Today’s blog post explores a symbol used for thousands of years. A symbol that for cultures, religions, tribes and families around the world represented life, light, luck, love, success, eternity and goodness. Most people today know the swastika as symbol of terror and oppression, used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. And from 1920 to 1945 its true, the swastika became quickly known as the stamp of hate, fear and white supremacy. Today however, we’d like to recognize this powerful symbol’s history, before the fear and before the stigma. As collectors of all objects old and beautiful we see the swastika from time to time, stamped in jewelry, artfully created in beadwork, woven into textiles and used in old advertisements. And although its difficult for us all to look at this iconic shape and see something wonderful, we’d like to try and we’d like to share with you a few reasons to try with us. The world “swastika” is derived from the Sanskrit “svastika” which refers to “well-being” and “good luck”.
Below is a brief outline of the swastika’s use throughout history separated into areas of the world. This is by no means the symbol’s complete story but a guide to understanding its innocent beginnings. Perhaps if we all look long enough we can start to see why this balanced design, this whirling log, this spinning sun, was once the perfect depiction of eternity, fertility and truth.
One of the oldest recorded uses of the swastika in Africa is found in artwork by the Akan people of Ghana. It is also found on servants’ dresses in the Ashanti Empire as well as carved into one of the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela, dating back to the 12th or 13th century.
In Asia, the swastika symbol first appears an archaeological record around 2500 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization. Throughout history the swastika spread through many religions throughout Asia such as Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism. With the spread of Buddhism, the Buddhist version of the swastika migrated to Tibet and China. Further influence found the symbol used by Balinese Hinduism and Chinese Taoism. In Thailand the word “Swasdee” is normally used for greeting, indicating a combination of prosperity, security, glory and good. Each adoption of this simple and balanced symbol would often come with specific meaning. Jainism used the swastika heavily throughout scripture and ceremonies, attributing the four arms as the four places where a person could be reborn in the cycle of birth. In Hinduism, the swastika is well-recognized and represents God and his energy(Shakti) as well as the four directions of the world. Buddhism most often used the symbol as a graphical representation of eternity and even used it to mark the site of Buddhist temples on maps.
The paired swastika symbols appear in the Chinese writing system around 900AD and variant characters are used in Madarin, Korean, Cantonese, Japanese and Vietnamese meaning “all” or “eternity”. As the symbol once carried a positive and beautiful meaning its no surprise that it was eventually used in works of art. Often found as a repeating pattern in Japanese works, both left and right facing swastikas would be joined by connecting lines creating unique patterns in positive and negative space.
The swastika motif used in North America is most commonly found in Native American art. Adopted by tribes such as the Navajo, Hopi and Dakota, the symbol can be found in their beautiful beadwork and silver worked jewelry. For the Hopi clan it represented its own tradition of wandering the land. For the Navajo it was known as a whirling log and was used in healing rituals. The swastika also made an important appearance in the early 1930’s as a symbol of the people of Kuna Yala, after they revolted against cultural suppression from Panama. For the Kuna people, the symbol represents the octopus that created the world, its tentacles pointing to the four cardinal points.
In the Iron Age of Europe, swastika shapes were used by many cultures including Armenian, Greco-Roman, Etruscan, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and more. This prehistoric use seems to reflect a rise in folk culture, expanding its meanings to perpetual motion, thunder, the sun and justice. It was even used as an early Christian symbol representing Christ’s victory over death. Polish nobility have used it within their coat of arms, Russians and Greeks have worked it into their coins and armor and it is found in art and jewelry making all throughout pre-twentieth century Europe.
20th Century Europe
The swastika experienced a resurgence in the Western world in the late 19th century as archaeological work by Heinrich Schliemann discovered the symbol in ancient Troy and began to associate it with ancient migrations through Europe, specifically to Germany. It was seen as an important link to religious ties with remote ancestors, connecting Germanic, Greek and Indo-Iranian cultures. By the early 20th century it was used worldwide and represented good luck and success. At this point in history we begin to see the swastika used in a broader scope, through fashion, advertising, art and jewelry making.
Capitalizing on the swastika’s widespread popular usage, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party adopted the symbol in 1920. It was used on the party’s flag, badge and armband. Hitler described the swastika as a representation of “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man..”
Since the swastika’s use by the Nazi party in WWII, the symbol has been dropped or altered by cultures and organizations across the world. A once beautiful design, representing eternity, balance, justice, and good luck, the swastika has been tarnished by its powerful association with the suffering of war. However we believe it is important to remember its origins and recognize its use over thousands of years. We cherish uncommon objects of all kinds and urge everyone to see the beauty of a symbol that was born from a need to communicate peace and good fortune. Below are more examples of swastikas used throughout history, some found online and others from our shop and vendors’ personal collections.(Thanks to Steve Wiman, Daniel Schmidt and Mandy Lyne) If you’d like to see some in person come by the shop and ask, we’d love to share with you!
See you next time!