|Reclaiming Ancient symbols||
|Mention the word swastika,
or worse, draw the image and today you risk causing offence for
many varied reasons. Though once commonly used over much of the
world without stigma, because of its iconic usage in Nazi Germany
the symbol remains highly controversial in the Western world. Any
discussion on Roman symbology cannot, and must not (lest we condemn
ourselves to make the same mistakes), divorce itself from its modern
connotations. However, perhaps it would be appropriate to return
this symbol to its more benign ancestry and, with education, over
time deny its use to extremists. Thats the aim
- now how to navigate the minefield..? A swastika is normally taken to refer
to an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, which
appears either right-facing ( ) or in its mirrored left-facing
( ) form. Archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments
dates from the Neolithic period. As an ancient symbol, the swastika
occurs mainly in the cultures that reside in modern day India
and the surrounding area, sometimes as a geometrical motif (as
in the Roman Republic and Empire) and sometimes as a religious
symbol. It has long been widely used as a sacred symbol in world
religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism (see insert), and
Mithraism. The major religions, with a total of more than a billion
adherents worldwide, make the swastika universally found in both
historical and contemporary society.
The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word svastik meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck. It is composed of su-, meaning "good, well" and asti, a verbal abstract to the root as "to be". Svasti thus means "well-being." The suffix -ka intensifies the verbal meaning or confers the sense of 'beneficial', and svastika might thus be translated literally as "that which is associated with well-being," corresponding to "lucky charm" or "thing that is auspicious." The Hindu Sanskrit term has been in use in English since 1871, with alternative historical spellings including suastika, swastica and svastica.
Jainism is a religion that originated in the Indian subcontinent. Jainism is often referred to as Jain Dharma or Shraman Dharma by its practitioners.
The ubiquity of the swastika symbol is easily explained by it being a very simple shape. Many basket-weaving society, for example, have independently arrived at a repeating swastika design using the edges of the reeds in a square basket-weave. Regardless, the genesis of the swastika symbol is often treated in conjunction with cross symbols in general, such as the "sun wheel" of Bronze Age religion (see opposite).
As already alluded to, the earliest consistent use of swastika motifs in the archaeological record is dated to the Neolithic. For example, the symbol has been found on a number of shards in the Khuzestan province of Iran and as part of the "Vinca script" of Neolithic Europe of the 5th millennium BC. In the Early Bronze Age, it appears on pottery found in Sintashta, Russia. Swastika-like symbols also appear in Bronze and Iron Age designs of the northern Caucasus (Koban culture), and Azerbaijan, as well as of Scythians and Sarmatians. In all these cultures, the swastika symbol does not appear to occupy any marked position or significance, but seems to be just one form of a series of similar symbols of varying complexity.
Bronze age ‘sun wheels’.
By the early 20th century, these discoveries, and
the new popularity of the swastika symbol, had led to a widespread
desire to ascribe symbolic significance to every example of the
motif. In many European countries, examples of identical shapes
in ancient European artifacts and in folk art were interpreted
as emblems of good-luck and success linked to the Indo-Iranian
meaning. Schliemanns work, however, soon became intertwined
with the völkisch movements, for which the swastika was
a symbol of "Aryan" identity - a concept that became
equated by theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg with a Nordic master
race originating in northern Europe. Western use of the symbol,
along with the attached religious and cultural meanings, was subverted
after its adoption as the emblem of the Nationalsozialistische
Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party). With its conveniently-geometrical
and eye-catching simplicity, the swastika was highly effective
for associating Nazism with the Aryans as the historical forefathers
of modern Germans and instilling racial pride. It well worth remembering
that many Roman symbols were co-opted by the Nazis to blatantly
associate the Reich with ancient Rome as its imperial
forebear. One need only look at the flags (vexillae), eagles (aquilae)
and fasces on display in parades (e.g. Nuremburg and Munich) and
on all government buildings to see the obvious parallels. Since
then, of course, the swastika is almost exclusively associated
in much of the West with Nazism, fascism, white supremacy and
racism, the Axis powers in World War II, and the Holocaust.
Today, the version of the swastika above right
remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups. How sad then that its
original use as a lucky charm has been so thoroughly
corrupted. Perhaps it is high time that we, as historians, experimental
archaeologists and Roman enthusiasts, begin the process of educating
future generations to accept the swastika without prejudice and
for what it has always represented
Time, perhaps, to reclaim
one ancient Roman symbol - Good Luck!
Greek helmet with swastika marks on the top part (details), 350-325 BC from Taranto, found at Herculanum.
This first millennium BC Iranian necklace was excavated from Kaluraz, Guilan. (National Museum of Iran)
An iconic reviled image concealing the symbols benign origins.