It's hard to imagine a more visually-emotive trigger in the Western World than the swastika: invoking thoughts of goose-stepping heel-clicking stiff-arm-saluting soldiers, it is now immediately associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, who called it Hakenkreuz, the hooked cross. It is known by many other names including tetra-gammadion (the four gamma cross, because it is made from four copies of Γ, the Greek letter gamma), gammadium (Latin), la croix gammée (French), and the old English word fylfot, which probably comes from 'fill (the) foot' meaning fill the gap at the bottom of a design; fylfots were used in heraldry.
The swastika is a vertical/horizontal cross with the extreme ends each having a 'foot' so the 'legs' appear to be following each other in a perpetual circle. In the standard swastika, the feet point in a clockwise direction. It could be interpreted as four attached capital letter L's signifying the original meaning life, light, love and luck.
In Nazi Germany the swastika was the badge of the anti-Semites and was the official symbol of the National Socialist regime from 1920. Hitler designed the red and white flag with black central slanted swastika as stated in Mein Kampf. Yet the swastika in antiquity was a powerfully positive symbol the world over, and was still fashionable in the West up till the 1930s. Have the horrors of war, including memories of gas chambers and concentration camps, tainted this ancient sign beyond reclamation now?
The word 'swastika' comes from the Sanskrit word svastika meaning 'good to be'. According to Carl Sagan's 1985 book Comet (co-authored with his wife Ann Druyan), there may be cosmic origin for the swastika design. The use of the design has been noted to have originally occurred in several cultures across the world within a few centuries. An ancient Chinese text includes drawings of a comet that resembles a swastika that was seen in the year 168 BC. It may have passed close enough to the Earth that it could be seen nearly head on. The comet may have featured four radial jets that would have formed roughly a swastika shape as it rotated. Obviously such a sight in the sky would make an impression.
Good Luck Symbol
In the ancient world the swastika was considered mystic. It was meant to bestow good luck upon the recipient and used extensively as a symbol of love, life, luck and light. The swastika appeared in cultures as diverse as Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Celtic, Viking, Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Egyptian, Hittite, Greek, Roman and Native American. The design was discovered in the ruins of the ancient city of Troy, and has decorated Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Pagan artefacts, catacombs and even the Dalai Lama's throne.
The word swastika, pronounced sa-was-dee-ka is a form of greeting in Thai. In India the swastika is sacred, associated with their elephant-headed god Ganesh, and the visual references are widespread. A 1st Century bronze coin featuring the Hindu goddess Lakshmi being bathed by elephants on the front and a swastika on the reverse side is on display in the British Museum. The 5,000-year-old good luck sign is still used today in Indian art like Rangoli and designs in cloth. The Hindu swastika is prominent during Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) and some also use it for decorative purposes at religious festivals and ceremonies.
The over-80ft-tall1 Buddhist minaret (pillar) Minar-I-Chakari (Tower of the Wheel) is over a thousand years old. It stands on the Shakh Baranta mountain eight miles south of the Kabul plateau in Afghanistan, a desolate region that is hard to reach on the crumbling stone trail. The Buddhist swastika which adorns the minaret represents the feet of the Buddha and is symbolic of his teaching of the 'Wheel of the Law' – the continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.
A copper alloy swastika brooch dating from the Roman invasion of Britain is one of the exhibits in the British Museum, and the swastika also features on the walls, gates and floors at King Herod's sumptuous palatial residences. A design of interlocking swastikas is part of the decorative floor of the cathedral of Amiens in France. A playing card from the early Qing dynasty (17th Century) depicts swastikas and stars. It is part of a collection held by the British Museum. Winterton in Lincolnshire, which lies next to Roman road Ermine Street, still has three mosaic pavements which surrounded a Roman villa. Rediscovered in 1747, the original site dates from 180 AD. Among the mosaic patterns are joined-up swastikas forming borders.
The swastika is the main design element in the stained glass windows along the entire length of the Congregation Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) on 70th Street and Central Park West in New York. It was built in 1860 in the neoclassical style by master architect Arnold Brunner.
The Art Gallery in Manchester, UK was built in 1875. Beneath a depiction of a centaur trampling an enemy is a frieze featuring swastikas. Engraved swastikas also decorate the Manchester Central Library. Einbeck in Germany still has swastikas everywhere, they were featured on the architecture of old houses as it was part of the coat of arms of the local nobility.
In North America the swastika was used extensively. 'Lucky Cent' swastika coins date from late 1890 into the early 1900s. A girls' club was founded by the Ladies' Home Journal magazine in 1903. Members called the Swastika Girls could earn a silver thimble bearing the swastika symbol. They had swastika-decorated stationery and wore a diamond-studded swastika pin badge. The Swastika Girls' slogan was: 'What every girl wants – her own swastika'.
The Boy Scout Badge of Thanks was called the White Swastika (it is no longer in use). A car model called Krit that was manufactured between 1906 and 1916 in Detroit had a swastika symbol for its hood ornament. Suffragettes published a magazine by the name of Swastika to further their cause. The British issued a war savings stamp with a swastika decor in 1916. In 1917 Russia minted an update of their 250-rouble note clearly featuring a slanted swastika behind the number 250.
The Edmonton Swastikas was a Canadian women's ice hockey team during the second decade of the 20th Century. Their team strip consisted of a chunky knitted polo-neck jumper with an incorporated design of a swastika within a larger circle emblazoned upon the chest. The Swastika Surfboard Company of Los Angeles enjoyed good business in the 1920s, and the Coca-Cola company issued a 'lucky keyring' in the shape of a swastika.
Silent film star Clara Bow wore a white outfit of coat and cloche hat with black swastika decoration. The surviving century-old photograph presents a contrasting image of beauty and evil to someone with knowledge of the swastika's misuse by Hitler.
The US Army National Guard 45th Infantry Division had a gold swastika patch on their uniforms prior to entry in WWII. Recruits hailed mostly from Arizona and New Mexico, and to the Native American membership the swastika represented the Sun or fire element. The swastika was replaced by a gold Thunderbird before the 45th Division was dispatched to serve in Europe.
The Finnish Air Force used a blue swastika on a white background as their official symbol from 1918 to 1945. Swastika is a small mining town in northern Ontario, Canada; its residents rejected an attempt to change the town's name during WWII. There is also a town named Swastika in New York State.
African brass goldweights made by the Asante ethnic group had swastika, bars and initial decorations; some were donated to the British Museum in 1947. Also in their possession is an undated branding iron with swastika brand which was originally unearthed in Tibet.
The Swastika Laundry 1912 of Ballsbridge, Dublin, Ireland, added the '1912' to their company name at the commencement of WWII to differentiate between themselves and the Nazis. Their delivery vans were red except for a large black swastika on a white base. Nobel prizewinning author Heinrich Böll (1917 - 85) recalled the shock he got when he saw one of the vans in the 1950s, assuming the Völkischer Beobachter (People's Observer) newspaper, which had identical vans, had an outlet there, until he noticed the added '1912'.
The anti-clockwise (mirrored) swastika is called a sauvastika today, though this name was probably invented in the 19th Century it was used by Buddhists and Hindus in antiquity. An ancient statue carved from a meteorite is suspected to be of the god Vaisravana from the pre-Buddhist Bon culture. It has a sauvastika decoration on the figure's midriff. On Japanese maps the sauvastika symbol denotes the location of a Buddhist temple.
African-American good luck symbols of the 1930s included a sauvastika, black cats, a rabbit's foot, four-leaf clover, pointing down horseshoe, the Helping Hand, crescent moon, two superimposed hearts pierced by an arrow and the lucky numbers 7 and 22. One 'Lucky Mon-Gol' card, manufactured in Memphis, Tennessee, displays them all!
There exists a photograph of Jacqueline Bouvier, later Kennedy-Onassis (1929 – 1994), taken when she was a child aged about ten, in which she is dressed as an Indian squaw: the design on the mid-section of her dress is a sauvastika. Another notable use was the adoption of the sauvastika by Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) as his personal symbol. It features on the dust covers of first and early editions of his books, and in some illustrations. One book dated 1920 features an emblem of a golden elephant head with a gold (regular) swastika just above its eye. There are many examples still in existence where the two mirrored symbols co-exist as a complement to the other, producing a geometric effect.
Microsoft has learned of a mistake in the Bookshelf Symbol 7 font... we failed to identify, prior to the release, the presence of two swastikas2 within the font. We apologize for this and for any offense caused.
– Steven Sinofsky, senior vice-President, Microsoft
There have been calls for a Europe-wide ban of the swastika to bring the rest of Europe into line with Germany, where it is already banned. The controversy/discussion there about the permissibility of the swastika in antifascist symbols – a lot of the punks/black bloc kids are wearing crossed-out swastikas as a demonstration against (neo-)nazis, and one student was banned from school because of it. A court decided it was still a verfassungswidriges Symbol (unconstitutional symbol), but another then decided he could wear it, and so on.
Proof, if any were needed, that the image of a Nazi swastika still possesses the power to shock and cause offence occurred in 2005 when third-in-line to the UK throne Prince Harry sparked outrage by appearing at a fancy dress party wearing a desert uniform of Rommel's Afrika Korps tunic complete with swastika armband and German Wehrmacht (defence force) collar badge. No doubt he will be associated with this action for the rest of his life but it did serve the purpose of bringing the whole subject of the swastika into public discussion.
Education would be more beneficial than a ban.
– Director of the human rights group Liberty
Images of the perceived Nazi party emblem have the power to provoke outrage, and misunderstandings can occur when the use of the innocuous ancient swastika is misinterpreted. Take for example the ethnic holdall which Zara introduced for sale in 2007. The embroidery on the bag, believed to have been manufactured in India, included four green swastikas surrounded by red sun emblems, a 'push-me-pull-you' Dr Dolittle-type creature, flowers and bicycles.
People who objected to the design included a 20-year-old Jewish woman, Guia Cleps, who said she was 'absolutely shocked' and an unnamed woman who complained: How could it get through to the stores? Why didn't they realise earlier? Commenting on the news story online, Robin Donnolly of Croydon, UK, said: There doesn't appear to be anything that suggests that the imagery on this bag is supposed to be related to Nazism other than the use of an innocent symbol whose history is marred by the unfortunate adoption by one group of people. A spokesperson for Zara apologised to anyone who was offended by the bag, and withdrew it from all their stores.
Being a Hindu myself, I know about the swastika and how the Nazis used it. I have some friends who had a misconception about it and at one stage they thought I was Nazi. But then they realised that it was a part of my religion.
– An h2g2 Researcher
As long as there are still people alive who are deeply affected by the atrocities associated with the Nazi regime, it seems there can be no reconciliation for the swastika symbol in the West. In the meantime, the swastika continues to represent life, love, light and good luck to millions of people globally, and their views should be respected.