A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was the swastika actually an old Native American symbol?

February 20, 1987

Dear Cecil:

I've noticed that the lobbies of many older apartment buildings are adorned with what appear to be numerous swastikas. Were these an Indian symbol or something before Adolf made them famous?

Cecil replies:

Got it in one, my friend. The swastika was employed by various American Indian tribes, notably the Navajo, for whom it was a sort of good luck sign. I recall once seeing a picture of the young Jackie Kennedy (then Bouvier) wearing a costume decorated with swastikas for a Native American pageant. Or maybe she was going to become a professional wrestler; my memory is somewhat vague. At any rate, swastikas were a common motif in American building decoration up until around 1930.

The swastika didn't originate with Native Americans. The symbol was widespread throughout the ancient world, particularly in India, where it remains in common use by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Originally it probably symbolized the sun circling through the sky, although many other explanations have also been offered. Up until the 20th century its significance was generally benign.

In the 1870s the swastika was popularized by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who found many examples of it during his diggings at ancient Troy and Mycenae. Schliemann was fascinated by the swastika and publicized it in his books, referring to it as an Aryan religious symbol. Schliemann himself wasn't a racist, but the swastika was soon taken up by less principled writers, who were attracted by the Aryan connection as well as by the symbol's strangely compelling appearance. Hitler may have been introduced to it through the work of the fanatical Aryan supremacist Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels, who used the swastika as the symbol of his cult as early as 1907. Many anti-Semitic and militarist groups had adopted it as well by the time Hitler appropriated it for the Nazis around 1920. Even he was a bit surprised by the impact it had on people; it's undoubtedly one of the most effective political symbols ever devised.

The misunderstood swastika

Dear Cecil:

You were wrong! I refer to the question concerning the historical roots of the swastika. You informed us that it was an ancient Indian symbol. In reality, however, the Indian symbol was not the Nazi swastika but rather a mirror-image symbol called the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life turns in a clockwise ("deosil") direction. Hitler, who was fascinated by the occult, deliberately reversed the ancient symbol of power so that it turned counterclockwise, or "widdershins." Traditionally this is supposed to give the symbol a "black magic" sort of power. Please, try not to be wrong again — I can't handle the disillusionment.

Cecil replies:

Time to lay off the airplane glue, West. As a glance at a history book would show, the Nazi symbol was oriented in a clockwise direction. So, as often as not, was the ancient good luck/sun symbol sometimes known as the Wheel of Life. It's true that swastikas come in both clockwise and counterclockwise versions, and some scholars maintain that they represent opposing principles — e.g., yin/yang, male/female, and presumably good/evil. On occasion, as you correctly note, the counterclockwise swastika, more properly known as the sauvastika, has had black-magical significance, symbolizing night and/or the terrifying goddess Kali. But you can find examples of both types of swastikas being used in what are clearly benign contexts. In any case, the wicked sauvastika wasn't the Nazi symbol. Anything else you want cleared up, just let me know.

Cecil begins to sympathize with the misunderstood swastika

Dear Cecil:

Ying-yang, female-male do not, I repeat, do not represent the good-evil dichotomy. This is a common misperception and shows remarkably faulty and prejudicial logic. Evil results from the imbalance of either opposing force, not the intrinsic "evil" of either. Which sex, by the way, were you stigmatizing with the "evil" label? Against all reason, you would project onto some "dark goddess" what you would rather not face in yourself. It doesn't take Levi-Strauss or a flaming feminist to see the politics in this. Before you enlighten the public on any more opposing forces, read a good book on macrobiotics and at least get that point straight.

Cecil replies:

Calm down, Natasha. I used male/female and good/evil as examples of opposing forces. I didn't say one was an example of the other.

The last word on this subject

Dear Cecil:

The Nazi fylfot, known as the swastika or hakenkreuz ("hook-cross") is actually a Teutonic runic ideograph called "Thorshamarr" — "the hammer of Thor." Although the Nazis emphasized the aggressive, martial implications of this symbol, its primary traditional meaning was the solar wheel and the cycle of life. The Thorshammarr, like many other runes and ideographs, was depicted in reverse (mirror-image) frequently, but its meaning remained constant. The concept of deosil (clockwise)/widdershins (counterclockwise) opposition, which occurs in European magical practice, does not apply to Teutonic runes.

The fylfot occurs frequently in native American symbology, and may be found in Northern Plains beadwork and Southwest pottery, basketry and sand paintings — usually with a deosil orientation. In Northern Plains symbolism, the fylfot is a representation of the four directions, and embodies the concept that the sacred place of two-leggeds (humankind) is at the center of the world-hoop. Even today the circular solar wheel is reproduced in hair ornaments of rawhide wrapped with dyed porcupine quills, traditional pieces which are still being made by Lakota craftswomen in the manner of their ancestors.

Cecil replies:

It's widely assumed that all swastikas, including those found in India and in Native American cultures, have a common origin. I'm dubious, but wasn't asked to venture an opinion, and therefore won't. The point of importance is that the swastika long predates the Nazis or notions of Aryan supremacy.

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