Every brand needs its logo. Whether these symbols assist cultural identity, connect believers under one distinct image, or evoke a spiritual emotion, no religion is complete without their visual representation. But where do they appear from? Who decides what shapes best summarise their teachings? And what exactly do they signify?
Here are the stories behind 20 of the world’s most popular theological icons in hopes of proving once again that we have more in common than what divides us.
1. The Crucifix (Christianity)
Easily the most recognisable and explainable religious token is the crucifix. This symbol illustrates arguably the most historically shifting event in written record. Accused of blasphemy, Jesus Christ was crucified, dying for the sins of the people according to the New Testament. Thankfully, his story has a happy ending, as Jesus rose three days later and subsequently triggered the biggest religion in the world.
2. Star and Crescent (Islam)
The Star and Crescent have a long history, perhaps even dating as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. Constantinople (now Istanbul) later claimed the image for itself. Interestingly, it was intended to honour the Greek Goddess Hecate (or the Roman equivalent Diana). However, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, they claimed the character as their own. It has since come to be associated with the Muslim faith, which is peculiar considering their strict monotheistic ideals. Regardless, the Star and Crescent is not the official Islamic symbol, and certain cultures distance themselves from the concept.
3. Om/Aum (Hinduism)
Hinduism has forever stated that vibrational audio alone provides the basis for the cosmos (Shabda Brahman). Science is gradually catching up by agreeing with the perpetual vibrating frequencies of the electron. So while we wait, let’s enjoy the Om mantra. Hinduism considers these three sacred syllables (a, u, m) to be the beginning of creation and the underlying sound of the ultimate reality.
4. The Wheel of Dharma/Dharmachakra (Buddhism)
The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama detailed the dharmachakra during his very first sermon. For this reason, the symbol is closest linked to Buddhism yet remains revered in each Indian religion. The circular wheel represents the ongoing rebirth cycle of suffering (Saṃsāra), but the eight spokes offer us liberation. The Noble Eightfold Path teaches us the right view, resolve, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and meditative consciousness (samadhi). The spokes may also reveal two sets of the Four Noble Truths: the suffering of existence, the cause of this suffering (attachment), the possibility of ending this suffering (detachment), and the end of suffering using the aforementioned Noble Eightfold Path. Easy!
5. The Torii Gate (Shinto)
For Japan’s native Shinto belief, the Torii Gate is not a religious symbol. Instead, it is used as a marker to inform an individual they are entering a sacred shrine area. However, as this character is used on signs and maps to identify such holy locations, casual (usually Western) viewers associate the Torii as Shinto’s most common visual expression.
6. Yin-Yang (Taoism/Daoism)
While various intricate variations of this symbol exist (for example, the Taijitu or the Bagua), the Yin-Yang is up there with the most recognisable religious signs in the world. Furthermore, it is not exclusive to Daosim. Instead, it depicts a Chinese philosophical concept whereby the dualism of nature’s opposites depends on one another. Without the darkness, there would be no light. Without the evil, there would be no good. And as soon as a side dominates, it won’t be long before the cyclic reality rebalances itself. Accordingly, the true Yin-Yang is never static and should be exhibited in a perpetual spinning motion.
7. Khanda (Sikhism)
You’d be forgiven for presuming violence is coming when a holy emblem displays a collection of weaponry. Indeed, the Khanda itself is a name for the double-edged sword down the centre of the sign. On either side, we find single-edged daggers (kirpans). And even the circle represents a sharpened throwing weapon known as a chakram. However, the Sikh faith is never fuelled by aggression. Rather, it is to live by a strict code to provide protection and food to the needy and oppressed regardless of religion, caste, or ethnicity.
8. Star of David (Judaism)
Judaism dates from around 3,500 years ago. Hence, it’s surprising to learn how recently the Star of David became their signature design. The exact origins are unclear, but they may have started with the Seal of Solomon. Practising Jewish Kaballahists, Islamic Sufis, and Western occultists alike utilised this mystical sigil. However, Jewish communities in 17th-century Prague decided they liked the hexagram so much that they snatched it away with both hands. They soon incorporated it into the flag of Israel, now serving as their conclusive identity. It’s worth noting that they named the star after David, the third king of the United Kingdom of Israel, according to the Hebrew Bible. Historians agree that this figure probably did exist, but scholars fiercely dispute much of his narrative’s accuracy.
9. Nine-Pointed Star (Baháʼí Faith)
For the Baháʼí Faith, there is no number superior to that of nine. Shoghi Effendi was the Baháʼí Faith leader for 36 years and was quoted saying:
” First, regarding the significance of the number nine: Its importance as a symbol used so often in various connections by the believers lies in three facts: first, it symbolises the nine great world religions of which we have any definite historical knowledge, including the Babi and Baha’i Revelations; second, it represents the number of perfection, being the highest single number; third, it is the numerical value of the word ‘Bahá’.”
The nine religions he refers to are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Sikhism, Judaism, and Bahai Faith, which founder Baháʼu’lláh wished to unify. For this reason, the Baha’i followers build every Baha’i House of Worship with nine sides and nine entrances.
10. Water Symbol (Confucianism)
Confucianism treasures many images deep into its belief system. Examples include Daoism’s Yin-Yang and The Li encouraging correct behaviour. But above these, Confucianism theology submits abundant respect for the element of water. Not only is this liquid the source of life, but it can be metaphorical too. For when water is observed undisturbed, it can teach us everything we need to know about peace and tranquillity.
11. The Ahimsa Hand (Jainism)
Just like Buddhism, Jainism acknowledges the dharmachakra wheel of rebirth. In addition, they’ve placed upon an open palm, a symbol of non-violence which applies to all living beings. This not only includes humans and animals but insects and bacteria, too; Jains even refusing fermented foods from their diet. An expanded version also exists that features the swastika to symbolise the four states of Jain existence.
12. The Ankh (Ancient Egypt)
Ancient Egypt is not short of hieroglyphic graphics and meaningful symbols. However, the thousands of years old Ankh is so popular that you’ll still glimpse it adorning jewellery or inked into white people’s skin today. As a token of life, its purposes are boundless, promising longevity, protection, and extra knowledge to those who understand its power.
13. Pentacle/Pentagram (Paganism)
Very few symbols are as widely used and misunderstood as the pentagram. Primarily recognised as an occult or alchemic talisman, we find examples in paganistic practices such as Wicca, right up to secret societies like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or Thelema. There was even a period where the five-pointed star was a Christian shape conveying the five wounds of Jesus. Generally speaking, the uppermost point of the star represents the human spirit which governs the four natural elements below. Unfortunately, the ever-unoriginal Anton LaVey perverted the star by turning it upside down, sometimes with the goat’s head of Baphomet superimposed on top.
14. Sigil of Lucifer (Satanism)
While the aforementioned LaVeyan’s metaphorical Church of Satan relied on shock factors for promotional value, a far more sinister form of Satanism predated his juvenile philosophies. Theistic Satanism worships the devil as a deity, and they have their own symbol known as the Sigil of Lucifer. First found in the 16th – 18th-century Grimorium Verum textbook of magic, worshipers employ this sigil to invoke the Dark Lord himself. No confirmation if it works or not, but it’s guaranteed to scare children around a campfire at night.
15. Faravahar (Zoroastrianism)
The Faravahar may be the best-known symbol for the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, but its history rose from the Mesopotamian Assyrian civilisation. Depicting the solar god Ashur, this deity is used to encourage good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, which Zoroastrianism is all about. That noted, Zoroastrianism worships a different monotheistic creator god named Ahura Mazda. Hence, why this character was chosen is confusing at best. Either way, Zoroastrians translate the word Faravahar to mean “personal spirit”, so no harm done.
16. Unicursal Hexagram (Thelema)
The hexagram is abundant in religious iconography. Instances can be uncovered in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even in illustrations of occultism such as Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, and Freemasonry. Aleister Crowley wanted a piece of that action and developed his own hexagram for his Thelema philosophy. To differentiate his contribution, Crowley plopped a five-petalled flower in the middle, invoking the five elements for good measure.
17. New-Era Scientology Symbol (Scientology)
The clunky “new-era” Scientology symbol desperately requires help from a professional graphic designer. That said, it justifies its merit with some profound meaning slipped in. Ignoring the obvious S letter for the religion’s name, we find two triangles. The top triangle represents knowledge, responsibility and control (the KRC triangle). The lower triangle represents affinity, reality and communication (the ARC triangle). These three separate elements are intertwined to illustrate the necessity of a balance between them all.
18. The Caduceus (Hermeticism)
Many recognise the Caduceus of Hermeticism as the logo of medicine, which is a wildly inaccurate interpretation. Folklore tells us that Hermes (or Thoth or Mercury, depending on who you speak to) separated two fighting snakes with his staff. This image became a symbol of peace. However, Hermes was never a deity associated with healthcare. Rather, he was more often cited as a god of merchant trade. Annoyingly, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States Army Medical Corps incorrectly appropriated his Caduceus for their field. How embarrassing! A far more accurate representation would be the rod of the Greek god Asclepius, who was affiliated with healing. Plus, he boasted a snake-staff combo too!
19. The Tetractys (Pythagoreanism)
Ask cult leader Pythagoras to tell you the sexiest digits, and he would not hesitate to announce the number 10. It makes sense when considering 10 is the base of the decimal numeral system. Furthermore, 10 is the sum of the first four numbers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4) and the sum of the first three prime numbers too (2 + 3 + 5). For such reasons, the cult of Pythagoreanism adored nothing higher than the Tetractys shape. This triangle consisted of 10 points and was considered a secret figure one could use to peek into the thoughts of God.
20. The Janthopoyism Symbol (Janthopoyism)
Besides amalgamating many religious symbols to unify the idea of a single overarching pantheistic God, Janthopoyism’s logo illustrates duality. More specifically, it illustrates the two worlds every mind experiences: the internal and the external. Within the circle, we find representations of the lives we live inside of our personal energies. Meanwhile, breaking away from the circle is the collective Universe largely out of our control.
Furthermore, the five dots highlight the essential factors one needs to care for to minimise any conflict in their life (namely Health, Relationships, Home, Work, and Spirit). And finally, the triangle shape portrays the ultimate evolutionary point: to live each day to set up an even better tomorrow until an unignorable calling renders all other challenges redundant.