Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The Swastika

Posted by Fredsvenn on September 14, 2013

The symbol of the Swastika and its 12,000-year-old history

The word swastika came from the Sanskrit word svastika, meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote auspiciousness, or any piece of luck or well-being. The word in this sense is first used in the Harivamsa. The Ramayana does have the word, but in an unrelated sense of “one who utters words of eulogy”.

The word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” meaning “good” or “auspicious,” “asti” meaning “to be,” and “ka” as a suffix meaning “soul”, suastika might thus be translated literally as “that which is associated with well-being,” corresponding to “lucky charm” or “thing that is auspicious.” The swastika literally means “to be good” or “well-being.” Or another translation can be made: “swa” is “higher self”, “asti” meaning “being”, and “ka” as a suffix, so the translation can be interpreted as “being with higher self”.

Swastikas have also been used in various other ancient civilizations around the world including India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Korea and Europe. Iron Age attestations of the swastika can be associated with Indo-European cultures such as the Indo-Iranians, Celts, Greeks, Illyrians, Germans, Balts and Slavs. It also appears in the Bronze and Iron Age cultures around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, including Iron Age designs of the northern Caucasus (Koban culture).

An object very much like a hammer or a double axe is depicted among the magical symbols on the drums of Sami shamans, used in their religious ceremonies before Christianity was established. The name of the Sami thunder god was Horagalles, thought to be derived from “Old Man Thor” (Þórr karl). Sometimes on the drums, a male figure with a hammer-like object in either hand is shown, and sometimes it is more like a cross with crooked ends, or a swastika.

The earliest swastika known has been found in Mezine, Ukraine, not far from Kiev. It is carved on late paleolithic figurine of mammoth ivory, being dated as early as about 10,000 BC. It has been suggested this swastika may be a stylized picture of a stork in flight and not the true swastika that is in use today.

The earliest known association with the swastika with the mandala is on the Samarra ware found in Sāmarrā on the east bank of the Tigris in the Salah ad-Din Governorate, 125 kilometers (78 mi) north of Baghdad in Iraq.

In Bronze Age Europe, the “Sun cross” (a three- or four-armed hooked cross in a circle) appears frequently, often interpreted as a solar symbol. Swastika shapes have been found on numerous artifacts from Iron Age Europe (Armenian Arevakhach), Greco-Roman, Illyrian, Etruscan, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and Georgian Borjgali. This prehistoric use seems to be reflected in the appearance of the symbol in various folk cultures of Europe, notable the Vinča culture, also known as Turdaș culture or Turdaș-Vinča culture, a Neolithic archaeological culture in Southeastern Europe, dated to the period 5500–4500 BC.

Farming technology first introduced to the region during the First Temperate Neolithic, an archaeological horizon consisting of the earliest archaeological cultures of Neolithic Southeastern Europe, dated to c. 6400–5100 BC, was developed further by the Vinča culture, fuelling a population boom and producing some of the largest settlements in prehistoric Europe.

These settlements maintained a high degree of cultural uniformity through the long-distance exchange of ritual items, but were probably not politically unified. Various styles of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines are hallmarks of the culture, as are the Vinča symbols, which some conjecture to be an early form of proto-writing. Though not conventionally considered part of the Chalcolithic or “Copper Age”, the Vinča culture provides the earliest known example of copper metallurgy.

The Vinča symbols, sometimes called the Vinča signs, Vinča script, Vinča-Turdaș script, Old European script, etc, are a set of symbols found on Neolithic era (6th to 5th millennia BCE) artifacts from the Vinča culture of southeastern Europe.

The symbols are mostly considered as constituting the oldest excavated example of “proto-writing” in the world; that is, they probably conveyed a message but did not encode language, predating the development of writing proper by more than a millennium.

In 1875, archaeological excavations led by the Hungarian archeologist Zsófia Torma (1840–1899) at Tordos (today Turdaș, Romania) unearthed a cache of objects inscribed with previously unknown symbols. In 1908, a similar cache was found during excavations conducted by Miloje Vasić (1869–1956) in Vinča, a suburb of Belgrade (Serbia), some 120 km from Turdaș.

Later, more such fragments were found in Banjica, another part of Belgrade. Since, over one hundred and fifty Vinča sites have been identified in Serbia alone, but many, including Vinča itself, have not been fully excavated. Thus, the culture of the whole area is called the Vinča culture, and the script is often called the Vinča-Turdaș script.

The discovery of the Tartaria tablets in Romania by Nicolae Vlassa in 1961 reignited the debate. Vlassa believed the inscriptions to be pictograms and the finds were subsequently carbon-dated to before 4000 BCE, thirteen hundred years earlier than the date he expected, and earlier even than the writing systems of the Sumerians and Minoans. To date, more than a thousand fragments with similar inscriptions have been found on various archaeological sites throughout south-eastern Europe, notably in Greece (Dispilio Tablet), Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, Romania, eastern Hungary, Moldova, and southern Ukraine.

Most of the inscriptions are on pottery, with the remainder appearing on ceramic spindle whorls, figurines, and a small collection of other objects. Over 85% of the inscriptions consist of a single symbol. The symbols themselves consist of a variety of abstract and representative pictograms, including zoomorphic (animal-like) representations, combs or brush patterns and abstract symbols such as swastikas, crosses and chevrons.

Other objects include groups of symbols, of which some are arranged in no particularly obvious pattern, with the result that neither the order nor the direction of the signs in these groups is readily determinable.

The usage of symbols varies significantly between objects: symbols that appear by themselves tend almost exclusively to appear on pots, while symbols that are grouped with other symbols tend to appear on whorls.

The importance of these findings lies in the fact that the bulk of the Vinča symbols was created in the period between 4500 and 4000 BC, with the ones on the Tărtăria clay tablets even dating back to around 5300 BC. This means that the Vinča finds predate the proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (modern Iraq), which is usually considered as the oldest known script, by more than a thousand years.

Analyses of the symbols showed that they have little similarity with Near Eastern writing, leading to the view that these symbols and the Sumerian script probably arose independently. There are, however, some similarities between the Vinča signs and other Neolithic symbologies found elsewhere, as far afield as Egypt, Crete and even China, but scholars have suggested that such signs were produced by a convergent development of proto-writing which evolved independently in a number of societies.

Although a large number of symbols are known, most artifacts contain so few symbols that they are very unlikely to represent a complete text. Possibly the only exception is the Sitovo inscription in Bulgaria, the dating of which is disputed; regardless, even that inscription has only around 50 symbols. It is unknown which language used the symbols, or indeed whether they stand for a language in the first place.

According to Marija Gimbutas, the Vinča culture was part of Old Europe – a relatively homogeneous, peaceful and matrifocal culture that occupied Europe during the Neolithic. According to this theory its period of decline was followed by an invasion of warlike, horse-riding Proto-Indo-European tribes from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

According to Gimbutas’ version of the Kurgan hypothesis, Old Europe was invaded and destroyed by horse-riding pastoral nomads from the Pontic-Caspian steppe (the “Kurgan culture”) who brought with them violence, patriarchy, and Indo-European languages. More recent proponents of the Kurgan hypothesis agree that the cultures of Old Europe spoke pre-Indo-European languages but include a less dramatic transition, with a prolonged migration of Proto-Indo-European speakers after Old Europe’s collapse because of other factors.

Çatalhöyük is Turkish for “fork”, höyük for “mound”) was a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, which existed from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC. It is the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site found to date. In July 2012, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Greece, we find the earliest Neolithic culture in Europe, called the Sesklo culture. This culture probably derived from similar ancient cultures in Anatolia, and in turn influence the Balkan cultures and, possibly, the Cardium Pottery culture. The Sesklo people probably spoke an “Aegean” language, none of which survive, but which might have included Minoan and Eteocretan.

In England, neolithic or Bronze Age stone carvings of the symbol have been found on Ilkley Moor. Mirror-image swastikas (clockwise and anti-clockwise) have been found on ceramic pottery in the Devetashka cave, Bulgaria, dated 6,000 BC.

The most traditional form of the swastika’s symbolization in Jainism is that the four arms of the swastika remind us that during the cycles of birth and death we may be born into any one of the four destinies: heavenly beings, human beings, animal beings, (including birds, bugs, and plants) and hellish beings.

Jainism gives even more prominence to the swastika as a tantra than Hinduism does. It is a symbol of the seventh Tirthankara, Suparshvanath. In the Svetambara tradition, it is also one of the symbols of the ashtamangala. All derasars and holy books must contain the swastika and ceremonies typically begin and end with creating a swastika mark several times with rice around the altar. Jains use rice to make a swastika in front of statues in a temple. Jains then put an offering on this swastika, usually a ripe or dried fruit, a sweet, or a coin or currency note.

The most traditional form of the swastika’s symbolization in Hinduism is that the symbol represents the purusharthas: dharma (that which makes a human a human), artha (wealth), kama (desire), and moksha (liberation).

The swastika is recognized as a Hindu symbol in most parts of the world. In Hinduism, the swastika is at times in certain sects considered a symbolic representation of Ganesha. In Hindu rites, Ganesha is offered first offerings in every pooja. The swastika is made with Sindoor during Hindu religious rites.

Among the Hindus of Bengal, it is common to see the name “swastika” applied to a slightly different symbol, which has the same significance as the common swastika, and both symbols are used as auspicious signs. This symbol looks something like a stick figure of a human being. Right-facing swastika in the decorative Hindu form is used to evoke “shakti”. The swastika is a historical sacred symbol both to evoke ‘Shakti’ in tantric rituals and evoke the gods for blessings in Indian religions.

The Mahabharata has the word in the sense of “the crossing of the arms or hands on the breast”. Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana also use the word in the sense of “a dish of a particular form” and “a kind of cake”. The word does not occur in Vedic Sanskrit.

Buddhism originated in the 5th century BC and spread throughout the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC (Maurya Empire). The Buddhist sign has been standardized as a Chinese character (pinyin: wàn) and as such entered various other East Asian languages such as Japanese where the symbol is called (manji). Known as a “yungdrung” in ancient Tibet, it was a graphical representation of eternity.

In the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, the swastika was a symbol of the revolving sun, infinity, or continuing creation. It rose to importance in Buddhism during the Mauryan Empire and in Hinduism with the decline of Buddhism in India during the Gupta Empire. With the spread of Buddhism, the Buddhist swastika reached Tibet and China. The symbol was also introduced to Balinese Hinduism by Hindu kings. The use of the swastika by the Bön faith of Tibet, as well as later syncretic religions, such as Cao Dai of Vietnam and Falun Gong of China, can also be traced to Buddhist influence.

The swastika appear in Neolithic China in the Majiabang, Dawenkou and Xiaoheyan cultures. The Majiabang culture was a Neolithic culture that existed at the mouth of the Yangtze River, primarily around the Taihu area and north of Hangzhou Bay in China. The culture was spread throughout southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang from around 5000 BC to 3000 BC.

Initially, archaeologists had considered the Majiabang sites and sites in northern Jiangsu to be part of the same culture, naming it the Qingliangang culture. Archaeologists later realized that the northern Jiangsu sites were of the Dawenkou culture and renamed the southern Jiangsu sites as the Majiabang culture. The Majiabang culture coexisted with the Hemudu culture for over a thousand years as two separate and distinct cultures, with cultural transmissions between the two cultures.

The paired swastika symbols are included, at least since the Liao Dynasty (AD907–1125) , as part of the Chinese writing system and are variant characters for (wàn in Mandarin, man in Korean, Cantonese and Japanese, vạn in Vietnamese) meaning “all” or “eternity” (lit. myriad). The swastika marks the beginning of many Buddhist scriptures. In East Asian countries, the left-facing character is often used as symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of a Buddhist temple on maps.

In Chinese and Japanese the swastika is also a homonym of the number 10,000, and is commonly used to represent the whole of Creation, e.g. ‘the myriad things’ in the Dao De Jing. During the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Empress Wu Zetian (684-704) decreed that the swastika would also be used as an alternative symbol of the Sun.

When the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan in the 8th century, the swastika was adopted into the Japanese language and culture, with the meaning remained unchanged but slight change on its pronunciation. It is commonly referred as the manji (lit. Man-character).

Since the Middle Ages, it has been used as a mon by various Japanese families such as Tsugaru clan, Hachisuka clan or around 60 clans that belong to Tokugawa clan. On Japanese maps, a swastika (left-facing and horizontal) is used to mark the location of a Buddhist temple. The right-facing manji is often referred to as the gyaku manji (lit. “reverse manji”) or migi manji (lit. “right manji”), and can also be called kagi jūji (literally “hook cross”).

In Chinese and Japanese art, the swastika is often found as part of a repeating pattern. One common pattern, called sayagata in Japanese, comprises left- and right-facing swastikas joined by lines. As the negative space between the lines has a distinctive shape, the sayagata pattern is sometimes called the “key fret” motif in English.

As a pottery graph of unknown provision and meaning the swastka-like sign is known in Chinese Neolithic culture (2400-2000 BCE, Liu wan, Qinghai province).

The swastika is also seen in Egypt during the Coptic period. Textile number T.231-1923 held at the V&A Museum in London includes small swastikas in its design. This piece was found at Qau-el-Kebir, near Asyut, and is dated between AD300-600.

The Tierwirbel (the German for “animal whorl” or “whirl of animals”) is a characteristic motive in Bronze Age Central Asia, the Eurasian Steppe, and later also in Iron Age Scythian and European (Baltic and Germanic) culture, showing rotational symmetric arrangement of an animal motive, often four birds’ heads. Even wider diffusion of this “Asiatic” theme has been proposed, to the Pacific and even North America (especially Moundville).

It remains widely used in Indian religions, specifically in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, primarily as a tantric symbol to evoke shakti or the sacred symbol of auspiciousness. The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization as well as the Mediterranean Classical Antiquity and paleolithic Europe. It first appears in the archaeological record here around 2500 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization.

While there was a lot of different gods pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt in the 33rd year of his reign (1446 BC) mention the people of Ermenen, and says in their land “heaven rests upon its four pillars”.

In Armenia the Swastika is called “vardan“, “arevakhach” and “ker khach” and is the ancient symbol of eternal light (i.e. God). Swastikas in Armenia were founded on petroglyphs. Among the oldest petroglyphs is the seventh letter of the Armenian alphabet – “E” (which means “is” or “to be”) – depicted as half-swastika.

Swastikas can also be seen on early Medieval churches and fortresses, including the principal tower in Armenia’s historical capital city of Ani. The same symbol can be found on Armenian carpets, cross-stones (khachkar) and in medieval manuscripts.

Swastikas have also been found on pottery in archaeological digs in Africa, in the area of Kush and on pottery at the Jebel Barkal temple, sa very small mountain located some 400 km north of Khartoum, in Karima town in Northern State in Sudan, on a large bend of the Nile River, in the region called Nubia.

Around 1450 BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III extended his empire to that region and considered Gebel Barkal its southern limit. There, he campaigned near the city of Napata that, about 300 years later, became the capital of the independent kingdom of Kush. The 25th Dynasty Nubian king Piye later greatly enlarged the New Kingdom Temple of Amun in this city and erected his Year 20 Victory stela within it.

The swastika is also a motif used by certain African groups. One of the oldest recorded uses of the swastika is in the adinkra artwork of the Akan people in Ghana. Referred to as nkotimsefuopua, the swastika was used in Akan goldweights as early as 1400. In 1927, Scottish anthropologist Robert Sutherland Rattray noted servants in Ashanti Empire wearing the image on their dresses. The swastika is clearly carved on one of the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia which dates to the 12th or 13th century.

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