6 Famous Symbols That Don't Mean What You Think
The entire point of using a symbol is that it conveys meaning and saves space -- you see one picture of a stick figure in a dress and you no longer need the phrase "This is the place where female humans can discharge waste." But what is fascinating is that sometimes the meaning of a symbol will get lost to history, but we'll just keep right on using it anyway.
But would we do that if we knew ...
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The Jesus Fish Is a Vagina
Apart from the cross, the most ubiquitous symbol of Christianity is the ichthys, known to us as the Jesus Fish, and today it appears predominantly in its natural habitat -- car bumpers. The ichthys actually dates right back to ancient times, when Christianity was still an obscure sect, and considering that fish and fishing were frequently used as symbols in the Bible, you could argue that it's a more appropriate symbol for the teachings of Christ than the device used to torture and kill him.
"Seriously, guys? Do you wear tiny rifle necklaces to remember Martin Luther King Jr.?"
It's a vagina.
One of the names given to the pre-Jesus Jesus Fish is the vesica pisces (vessel of the fish), and it was used as a symbol of every female fertility god ever, from Atargatis (the Syrian fertility goddess), Aphrodite/Venus (the goddess of love and sex) to the pagan Great Mother goddess, where it symbolized her life-giving vulva. Basically, whenever you encountered an image of fish in the pre-Christian world, it was probably an opposite-of-subtle metaphor for lady parts.
New Starbucks Haddockuccino, served in a vulva cup! It's fishlicious!
According to some researchers, Christians adopted the vagina-fish symbol simply because of how common it was, but later looked for all sorts of non-vaginal justifications for it. Even actual Christian scholars admit that their second most popular symbol has a colorful history, just not one you want to bring up during a family dinner party.
The Heart Symbol Is About Birth Control (and Balls)
It's one of the most ubiquitous symbols on the planet, appearing everywhere from cards to candy to jewelery to bikers' tattoos. The common heart shape is such a part of everyday life, in fact, that it's easy to overlook the fact that it actually looks nothing whatsoever like a heart. What's with that?
"My love for you is like a kidney, in that it filters out the bad stuff, like that time you had sex with that bitch Mandy."
Well, there's some pretty convincing evidence that it was never supposed to be a heart in the first place, but rather ...
A contraceptive from the Roman era.
If you trace the heart symbol back as far as you can, you wind up finding it on old Roman coins, like this one:
So yeah. Hallmark cards and industrial-scale slavery have the same origin.
But that's not supposed to be someone's cardiac muscle. That's the seedpod of the silphium plant, a herb so prized for its birth control capabilities that the Romans literally fucked it to extinction.
But while it existed, depictions of its seeds were widespread across the Roman Empire, to the point where it appeared on their money. To get a proper grasp of how much the Romans liked to hide the sausage, imagine if the Founding Fathers had printed a picture of a condom on the dollar bill.
The conspiracy theories would be a lot more entertaining.
Historians aren't absolutely certain that this was the origin of the symbol we use today, rather than some crazy coincidence, but it beats our best alternative theory, which is "Damned if we know." If true, then the universal symbol for love began as the universal symbol for hard dicking, which kind of makes your Mother's Day card a little awkward.
We can still trump that, though. See, the Romans did liken the shape of the silphium plant to a bodily organ, but it wasn't the heart. To see the original design, you have to flip the image upside-down.
And imagine it dangling above your face after getting ganked in, oh, any shooter ever.
That's right. The box of candies you bought your girlfriend for Valentine's Day is actually a bunch of multicolored, dangling nutsacks.
The Peace Sign Is a Depressed Stick Man
The peace sign remains one of the most powerful and inspiring symbols on the planet, despite its long association with hippies. Maybe it's the simple geometric shapes that speak to some primal part of our brains, but looking at it, you do feel this sort of grandiosity, hope and conviction from it.
Unfortunately, all of that's basically the polar opposite of what the symbol's creator had in mind.
"It was actually supposed to be a picture of a cherry pie. I just suck at drawing."
Originally, it was an image of a dude slumped over in despair.
Gerald Holtom, a British graphic designer, came up with the peace sign design in 1958 to be used at a protest against nuclear weapons. It's actually a kind of double entendre: People have adopted one interpretation of the symbol, two superimposed semaphore letters -- N and D -- which were meant to stand for "nuclear disarmament."
Either that or "nonstop dancing."
But what we've forgotten was the primary image that Holtom was trying to portray: In his own words, his logo was meant to be a "human being in despair." The inspirational peace sign is in actuality a representation of a man who has lost hope in a world gone mad, stretching his arms out and downward in desperation and defeat.
Oh yeah, we see it.
Holtom immediately regretted his depressing-as-hell image after it went mainstream and tried to change it by flipping it upside-down so that the arms were stretched up into the air. He could even have kept his semaphore imagery, because the V-shape in semaphore is a U, for "unilateral."
But the alternative version failed to catch on. Instead, a depressed and defeated stick man became the inspirational symbol for every progressive movement of the late 20th century, from Vietnam to civil rights. We can suppose it wouldn't have caught on so well if he had gone with his alternative design of a stick man quietly slashing his own wrists.
"Next on Scooby-Doo -- the mystery of why no one understands our pain."
The Barber Pole's Red Stripes Are Supposed to Be Blood
There is something inherently wholesome about the classic red-and-white barber pole, isn't there? It evokes images of small town main street, mom and pop stores and barbershops run by a friendly guy in a white coat. But that pole was never the symbol of a single franchise or anything -- all barbers had it. Why that and not, say, a simple symbol of a pair of scissors or something? What the hell is that thing supposed to be?
It's a dick, isn't it? It's always a dick.
It's a blood-soaked bandage.
The barber pole first emerged during the Middle Ages as a sign used by barber-surgeons. Yes, you read that correctly -- back then, doctors considered themselves much too classy to participate in anything so vulgar as slicing people open, so the task fell upon barbers, whose job descriptions were considerably broader than they are today. Back then, barbers did all the usual barber stuff like cutting hair and trimming beards, but if you had the cash, they were also happy to pull teeth and remove gallstones.
"Don't worry, I anesthetize first -- with some cheap gin and a funnel."
The most common surgical procedure of the time was bloodletting -- literally, the belief that you could just bleed a disease out of you. To do this, the patient would grasp a bandaged pole, and the barber would cut into the patient's wrists, letting the blood run down the bandage, along with all the bad spirits and gypsy curses that they figured were the reasons for disease back then. And that's what the pole represented.
"Hey, Joe. I'll have a shave and a cataract surgery, please."
It's a little harder to explain, however, why barbers would openly advertise that one part of their job that involved stealing other people's blood in the first place. It says something about the era that they didn't feel the need to dress it up, the way modern toilet paper ads won't show people pooping. No pics of smiling customers or happy slogans, just "Come on in, you're gonna bleed all over the damned place."
"OK, so I murder people and cook them into pies. No one bothered to train me otherwise."
The Rabbit's Foot Is Really a Dismembered Witch
You've probably never questioned the logic that says a severed rabbit's foot brings good luck. Open that can of worms, and you have to start asking questions about all the walking under ladders and breaking mirrors stuff -- why would we expect any of it to not be insane? Well, as it turns out, the story of the rabbit's foot is even creepier than the idea of dismembering animals for luck.
These are the feet of a millionaire.
The rabbit's foot was thought to actually be the foot of a witch.
In the United States, the symbolism of the rabbit's foot most likely came from American "hoodoo" folk magic. They believed that rabbits were frequently witches in disguise (how else could they be so good at fucking?), so cutting a rabbit's foot off meant, to them, getting a hold of part of a witch to wear around their neck. Back then, they weren't terribly big on witches' rights.
"I can't have sex with all the menfolk in the village? I'm sorry, I thought I was in AMERICA."
The earliest references to the rabbit's foot legend detail the numerous ways in which you can maximize the evil power of the foot before you chop it off. Apparently, it's best if the rabbit is killed on a Friday, especially a rainy Friday, in a cemetery, by an African-American. Of course, they didn't use the term "African-American" back then, but you get the picture.
They called him "Paul, the weird rabbit guy."
But how exactly did the rabbit's foot go from being an implement of evil black magic to something sold to tourists at souvenir stands? Just like a lot of edgy things that go mainstream, it simply got watered down. People forgot about the whole evil charm thing and just remembered the rabbit's foot as a vaguely magical talisman. On the upside, witches are relatively safer now. Rabbits, not so much.
The Mistletoe Is a Symbol of Sudden Death and Castration
Each late December, people around the world decorate their houses with the mistletoe plant and kiss underneath it because, for some of us, a bizarre holiday tradition is the only way we're going to get any action. Apart from that, we don't really question how the tradition came about. If you did know, you probably wouldn't be in the mood for kissing so much as clutching at your groin.
A symbol of ritual castration.
Caused by kissing Christie at the office party after she's rebuffed you four times already.
Just like that kid in school your parents got nervous talking about, the mistletoe actually has two daddies. One of them is the Viking god Baldur, who, according to Nordic myths, was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. Thankfully, Baldur was later brought back to life and decided to reform the mistletoe, making it a plant of life instead of death ... as long as it never touched the ground. That's why we now kiss under hanging mistletoe -- to keep it above ground and symbolize that everything is cool, man ... no need to murder everyone ... we're all friends here, OK?
"Come and rest your pert buttocks upon my chin."
But the other side of the mistletoe tradition is all about balls. The sticky juice from mistletoe berries apparently quite resembles sperm, and in fact was sometimes referred to as "oak sperm." We bring it up not because we know some of you are eating right now, but because it explains why Celtic druids worshiped the mistletoe.
Well, "worship" is one word for what they did.
As we've mentioned, ancient cultures generally had a tendency to revere anything vaguely genitalia related, and so, combined with the fact that mistletoe grew on sacred oaks, the druids eventually came to the perfectly logical conclusion that the mistletoe must also be sacred. Sacred oak testicles, that is. If there's one thing you should take away from this article, it's that everything is balls.
Cutting off the mistletoe was thus something akin to ritual castration of the oak god. The plant would then be hanged inside the house to harness its magical testicle powers that apparently brought you good luck instead of the wrath of high-pitch-voiced deities.
So go forth and spread your seed, we guess.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a freelance English-Japanese-Polish translator, tour guide and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more things you probably are incorrect about, check out 9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think and 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think.
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