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Top 23 Symbols of Life Throughout History

Banyan tree in HawaiiPin
Tree of life / Banyan tree in Hawaii

The subject of ‘life’ is indeed interesting and one that has gotten quite a lot of attention over the years. For decades, people have used various symbols to depict life. 

Many of these are products of multiple religions and cultures, while some are universally recognized. The concept of life has been there from the start. 

However, with the passage of time, the symbols used to represent it have significantly evolved, while some of the ancient ones remain the same. 

From the wind and water to the Egyptian Ankh, the variety is endless. 

Below we have listed the top 23 most important symbols of life throughout history and cultures, up until today.

1. The Ankh

The Egyptian Ankh, also called the Key of Life.Pin

The Egyptian Ankh or the Key of Life
Devanath via Pixabay

This famous symbol of life originated from ancient Egypt and dates back to the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – 2613 BCE). It is also commonly referred to as the ’key of life’  or the ‘cross of life’.

The ankh represents mortal existence as well as the afterlife. It is the connection to the afterlife, which made it an important symbol for the Coptic Christians of Egypt in the 4th century CE. 

Furthermore, it is seen to be symbolic of Christ’s promise of eternal life through belief in his resurrection and is thus likely to be the origin of the cross that Christians use today.  

If you’re wondering what it looks like, it is basically a cross but the top of the cross is a loop. It is usually a plain gold cross, but sometimes it is decorated with symbols.

2. The Sun

The Sun / The Symbol of Life Representing Spirit.Pin

The Sun / The Symbol of Life Representing Spirit 
Image courtesy: maxpixel.net

A magnifying ball of energy, the sun is often looked at as a symbol of life. After all, it is the source of life without which we wouldn’t be alive. 

The circular shape of the sun is considered to represent spirit. It symbolizes the origin, the place from which life emerged along with energy and life.

It provides life, light, and warmth to all beings on Earth. It feeds the force of life and, therefore, can be symbolic of life itself.

3. The Seed of Life

The Seven Circles / The Seed of Life.Pin

The Seven Circles / The Seed of Life
seed of life by Anthony Ledoux from the Noun Project

This is a symbol that is popularly known as the seed of life. Just as the name suggests, it is the backbone of the universe and all creation. It consists of a total of seven circles, the main one in the middle and six around it. 

The circles overlap each other, which creates a design like that of interlocking rings. The one in the middle looks like a little blooming flower.

In sacred geometry, circles are used to represent cycles. In the seed of life, the seven circles are many times a depiction of the seven days of creation, with each of the seven circles being a different aspect in the universe’s making. 

The overlapping is to signify that these occurrences were very much connected to each other, each adding something to the creation of the next.

4. Triskele

Triskele Symbol / Interconnected spirals linked to the concept of life.Pin

Triskele Symbol / Interconnected spirals linked to the concept of life
XcepticZP / Public domain

This symbol consists of three interconnected spirals that are linked to the idea of life and the concept of infinity. 

In addition to that, it also symbolizes the sun, rebirth, and the afterlife. In Celtic art, the triskele is a portrayal of the Mother Goddess. 

It was a symbol of life and pregnancy, as each spiral depicted three months of the sun completing its spiral. 

Thus, the triskele was symbolic of pregnancy as it represented a total of 9 months. It can be argued that its interconnectedness can be used to portray eternal life and the continuity of time since the triskele symbol loops through each other in a continuous line.

5. Dharma Wheel

Dharna Wheel / Dharmachakra or the Wheel of Law.Pin

Dharna Wheel / Dharmachakra or the Wheel of Law
Photo by Antoine de San Sebastian via Pixabay

Another circular symbol, the dharma wheel, symbolizes the repetitive circle of birth and rebirth. Commonly known as the Dharmachakra and the Wheel of Law, it depicts the Buddhist life. 

However, its roots can be found in many other religions, such as Jainism and Hinduism as well. It can be said to symbolize life as it is based on the teachings on Buddha, which in Buddhism is considered to be the basis for which life should be lived.

The wheel is made of eight gold-colored spokes, each one connected to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. The three shapes in its center resemble the Yin Yang symbol.

6. Water 

Hand near water.Pin

Water is an important symbol of life 
Yoann Boyer yoannboyer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

An essential element, water, comprises 70% of the human body,  which is why we cannot survive without it. 

However, water is also an important symbol of life.  Not only does it give us life, but it is also the origin of it. Since the beginning of history, man has always had a profound relationship with water. 

It holds immense significance in different religions for a number of reasons. In Christianity, for instance, Christians are baptized using water, so it is considered to be a purification of the soul.

In addition to that, in traditional western philosophy, water is one of the four elements that are crucial to life. It is, thus, not surprising that it is one of the symbols of life itself.

7. Easter and the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection depicting Christ.Pin

            Symbol of life and rebirth / Icon of the Resurrection depicting Christ
Surgun100, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Christianity, Easter and the Resurrection are potent symbols of life and rebirth. Their roots can be traced back to festivals, such as the Celtic Beltane and Ostara. 

Ostara was the fertility Goddess with roots in the German culture and religion. 

The Easter and Resurrection symbol goes all the way back to the Zoroastrians in Babylon about 4,500 years ago. 

The founders of the Church wished to convert the pagans; however, in their efforts, they started to pick up customs of their festivals and holidays. Soon, Christianity was loaded with pagan traditions and myths. 

Pagan symbols of springs also started to be linked with Christianity, such as rabbits, eggs, and lilies. 

In addition to that, in the modern world, Christian Easter has adopted some similarities from the Egyptian Festival of Isis.

Themes of life, resurrection, rebirth, and trinity are evident in the story of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. 

8. The Cross

The Cross / The symbol of resurrection.Pin

The Cross / The symbol of resurrection
Bild von FelixMittermeier auf Pixabay

One of the oldest human symbols, the cross has been around for thousands of years and has been used in multiple religions and cultures, especially Christianity. 

It is seen as a symbol of life. Its overlap is often seen as symbolic of the points of intersection between the journeys of the living and dead. 

These intersecting lines that define the center of the cross are seen to depict life itself. Just like the tree of life, the cross becomes the center of life and the center of the world. It is also a symbol of resurrection, which in turn signifies life. 

9. The Wind

The Wind / One of the four elements of life.Pin

The Wind / One of the four elements of life
image courtesy: pikrepo.com

The wind signifies the breath of the universe, the bane of its existence. Without it, the universe would not be there, and neither would we. 

It, therefore, represents life itself. Just like the symbol of water, the wind too is one of the four elements of life in western culture. 

According to J.C. Cooper, the wind represents the power of the spirit in sustaining life. In some religions and cultures, it is also seen to depict the presence of divinity. 

10. The Tree of Life

The tree of life represents rebirth and new beginnings.Pin

The tree of life represents rebirth and new beginnings 
Photo by Stephanie Klepacki on Unsplash

This age-old symbol is one that holds significance in various cultures, from the Celts to the Mayans to Buddhism.

Each of their connotations of the tree of life may differ; however, their stories have similar symbolism connected to spirituality, religion, and philosophy. 

It is popularly represented as a big tree with its roots spreading inwards to the ground and branches going up into the sky. 

It is a symbolism of the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. It reminds us of our connection to the Earth and nature and our need for it in order to live and grow.

In general, it is seen as a universal symbol. It depicts the natural cycle of life, one that is mimicked by humans. 

Just like the trees shed leaves and change color from season to season, so does human life. We fall and grow, and we are constantly changing; that is just what we call life. Furthermore, it represents rebirth and new beginnings.

11. Phoenix

The phoenix is a real-life representation of life.Pin

The phoenix is a real-life representation of life
Image courtesy: needpix.com

This bird is a real-life representation of life itself because it lives up to 1000 years! 

A phoenix is a mythological bird that has feathers of numerous colors, along with a colorful tail. Legend has it that when a phoenix dies, it forms a nest around itself, which then explodes into flames. 

The phoenix bird is burnt to death, along with all the materials, including the twigs and branches that it used to build the nest. In the end, all that remains are its ashes. 

However, that’s not where the story ends; the mythological creature is known to then give birth to a new life from its ashes. 

Just like the bird continues to live even if it’s in a slightly different form, so does human life – it keeps moving forward. It depicts the cycle of life where even if we die, we are still alive in some form of the other, be it through our offspring.

It can also be symbolic of the way that we live our lives, we constantly shred off the negative energy and bad habits while giving birth to more positive and healthy ones, which is a constant cycle of life.

12. Circle

The Circle / We live our lives like the pattern of a circle.Pin

The Circle / We live our lives like the pattern of a circle
Image courtesy: pikrepo.com

This shape is, in essence, a powerful symbol that is used to represent life. Just like the circle starts at one point and then ends its journey at the same point, a similar pattern can be seen when it comes to life. 

We start our lives and then go through a journey, which then ends at the same point where we started, i.e., back to our roots. 

Life itself is often referred to as the ‘circle of life’ for this very reason. In other words, how we live our lives is like the pattern of a circle.

Many of the symbols that are symbolic of life are therefore in circular shapes as you may have noticed.

13. Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve temptation, detail.Pin

Adam and Eve represent the beginning of life /
Adam and Eve temptation, detail of a stained glass window (13th century) in the Virgin chapel – Saint-Julien cathedral – Le Mans (Sarthe, France)
Selbymay, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These two individuals, the first man, and the first woman, are a depiction of life as they are the origins of it. It is believed that it is essentially from them that life began, and the rest of us were created. 

Though it is universally recognized, they hold a special significance in certain religions, such as Christianity and Islam. 

They represent the beginning of life, without which further life on this planet would not have existed. Therefore, the couple is seen as an ancient symbol of life itself.

14. Ouroboro

Tail eating snake symbol / Ouroboros on a cemetery door.Pin

Tail eating snake symbol / Ouroboros on a cemetery door 
Swiertz, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This snake is the ultimate representation of the cycle of life and rebirth. It stems deeply from ancient Greek, Egyptian and Norse traditions. 

Related to alchemy, this snake is one that eats its own tail. Even though you may think that it depicts quite the opposite, it is looked at as a symbol of life but also as a symbol of death and rebirth. 

Looking at its ability to swallow itself whole and re-emerge, it is seen as a symbol of life, one that is similar to the phoenix.

15. Lotus Flower

Red Lotus flower.Pin

The Lotus flower depicts the mind, body and speech in Buddhism
Image by Couleur from Pixabay 

A resilient flower, the lotus is symbolic of life along with many other things. In Buddhism, it is a representation of the mind, body, and speech. In other cultures, such as the Egyptian culture, it is looked at as a symbol of rebirth. 

The journey of this flower resonates perfectly with the journey of life. Just like this flower begins its journey rooted in mud and then patiently makes its way to the top, emerging as a beautifully bloomed flower that is the condition of the cycle of life. 

We go through many ordeals that life throws at us before we blossom into the best versions of ourselves, emerging as a whole.

Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha) uses the lotus flower as a symbol portraying the notion of cause and effect as it is known to bloom and seed simultaneously. 

Moreover, practitioners at a Japanese sect in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, which was founded in Japan in the 1200s chant “Nam MyohoRengeKyo”. This phrase is associated with the divine entity of all components that portray cause and effect.

16. Red

Red Pattern.Pin

The color red represents life 
Photo by Scott Webb from Pexels

The color red is a powerful one that has a variety of symbolic meanings across the world, such as anger, passion, love, etc., but the biggest one being life itself. 

Red is the color that drives the force of life, even within ourselves. 

For instance, take all the emotions that were mentioned above, anger, passion, and love. Each of these emotions is what makes us feel alive, and each of them is depicted through the color red. 

When one is angry, their face is said to go ‘red’, representing life. It is interesting to note that the color of blood or the thing that keeps us alive is also red. Thus, the color red in itself can be seen as symbolic of life.

17. Butterfly

Butterfly.Pin

Butterflies depict the cycle of life 
Image courtesy: piqsels.com

This exotic creature of nature is an excellent symbol of life. A butterfly’s symbolism goes deep, and it is quite a powerful one.

Just like many of the other things mentioned above, a butterfly has many symbolic meanings such as freedom, transformation etc. however, the biggest one is that of life itself. 

When you see a butterfly, it is full of life, beautifully fluttering its wings and hopping from one flower to another. It is, therefore, the perfect symbol when it comes to representing life.

Another reason that a butterfly is used to depict life is that the life of a butterfly mirrors the cycle of life. 

Just like the butterfly goes through a process of transformation in which it emerges as the gorgeous winged creature, all of creation goes through a similar journey. This journey is called life and is one that no creature on this earth can escape. 

18. The Tapuat or Labyrinth 

Labyrinth.Pin

The Labyrinth / The Hopi symbol for mother and child
PIRO4D via Pixabay

This interesting pattern is the Hopi symbol for mother and child. The middle of the labyrinth depicts the center of life where we were brought up from the very beginning. 

The cradle symbolizes the place from where we originally come and where we will eventually go back to.

The rest of our life phases are represented through lines that connect our umbilical cord to the nurturing and protective eyes of our mother.

19. Candles

Candles.Pin

Candles are a representation of life 
Pexels via Pixabay

The flame of the candle is seen to be a representation of life itself. It symbolizes light in the darkness. 

Life is a direct symbolism of this light. Just as the flame keeps on dancing until it is blown out, so does life. It goes on until it is put to an end. 

Candles are an important and powerful symbol that holds great significance in many religions and cultures and have been around for decades. 

They bring life into the darkness and are a beautiful reminder that in all the dark times we may go through in life, there’s always happiness, a light waiting to embrace us. 

This is why they are popularly used at funerals, as a symbol of hope and also a symbol of a new life the deceased are now entering.

20. Flower of Life

The Flower of life.Pin

The Flower of life depicts the cycle of creation
Tomruen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This symbol is known to depict the cycle of creation, of how all of creation and life ultimately comes from a single source. 

This source is expressed through the circle that lies in the middle of the pattern. Within this symbol, there is said to be a secret symbol buried within. 

This symbol is believed to contain the most vital and sacred patterns of the entire universe. You can consider it a kind of blueprint for all of life, from atoms and molecules to planets and everything else that comes in the middle.

It is becoming increasingly popular with New Age Groups and movements. Its meaning is deep and spiritual, and people from various cultures and religions have different connotations of it.

21. Sheaf of Wheat

Wheat.Pin

A sheaf of wheat is a symbol of life, fertility, and abundance
Kira Hoffmann via Pixabay

While a sheaf of wheat can mean different things in different cultures and religions, it is generally a symbol of life, fertility, and abundance. 

It is seen to represent a long life, usually more than seventy years. It is linked to rebirth and resurrection. This is because of the nature of the crop itself; when the crop emerges from the soil and grows into huge stalks, it is symbolic of a new life emerging. 

Wheat is sometimes just to symbolize the bread that becomes the body of Christ during communion.

22. Bamboo 

Bamboo.Pin

Bamboo is symbolic of a long life
Image courtesy: pikrepo.com

One of the fastest-growing plants in the world, bamboo is symbolic of a long life. For a long time, it has been known as the Chinese symbol of strength. 

It is resilient just the way that life is, it continues to grow no matter what circumstances may be thrown its way. This plant has over a 1,000 species. 

A beautiful symbol of life and longevity, it is commonly gifted at housewarmings and when someone is starting a new chapter in their lives. 

This is because you are giving them something so full of life that will bring that energy into their lives.

23. Red Crystal 

Red crystal.Pin

A red crystal is a symbol of life
Goran Horvat via Pixabay

Crystals have many connotations and symbolisms, including religious ones. However, a red crystal is seen to be a potent symbol of life. 

Having seen the symbolism of the color red and its link to life earlier in this article, it makes perfect sense. 

They encourage you to live your life with purpose and meaning. In Christianity, it was believed that crystals exhibited transcendence and the light of the heavens. 

Many crystals are also used for healing purposes. Thus, the symbolism of the red crystal and life is one that fits perfectly.

Each of these 23 symbols is unique and has an interesting history behind it. We bet you didn’t know half of them, but now you do!

References:

  1. https://www.ancient-symbols.com/motherhood-symbols.html
  2. https://www.theirishroadtrip.com/celtic-symbols-and-meanings/
  3. https://www.quora.com/What-symbol-represents-life
  4. http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/C/cross.html
  5. https://www.sunsigns.org/sun-symbol-meanings/#:~:text=Symbol%20and%20Symbolism,of%20the%20circle%20symbolizing%20spirit.&text=It%20is%20a%20symbol%20of,%2C%20being%20clear%2C%20and%20self.
  6. https://www.onetribeapparel.com/blogs/pai/meaning-of-tree-of-life
  7. https://www.ancient.eu/Ankh/
  8. https://givemehistory.com/ancient-symbols-of-rebirth
  9. https://www.mountainjade.co.nz/pages/meanings-design-pounamu-koru-spiral

Header image courtesy: Photo by Emma Gossett on Unsplash

The Editors of Give Me History

The editors of Give Me History work with specific content that they’ve had considerable expertise within academic projects or study. The contents of this article have additionally been reviewed by external experts before publishing.

Cite this article

The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 23 Symbols of Life Throughout History," Give Me History, January 13, 2021, https://givemehistory.com/symbols-of-life.

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