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Top 18 Family Symbols Throughout History

PeacockPin
The peacock is one of the main symbols of Hera, the Greek goddess of women, marriage, family, and motherhood.

There exists no bond more sincere or love more pronounced than what a person carries for their family. 

As valid in the past, as it is today, the institution of the family is integral to the proper development of children into functioning adults, transmit of culture and guarantee the continuity of the human species – the predictability, structure, safety, and care granting the perfect environment for nurturing.

In this article, we take a look at the top 18 most important symbols of family through history. 

1. Family Tree (Europe)

A medieval Family tree of Waldburg Ahnentafel.Pin

A medieval Family tree of Waldburg Ahnentafel 
Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It isn’t that difficult to understand why a tree had been chosen as a metaphor for one’s lineage. In the old times, from a single-family (trunk) came typically more offspring (branches).

Some died before they could pass on their lineage (akin to a dead branch) while others expanded the numbers bearing their blood (sub-branches). 

Surprisingly, the use of family trees in historical terms is very recent, with its first use being in medieval Christian arts to illustrate the genealogy of Christ. 

The first non-biblical use possibly dates to 1360 from the works of the Italian writer and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio. (1) (2) 

2. Six-Petal Rosette (Slavic Religion) 

Symbol of Rod / six-petal rosette.Pin

Symbol of Rod / six-petal rosette
Tomruen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the early pantheon of the Slavic religion, Rod was the supreme deity. In contrast to other ruling gods and goddesses in most pagan religions, Rod was linked to more personal concepts like family, ancestors, and spiritual power rather than the elements of nature. 

Among his chief symbols was the six-petal rosette. (3) 

Over time, however, the cult of Rod would lose its importance, and by the 10th century, would have been entirely usurped from its position by the cult of Perun, the god of the sky, thunder, war, and fertility.   (4)

3. Elephants (West Africa)

Elephant.Pin

Elephant  
Dario Crespi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With their size and strength, it is unsurprising that in several African cultures, elephants are revered animals. Elephant symbols are linked with wisdom, royalty, and family. 

Wisdom because of the animal’s high intelligence and that it never forgets, royalty because it was considered the king of animals and family because of them being highly family-oriented animals. 

Some Ashanti tribes also used to give dead elephants a proper burial as they believed the animals to be a reincarnation of their dead chiefs. (5)

4. Rhyton and Patera (Ancient Rome)

Lares statue holding a rhyton and patera.Pin

A Roman symbol of the household / Lares statue holding a rhyton and patera 
Capitoline Museums, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In Roman society, it was believed that every location was guarded by their own minor deities referred to as Lares (lords). (6) This included the family home. 

Each Roman family had their unique Lares that they worshipped. 

Called Lares Familiares, one common feature in their depictions was them holding one raised arm a rhyton (drinking horn) and in the other a patera (shallow dish) as performing libation (7)

The Lares cult was one of the last vestiges of Roman pagan traditions to survive after Christianity became the empire’s official religion and subsequent persecution of all other faiths. 

It would not be until the early 5th century AD that the Lares cult would finally disappear. (8)

5. The Family Circle (Native Americans)

Native American symbol of family.Pin

Native American symbol of family 

Among the Native American society, family and tribe were the center focus of one’s life, with decisions and actions often taken not for the benefit of oneself but the whole. 

Therefore, it is unsurprising that you may find symbols associated with the concept. 

One such symbol was the family circle, showing a figure of a man, woman, and children surrounded by a circle. Aside from representing familial ties, it also symbolized closeness, protection, and the cyclic nature of life. 

There were also many variants of this base symbol, meant for representing other family relationships. For instance, a figure of a woman and two circle children in a circle could be interpreted as representing a grandmother and her two grandkids. (9) 

6. Protection Circle (Native Americans)

Native American symbol of protection and family.Pin

Native American symbol of protection and family

Another familial symbol used by the Native American tribes was the protection circle. Represented by two arrows inside a circle pointing towards a dot, it symbolizes protection, closeness, and family ties.  

Arrows played a particularly important part in native American cultures – they served as both weapons for conflict and tools for hunting. 

Tribes used various arrow symbols to convey messages. In the context of this example, the arrows signify the defense of the dot (life) and the outer circle implying it to be unbreakable and eternal. (10)

7. Dragon and Phenix (China)

Feng Shui Harmony symbol / Long and Fenghuang .Pin

Feng Shui Harmony symbol / Long and Fenghuang 
Donald_Trung, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Chinese tradition of Feng Shui, one can often see a dragon (Long) and a phoenix (Fenghuang) depicted together in artworks. 

It is considered an ultimate symbol of matrimonial bliss, love, and togetherness. The phoenix (Yin) signifies feminine qualities and the dragon (Yang) masculine qualities, respectively. 

Thus, taken together, they represent the Chinese ideal of a perfect couple, one that is willing to stay together come what may – their bond strengthened by their eternal love for each other. 

In China, it is a common tradition among a newly married couple to hang the symbol at their home as it is believed that it will grant them good fortune and happiness

It is also not uncommon for singles to hang the symbol as well in the hope that it helps them find their one, true significant other. (11) (12) (13)

8. Abusua Pa (West Africa)

Adinkra symbol of family / Abusua Pa.Pin

Adinkra symbol of family / Abusua Pa
Pablo Busatto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Adinkra symbols form an important part of Akan culture. It is common to see such symbols displayed on clothing, artworks, pottery, and architecture. 

However, these symbols serve more than just a decorative purpose, each representing an abstract concept or a complex idea. (14)

Roughly appearing as four people gathered around a table, the Abusua Pa is an adinkra symbol for the family. It represents the strong and loving bond shared by family members. 

In West African cultures, the well-being of the family unit is considered important to society as a whole. 

The collapse of the family unit is seen as a forerunner to societal breakdown. This is why possessing and maintaining strong family values is particularly stressed upon. (15) 

9. Hearth (Europe)

Lithuania symbol of family protector / Fireplace.Pin

Lithuania symbol of family protector / Fireplace
Image courtesy: pxhere.com

Many European cultures had spirits or deities associated with the hearth, which in old times was often the central and most important feature of a house. 

In pre-Christian Baltic society, the hearth was considered the residence of Gabija, the fire spirit that served as the protector of home and family. (16) 

It was a tradition for the women of the household to cover the fireplace charcoal with ash to make a ‘bed’ for her. Sometimes, a bowl of clean water might also be placed nearby so Gabija can wash herself. 

It was considered taboo to stomp, spit or urinate on the fireplace as it would anger Gabija, and as a result, misfortune would soon follow the offender. (17)

Further south in the Greco-Roman world, the hearth was the symbol of Hestia-Vesta, the goddess of home and family. 

It was a custom to present the first offering at every sacrifice at the house to her. The hearth fire was kept lit at all times. If the hearth fire became extinguished through neglect or by accident, it was perceived as a failure of domestic and religious care for the family. (18) (19) (20)

10. Rattle (Ancient Egypt)

Symbol of Bes / Animal-headed Rattle.Pin

Symbol of Bes / Animal-headed Rattle
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Egyptian religion, Bes was a protector deity associated with home and family. He was charged with guarding the house against all forms of dangers – physical or supernature. 

Distinct to the iconography of other Egyptian deities, Bes was always shown in a full-face portrait. Likely this may have done so as it makes him appear ready to launch an attack against unwelcome spirits and demons. 

Typically, he would be depicted as an angry dwarf sticking out his tongue and holding a rattle, which he used to scare away evil spirits. 

In later times, Bes’s domain would be extended to represent enjoyment and pleasure. By the time of the New Kingdom, it was common to see dancers, musicians, and servant girls with a tattoo of Bes or wearing his costume or mask. (21) (22)

Interestingly, Bes may not have been an original Ancient Egyptian creation but rather may have been imported from abroad – likely from what is today Somalia. (23) 

11. Kitchen Stove (China)

Chinese symbol of family / Old wood stove.Pin

Chinese symbol of family / Old wood stove 
Image courtesy: needpix.com

In China, the stove is the symbol of the Zao Shen, the most prominent of the Chinese domestic deities, and he serves as the protector of the kitchen and family. 

The origin story of the deity remains undetermined, but as with the mythological tales of many other Chinese deities, Zao Shen may once have been a mortal who died tragically only to be reincarnated as a god. 

It is believed that on the 23rd day of the 12th Chinese Lunar month, the kitchen god leaves Earth for the heavens to give reports of every household to the Jade Emperor. Based on the reports, families are either rewarded or punished accordingly. 

In some traditions, honey or other sweet food would be ceremonially smeared over the lips of his image before the day of his departure. 

This is done in the hope that only pleasant words come from his mouth when giving his report of the household. (24) (25) (26)

12. Heraldry (West)

A German noble’s coat of arms / Landmann heraldry.Pin

A German noble’s coat of arms / Landmann heraldry 
Heraldy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Heraldry is a distinctively European innovation that emerged as a means of identification of the various noble families. 

However, by the time of the late medieval ages, the wealthier sections of the commoner class would also come to adopt the system. (27) In an illiterate society, they were very useful symbols of recognition.

While the use of decorations as a personal identifier had been employed since antiquity, attaching a symbol to one’s family and descendants only began appearing in the 12th century. (28)

Among the first records of its use comes from the English Plantagenet dynasty, which adopted the three lions passant-guardant as its coat of arms. It still serves as the royal arms of England today. (29)

13. Mon (Japan)

The Mon of the Toyotomi Clan / Emblem of the Japanese Government.Pin

The Mon of the Toyotomi Clan / Emblem of the Japanese Government 
Hakko-daiodo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the same time as the heraldry was emerging in Europe, in Japan, a very similar system called Mon (紋) had emerged. 

Like its European counterpart, it was initially only adopted for the aristocratic families but would later also be utilized by commoners. Today, almost all families in Japan feature their own mons. (30)

14. Red Triangle (Universal)

Symbols of family planning / Red triangle.Pin

Symbols of family planning / Red triangle 
Jovianeye, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As much as the Red Cross is a symbol for medical services internationally, the inverted Red Triangle is a symbol for family planning. 

The symbol originated in India in the 60s, at a time when the country was suffering from rapid population growth. (31)

Today, it can be found prevalent especially in high-growth countries, being featured outside clinics, planning and contraceptive products, and related NGO buildings. 

15. Triquetra (Celts)

Celtic symbol of family / Celtic trinity knot.Pin

Celtic symbol of family / Celtic trinity knot 
Peter Lomas via Pixabay

While there were no direct symbols for a family in Celtic culture, the Triquetra symbol, also known as the Trinity Knot, carries a degree of association. 

The symbol signified the three main aspects of spiritual life – the mind, the soul, and the heart. However, it was also alternatively used to imply family unity and the eternal bond of love shared between them. (32)

16. Othala (Norse)

Norse symbol for the family estate / Othala rune.Pin

Norse symbol for the family estate / Othala rune 
RootOfAllLight, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Runes were originally the letters in which the Germanic languages used to be written before being replaced by the Latin Alphabet. 

Among the Norse, the runes were more than just mere symbols, however. Seen as a gift from Odin, they were said to carry in them great power and energy. (33)

The rune Othala (ᛟ) was one symbol linked to family. Meaning “heritage,” the rune was said to govern the family estate, ancestry, and inheritance. 

In addition, it also symbolized the love for one’s home, liberation, and transcendence from the self and ancestral blessings. (34) 

Unfortunately, at the turn of the 20th century, along with many other symbols, the rune would get appropriated by extremist movements and its original meaning distorted. (35)

17. Khadga (Maharashtra)

Symbol of khandoba / Khadga.Pin

Symbol of khandoba / Khadga 
Archit Patel at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A khadga/khanda is a type of arming sword that originated in the Indian subcontinent. It is one of the primary symbols of the Hindu deity, Khandoba (the name itself is a derivative of the Khadga).

Khandoba is among the most popular Kuladaivat worshipped in the state of Maharashtra. A Kuladaivat is a type of Hindu protector deity that is said to watch over one’s family and children and guard them against probable misfortune. (36) (37)

18. Peacock (Ancient Greece)

Symbol of Hera / Peacock  .Pin

Symbol of Hera / Peacock  
Image courtesy: piqsels.com

In Greek mythology, Hera was the goddess of women, marriage, family, and motherhood. As the wife of Zeus, she ruled over the other gods as their queen. 

She was both the patroness and protector of married women. It was also said that Zeus, usually fearless, was still frightened of her wife’s anger. 

Hera played a crucial role in the fall of Troy, aiding the Greeks in their battle against the city. The reason for this was the Trojan prince choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess rather than her, resulting in her punishing them as a result. (38)

In Greek iconography, she is usually depicted alongside a peacock-like bird. Interestingly, the peacock wasn’t a known animal to the Greeks until the time of Alexander’s eastward conquests. (39) (40)

Over to You 

Which of the above symbols did you find the most interesting? Are you aware of any other symbols of family in history? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below. If you found our article informative and fun to read, be sure to share it with others as well in your circle.

References

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  2. Schiller, G. Iconography of Christian Art. 1971.
  3. Ivanits. Russian Folk Belief. 1989.
  4. Wilson. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, Fourth Edition. s.l. : Yale University Press, 2015.
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  6. Keightley. The Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy. London  : Whittaker & Co, 1838.
  7. Plutarch. Roman Questions. Rome  : s.n.
  8. Beard, North J. Religions of Rome. s.l. : Cambridge University Press, 1998.
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  10. Protection Symbol. Native American Cultures . [Online] https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/protection-symbol.htm.
  11. WHAT DOES THE DRAGON AND PHOENIX SYMBOLIZE IN FENG SHUI. The Crabby Nook. [Online] https://thecrabbynook.com/what-does-the-dragon-and-phoenix-symbolize-in-feng-shui/.
  12. Tchi, Rodika. Dragon and Phoenix Feng Shui Symbols to Promote Harmonious Marriage. The Spruce . [Online] https://www.thespruce.com/dragon-and-phoenix-harmonious-marriage-symbol-1274729.
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  19. Pausanias. Description of Greece. 
  20. Hestia Hearth, Goddess, and Cult. Kajava, Mika. 2004, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology .
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  22. Bes. Ancient History Encyclopedia. [Online] https://www.ancient.eu/Bes/.
  23. Mackenzie. Egyptian myth and legend. With historical narrative, notes on race problems, comparative, etc. 1907.
  24. Zao Shen. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Online] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zao-Shen.
  25. Kitchen God. Nations Online . [Online] https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/Kitchen_God.htm.
  26. Knapp, Ronald. China’s Living Houses: Folk beliefs, symbols and household Ornamentation. s.l. : University of Hawaii Press, 1999.
  27. Fox-Davies. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. 
  28. Robinson, Thomas Woodcock & John Martin. he Oxford Guide to Heraldry. s.l. : Oxford University Press, 1988.
  29. Jamieson, Andrew. Coats of Arms. 1998.
  30. Brief Overview of Japanese family Crest “Kamon”. [Online] https://doyouknowjapan.com/symbols/.
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  35. Othala Rune. ADL. [Online] https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/othala-rune.
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  37. Sontheimer. God as King for All: The Sanskrit Malhari Mahatmya and its context. [book auth.] Hans Bakker. The History of Sacred Places in India as Reflected in Traditional Literature. 1990.
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  39. Parin, D’Aulaire and Edgar. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. s.l. : Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 1992.
  40. Staples, Carl A. Ruck and Danny. The World of Classical Myth. 1994.

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The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 18 Family Symbols Throughout History," Give Me History, December 16, 2020, https://givemehistory.com/family-symbols.

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