Signs and Symbols

A symbol of Christianity, the cross had symbolic meaning before it assumed its religious connotation. It has been found in China and Africa. It appears on Bronze Age stones in Scandinavia. It was regarded as a magical symbol. It brought good luck and diverted evil. (Think of its use in staving off vampires.) It is thought, in some quarters, that the Cross, found in rock carvings, is a solar symbol. Others say it's the symbol of earth. Its points represent the four directions: North, south, east, and west. Assyrian belief says it's the symbol of universal gods. People wore cross charms to keep away evil in ancient times.

After Christ was crucified, Christians didn't use the sign of the cross as their religious symbol for several hundred years. It was connected with executioners. Christians used the cross, finally, about 200 A.D. in the catacombs. In 312 A.D., Constantine had a dream in which a cross, denoted as a Christian symbol, meant he would prevail in war. Constantine won a battle, and the cross was then carried on banners by the Roman Army. Constantine introduced religious freedom in the Roman Empire during the next year. After the cross was outlawed as a means of execution, it became fully embraced by the Christians as their symbol of Christ. It stood for his death and suffering. And, most important, it symbolised the Resurrection, becoming a symbol of faith to Christians everywhere -- The Modern Witch's Book of Symbols, p. 32.

The Sign of Signs

The cross has been described as the sign of signs. It is, however, by no means, specifically Christian. Formed by the intersection of two lines, this most basic of shapes, has since prehistoric times been employed as a sacred, protective, or decorative emblem in almost every culture throughout the world. The early Scandinavians, for instance, depicted the hammer of Thor, their god of thunder and war, as a T-shaped cross; it symbolised thunder, lightning, storm and rain. It has also been an attribute of the deities of Assyria, Persia and India. For American Indians the cross represented both the human form, and the four cardinal points and the four winds. According to J. C. Cooper's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, the north arm represents the north wind, the most powerful, the all-conquering giant, the head and intelligence; the south arm is the south wind, the seat of fire and passion, and of melting and burning; the east arm is the east wind, the heart and the source of life and love, and the west the gentle wind from the spirit land, the dying breath and the subsequent journey into the unknown. To the alchemists, the cross was a symbol of the four elements: air, earth, fire, water. Elsewhere, the cross variously symbolised health, fertility, life, immortality, the union of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the sun, and the stars. But it is as the prime symbol of Christ, of his crucifixion and glory, and thus of the Christian faith and Church, that the cross has achieved the most widespread and enduring significance. Wherever Christianity has been established, the sign has been adopted not only as an integral part of the ritual of worship, but also as a principal device in art, architecture, and many other areas including flags, and heraldry (where nearly 400 separate and sometimes bizarre forms have been recorded) -- Guinness Encyclopaedia of Signs and Symbols, p. 90.

Contrary to current popular belief, the Latin or "Passion" cross, was not a Christian emblem from the beginning. It was not assimilated into the Christian religion, until the seventh century A.D., and was not fully authorised until the ninth century (1). Primitive churches preferred to represent Christ by the figure of a lamb, or else a "Good Shepherd" carrying a lamb, in the conventional manner, of Hermes and Osiris (2). In several places the New Testament says that Jesus was hanged on a tree, not a cross (Acts 5:30; 1 Peter 2:24), and some sects believe to be literal, not metaphorical. This envisioned Jesus rather closer, to such tree-slain saviour figures as Krishna, Marsyas, Odin, and Dodonian Zeus.

Some early Christian fathers, specifically repudiated the Latin cross on the ground that it was a pagan symbol. 0n a coin of Gallienus, it appeared as the sceptre of Apollo. On the Damietta stone, it set off the words "Ptolemy the Saviour. (3)" According to the Greeks, this cross signified "the life to come" in the Egyptian religion of Sarapis. (4)

Once the Latin cross was accepted by Christianity, all kinds of pious nonsense began to accrete around the symbol. It was claimed, for example, that the very wood of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden had been preserved by Adam and all the patriarchs after him, in order to be fashioned into Jesus' cross- for Jesus was declared the second or reincarnated Adam designed to correct the fault of the first one. (5) This Tee of Life legend contributed to the enormous proliferation of tons of wood splinters of the True Cross that brought huge revenue into the medieval church when touted as healing charms. To explain the presence of all those splinters, the legend called Invention of the Cross was devised, claiming that the empress, Helena had found Jesus' cross in a crypt under Jerusalem's temple of Aphrodite and had carried it back to Europe. Of course there was no genuine record of any such event, but the credulous do not demand proof.

The Latin cross is not inappropriate for a church that composed itself entirely of men, for in several early societies the Latin cross was a primary phallic symbol. Its mythological alter ego, the Tree of Life, is still a metaphor for male genitals among the Arabs. Phallic-masculine meanings of the cross are broadly hinted at in the fifth-century Gospel of Nicodemus, which says Jesus descended into hell and redeemed Adam, together with Old Testament patriarchs, prophets, and fore- fathers, by making the sign of the cross on their foreheads. "He took them and leaped up out of hell." (6) No mention was made of Eve, matriarchs, or foremothers.

It was also claimed that Golgotha, the "Place of the Skull," was the burial place where Adam's skull lay directly under the cross so the blood of Jesus could drip on it, thus washing away the original sin (again, there was no mention of Eve). Official theology was always vague about whether Jesus' death had really washed away original sin or not. If not, then there seemed to have been little point in the sacrifice; but if so, then there would have been no need for a church.


  1. Whittick, 226.
  2. Abelard, 54.
  3. d'Alviella, 14-15.
  4. Baring-Gould, 355.
  5. Male, 153.
  6. Hall, 100.

Source: The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, pp. 54, 55.

One form of cross is that shown above - a symbol of Christianity; we really need to take a detailed look at the cross and at crucifixion to fully understand its significance, the various types of cross, and their meanings. It is a well-established fact that the cross, symbolic of humankind as a whole. Formerly considered to be a of the death of Jesus, was used as a symbol many thousands of years before the setting up of the Christian Church, and many Bible students feel that the symbol of the cross, being pagan in origin, should not be associated with Jesus Christ or true forms of Christianity.

The crucifix which many wear as a symbol of their belief is carried by more people than any other religious talisman, and is considered by many to be sacred: people sometimes go far as to make the cross an object of adoration or an icon in its own right. Indeed since the time of Jesus' death, the object on which he died has been depicted in many ways. People seeking to trace the actual form of the cross or torture stake have looked back at the original Greek scriptures where the word stauros is used, and concluded that this means any upright wooden stake firmly fixed in the ground. This could mean any implement at all, such as a pole in a fence, but further investigations have revealed that the word 'stauros' also indicates something used for impalement of human beings. In many cases, especially during the time of the Roman Empire, the execution stake became a vertical pole with a horizontal crossbar placed at some point, and although the period of time at which this happened is uncertain, what is known is that simple impalement became known as crucifixion -- Interpreting Signs and Symbols: A Beginner's Guide, pp. 48, 49.