25 Modern Symbols That Have Lost Their Original Meaning

Posted by , Updated on January 22, 2024

Modern symbols can say more about a person, a group of people, an organization, or even a religion and political ideology than a thousand words. Most of us are perfectly aware of what certain symbols represent; in many cases a single hand gesture or salute is enough to give you a clear message (often times not an amicable message to say the least). For example, the swastika is one of the most recognized symbols in the modern world, as well as one of the most feared in history. Even though the swastika is a peaceful, ancient, sacred symbol from Eurasia, not many people know its true origin and most associate it almost exclusively with Nazism and the Third Reich.

However, the swastika is not the only symbol that has lost its original meaning. Other examples include the trident and pentagram, symbols that most people nowadays relate to Satanism and its rituals. However, the origin of these symbols goes back to ancient Greece and has nothing to do with its contemporary meaning. There are so many symbols we use everyday and yet their original meaning is something completely different. Get ready for an awakening with these 25 Symbols in modern times that have lost their original meaning. You might not see “the bird” the same way again.



The raised fist

The raised fistSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: commons.wikimedia.org

In modern times, the raised fist symbolizes solidarity and socialism, while it also expresses unity, power, and defiance. It dates back to ancient Assyria where it represented resistance to violent acts.


The mistletoe

The mistletoeSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Each December many people worldwide decorate their houses with mistletoe and kiss beneath it. The original meaning of this plant, however, had nothing to do with kissing or hugging. Ancient Norse myth, where the mistletoe originates, saw a mistletoe as a symbol of ritual castration.


The infinity symbol

The infinity symbolSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

In modern times the infinity symbol has become a secular mathematical sign for the infinity of numbers, time, or space, but its original meaning has nothing to do with its modern use. In ancient India and Tibet it represented perfection, dualism, and union between male and female.


The Ankh

The AnkhSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

The Ankh became popular in the West once it was adopted by New Age mysticism groups during the sixties and seventies but has been around for thousands of years. It comes from ancient Egypt where it was a hieroglyphic that symbolized life, while according to other sources it was considered to be the key to the Nile.


The trident

The tridentSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Also known as “the devil’s pitchfork” in pretty much every Christian country, this symbol’s origin has nothing to do with Satan. Its origin can be traced back to ancient Greece, where the trident was seen as a sacred symbol and the powerful weapon of Poseidon, god of the sea.


Mudras (Hand Gestures)

Mudras (Hand Gestures)Source: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

It might sound ridiculously funny to those who happen to know the origin of the mudras, but there are indeed many people, especially in the United States, who think that some of the mudras originated in American ghettos and represent certain gangs like the Bloods or Crips. Of course, the original mudras have nothing to do with violence or gangs and originated in India where they symbolize peace, harmony, and good mental health, among other good things.


The lightning bolt

Lightning BoltSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: deviantart.com

This is another symbol that many people wrongly associate exclusively with Nazism, since the double lightning bolt was the official symbol of the Waffen-SS. The history of the lightning bolt, however, goes back to ancient Greece where people considered it a symbol of divine power and punishment from Zeus against those who challenged the gods or wronged others.


The two-fingered salute

The two-fingered saluteSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: YouTube

The two-fingered salute —not to be confused with the V sign— might not be the most popular way to salute someone today, but some people will still do it, mostly instinctively. Regardless of how it is viewed today, this salute goes back to ancient Rome, where defeated gladiators used it to ask for mercy from the Lord of the Arena.


The Phoenix

naziphoenixSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: etherealcathedral.wordpress.com

Also known as the Reichsadler, or “imperial eagle,” this symbol derived from the Roman eagle standard used by the Roman emperors. In modern times the symbol has almost exclusively been associated with Nazi ideology, Hitler, and the Third Reich.


The double-headed eagle

Double-headed eagleSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: commons.wikimedia.org

The double-headed eagle is a symbol that most people wrongly associate with Russia when in fact its origin goes back to the Byzantine Empire. Used as the dynastic emblem of the Greek Palaiologoi dynasty (the last emperors of the Byzantine Empire), the double-headed eagle became the symbol of Greek Orthodox Christianity, from whence other Orthodox nations (like Russia, for example) later borrowed it.


Iron cross

Iron crossSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

The Iron Cross was originally a military decoration in Prussia but during the First World War it became a popular symbol in Germany and appeared on almost every German fighter plane and tank. A few years later it became a symbol of fascism in France then Portugal.


The Caduceus

The CaduceusSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

Today people associate the caduceus with medicine. In origin, however, the caduceus, which features two snakes winding around a usually winged staff, is the traditional symbol of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger god.


The Devil’s horns

The Devil’s hornsSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

Most of us think of Hard Rock music when we see the devil’s horns, but this symbol’s history goes all the way back to ancient India where it was used as a gesture by the Buddha to expel demons and remove obstacles such as illness or negative thoughts.


The barber pole

The barber poleSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

You probably don’t know this, but the colors on the old-fashioned, almost iconic barber pole are not random. They symbolize the bloody legacy of the medieval period, when people went to barbers not just for a haircut and a shave but also for bloodletting and other medical procedures. See, during the Middle Ages bloodletting was a common treatment for a wide range of diseases and apparently barbers were as trusted as the physicians of that time.


The skull and crossbones

The skull and crossbonesSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: commons.wikimedia.org

A skull and crossbones is mostly used these days as a warning sign of danger, usually related to poisonous and deadly chemicals. This symbol’s design, however, goes back to the Middle Ages, where it was used as the absolute symbol of death.


The Star of David

The star of DavidSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

Since 1897, when it was chosen as the central symbol on the flag at the First Zionist Congress, the Star of David represents the Jewish and Zionist community worldwide. However, in third- to fourth-century AD Israel, it lacked such value and import; it was only a decorative architectural design in synagogues.


All-seeing eye

All-seeing eyeSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

When most people see this symbol they automatically think of Masonic brotherhoods and their secret agenda for world domination, or just the one-dollar bill, yet its origin is quite innocent: it is supposed to be the eye of God watching (and protecting) humanity.


The ichthys (Jesus Fish)

The ichthys (Jesus Fish)Source: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

The ichthys comes from the Greek for fish and is composed of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish. Many people connect it with early Christianity because in Greek the ichthys is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and our Savior,” but in actuality the symbol was first sacred to the pagans. To be more specific, the Greeks and Romans, before the Christians appropriated it, it was believed that the ichthys was the offspring of the ancient sea goddess Atargatis.


The peace sign

The peace signSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

What we all know as the international symbol of peace was designed in 1958 by a British designer and artist named Gerald Holtom as the logo of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).


The heart shape

The heart shapeSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Pixabay

The heart shape is a symbol that today is strictly associated with love, romantic relationships, and most recently Valentine’s Day, but in ancient Greece it had nothing to do with these things. We first meet the heart shape as a symbol for silphium, a species of giant fennel that once grew on the North African coast near the Greek colony of Cyrene. The ancient Greeks first used silphium to flavor food and as a medicine, but it would later become the most popular form of birth control.


The V sign

The V signSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

The V sign is a hand gesture that people widely use nowadays to show their peaceful intentions or to express victory. The origin of this sign, however, has nothing to do with peace or victory. It dates back to the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) when English archers used to taunt their French enemies by raising their two fingers, well only if they had both. See, whenever an English archer was caught by the French, usually had his index and middle fingers chopped off his right hand, ensuring that he wouldn’t be able to kill another French soldier in battle.


The pentagram

The pentagramSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

The pentagram is the simplest regular star polygon and was associated with the golden ratio and architectural perfection in ancient Greece. Nowadays, unfortunately, most people think of evil and black magic since the symbol ended up representing Satanism.


The thumb signal

Thumbs-upSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

Though somewhat debated, some sources claim the origin of thumbs up/down to be from the Roman Gladiators. Roman crowds used this hand gesture at the end of a gladiatorial event to decide whether a defeated gladiator should live or die.


The middle finger

Middle fingerSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia (Censored by List25)

We think it’s unnecessary to explain the meaning of this gesture. This symbol goes back to ancient Greece, and though it wasn’t seen as offensive or hostile like it is today, it was associated with sexual intercourse and fertility, because it represented the phallus (a sacred object that resembled an erect penis).


The swastika

The SwastikaSource: Symbols and their meaning (Book), Image: Wikipedia

In most parts of the West the swastika is synonymous with Nazism, fascism, and racism, but in reality this symbol of good fortune and well-being has been a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eurasian religions for the past twelve thousand years.