From a sign of luck and wealth 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 statue of BuddhaFrom left: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, National Museum of Denmark, Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Today, the swastika is a notorious symbol of hatred, extremism and genocide.

  • But it has a long history and has been used by cultures worldwide to signify luck and happiness.

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

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

Beside the portrait of Odin was a small swastika-like mark, once a sign of peace, wealth and good luck.

Today, the swastika is seen by many as a symbol of hate, extremism, and danger. But it has a long and varied history that stretches well beyond its gruesome appropriation by Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party a century ago.

The origins of the swastika

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

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

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

The Swastika in Asia

Today, the swastika is still widely used in a number of Indian religions.

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

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

And in Buddhism, the character is used to represent Buddha’s footsteps, known as manji.

Rangoli Art on Diwali Festival, India

Rangoli Art on Diwali Festival, IndiaGetty Images

According to the AP, the symbol can be seen on shop doors, vehicles, food packaging and at festivals across India.

It has also been adopted in other parts of Asia. The Aswàn symbol is well known in China and was declared the “source of all happiness” 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

Followers 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. It can also be seen alongside his father Odin.

But it wasn’t just the Nordics 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 until the early 20th century to show good luck. “The sign was used in many ways before Hitler adapted it. A sign of luck, fertility, luck, sun, and it acquired both spiritual significance and commercial value when used with or as a trademark or logo,” Heller said .

An old bottle of Carlsberg with a swastika logo

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

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

However, that changed in the 1920s.

Co-opted by the Nazis

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

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

Aryanism’s classification was often used to refer to the common languages ​​within the culture, but later shifted to a racial categorization.

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

Another theory is that Hitler would have simply watched the symbol grow again and again.

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

When the NSDAP seized power over Germany in 1933, Hitler decreed that the German state flag had to be flown alongside the now infamous red flag with a giant black swastika.

Today, the once innocent swastika is seen as the incarnation 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 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, November 13, 2022.

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

In 2022, Sheetal Deo of New York – which has a population of 1.6 million Jews – told AP that she was asked to remove her Diwali decor, the Hindu festival of lights, that was on display at her Queens apartment building and had a swastika on it.

She told the AP that she doesn’t think she needs to apologize for a sacred symbol just because it’s often mistaken for its corrupted version, saying it was “insufferable.”

But Steven Heller told AP, “A rose by any other name is a rose. Ultimately, that’s how a symbol affects you visually and emotionally. For many it produces a visceral effect and that is a fact.”

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