Symbols are a part of the fundamental nature of human beings. We use them to dictate meaning, rules and as markers, all of which help us understand the world around us. There is a universality to many symbols within the world, we almost always understand a stop sign regardless of the country we are travelling through.
Symbols, however, hold significance, oftentimes it is a significance with archaic embedding but what happens if we take them today and use them for ourselves? Is there a line between inspiration and pure appropriation, or even blatant disrespect? And better yet, we must ask ourselves, how do we find this line?
Let’s explore two key examples that have roots in ancient civilisations. The infamous swastika is recognised today for its associations with one of the most heinous and evil periods in the world.
In many countries across the world there are legal restrictions on the use of this symbol. As children, we see this symbol and become conditioned to pair it only with evil, we learn of the atrocities and crimes against humanity in conjunction with the imagery of the swastika. However, it was not always as such. When watching a documentary set in India, I noticed a swastika symbol far in the background and was filled with pure horror and anger. I was enraged that something so blatantly obvious would be ignored in a documentary entirely separate to Nazism.
It was in that moment however, that I was taught about the use of the symbol in ancient Hindu cultures, continuing to be used today, a symbol by which prosperity, luck and the night are represented depending on the positioning of the symbol. I felt ignorant in that moment and it led me to think deeper into the use of symbols. I imagined then, how I would have felt, if I were Hindu and to have a symbol that, to me, represents beautiful notions of humanity, misused and become globally associated with evil incarnate.
In my time researching the symbol, I realised I did not have to imagine myself as a member of another religion or culture, the swastika is present in Ancient Greece also. The famous Greek key pattern on many architectural works of the ancient world, is practically a repeated pattern of the swastika. I had never associated the two, however many already had, many would have, during its appropriation in the Third Reich.
This begs the question – is the use of a symbol acceptable today if it is for something good, something empowering as opposed to destructive? The symbol of Medusa is a key example to explore for modern uses. The Met Museum describes the use of the Medusa symbol in Ancient times as, “…an apotropaic symbol used to protect from and ward off the negative, much like the modern evil eye. She represents a dangerous threat meant to deter other dangerous threats, an image of evil to repel evil.” However today, her image is used in a different way. Some describe the symbol as an icon for feminist rage but others have adopted her symbol to something more personal.
Many months ago, scrolling through TikTok, I noticed a surge in Medusa tattoo reveals, with sombre music accompanying the video, it slowly became clear that Medusa had become a symbol for survivors of sexual assault and rape. Now this isn’t to say that anyone with a tattoo is aware of or has a connection to this new wave of symbolic meaning, however many are choosing to represent their survivor’s identity through her story. According to some ancient tellings of Medusa’s story, this predominantly “evil character”, survives a rape by Poseidon and is cursed by Athena, transforming her gorgeous hair into that of snakes, with the ability to turn those who gaze into her eyes into stone. This modern use of the symbol differs somewhat from the consensus of the ancient use however there may be some connections, as a symbol of new found strength from becoming a victim to a survivor, from having an unfortunate new understanding of the world that somehow makes one stronger?
There are some clear justifications here that need to be said. In no way, is the use of the Medusa head for survivors of sexual assault and rape remotely in the same realm as Hitler’s appropriation of the swastika, that needs to be very clear. There is a clear distinction between wanting to use a symbol as a representation of your own journey and struggles and one to represent absolute evil. But we need to ask ourselves these questions, we need to analyse these and other examples of the use of symbols to understand ourselves as people better and to understand the fluidity of history and meaning.
It is difficult to clearly define and outline a line for the modern uses of symbols. Many cultures today still struggle with other groups misusing or appropriating markers, especially minority groups being subjected to appropriation from the majority. We can all agree that symbols hold meaning and deep personal connections but it is our job to try to understand the culture through which these symbols have become such and understand our place in relation to these groups.
Are we using it with harm? Do we understand the original and traditional use of this symbol? Are straying far from the intended purpose of the symbol? Are we causing harm to the group whose symbol it belongs to?
With these intentions and an openness to hearing from the groups by which the symbol holds significance, we can contribute to making this world more inspirational and respectful.