History of the Swastika Design Symbol – 12,000 Years and Counting
When dealing with antique rugs, or anything ancient really, we cant talk about designs and patterns without mentioning the controversial swastika. In our modern day and age, the swastika has become a symbol that is closely associated with hate. This is because of its association with one of the most destructive, evil and aggressive political regimes that have ever walked our planet earth: The National Socialist German Workers’ Party / Nazis for short.
Since their rise to power during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, the Nazis party, under the direction of their dictator Adolf Hitler, imposed their beliefs onto the swastika and forever tainted it with notions of white supremacy, anti-Antisemitism, hate, racism and bigotry.
It should be noted, though, that Hitler did not choose an arbitrary symbol to represent his party. In fact, the swastika was a symbol used in many different contexts, extending back thousands of years before the Nazi party even existed. Like many white supremacists who were active during the 20th century, Hitler was well aware of the precedent already present in the symbolism, instead using that as a key factor in establishing a sense of solidarity to support his ideology.
This type of change and co-opting does not happen overnight, though. In order to understand how a symbol can be transformed into a hate sign over time, it is important to familiarize ourselves with its history.
So, what is the history of the swastika symbol?
The history of the swastika symbol begins with the word itself: “swastika”. Swastika is a word taken from Sanskrit (originally “svastika”) to indicate well-being, good luck, and plentiful existence. Despite the Sanskrit origin, though, there are many other cultures that have different names for the symbol, such as Germany (“Hakenkreuz”), Japan (“Manji”), England (“Fylfot”), China (“Wan”), and Greece (“Tetraskelion”). Though there are different names for the design pattern itself, the swastika is depicted in mostly the same manner no matter which culture it appears in.
P.R. Sarkar, the acclaimed Sanskrit scholar, noted, in 1979, that there is an underlying meaning to the word that is not commonly addressed. He summarized that the word swastika is meant to be an analogy for a deep sense of victory, often equated with long lasting or permanent connotations. This definition of the symbol does not mean that it inherently serves a specific agenda, though; the swastika design symbol has been used throughout history in many different ways.
For example, in Buddhism the symbol represents another type of prosperity focusing on one’s abundance and eternal satisfaction. This interpretation can be directly ascribed to the belief system of the Buddha that the philosophy is based off of, often warranting it to be placed with the Buddha on statues and in paintings.
Despite this being the most commonly thought of usage of the symbol when thinking about examples to predate Nazi ideology, it is not the earliest usage of the swastika. In fact, the earliest swastika we currently know of is from about 12,000 years ago and was discovered in Mezine, Ukraine. Because of its city of origin, the swastika is referred to as the “Mezine Swastika” and is currently known as the earliest manifestation of the symbol.
The Mezine Swastika was reportedly used in cultures found in Southern Europe in ancient times, specifically within Neolithic cultures that were found in places we now know as the Baltic’s. The swastika being used in mythology also extends to Nordic traditions, specifically being referenced in tales regarding the god Odin (the father of Thor). In this iteration, the symbol is used to represent Odin while he is traveling through space, his body looking down on the mortals that inhabit the earth.
Around the same period of time, the swastika was being used in similar manners around the world. For example, the Greeks also used the symbol as a way to link heaven and earth, showing the multiple arms as connecting the symbol just as much to the mortal world as the mythological one.
No matter which instance you look at, though, the linking factor between these pre-Nazi uses of the swastika seems to be a sense of prosperity, prominence and good fortune. Basically a positive symbol that is also associated with strength, the sun and the gods. Because of these associations, it makes sense as to why Hitler would misuse the symbol to perpetuate his ideology of white supremacy. This is due to the fact that most white supremacy circles focus on preserving some notion of identity in order to ensure strong communities around their beliefs.
After reading about the many different uses for the symbol over the years, it is unfortunate to remember that the most prominent use of the swastika in contemporary society is its reputation as a hate symbol. Symbols can be incredibly powerful artifacts in both modern culture and religion, allowing us to indicate when to use windshield wipers or how to spread harmful ideology. Understanding the specific nuance of the different symbols around us can help us learn about the culture we live in. Often times, the inflections and representation of certain patterns and design symbols can reflect the culture from which they come.
Learning about the history of the symbol and being able to educate ourselves on how it got there can help us recognize when this happens to other ideas or symbols in our culture. The purpose of learning about the swastika’s history is not to separate it from the genocidal ideology associated with it, but instead understand how it got that way and why the Nazis decided to co-opt it for their own devious intentions.
The Swastika Designs Symbol And Antique Rugs
We do see rugs and carpets that feature the Swastika design symbol. But at Nazmiyal we deal mostly with antique carpets that predate the Nazi party. So naturally, the rug weavers did not have any reason not to incorporate this iconic and positive symbol (positive during their time at least).
That said, being Jewish, its not hard for us to empathize with those that still feel a strong aversion to decorating with rugs that feature bear the swastika symbol. Though some antique Oriental rugs will suffer as result of the modern association with the design pattern, its important to note that these beautiful pieces pay the price through no fault of their own. While some may not want to live with the a rug that has the swastika symbol, we do hope that all people, across all cultures, can recognize the important and positive roll this design played for thousands of years and throughout so many cultures around the globe well before anyone ever heard of Hitler or is despicable Nazi party.