Skulls! Skulls! Skulls! The history of skulls in different cultures
The world seems to have gone skull mad at the moment, they are everywhere, especially in the Fashion world. Obviously we all know what they are, as our grey matter is rattling around in our own skulls as we speak but what is the attraction and what does the skull represent to people in different cultures and religions?
I wanted to dig a little into the use of the Skull or Skull imagery throughout history and find out some of the meaning behind its use. I also wanted to remind myself of why I love them, before every man and his dog jumped on the band wagon and what makes them so cool and interesting.
To start off I came across the mystery of the Crystal Skulls, believed to have been carved by ancient Mesoamerican civilisations thousands of years ago.
One Native American legend believed that there existed 13 human size skulls made of rock crystal that contained the answers to life and the universe. It was said that one day they would be re-discovered and used to aid the human race in a time of great need.
Over time that re-discovery has indeed begun with a number of these mystical skulls being found and studied. However there is great speculation as to whether these skulls are as old as many believe or just clever fakes made at a later date.
In Celtic culture they viewed the skull to be a vessel for the soul and thus of power. They would take the heads of dead enemies because they believed capturing someones soul within the skull gave them powerful magic. Celts also used to toss skulls into sacred wells as offerings, speculation of this act was that this was a way of cleansing the souls on offer.
Christianity shows some images of Jesus on the crucifix with a skull at the base of the cross. This is believed to be Adam, the first human to have sinned. Jesus Christs blood flowing from his wounds into the skull washes away Adam’s sin and the sins of all mankind. The skull position under the cross of Jesus also stands for Christs victory over death.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday, although it is celebrated all over the world. This day is an opportunity for family and friends to get together and remember loved ones who have passed away. Calaveras de Azucar or “sugar skulls” are placed on alters and can be eaten… Cool!
The use of skulls in this form and other forms on this holiday represent death and rebirth.
One of my favorite historical use of the skull image was the well-known skull and crossbones used on a black Pirate flag. This was a way for pirates to terrorize victims into surrendering. The black flag with deaths white head and crossed femur bones was a warning of death.
This most familiar image of piracy known as ”Jolly Roger” isn’t the only design used to represent a pirates ship, there have been many different designs over time.
In more recent times various Military forces still use the skull and crossbones insignia in one form or another but more for bravado than a sign of lawlessness. The German army has used the “Totenkopf” (German for “dead man’s head”), on their uniforms for many years.
The skull for them stood for “Death before Dishonor” meaning the soldiers would rather die than surrender. There are many other military units that used the skull symbol “deaths head” insignia including Italian, British and US military units. Click link to see
Probably the most well know biker group, The Hells Angels use the “death’s head” logo taken from the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron as their insignia, copying the military’s use of it to represent toughness, power and masculinity.
Probably another reason for the skull imagery in Biker culture is the use of it in music as a symbol of rebelliousness and nonconformity especially in heavy metal, a favorite genre of music for the notorious gang. It can be seen as a symbol within punk and alternative music also.
As I get back to looking at more recent times I realised the skulls symbolism has lost some of its mystical appeal for some because of it’s over popularity and the fact it is used more and more these days as nothing more than a money spinner.
A perfect example of this is in fashion and the sudden take off of wearing anything with skulls on. Some of this, I think is down to fashion designer Alexander McQueen and the use of skulls in his designs.
To be fair though, I myself loved anything with skulls on and admittedly own a McQueen bracelet and numerous skull patterned tops but felt the mystery of skulls was being lost and even I was getting a little put off with the ever-expanding popularity.
That is why I am glad I looked into some of the history of the use of the skull and its meaning, it has helped me remember why I loved skulls in the first place.
Now I realise the skull is and always will be a powerful symbol, the large orbital sockets seducing us into a strange aesthetic fondness and fascination.
It represents so many important and interesting things, to so many people of varying cultures and religions. Some good and some bad but for many it is more than just a cool thing to have on your scarf, it is a strong, stark reminder of our own mortality.
That is what I see and that is why I will carry on my love affair with skulls.