Of many various characters, major Spiritual symbols have extraordinary power. Since so many people have cherished them, often putting all of their hopes into imagining them while praying or meditating, spiritual signs have a very high energetic charge.
Perhaps that is the reason that spiritual symbols remain important even for people who don’t have a religion and are even frequently (mis)used in commercial culture and advertisement. That’s because it is well-known that these symbols draw attention and bring a sense of empowerment.
We are so used to these symbols that we don’t even wonder where they come from? How they’ve evolved must be an interesting story.
Let’s leave behind the superficial appearances of spiritual symbols and find out what they’re really about.
Major Spiritual Symbols From Around The World
Here is the list of some well-known and some lesser-known spiritual symbols, stemming from various religious, spiritual, and philosophical practices, ancient and recent.
To ensure their equality, the eighteen symbols are listed in alphabetical order.
Ankh is commonly known as “The Egyptian cross” due to its superficial resemblance to a Christian cross. Whether it can be called a cross or not could be debated, but what is certain is that Ankh is one of the most well-known symbols of Ancient Egypt.
In Ancient Egyptian writing and art, it stands for life. -because of that, it became widely known as a symbol of life itself, often viewed as “a key of life.”
That is precisely the reason why the Egyptian pharaohs were commonly represented with an ankh in hand, signifying their divine power over all Earthly life.
The horizontal and the vertical bar of the Ankh are thought to symbolize the feminine and masculine energy, with the loop being the rising sun – one of the main fixations of Ancient Egyptian spirituality and the generator of all energy. As an amulet or a charm, the Ankh represents immortality and is supposed to bring good fortune.
Ankh has also infiltrated several unrelated cultures. Coptic Christians adapted the original Ankh into their cross symbol called Crux ansata. In the West, the Ankh has been incorporated into Neopagan religions since the 1960s. It is also depicted in the goth subculture and sometimes as the symbol of African cultural identity.
One of the strongest visual symbols connected to Buddhism is the stylized image of its spiritual founder.
The Awakened One. Buddha, known initially as Siddhārtha Gautama, was born in 563 BCE in Nepal as a prince of the Indian ethnic group called the Sakyas. He was a teacher, philosopher, and leader who sought to understand and relieve human suffering. By following his ascetic path, he had reached enlightenment after meditating under a Bodhi tree and founded a well-known spiritual liberation movement.
Buddha’s image has a few particular features: long ears, curly hair, and a calm, meditating face.
However, you may have noticed that Buddha is rather slim and calm. So why is he featured on so many monuments and figurines as a bold, laughing, chubby person?
It turns out that this is not the image of Siddhartha Gautama at all. There are several theories, but in China, he is believed to be Budai Luohan, a Chinese monk, regarded by many to be an earlier incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
Origin: Indo-European / west Asian
In our current times, and for the past 2000 or so years, the cross is most commonly associated with Christianity. Jesus Christ, the Lord, and Savior of all Christian believers, died crucified on the cross, fulfilling his destiny before resurrecting three days later. Christians often carry a cross pendant around their necks as a remembrance of their Messiah’s sacrifice – and a symbol of sacrifice in general, but also as a promise of the subsequent salvation.
However, the cross is actually an ancient symbol, much older than Christianity and present in many prior cultures. It was a powerful religious pagan symbol in pre-Christian Europe and western Asia, often carrying a distinctly male connotation.
There is a good reason why the cross has been such a powerful symbol for so long. The horizontal and the vertical lines that intersect in or near the middle represent the metaphor of the earthly, material Life (horizontal plane) and the upper, spiritual, cosmic realm (vertical plane). Their symmetrical intersection signifies the center of the world – the point of unification of earthly and divine merge.
Crescent and Star
The pairing of crescent and star is the most well-renowned symbol of Islam, adopted by the religion during the time of dominance of the Ottoman empire over the Islamic world. However, it did not originate in the Ottoman empire, but it was adopted from the Byzantine empire, conquered by the Ottomans.
First and foremost, the new moon’s crescent signifies the beginning and end of the Ramadan fast. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, which has a special significance to all Muslims as a month of fasting, prayer, and reflection. It lasts twenty-nine to thirty days, from one appearance of the crescent moon to the next.
Beyond the connection to Ramadan, Because the Crescent is the early phase of the moon that is about to turn into a half-moon and then into a full moon, it represents progress. The star is an ancient symbol of illumination, and in this pairing, it shines the light of knowledge.
It may be worth noting that not all Muslims take The Crescent and Star as a sacred symbol.
Ensō, The Zen Circle
Zen Circle or Ensō, also known as the Circle of Enlightenment and the Infinity Circle, was derived from Zen Buddhism. It is a beautiful and elegant symbol drawn in one stroke of the brush, bringing a sense of fluidity, peace, and wholeness just by looking at it.
The Ensō is important because it conveys some essentially complex ideas from Zen Buddhism in such an elegant way – the enlightenment, the emptiness, and finding beauty and acceptance of imperfection in “incompleteness” of our Earthly experiences.
If you want to give it a go, the Zen Circle is best drawn effortlessly at the moment when your mind is completely uninhibited.
Khanda is the main symbol of Sikhism, a distinct Indian Dharmic religion originating from the Punjab region.
The symbol’s central element is the double-edged sword at the middle (which also gives the symbol its name), which represents the divine knowledge and the power of God, and also divides the truth and the falsehoods.
The circle around the swords represents the power of God, which has no beginning or end. The two curved swords that are the outermost layer of the symbol represent the belief that a Sikh should give equal significance to his spiritual and social obligations and that these are the main duties of each person.
In reality, the lotus is a gorgeous swamp-bound flower, a national flower of India. As a symbol in Eastern religions, it represents purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration, and rebirth and is sometimes regarded as the “womb of the universe.”
Surely, the lotus is a beautiful flower, but East and South Asia have many inspirational, exotic-looking blooms. How did the lotus become such a powerful symbol?
The lotus flower has its roots in deep, swampy mud, growing practically in darkness. However, it eventually reaches the light and blooms in all its beauty. This life history of the lotus flower goes perfectly with the Buddhist notion of enlightenment, where a soul has to go through many lowly incarnations before coming into the light, becoming enlightened, and eventually reaching the state of Nirvana.
Also, the lotus is one of the rare symbols from this (or any other) list that has its own specific body position. Lotus or Padmasana is a common position (asana) in yoga practice and also a preferable way to sit on many occasions.
Man in a Maze
A Man in a Maze symbol sums up the entire human experience. The native American tribe called Tohono O’odham represented the entire journey of a human being – life, death, and afterlife. Like the spiral and the Unalome (see below), it also conveys that this trip is not straightforward at all.
The man at the top of the maze is at the beginning of his life experience; thus, this point signifies birth. Then, we can imagine that the figure will continue to travel through the maze, whose tunnels depict twists, turns, and challenges of human life, gaining wisdom and strength on the way.
As the journey comes to its endpoint – the center of the maze – we can see that there is a small corner right before the dark end. That is a place for cleansing, repenting, and reflecting back on life and all the gained wisdom.
The end of the maze comes with the acceptance of death and the life that comes after it. The man leaves the maze in harmony with the world he tended and attended during his life.
Om, or Aum, is the foundation of Hinduism, where it is considered “the very first sound of the Universe.” Besides Hinduism, it is often featured in other East Asian religious systems. These systems are complex, with a lot of scriptures and philosophy embedded into them, so the elegant Om sign has a lot of meaning packed into it.
Aum also has its vocal expression, a chant. It is said to be a vocal expression of the universal essence of the soul – Brahman and is often chanted during worship or doing other spiritual activities, including yoga practice. What we see as a symbol is essentially a visual representation of the chant.
Here is the simplified explanation of the Om or Aum chant. When said out loud, Om sounds like ‘Aum.’ Each letter pronounced has its meaning. ‘A’ stands for creation, ‘U’ for Manifestation, and ‘M’ for destruction.
Because of its three-part meaning, Om is often considered the equivalent of a Holy Trinity – although many would agree that this is a bit forceful comparison since the two concepts are quite different. Still, we see the occurrence of the number three, which is common in many spiritual systems.
As for the visual symbol, its many larger curves represent the waking consciousness, dreaming, and deep sleep – different states of consciousness. The small curved line in the center of the symbol stands for the illusion that separates a person from transcendence – the topmost element.
Beyond the Far East, Om became a popular spiritual symbol across the world, especially thanks to the New Age movement. Om bracelets and charms are intended to protect against evil spirits, misfortunes, and enemies.
The Pentagram, also known as Pentacle, is composed of a five-pointed star and a circle surrounding it. The four lateral and lower peaks of the star represent the basic Earthly elements – air, water, earth, and fire, while the upward-pointing peak represents the spirit.
Pentagram has an ancient history and was first known to be used by ancient Babylonians as a protection against evil. Today, this practice continues within the Wiccan and modern Pagan. Also, it has a long history of use in various magical rituals.
The pentagram symbol is often interpreted as Satanic and is indeed sometimes used by people who identify with this path. However, there is no original direct connection between Satan worship and Pentagram.
The Pentagram turned upside down is more commonly connected with these beliefs, superficially because it resembles the horned deity such as the Baphomet. However, it was actually patented by Alister Crowley. He considered it a symbol of spirit descending into matter, coming into conflict with other occultists of the time who considered it a symbol of evil, standing for the triumph of matter over spirit. And indeed, many Wiccan, Pagan, and New Age practitioners today will tell you that turning the pentagram upside down rids the Pentagram of its original power and energy.
The scarab beetle symbol comes from Ancient Egypt and is one of the rare symbols on this list that has its real embodiment on earth – in the form of real Sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) native to the Mediterranean regions. These beetles are famous for rolling around balls of dung, which they later use as a nest and food supply for their larvae.
As a symbol, the sacred scarab was a symbol of the god Khepri, which was actually the early morning manifestation of the sun god Ra. Khepri had the task of rolling the sun across the sky, just as the real scarab beetles rolled their dung balls on the ground.
This analogy is actually quite realistic, as the dung balls that scarabs dig into the ground help make the soil fertile and ensure the flow of matter and energy. Therefore, making the scarab a mythical iteration of Khepri makes perfect metaphorical sense. A new day rises, the sun radiates, matter and energy circulate – Life thrives.
Ancient Egyptians particularly employed Sacred Scarab’s protection in the wake of death – the beetle god was believed to help the newly departed on their journey to the underworld. They also believed that the gods ask the deceased various intricate questions on their journey to the afterlife. The priests would often tell the answers to various supposed questions to a beetle amulet and then put it beside the ear of the deceased, so it could whisper the answer when the time comes.
In Hinduism, a Yantra is a geometric diagram composed of various symmetrical shapes and representing the energy fields of specific Hindu deities. Each deity has its own yantra; when meditating, focusing on the yantra helps you energetically “reach” the deity, which is an object of your object of meditation and intensifies the entire experience.
One of the most powerful yantras is the Sri Yantra (sometimes spelled Shri Yantra), which consists of nine triangles that are interlocked and then enveloped in a circle. The four upright triangles represent Shiva, and the five downward triangles represent Shakti, meaning that Sri Yantra is also a representation of male and female energies. The central dot is called Bindu, and it symbolizes the place where all creative energy is born.
The combination of these elements embodies the power of cosmic forces and holds a promise of enlightenment.
Shou is a Chinese character and an ancient symbol that represents longevity. In Chinese tradition, longevity is considered one of the five main blessings that are considered essential for a good life. Besides longevity, other blessings are health, wealth, virtue, and peaceful death.
Shou can be commonly seen in jewelry, art, textiles, furniture, and architecture all throughout China. Interestingly, you will often encounter it depicted along with bats. While there is no immediate connection, the key lies in the language – in Chinese, the words for “good fortune” and “blessings” sound the same as the word for “bat,” so the image of a flying mammal is essentially a pictogram that symbolizes the five blessings.
The spiral certainly deserves mention as one of the oldest sacred symbols, occurring independently in many religions. Spiral can be observed in many natural and life forms – the flower buds, the snail’s shells, the water swirls, the wind formations; however, the symbol itself. It is thought to represent the female womb, from whose center the life is born. Therefore, it represents the source of life and the divine power of creation.
Also, when worn as a charm, it reminds the wearer of the human destiny, which is rarely straightforward but rather a winding road with many challenges.
Star of David
Mostly perceived as the symbol of Judaism, the Star of David (also known as the Hexagram Of Solomon) is actually an even older symbol. Before becoming strongly associated with Judaism, it was used in various Middle Eastern cultures, including the Arabic culture and old Christian churches as an ornament.
A predecessor of Star of David was the Seal of Solomon, named after King Solomon, who was masterful in controlling disobedient spirits.
A hexagram contains and merges two triangles. Each triangle, pointing in opposite directions, is interpreted to depict the opposites of life and the universe that still join to create harmony; together, they symbolize the connection between God and humans, or a union between male and female.
The Jewish hexagram also signifies God’s rule that extends in six directions – north, south, east, west, up, and down. Thereby it saves the symbol bearer from the forces of darkness which may lurk in any corner of the world.
Tree of life (with Yggdrasil example)
Since large trees were such a big part of people’s lives and beliefs in the times when first religions started forming, the symbol of a large tree – usually called Tree of Life – is present in various religions and belief systems and has several different forms. Our ancient ancestors have been onto something – we now know that trees and forests are among the main biological pillars of environmental and climatic stability.
In all cases, the Tree of Life represents the creation itself and also connection and unity. It can be a powerful symbol of common origin, either for social groups or humanity in general. The mythical trees are in connection with real-life sacred trees.
To realize the extent of significance that individual mythological trees have had on certain cultures, let’s look at Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree and central sacred tree in Nordic mythology. Yggdrasil is literally the center of the universe. Around it exists all else, including the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology. The Gods go to Yggdrasil every day to do their divine duties and hold governing assemblies.
One of my personal favorites, Unalome, is the Buddhist representation of the winding road to enlightenment – and a very picturesque one.
The bottom of Unalome is the spiral, which represents the beginning of one’s life, before any real challenges and temptations.
Then the whining begins; however, as a person becomes more and more experienced, the path becomes calmer and more narrowly focused, before ending with a single dot that represents the final goal – the awakening and release from suffering.
Unalome’s elegance gained its popularity as a tattoo, and it is often featured with a lotus in place of the dot(s). As we learned previously, the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, so this addition, although not quite traditional, does not change the message.
Yin and Yang
One of the most recognizable spiritual symbols, Yin Yang, stems from Taoism and represents the unity of the opposites. The two halves of the circle – one black and one white – represent the unity of opposites and the contrasting nature of reality. It is mostly regarded as a symbol of masculine and feminine energy, united in holding the energy of the universe.
Taoism is a lot about duality and achieving harmony within duality, and the Yin and Yang represent this notion perfectly. It reminds us that everything in the world – even if we see it as an extreme – needs a counter-force to balance it out, no matter if it’s inherently light or dark.
To Take Away, In Good Spirits
Spiritual symbols represent one great big visual map of human conscious and unconscious beliefs. No matter from which part of the world they come, many spiritual symbols have some common features. The unity or the unification of the material Earthly world and the upper, spiritual realm, the balance of male and female energies, the search for enlightenment, and the winding road towards it are all common themes appearing in spiritual symbols worldwide.
Although some may debate that different symbols are here to divide us, the common message they transmit points to the united spirit of humankind. And there lies their greatest power.