The skull is one of man's oldest and most powerful symbols. It has a long and varied history of use with multiple overlapping interpretations. Most commonly it is seen as a representation of death and mortality, but it has many other uses including:
- To invoke fear or caution.
- To celebrate the memory of the dead.
- To celebrate life.
- As a symbol of vanity.
- As a symbol of life after death.
- As a symbol of change.
- As a means of obtaining good luck or avoiding bad luck.
- As a symbol of toughness, machismo, courage, bravery or indifference to death and danger.
- As a symbol of nonconformity, free-thinking, and rebelliousness.
- For cute appeal and fashion.
- As pure decoration.
Part of the visual appeal of a skull comes from the fact that it is so easily recognizable. Humans can often recognize the buried fragments of an only partially revealed cranium even when other bones may look like shards of stone. The human brain has a specific region for recognizing faces, and is so attuned to finding them that it can see faces in a few dots and lines. And, with it's large eye sockets, the human skull displays a certain degree of neoteny, or childlike appearance. This same technique has been utilized by illustrators and animators for a long time because of it's strong visual appeal (think of the big eyes in anime characters, kewpie dolls, puppies, and kittens).
To invoke fear or caution
The Nazi SS incorporated the skull into the uniforms of their concentration camp guards in a symbol that probably still invokes fear today. Likewise, the skull and crossbones symbol was placed on bottles of poison as a visual reminder of danger. And of course it was once flown as the flag of pirates, and was probably as unwelcome a sight as any on the high seas.
Today it is commonly used in horror films, horror books, and haunted houses to create an environment or feeling of fear and trepidation.
To celebrate the memory of the dead
The Sugar Skull is one of the main symbols or images seen during the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico. They are called "sugar skulls" because the authentic sugar skulls were made out of clay molded sugar. The name of the departed is added to the forehead of the sugar skull and then placed on the gravestone in remembrance.
Flowers Symbols are also symbolically important part of day of the dead. Many skulls incorporate flowers, and this symbol has a meaning of its own. The flower most associated with Dia de los Muertos in Mexico is the marigold, which is known as the flower of the dead. In Aztec belief the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, their god of the dead. According to Mexican belief, the souls of departed family and friends return to earth on the day of the dead, and it is believed the strong scent of marigold helps to guide them back.
Flowers are often incorporated into Dia de los Muertos skull designs. This mixing of the skull with flowers, while seemingly contradictory, embodies the spirit of the holiday, which is not only to remember the dead, but also to overcome the fear of death and celebrate life.
As a symbol of life after death
Skulls were powerful symbols in both Spanish and Mexican Aztec culture in the Middle Ages. In Spain, skulls were used to mark the entrance to graveyards. In fact, across medieval Europe most cemeteries did not have room to keep people permanently buried. Instead, people were buried for seven years and then their skeletons were dug up again, and their bones were placed in an ossuary. You can still visit medieval cathedrals in Europe which have crypts full of skulls and bones. In Aztec culture, like many ancient cultures, the head was believed to be a source of human power and energy. The Aztecs are recorded to have made human sacrifices to the gods, in order to make sure the sun would continue to rise each day. The remains of these sacrificial victims were kept as relics - skulls and bones were bleached, painted and put on display. Skulls were, therefore, part of both Spanish and Aztec beliefs about death and the afterlife. However the practice of decorating skulls and altars with marigolds and other flowers seems to have come purely from Aztec tradition, as do the skeleton figurines.
In Mexico, the Aztec culture believed life on earth to be something of an illusion; death was a positive step forward into a higher level of consciousness. For the Aztecs skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth.
As a symbol of change
While not specifically a skull, the best example of the skull/skeleton appearing as a symbol of change or transformation is in the 13th trump card of the traditional Tarot deck, such as the Rider-Waite card pictured below. The most common interpretations of this card include:
• Ending of a cycle, Loss, Conclusion, Sadness
• Transition into a new state, Psychological transformation
• Finishing up, Regeneration, Elimination of old patterns
• Being caught in the inescapable, Good-byes, Deep Change
The skull was often used by ancient cultures to ward off any type of evil influence or illness. It's philosophically viewed as the seat of intelligence, spirit and the spark of human life. Interestingly, the skull is also the remnant of the body that is the least susceptible to decay - another sign of its strength as a symbol. Many primitive cultures believed wearing or displaying skulls would ensure protection and well-being. Consider the following story from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
Believers worship souls in the skulls
By Fiona Smith
The Associated Press
LA PAZ · It's a tradition people outside Bolivia might find creepy: Families perch human skulls on altars, revering them and asking them for protection and good luck.
On Tuesday, the skulls were taken to cemeteries, where the families crowned them with flowers and filled their jaws with lit cigarettes.
The chapel in La Paz's main cemetery was filled with hundreds of people jockeying to get their skull, or "natita," in a good position for a special annual Mass. Thousands more people gathered outside.
"I was scared of them at first, but now I realize I was scared because I wasn't taking care of them," said Shirley Vargas, who brought two skulls -- Vicente and Maria -- to the Mass. "Now I keep them in my room with me. I love them a lot, and they have helped our family when we've had problems."
Vargas said she got her skulls from a medical student.
Milton Eyzaguirre, an anthropologist, said Bolivians are now more willing to bring out their skulls than before.
"People are bringing back the idea that we're not separated from the dead ... but that life and death are always connected," said Eyzaguirre, a curator at La Paz's Museum of Ethnography and Folklore.
The tradition reflects the force of pre-Hispanic belief in this poor country whose population is predominantly Indian; the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to recognize this and other non-Catholic traditions as a way of retaining its influence.
On Tuesday, people of all ages entered the chapel carrying skulls in fancy glass boxes or on silver platters. Others used plastic bags, shoeboxes or baskets. Most of the skulls were decorated with bright knit caps, cotton wool in the eyes and crowns of red roses and hydrangeas.
Vargas believes her skulls helped her father recover from a chronic back problem.
The ancient Andean belief is that people have seven souls, and one of them stays with the skull, Eyzaguirre said. This soul has the power to visit people in their dreams and protect them.
Eyzaguirre said he began believing in the skulls when a building at the museum collapsed, killing four construction workers, after he moved out some skulls without a proper ceremony. The museum staff held a ceremony, offering food and drink, and he's had no problems since, the curator said.
Some Bolivians also credit the skulls for success in business and with family.
Rubita Montano believes her natita helped her recover $4,000 in stolen money. On Tuesday, she sat in a grassy patch in the cemetery and handed bags of coca leaves to strangers who prayed to the skull, named Tatiana Dumas.
Montano said she bought the skull at a cemetery. It's common for cemetery workers to take skulls from graves when relatives either abandon their dead or stop paying cemetery bills, said Eyzaguirre. It's illegal, but officials turn a blind eye to it.
"She's like a daughter or a sister in my house," said Montano as she chewed coca leaves and arranged lit cigarettes in the skull's mouth.
Others, like Viviana Martinez, use the skulls of relatives. "This is my cousin Juan Jose. I've had him for 30 years and he helps me with everything," Martinez said.
The Rev. Jaime Fernandez, who has given a Mass for the skulls for 10 years, acknowledges the challenge of reconciling Catholic teachings with this ancient Indian belief. "I use my time today to teach them Christian values and symbols, but I have to watch what I say or the people will get upset," he said.
As a symbol of vanity
Perhaps the best known example of the skull being used in this context is the 1892 illustration 'All is Vanity' by Charles Allan Gilbert.
In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The Latin word means "emptiness" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2 from the Bible is often quoted in conjunction with this term. The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity by the King James Version of the Bible, and Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless by the New International Version of the Bible.
Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre, and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori. From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste. There is debate among art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still-life paintings without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message.
As a symbol of toughness or machismo
The skull in one form or another has long been used in the military, and has probably been used in biker culture as long as there have been bikers. There is some overlap between this and situations where the skull is used to invoke fear. It is also obvious that the infamous skull and crossbones from pirate flags has been an influence on military emblem design.
Probably the most well known American biker gang, The Hell’s Angels have a long and thorough history on American highways. Much information concerning their origins is hazy due to their long-standing code of secrecy. Sometime within the 1940’s or 1950’s in California Hell’s Angels MC was formed. Their insignia is the “death’s head” logo which is copied from the insignia of the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron. Red lettering over white backgrounds stands for the club’s colors. With so much popularity, Hell’s Angels chapters have sprung up across the Untied States as well as Russia and New Zealand and the continents of North America, South America, Europe and Australia.
The Hell’s Angels MC have gained mass notoriety in the U.S. due to their involvement in many highly publicized run-ins with the law and rival biker gangs. The most note-worthy of publicized events happened during the Altamont Free Concert at Altamont Speedway in December of 1969 where it is alleged that The Rolling Stones hired members of The Hell’s Angels to stand-in as bodyguards for the band. Violence erupted in the crowd and also onto the performance stage and as a result one male was stabbed to death after brandishing a pistol.
Another publicized incident occurred in Laughlin, Nevada in Harrah’s Casino and Hotel. A violent confrontation in the casino between rival Mongols MC resulted in one fatally stabbed Mongol gang member and two fatally shot Hell’s Angels members.
Not all bikers are gang members, but they are generally into skulls. These two videos are of the same bike, showing different features. Clearly this guy is obsessed with skulls! I'm not a biker, but I have to say that's one cool bike.
As a symbol of nonconformity, free-thinking, and rebelliousness
The skull is often used as a symbol of nonconformity, free-thinking, and rebelliousness, as evidenced in an overabundance of heavy metal album covers (as well as plenty of other musical genres, such as punk and alternative). This is probably part of it's use in biker culture as well.
The unique combination of "cute but bad" has been increasingly popular in recent years, though it can probably be traced back to the 1950's, if not earlier. As such, it probably shares some common roots with pop surrealism. We are now seeing it used in everything from toys and dresses to wallpaper and watches.
The use of skulls and bones for decoration probably began with the earliest occurrences of mass deaths and killings, whether from war, disease, or any other cause. With the large amounts of remains produced, there was little else to do but put them to use as decoration. Famous examples include the Paris underground, the Chapel of Skulls in Poland, and the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. The results are both eerie and beautiful at the same time.
Today it is done in a more subtle way, but with equal creativity, usually in the form of home decor and art, and usually with some sort of functionality in mind.
Clearly the skull has no shortage of symbolic interpretations, and the examples given here are only some of them. Underlying all of them however is it's most common use as a symbol of our mortality. As such, the skull reminds us that not only do none of us live forever, but conversely that each of our lives is that much more important because of it. A skull crowned by a wreath of roses is referred to as a 'carpe diem', a reference to the Latin phrase in a poem by Horace, which is generally translated as 'seize the day.' For Horace, mindfulness of our own mortality is key in making us realize the importance of the moment:
"Remember that you are mortal, so seize the day."
From this point of view, the skull is no longer symbolic of anything dark or evil, but instead becomes a positive symbol that encourages us to live life to its fullest.