Swastika – a fresh perspective on its multi-layered symbolism

The oldest representation of Swastika is more than 12,000 years old. During this long period, it has been used by numerous civilisations, and it has appeared in all four corners of our world. And yet, nowadays, we know so little about it.

An auspicious symbol

Different cultures have different names for this symbol. The most famous name, Swastika, comes from Sanskrit. Scholars believe it to be a compound word – from “Su” (good, well, auspicious) and “asti” (there is). Additionally, the word “swasti” was a form of greeting in ancient India.

Therefore, we can conclude that Swastika is an auspicious symbol. But in that case, the next logical question would be: Why use a crooked cross to symbolise “good luck”? Is it supposed to represent rotation and movement? Was this simply the axis of the eternal laws of the universe, eternal life, good karma… Or perhaps, there is something more to it?


A seasonal marker

In the last century, another attractive theory has gained a lot of followers. According to this idea, Swastika represents the rotation of the celestial north pole. Namely, the positions of the Big or Little dipper constellations change every season, depicting a shape of Swastika over a course of a year.


Evidently, this was an easy way to determine the season you are in. You wouldn’t need a calendar, just a clear night sky. And without a doubt, the ancients knew of this.

A symbol of the fire

If we were, however, to judge based on the scattered remains of Indo-European mythology, then Swastika would be a symbol of Sun, fire and lightning.

Several ancient cultures saw Swastika as the representation of lightning bolts. In Scandinavia, it represented the hammer of the thunder-god Thor while Slavs connected it to the blacksmith god, Svarog. In the Chinese “Book of Han”, from the 2nd century BC, Swastika represents a comet. Logically, this idea of sky-fire goes great with the Sun-related symbolism.

As many ancient cultures represented the Sun as the wheel, some scholars see Swastika as a variation of these Sun-wheels. Indeed, some of the other names for Swastika are Armenian Arevakhach “Sun cross” and Latvian Ugunskrust “Fire cross”.

A symbol of the hearth?

The Latvian word “Ugunskrust” has the word “ugun” as the root, meaning “fire”. This word is a cognate with Slavic “oganj”, Sanskrit “agni” and Latin “ignes”. In Slavic languages, “ognjiste” is also “hearth” – a central element of ancient dwellings. And even though modern houses do not have the hearth, the word is still being used as a synonym for “home”.

This made me think. Ancient Rome had Vestal Virgins, whose role was to keep the sacred fire burning. They were the priestesses of Vesta, who was a goddess of the hearth. According to the Roman tradition, the Vestals were established by Numa Pompilius, in the 8th century BC, and this tradition died out only around the 4th century AD. In other words, it was important enough to last for some 1,200 years.

Scholars agree that the origins of the cult of Vesta go deep into prehistory, where she was worshipped as the hearth goddess for thousands of years before Rome made it official in the 8th century BC. Romans believed that its cult had been brought from Troy, and this could be true, as many Roman authors debated on the etymology of her obviously non-Latin name. Nowadays, some connect Vesta with Greek “estia” – hearth.

On Roman Vesta (hearth) and Sanskrit Vastu (home)

The name of the Roman goddess Vesta probably means “hearth”. In Slavic languages, the word for hearth is a synonym for home. Therefore, I find it interesting that the sanskrit name for “home, dwelling” was “vastu“.

Romans did not portray the goddess Vesta in their art (as they did with most of their other deities). Vesta was represented only by the image of her temple, which hosted the sacred fire. Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed that Vesta represents Earth, which “kindles the celestial fires” in the centre of the universe. Ovid equated Vesta with Earth that has perennial fire concluding that earth and fire are symbols of home.

Moreover, the famous Vedic texts known as Vastu shastra (the science of architecture) deal with the sacred geometry in the construction of temples and dwellings. And while Angkor Wat is one of the best-known examples of the Vastu shastra temples, many other temples have Swastika in their floor-plan.

In conclusion, the name Vesta (hearth) might be related to Sanskrit “vastu”, meaning (home). Perhaps this is also the real root of the word Swastika?

On Aryan origins of the Roman Vesta

Vesta’s epithet of a virgin probably comes from the association with the Virgo constellation, that just like Ursa Major and minor, marks the change of seasons. But at the same time, she was closely related to phallic symbols, agriculture and marriages, meaning that fertility was one of her main attributes.

It is hard not to compare this phallic symbolism with the union of the Hindu goddess Shakti (or Parvati) and the phallic lingams of Shiva. In other words, Vesta was clearly another name for the great mother-goddess, impregnated by light and fire, before Virgin Mary took her throne.

Romans attributed the Vestian origins to the Troyans, people closely related to Phrygians. Phrygian and Vedic religions had numerous parallels, too many to list in a single article. I wrote about the parallels between Phrygian Cybele and Vedic Parvati here. What follows is another such example.

On Phrygian Priapus and Vedic Prajapati

Ovid mentions an episode when Vesta attended the feast of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, fell asleep and almost ended up getting raped by the fertility god Priapus. In the last moment, she was woken up by the bray of the donkey. The essence of this myth is astronomical, and I wrote on the donkey symbolism here.

What is important to note is that the Phrygian name Priapus (etymology unknown) sounds very similar to Vedic Prajapati. Prajapati (praja “creation” + pati “lord”) was the god of creation, often equated with Brahma himself. Interestingly, scholars connect his name to Orphic Protogonos (first-born) but not directly to Priapus.

In any case, common light motifs between Orphic Protogonos and Vedic Prajapati have already been established in the academic world, meaning that we are not talking only about the similarity of the names. How this came to be is a different topic.

Swastika and the sacred fire

Besides phalluses, another symbol of Vesta were fire sticks. However, they carried the same sexual connotation. It is well known that many ancient cultures associated the process of creating fire and sexual intercourse. Of course, what is critical for success in this process is the rotation of the stick.

There are indications that the ancients saw the axis mundi, the celestial pole, in the same way – like a giant fire stick that ends in the Polar star and around which the universe rotates (and eventually the Sun – fire is born).

Could this process be the key to understanding the multi-layered symbolism of Swastika? As the fire was one of our most precious gifts, it is not hard to see how the ideas were added over time. From a symbol of fire, hearth, and home, Swastika became a symbol of the Sun, and the eternal rotation of the night sky around the northern celestial pole. Then finally, this cosmic dance came to symbolise the union of the Sky Father and the Mother Earth – the immaculate conception.


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