To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
02 Apr 2015 00:00
Symbols of faith. (Reuters)
This symbol was created as the antithesis of the Christian fish symbol or ichthys. The fish has developed feet that signify evolution.
Although it may be seen as a light-hearted symbol, its use points to a contrary pride that some secularists claim because theories of evolution have been rejected by religious people since they were first proposed by Darwin.
The Aum or Om is the most sacred sound and the essence of all mantras. It consists of three sounds (a, u and m) and embodies several important triads: three worlds (earth, atmosphere and heaven), three Hindu gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), and three sacred Vedic scriptures (Rg, Yajur and Sama). It symbolises the Brahman (ultimate reality) and the universe. The Hindu philosophical belief is that the universe was created out of a sound, further deepening the mantra’s meaning – it is the starting point of everything and it continues to hold everything together.
The wheel is one of the most important symbols in Buddhism as it represents the teachings of Buddha. When Buddha attained enlightenment, he rose from meditation and taught the first “Wheel of Dharma”. The wheel is symbolic of the three parts of Buddhist practice: the hub for moral discipline, the spokes (usually eight) represent wisdom, and the rim for training in concentration, which holds everything else together. The rapid spiritual change caused by Buddha’s teachings is likened to the wheel’s motion; it represents the endless cycle of samsara, or rebirth, that can only be escaped through his teaching.
Recognised as one of the 11 main religions, this complex Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius has no standard symbol to represent it. But often the Chinese character for water is used. As one of the five elements, water forms an essential part of Chinese philosophy, representing the source of life, just as water is the source of life in the natural world. Like water, Confucianism has spread from China to Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Hamsa is an Arabic word meaning five (chamsah), and is derived from the same root as the Hebrew word for five (chamesh). This ancient symbol is popular across the Middle East and North Africa. It consists of an open right hand with thumb and pinky finger protruding slightly from either side and an eye, writing, or other decorations on the palm. It is used for protection from the evil eye – a malicious stare thought to cause sickness, death or bad luck. It’s worn as an amulet or hung prominently in the home or business.
The watchtower has been associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses since its inception when founder Charles Taze Russell called his organisation Zion’s Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. It’s an appropriate symbol because Jehovah’s Witnesses watch for signs of the end of days and proselytise through their Watchtower magazine. Although Christian, they do not use the symbol of the cross, believing it to have pagan origins. They say the belief that Jesus died on a cross results from a mistranslation, and replace the word “cross” in their New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures with “torture stake”. Jehovah’s Witnesses use the watchtower symbol in publications, on their website and outside some kingdom halls (places of worship).
The nine-pointed star is generally used as the symbol for the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá‘u’lláh received the intimation of his mission in a dungeon in Teheran nine years after the announcement of the Báb in Shiraz, so the number nine is significant. The Báb was a scholar, teacher and prophet who foretold the coming of Bahá‘u’llá. Nine, as the highest single-digit number, symbolises completeness. Bahá’í claims to be the fulfilment of all previous religions so temples are built with nine sides to reflect this completeness. Attaching a numerical value to letters as they fall in the Arabic alphabet, the numerical value of the word Bahá’í is nine, which adds further significance.
This symbol is one of the most prevalent in human history. It can be found in almost every ancient culture from South America, India, China, Greece to Egypt. It was also used by early Christians. Today it is associated with Wiccan, neopagan and satanic groups who generally follow the meaning associated with 19th-century occultism and ceremonial magic – the four elements ruled by the spirit. It also symbolises the unification of mankind with the Earth, the realm of the spirit and the human body. The symbol is worn as a talisman on a ring or pendant.
The moon is central to Islamic practice and is used to time festivals and fasting. The symbol of a crescent moon and star is found on flags of many Muslim countries and in their artworks. The symbol is not universally accepted by all Muslims though, and is even considered blasphemous by some. It came to be associated with Islam during the Ottoman dynasty in the 19th century, which used the star and crescent as their symbol. As the political head of the faith their symbol came to represent Islam.
The Zion Christian Church fuses Christian beliefs with African traditions. In South Africa, practitioners are identified by the badge they wear – a green felt square with either a metal star or a dove. The ZCC split when its founder, Engenas Barnabas Lekganyane, died and both his sons wanted to take over the leadership. Joseph leads the faction of the church with a dove as its emblem; he renamed this branch St Engenas Zion Christian Church. Edward leads the faction that uses the star as its emblem and this larger faction hosts a pilgrimage to its headquarters in Moria, Limpopo, every year.
Eamon Allan is a freelance writer living in Johannesburg
Create Account | Lost Your Password?