From a sign of luck and fortune to a symbol of evil

Three iterations of the swastika. From left: a swastika on a Nazi armband, a swastika next to the Norse god Odin, and a swastika on a Buddha statueFrom left: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, National Museum of Denmark, Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • The swastika is now an infamous sign of hatred, extremism and genocide.

  • But it has a long history and has been used by cultures across the world to signify good luck and luck.

  • Carlsberg and Finnish Air used it in their branding before the Nazis hijacked it.

Last week, historians in Denmark announced that they had discovered the oldest evidence of people worshiping the Norse god of war and death, Odin.

Next to Odin’s portrait was a small swastika-like sign, once a symbol of peace, wealth and fortune.

Today, the swastika is seen by many as a symbol of hatred, extremism and danger. But it has a long and diverse history that goes far beyond its cruel co-option by Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party a century ago.

The origin of the swastika

The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit word svastika, which translates to “good luck” or “well-being”.

The oldest known use of the swastika is seen on a gigantic 15,000-year-old ivory statue discovered in 1908 by Ukrainian scientist Federik Volkov.

On the chest of the bird, kept at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kiev, there is an engraving of swastikas joined together, according to the BBC. The statue was discovered alongside a number of “phallic objects”, suggesting that the swastika was used as a good luck symbol to invite fertility.

The Swastika in Asia

Today, the swastika is still widely used in various Indian religions.

In Jainism, the swastika represents the four states of existence: heavenly beings, human beings, hellish beings and subhuman life.

In the Zoroastrian faith, one of the oldest religions in the world, the four points of the swastika represent water, fire, air and earth.

And in Buddhism, the sign is used to represent the steps of Buddha, known as manji.

Rangoli art at Diwali festival, India

Rangoli art at Diwali festival, IndiaGetty Images

Across India, the symbol is seen on shop doors, vehicles, food packaging and at festivals, according to the AP.

It has also been adopted in other parts of Asia. In China, the symbol is known as a wàn and was declared the “source of all good luck” by Empress Wu in 693. Using the swastika next to a wish multiplies that wish 10,000 times, according to the Pacific Asia Museum.

swastika in europe

Worshipers of the Norse religion used the swastika symbol as early as 401 AD.

Most commonly, the symbol is seen alongside depictions of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, sky and agriculture. He is also seen alongside his father, Odin.

But it wasn’t just the Norse who used the swastika. The symbol is known to have been used by Celts, Druids and Vikings.

US art director Steven Heller, author of “Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” told the BBC that the swastika was used in Europe to signify good luck until the early 20th century. “The sign was used in a variety of ways before Hitler adapted it. A sign of good luck, fertility, happiness, the Sun, and received spiritual importance as well as commercial value when used with or as a brand or logo,” said Inferno.

An old Carlsberg bottle with a swastika logo

An old Carlsberg bottle with a swastika logoLeber/ullstein photo via Getty Images

Less than 100 years ago, many companies used the symbol on their brands. The Carlsberg brewery had it in their logo, as did the Finnish Air Force and even the British Boy Scouts.

However, all that began to change in the 1920s.

Co-opted by the Nazis

Some researchers believe that people in the Aryan culture used the symbol as a sign of luck and prosperity.

Aryanism is often linked to a belief in racial purity, but “Aryans” were originally Indo-Europeans or Indo-Germans who settled in India, Iran (then known as Persia) and Europe, according to the Holocaust Museum from United States.

The Aryanism classification was often used to refer to the shared languages ​​used within the culture, but later changed to be used as a racial categorization.

The BBC reports that the similarity of these languages ​​to German is believed to have influenced Hitler’s belief that Aryans – especially those from India – and Germans had a “pure” lineage.

Another theory is that Hitler would have simply seen the symbol grow repeatedly.

After Hitler’s Nazi Party chose the swastika as its official symbol in 1920, it slowly became identified with racial purity, extremism and totalitarian terror, a far cry from its roots as an emblem of good luck.

When the Nazi Party took power over Germany in 1933, Hitler decreed that the German state flag should be flown alongside the now infamous red flag which bears a huge black swastika.

Today, the once innocent swastika is now considered an embodiment of evil, representing genocide, gas chambers and the millions murdered in the Holocaust.

But some are trying to change that. They don’t want people to forget the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich, but they want to revive the broad cultural significance of the swastika.

Sheetal Deo and her husband, Sanmeet Deo, hold a Hindu swastika symbol at their home in Syosset, NY, on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.

Sheetal Deo and her husband, Sanmeet Deo, hold a Hindu swastika symbol at their home in Syosset, NY, on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.AP photo/Andres Kudacki

In 2022, Sheetal Deo of New York – which has a population of 1.6 million Jews – told the AP that she was asked to remove her Diwali decorations, the Hindu festival of lights, displayed in her Queens building, which had a swastika. .

She told the AP she doesn’t believe she should apologize for a holy symbol simply because it’s so often confused with its tainted version, saying doing so is “intolerable”.

But Steven Heller told the AP: “A rose by any other name is a rose. In the end, it’s how a symbol affects you visually and emotionally. For many, it creates a visceral impact, and that’s a fact.”

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