Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Symbol Spotlight: Swastika

            What does this simple bent-armed cross mean to you?  Bigotry? Genocide?  Does it evoke images of Nazi war banners?  White supremacist skinhead tattoos?  Does it seem threatening, hateful…evil?
            Most Americans and Europeans these days associate the swastika with these malevolent concepts, but this “bad reputation” is a relatively recent development.  About 90 years ago, the Nazi Party chose to emblazon this symbol on their flags and uniforms, and then went on to commit heinous crimes against humanity. Because of this, the poor swastika came to represent fascism, cruelty, extreme racism and monstrous holocaust.

            This is incredibly unfortunate, because for the first, oh…several thousand years or so of its existence, it was one of the most widely-spread and auspicious symbols in the world.
            It was used by Neolithic peoples, making it one of mankind’s most ancient symbols. Since antiquity, it has been used by people in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South Americas.  

Swastikas from around the globe.
        
            The name comes from the Sanskrit word svastika, which means ‘lucky or auspicious thing’, and indeed, most of the meanings associated with it (before Hitler) were very positive. 
            Visually, it is a melding of two very ancient and potent symbols; the cross and the spiral.  The cross, at its most basic, is an intersection, a crossroads, with lines that radiate out from the center.  A spiral is a single line leading outward from the center, curving around itself.  The combination of these shapes suggests outward expansion, energy radiating outward and spinning motion. 
            It is most commonly considered a solar symbol – representing the Sun with energy radiating from it. As the sun’s warmth and light are essential for life on our planet, sun signs are universally positive in nature, connoting a sacred Source of Life, Light and Abundance.  Some scholars connect the swastika’s dynamic shape with the rotation of the stars in the night sky.  It is also associated with Stability, because it points in all directions at once.
Hindu-style svastika
            According to the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, the swastika means: “..the union of the male and female principles; the dynamic and static; mobility and immobility; harmony and balance; the two complimentary phases of movement, centrifugal and centripetal, inbreathing and outbreathing, going out from and returning to the centre, beginning and end…In all circumstances it is the symbol of good luck; good augury; good wishes; blessings; longevity; fecundity; health and life.”

            In the Hindu tradition, the swastika represents the very manifestation of the Universe.  A right-facing swastika represents the Evolution of the Universe, facing left, the Involution of the Universe; these two processes continuing in a balanced cycle of manifestation throughout eternity.  Swastikas are often painted near doorways and around the home to attract good fortune and well-being.
"Seal on Buddha's Heart"
            To Buddhists and Jains it represents Eternity, and is one of their most auspicious symbols, used in many rituals and holy texts.  Once known as the “Seal on Buddha’s Heart”, it was commonly placed over the heart or in the palm of the Buddha’s hand on statues and paintings. It was regarded as a highly favorable talisman evoking thoughts of reverence, serenity and good fortune. Unfortunately, many artists no longer use the symbol because of its more recent, negative associations.
            The ancient Chinese regarded the swastika as representing the Sun and the Whole of Creation. The Proto-Indo-Europeans considered it a good luck charm.
            Several Native American tribes used it to symbolize Life and Prosperity, and the Four Directions, or Four Winds.  To the Hopi, it represented the migratory path of their wandering tribe, and the Navaho associate it with a mythic spinning log used in healing rituals.
Native American basket
            It was used as a decorative element by the ancient Greeks and Romans, Mayans, Aztecs, Celts, Egyptians, Vikings, Basques and more. One theory posits that the almost ubiquitous commonality of this “crooked cross” came about because the shape is inherent in the patterns of square-woven baskets, which most early societies developed.
American good luck quilt
          
   In the Middle Ages, it was etched in catacombs to represent Christ and the Four Evangelists.  In 19th Century America, it was a popular motif on good luck quilts given as gifts to new brides. 
Basque tombstone

            In the late 19th century, German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann popularized the swastika as an ancient symbol of success and good fortune.  When the anti-Semitic “Aryan Master Race” movement began in the early 20th century, the swastika was appropriated as an icon that proclaimed “Aryan conquest and mastery”.  Sadly, this usage has tainted the swastika’s reputation ever since, practically obliterating the symbol’s long history of positive associations.

            Today, there is a movement to re-educate the world about this fascinating symbol and reclaim the swastika’s original significance.  If we take the long view of its extensive history and ubiquity, we realize that the Nazi association is truly a short-lived anomaly. 

"Enlightenment" by Cristina McAllister

Sources and further reading:

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