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World Religion Symbols - Origins and Meaning

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 7/12/2012

Why is the symbol for Judaism a star, or for Unitarian/Universalism a burning lamp? The origins and meaning of world religion symbols identifies something important to the followers of that religion. Often, the symbols communicated the belief during times of persecution, a secret code for believers.

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    Stars, Moon and Cross

    Long before words were used to communicate, humans used pictures. Long before religions became organized institutions, humans used particular symbols to represent their religion. These symbols are often found in the rituals of the particular religions.

    The three most widely recognized world religion symbols are the Star of David, the Star and Crescent Moon and the Cross.

    The Star of David is the symbol of Judaism. The star is has six points created by two triangles. Anthropologic researchers believed Leningrad Codex Carpet page e that the triangles were used to symbolize male (pointing up) and female (pointing down), thereby denoting unity, balance or harmony.

    In Judaism, the Star is referred to as Magen David, which means, literally, Shield of David. Interestingly, in ancient times, the Menorah was symbolic of Judaism, not the Star, which was believed to be a symbol used by Kabbalists. It was also known as the Seal of Solomon. Modern Jewish scholars write that the six-pointed star is the reminder of God's rule over all. The six points represent the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) as well as up and down.

    While there is no reference to the Star in the Talmud, some scholars believe the use of the Star came about in the first century when warriors made shields using two inverted triangles.

    220px-Star and Crescent.svg Islam has no official symbols. However, the Star and Crescent Moon are recognized today as the symbol of Islam, mainly due to the use of the symbol on national flags. Variations of this symbol, which is reported by scholars to be an ancient polytheistic sign, can be found in artifacts from ancient times throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. Historians trace the emblem to its use by the Ottomans who spread Islam during their time.

    While the Star and Crescent Moon are found on the flags of various Islamic dynasties, the colors vary. The green Star and Crescent is symbolic, according to researchers, of life and vegetation, which recalls the belief that the inhabitants of Paradise will wear clothes of the finest green silk.

    478px-Latin cross gold 

    The Cross is the symbol of Christian faiths. Christians are followers of Jesus, who they believe was the promised messiah of ancient (Old Testament) writings. Jesus, a Jew, was killed by the Romans who were afraid that he was raising the population against them with his radical teachings of love and brotherhood. The common form of execution at that time was for criminals to be nailed to a cross until dead. Other symbols of Christianity are the Fish (Jesus was a "fisher of men"), the Butterfly (Resurrection and new life) and the Dove (Peace and the Holy Spirit).

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    Other Symbols

    In brief, other world religion symbols include:

    • The Flaming Chalice of the Unitarian Universalist Church - symbolizes the burning of holy oil, of sacrifice, of sacrificial love. It was created in 1941 as a seal for documents used to help those fleeing the Nazis.
    • The Om of the Hindu religion - the origins of Om go back as far as creation, itself. Om is believed to represent the states of being of the Supreme. These states are waking, dreaming, deep sleep and silence.
    • The Dharma Wheel of the Buddhists - Believed to originate in the 7-9th centuries, this symbol represents birth and rebirth, the eternal cycle of life.
    • The Yen/Yang of the Taoist - There is no clear evidence of the origin of this ancient symbol. It is said, however, to embody perfect harmony or balance between the dualities of life (light/dark, male/female, peace/conflict)
    • The Pentacle of Wicca - The pentacle has been used since ancient times. It is the symbol of the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth) and the four directions (north, south, east and west) as well as the Spirit/Center. To the Wicca it is the symbol of the Divine.

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    World Religion Symbols

    Flaming ChaliceOmDharma WheelYen/YangPentacle

World Religions

This series will look at the various aspects of World Religions, from rites and rituals to history and holy scriptures.
  1. World Religions: Finding Connections, Building Harmony
  2. Promoting Tolerance & Compassion Through Religion in Schools
  3. World Religion Symbols - Origins and Meaning