underworld. She became his wife and the queen of the underworld.
Demeter looked for her daughter all over the world but could not find her. During her search, she neglected the earth preventing anything to grow while some versions of the story said that she intentionally forbade the earth to produce anything out of her despair and sorrow.
That was until she was finally told by Helios, the Greek god of sun, that her daughter was abducted by Hades and she lived in the underworld.
In the end, hungry people crying for help disturbed Zeus and other gods, who also complained to him about it. Zeus had to ask Hades to return Persephone to the land of the living.
Hades did not let her go so easily though, he had a few tricks up on his sleeve. Before he brought Persephone back to the land of the living, he made her eat some pomegranate seeds.
Pomegranate is known to be the fruit of the underworld in Greek mythology. Persephone returned to the earth but since she ate the fruit of the underworld (also known as the fruit of the dead), she was now bound to return to the underworld one third of every year.
This period coinciding with her time in the underworld was believed to be the winter months of every year.
Everything withers and ‘dies’ as Persephone goes back to the underworld for four months and she brings everything back to life when she comes back to the earth in spring.
This is why she is known as the goddess of the spring and is considered a symbol of rebirth, reincarnation and life.
Inanna the Sumerian Goddess of Rebirth, Love, Beauty, Justice And War
If you liked reading about the story of Persephone, you will especially enjoy reading this next part of our list of rebirth symbols.
Another goddess hails from the lands of ancient Mesopotamia as a symbol of rebirth.
Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of beauty, love, war and justice, also has a story that made her a symbol of rebirth and reincarnation.
According to the myth, Inanna wanted to take control of the Kur, the underworld in Sumerian mythology, which was ruled by her sister Ereshkigal. She decided to overthrow her sister during one of her regular visits to the underworld and she did, in fact, dress up for the occasion.
She put on a wig, turban and many accessories as well as a special dress for her visit.
While passing through the seven gates of the underworld, the judges/sentries at every gate asked her to strip off one of the pieces on her.
She ended up being naked and powerless. In the end, the judges, who found her guilty of hubris and pride because of what she tried to do to her own sister, ‘rendered’ her dead and hung her body just like an ordinary person who passed away.
This was not the end of her story, though. She knew before going down to the underworld that it would be impossible to return from there. So, she asked her second-in-command Ninshubur to beg for help from all gods to bring her back to life if she could not escape the underworld.
Ninshubur did what he was asked and while all the other gods refused to help him, Enki, the god of wisdom and magic, wanted to help Inanna. He sent two asexual creatures to bring her back to the land of the living.
Inanna was brought back to life but not all so easily. The galla, the guardians of the underworld, took her husband Dumuzid to the underworld in her place. It was believed that he was eventually allowed to return to the earth for six months every year but this time his own sister, Geshtinanna had to take his place in the Kur for those six months.
With her journey to the underworld that ended up with her dying and being resurrected, Inanna is both a symbol of rebirth and transformation as she also became a wiser version of herself.
Water is healing, it has restorative powers. Water is the source of life, it creates life. It turns barren lands into green meadows. Water is cleansing, it washes away the dirt.
For all these reasons, water is one of the most common symbols of renewal, rejuvenation and life itself.
As a symbol, water has made its way into several systems of faith. Just to give a very obvious yet powerful example, let us consider the act of baptism in Christianity.
When a person is baptized by sprinkling/pouring water on their forehead or immersing them in water, it symbolizes a cleansing of that person’s soul and their rebirth as a Christian. After this rite of admission into Christianity, they become God’s children, leave their pasts behind, start a new life and turn away from sin.
The act of baptism also mirrors the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the baptized person is immersed in water (dies) and gets to be resurrected for their new life like Jesus Christ did.
The New Moon
Various phases of the moon are associated with different aspects of human life by many cultures. For instance, while the new moon phase is associated with new beginnings, renewal and rebirth, the full moon phase symbolizes reaching the peak of one’s potential and energy, and the final, crescent moon phase represents endings and letting things go.
The new moon phase is when the moon’s dark side is turned towards our planet and it crosses the sky aligned with the sun when it’s daytime on earth. That is why it is impossible to be seen with the naked eye. In fact, a solar eclipse is the only time a new moon can be seen without any technological help.
This phase of the moon represents potential, renewal and the start of a new cycle and has been a very common symbol of renewal across cultures throughout history.
Easter Eggs As A Symbol of Reincarnation and Resurrection
The final item on our list of symbols of rebirth and resurrection is Easter eggs.
Eggs have been a symbol of life since long before Christianity existed and adopted the traditions of Easter. In fact, there is even an ancient Roman saying that suggests all life comes from an egg.
Today, Christians around the world consider Easter eggs the representation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
According to one Easter legend, Mary Magdalene was invited to a feast by Roman Emperor Tiberius. She pointed to some eggs on the table and said “Christ is risen!”. Emperor Tiberius said that Christ being risen was as likely as that egg he just tossed over to her turning red. When Mary Magdalene caught the egg, it turned into a bright red color.
Today, it is a tradition between Orthodox Christians to exchange red Easter eggs to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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