What’s the origin of skull symbols
Ever wondered why people are passionate about the skull symbol? The meaning behind this symbol that is so widespread and so adored by people all over the world? Why have some armies opted to integrate the skull into their character? Or have you ever wondered what some of the myths about skull are based on?
The skull is a powerful symbol, and its particularity lies in its very nature. Indeed, after all, it primarily represents the skull of the human being. Generally, it refers to death because the skull is without flesh. But in many cases, the skull has a very abstract or very distant sense of death (in a way).
Dear enthusiast, welcome to Skull Action, where enthusiasts like you do their best to offer you quality content and answer all your questions about the skull. Today, we're going to talk about :
- Who uses the skull symbol?
- The role of the skull in certain myths and religions.
- Why some armies and bandits use this symbol
How and by whom is the symbolism of the skull used?
Today and in the foreseeable past, this symbolism unites, perhaps, the most distinct groups of people. The schemas of Orthodox monasteries, pirates, Goths, rockers, SS men, hussars, pilots, emo ... and many other groups use the skull in their symbolism.
In subcultures, the skull as a symbol of fearlessness before death and speed is used by bikers - motorcycle racers. For bikers and the military, the skull is considered a sign that brings victory and symbolizes protection from death.
It is also a symbol of the Pirate Party, whose goal is to reform legislation in intellectual property, patents and copyright. The party advocates free, non-commercial exchange of information and the inadmissibility of prosecution for this exchange by law.
In ancient Rome, the skull with bones symbolized victory over death; the symbol was used by soldiers during triumphant, victorious processions and was always accompanied by a Latin phrase that has become a catchphrase in our time: "Memento mori,” "remember that you are mortal."
Ancient Rome warriors applied the skull’s image to clothing and used it in various wearable accessories. Nowadays, the skull symbol is actively used in military paraphernalia by mercenary soldiers during multiple conflicts. This symbol "adorns" modern neo-Nazi organizations. 💀
And of course, the image of a human skull is often used as a warning sign of mortal danger, such as toxic materials in chemical production, a high voltage of electric current. It is especially usually found today on power transmission poles, where it is also supplemented by the inscription: "Do not get in! He will kill!" 🚷
Over the past ten years, the skull has become a familiar print or look for fashion and jewelry designers. The skull image serves as representatives of subcultures and is considered acceptable for people with a traditional thinking type. It is actively used by Alexander, Alexander McQueen, Paul Gaultier, ..
The symbolic meaning of the skull
Questions about life and death, about immortality, have always worried people. The skull as a twofold symbol of death and immortality is the reason for various interpretations and philosophies on these topics. The skull is a symbol of death and a symbol of opposition to it—the resistance of bone tissues to decay and decay even in the most ancient cultures symbolized vitality. 💪🏼
The skull is the emblem of human mortality. But the skull has always been considered as the seat of the soul and it is believed that the soul continues to live within the skull after the death of a person. If you own another's skull, then there are already two of you so that the skull can bring the owner victory in extreme clashes. For this reason, the human skull has been endowed with a special ritual value since the Paleolithic era.
For the same reason, it is actively used by paramilitary and extreme groups of people. If the individual’s activity does not imply activity, then the skull’s symbolism is reduced to "reflections and philosophizing." With this meaning, it is used in Christianity and in the Goth subculture, denoting hermits and isolation from society.
Skull cult in myths and religions
In many primitive tribes, the skull was considered the seat of souls and. The head of the slain enemy was not buried together with the body but put in a place of honor in the dwelling, explaining that from now on she was accepted into the family and should not do anything bad to anyone in this house. The defeated person’s skull was painted in bright colors so that he would not feel “offended”. 🙏🏼
Similar rituals were performed on the skulls of deceased relatives. Among the Celts, the Skull was revered as the focus of sacred power, which protected a person from adverse forces and bestowed health and wealth. The skull is an attribute of Hindu and Christian hermits, a sign of their renunciation of the world on the way to salvation.
Also, the skull can measure the development (advancement) of the Tibetan deities’ personalities. Taoist immortals (xian) are often depicted with an overgrown skull - a sign that they have accumulated a tremendous amount of yang energy in their brains.☯️
The human head has been used in many divination rituals. The Scandinavian Odin always took with him the lead of Mimir, which brought him news from other worlds. The belief that the skull has the power of a deceased person is reflected in numerous mythical stories. 🛡️
Jacques de Molay (Master of the Templars) was burned by the verdict of the Inquisition court on March 18, 1314, cursing the king and the pope. The people heard the Grand Master shout, “Clement! Sinful judge and heartless executioner! I say: in forty days, the judgment of the Lord will overtake you! "
They say that the surviving Templars paid the executioner and he, having extinguished the fire, took out the skull, which was then cleaned. Then the skull, along with the idol Baphomet, was sent to Scotland, from where, already at the time of the conquest of the Freemasons, to America.
The master's skull, among other mystical properties, possessed the power of a curse. De Molay cursed the main culprits of the trial of the order - Pope Clement V, who died 40 days after the death of the master, and a few months later died of an unknown terrible disease and Philip the Fair, then his three sons shared the same fate, who died one after another in for 14 years. They were popularly called "damned kings.” The further development of the legend ascribes to Jacques de Molay the prophecy that the dynasty of French kings would end on the chopping block. And the curse came true: in 1786, Louis XVI was condemned to death at a Masonic meeting, and three years later, during the Revolution, he was beheaded. ✝️
In the Maya environment, the so-called " cult of skulls " was practiced: the head separated from the body was cleaned, and a hole was drilled in the skull for wearing as a pendant. During excavations in one of the tribe's villages, archaeologists discovered a fence made of human skulls.
During the conquest of Mexico, the companions of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés discovered the storage of an Aztec temple, where several thousand skulls were stored.
In the Celts, Scythians, and Huns’ military rituals, the human skull cult was given a central place... Skulls were not only hung at the entrance to the sanctuary, but they served as decoration for dwellings. The number of skulls hanging from the belt of a Celtic or Hunnic warrior was a kind of indicator of his prowess. The skull was considered a symbol of victory over the enemy and a means of protecting the winner.
Among the priests of pagan cults and the military elite of Alans, Sarmatians and Huns , the fashion for long- headedness was widespread. (70%) That was achieved by applying bandages to the child's skull. It is possible that such a deformation of the skull in a certain way influenced the mental abilities and character of people. A similar elongation of the skulls was common in South America among the Aztecs . This is hardly a coincidence.😲
According to the Celts, the mystical power contained in the head continues to serve the victor even after the death of the vanquished. Skulls were often set in gold or silver and made into drinking vessels. Celtic horsemen marched into battle with their heads attached to spears and horse harnesses. When the leader of the Celts Killed the leader of the enemy army, he cut off his head and presented it to the temple.
Later, the skull was used as a sacred goblet in various rituals. The fatally wounded comrade was also cut off the head so that it would not fall into the hands of the enemy. The heads of less noble enemies were nailed to dwellings, as hunters do with the heads of killed animals. Meanwhile, the skulls of those who displayed military valor in battle were boiled in oil and carefully kept in chests.
The cult of the skull also played a significant role in the military rituals of the Scythian tribes: they drank the blood of the first slain enemy, presented the heads of enemies to the king when demanding their share of the booty, used scalps as scarves, sewed skirts from them and decorated skulls. These seemingly barbaric customs are based on the idea that the head is a divine immortal gift. It was in it that the abilities given to a person and the meaning of his life were laid, which the winner wanted to transfer to himself in order to protect and resist misfortune.
As you know, the Scythians did not stand on ceremony for a long time with their personal enemies . If a Scythian committed murder, sometimes even his neighbor or relative, he sawed off his skull. The top of the skull was thoroughly cleaned and washed out, after which a drinking bowl was made from it. For this, a half of the skull was covered with rawhide, and the rich Scythians decorated it on top with gold or silver plates.
On holidays, such bowls were taken out of storage and displayed in front of guests to remind them that the owner had many enemies, but he managed to defeat them all. Thus, he warned his guests that it was better not to quarrel with him. When a person drank from such a vessel, he, along with the drink contained in it, as it were absorbed the life force stored in the skull.
We can find examples of such a custom even from Russian history. The Laurentian Chronicle informs about the death of the famous Russian prince Svyatoslav Igorevich on the Dnieper rapids: “And smoking attacked him, prince of Pechenezh; and they killed Svyatoslav, and cut off his head, and made a cup out of the skull, bound the skull (with silver), and afterwards they drank from it. "
In Christian iconography, when depicting saints and apostles, the skull is used to denote hermits. The image with a skull testifies to their thoughts about death. With a skull, St. Magdalene, St. Francis of Assisi. ☦️
In Orthodoxy, according to legend, the ashes of Adam were on Golgotha - where the crucifixion of Christ took place, his blood washed the skull of Adam and in his face all of humanity - giving the possibility of salvation. The symbolic meaning of a skull with bones in Orthodoxy is liberation from death and the possibility of salvation. Skull and bones - Adam's head is still applied to the monastic schema, as well as used in body crosses and crucifixes. ☠️
Based on this legend, medieval icon painters often depicted drops of blood flowing from the wounds of Christ and falling on the skull of Adam, which symbolized the washing away of his sin. Sometimes the skull of Adam was portrayed upside down, in the form of a kind of bowl, where the flowing blood of Christ accumulates. In this case, the head of Adam is actually identified with the Holy Grail. The skull filled with blood symbolized self-denial and atonement for sins in iconography.
In the visual arts, the skull acts both as an independent symbol and as the main attribute of personified figures. The symbolism of the frailty of existence is conveyed in a cycle of paintings united by the Latin name “Vanitas”. Vanitas (Latin vanitas, literally - "vanity, vanity") is a genre of painting of the Baroque era , an allegorical still life , the compositional center of which is traditionally a human skull. Such paintings, an early stage in the development of still life, were intended to remind of the transience of life, the futility of pleasures and the inevitability of death.
They often depicted ... food next to the skull. Fruits, vegetables, meat, other perishable foods. Together, these objects were supposed to remind the viewer of the transience of life. "Hurry to do good," the authors of such still lifes tell us, "because life goes by as quickly as a pear rots." Also popular were hourglasses, flowers, drinks, short-lived butterflies, and symbols of life-consuming human activities.
The skull as an attribute of the personified Melancholy sitting over an open book expresses the futility of her efforts to master knowledge and wisdom. A decrepit old man looking at a skull presents an allegorical figure of Old Age.
In portraiture, the hand of the character laid on the skull indicates deep reverence for the deceased. The wreath crowning the skull eloquently testifies to the posthumous glory of the deceased.
Skull and crossbones in war and military
The symbol of pirates
The emergence of the black pirate flag Around the middle of the 16th century is quite logical. Ships and navy appeared primarily for military purposes, so a system of flag colors was developed. The black flag meant an order for an immediate stop and surrender , the yellow one symbolized a fatal illness on board or the madness of the ship's crew. If the vessel did not respond to the warning, a red flag was raised to indicate the impossibility of showing mercy.
The well-known name for the pirate flag is "Jolly Rodger", possibly from the English word roger - "rogue rogue" or in some contexts - the devil himself. After all, one of Satan's playful nicknames is Old Roger, Old Roger.
Yes, many pirates had black flags, but this sign was not always depicted on them, and it was very different from the traditional sign. For example, the pirate Calico Jack Rackham on the flag had a skull with crossed boarding sabers, Thomas Tew had a hand with a sword, the legendary Blackbeard Edward Teach had a skeleton with a spear piercing a scarlet heart (!), Edward Lowe had a red skeleton. Christopher Condent had three skulls with baptized bones at once, but Edward England's "dead head" was complemented by an hourglass! Pirate Emmanuel Win, although he had the image of a skull and crossbones on the flag, his skull itself was drawn sideways and for some reason looked from left to right. ☠️
Skull Symbol in Military uniform
Most often the skull is mentioned in wartime.The image of a skull with bones became fashionable in the armies in the era of romanticism in literature, painting and architecture - in the 18th century. The military ordered their own badges with skulls and hung them on their uniforms. Officially, these signs were fixed in military uniforms later. At the funeral of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm, the knight's hall of his palace was draped with cloths embroidered with silver thread with skulls without a lower jaw and crossed bones, and then in memory of the deceased, two regiments of life hussars were formed, bearing the same emblem.
In 1831, Josef Zenkovich formed a legion of desperates (desperate), consisting of infantry and cavalry, which participated in hostilities against units of the Russian imperial troops in Poland and Lithuania. Later, in the same century, the symbolism of "death-immortality" appears in the British army. In 1855, during the Crimean War, after the Battle of Balaklava, the symbolism was supplemented with a ribbon with the inscription Death "OR GLORY" - "(DEATH Death) OR GLORY". Symbols were also used by French royalist émigrés fighting against the revolutionary regime. And later in the Finnish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Austrian, Italian and Polish troops. 🪓
It is worth mentioning the use of death symbolism by units of the Red Army and anarchist detachments of Nestor Makhno. In this case, the true meaning of the skull in the military tradition is distorted.
The skull is used to intimidate destruction and death. On the banner of the “anarcho-communists” of Batka Makhno, there was also a “death's head” and the inscription “Death to everyone, hto at the pirishkodi of good fortune to the working people”.
Today, modern armies have almost completely lost the tradition of using the symbolism of death - the skull ("dead (Adam's) head"). Examples of its use in some parts of special purpose most often boil down to marginal shocking at the level of decorative decoration of uniforms. The connection with the true sacred meaning that the skull carried as a military symbol back in the twentieth century is not traced today.
From the second half of the 20th century, a frightening skull emblem with some minor elements - lightning, wings, etc. - they began to use "commandos" and paramilitary units of the US intelligence services in their symbols.
The Skull Sign In The German Army - "Totenkopf"
For the first time, the Skull-like attribute of a military uniform was used in the shock hussar regiments of the Prussian army of Frederick the Great. "Hussars with a dead head" - "Totenkopfhusaren" put a silver skull on black hats, which symbolized the unity of war and death on the battlefield. 💀
In memory of the deceased monarch, the regular 1st and 2nd regiments of the royal life-hussars were formed, wearing black uniforms (chikchirs, doloman and mentic), a black shako (Flugelmuetze) with a silver emblem executed in the Prussian manner - a skull with crossed bones. Apparently, in this case, the "Black Dead-Head Hussars" ("Shwarze Totenkopfhusaren") did not just want to distinguish themselves and distinguish their part from a number of others.
The skull and bones in these two hussar regiments, despite all the reorganization of the Prussian and then the German armies, were used not only until 1918, but were also inherited by the armies of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.
During the First World War, the "head of death" (totenkopf) became the emblem of the elite assault units of the German army, flamethrower companies and tank battalions. In 1916, the symbol of death was appropriated to the flamethrowers personally by the Crown Prince as the highest mark of valor, which "will constantly stimulate the further enhancement of the fighting spirit that despises death."
The Totenkopf was the personal emblem of the German Luftwaffe ace pilot Georg von Hantelmann. After 1918, the "head of death" appeared on the uniform of the volunteer corps of Weimar Germany - Freikors who fought against the German Bolsheviks (Spartacists), which symbolized contempt for death and a willingness to go to the end in their struggle.
Death symbols also appeared on the cars and helmets of members of the Black Reichswehr.
The Skull Sign In The Russian army - "Adam's head"
In Russian culture, the origin of the skull symbol has Christian roots. Traditionally, the crossbones skull is used and is called "Adam's head".
In the Russian army, the symbolism of death appears in 1812 in one of the cavalry regiments of the Petersburg militia, called the Deadly or Immortal. On the headdresses of the ranks of this militia unit, the same silver skull was attached over the crossed bones.
In the overseas campaign against Napoleon, the Russian hussars of the Alexandrian regiment began to imitate their Prussian comrades, with whom they fought side by side, and also hung from head to toe with silver skulls.
But officially the coat of arms on headdresses in the form of a skull and bones was established for the "Alexandrians" by Nicholas II only at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1907, the types of cavalry and the historical names of the regiments were restored in the Russian Imperial Army.
The traditional uniform was also introduced. On March 5, 1914, instead of the coat of arms on the cap, it was ordered to wear the "Death's Head". Since then, the skull and bones have been legally adorned with fur hats and regimental badges of the "Alexandrians".
To the commander of the 17th Don Cossack Regiment, General Baklanov, a black silk badge with a silver embroidered "Adam's head" and the inscription "Tea for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the next century. Amen ”was sent as a gift by the nuns of the New Jerusalem Monastery.
The general understood that the highlanders of the Caucasus, who were opposed by his regiment, who were unfamiliar with the Christian symbolism, this badge would terrify. This flag was used by the entire Chechen company.
Long before the February Revolution, the disintegration of the Russian army began. The military setbacks of 1915 and the growing discontent of the population with the ongoing war led to mass desertions. Disobedience to orders grew, sometimes reaching mutinies.
In May 1917, the congress of soldiers' deputies of the front, at the request of Brusilov, adopted a positive resolution on the creation of "volunteer units." The Death Battalions" were called upon by their example to inspire the rest, less persistent troops, decayed by red agitators and thereby keep the front from collapse. Later, these "volunteer units" became the basis of the White Volunteer Army.
Initially, volunteer formations not only did not have a uniform form. Instead of a cockade on their caps, they wore an "Adam's head" - an image of a skull with crossed bones (a little later the bones were replaced by swords).
The same emblem began to be depicted on the banners of these units. Gradually, the uniforms that arose on the South-Western Front spread by orders of the Commander-in-Chief Brusilov throughout the Russian army.
The most famous among them were, perhaps, the Kornilovsky Shock Regiment, during the civil war, which grew to the size of a division and served as the backbone of the White Volunteer Army - later the "Armed Forces of the South of Russia") and "Women's Combat Team (later - battalion) of the death of Maria Bochkareva" , which defended the Winter Palace from the Bolsheviks in October 1917.
After the shots fired at Lenin in the fall of 1918, the Cheka launched a "red terror" under the sign of a skull with bones "Death to the bourgeoisie and its henchmen! Long live the Red Terror! "
At the same time, on the Bolshevik banners the "head of death" was always present in combination with the indispensable calls to kill someone else ("the world bourgeoisie", "enemies of the working people", "counter-revolutionaries", "henchmen of the old regime"). The soldiers of the red army used the symbolism of death exclusively as a promise of death to the enemy.
What about you? Are you ready to embrace the skull symbol?
In this blog, we have been able to retrace the history of the skull symbol through time. First of all, we crossed all kinds of religions to better understand the impact of this sign in their respective cultures. Then we explored the different myths and beliefs around certain rituals of different civilizations, which is incredibly exciting.
Finally, for military fans, we hope you enjoyed this deep immersion into the history of the different armed forces through human history and the implementation of the skull symbol in their philosophies.
For the curious, you can consult Symbolism of skull blog on the subject, it is more concise but contains some information that may be of interest to you. Click here
You are armoured with knowledge on the subject, whether it's on a street, in a magazine or in a movie, you won't see the skull symbol in the same way anymore.