Tracing the Use of the Swastika
By “Awake!” correspondent in Austria
THERE is a symbol above the entrance door of the Lakshmi Marayan temple in New Delhi, India. And again, over the entranceway to a Bali temple of Indonesia. It appears on weights of the Ashanti people in Africa. You will also find it on magical chains of North American Indians. It can be seen on a depiction of the footprints of Buddha. A Roman Catholic abbot used it as his personal coat of arms. And Adolf Hitler made it the emblem of the Third Reich of Germany. Yes, it is the swastika.
From where did the swastika get its name? In Indian Buddhism the form of the symbol with angles to the right is called “swastika.” This is derived from the Sanskrit term “svasti,” meaning “object of well-being.”
Where Hitler First Saw It
As Hitler wrote in his book Mein Kampf, he brought the swastika flag before the public for the first time in the summer of 1920. He and his associates were very enthusiastic about their new banner with its ancient motif. He said: “Its effect was as that of a firebrand.” But where did Hitler see the swastika for the first time?
Hitler first saw this symbol during his childhood. Back then he lived in a small village close to the Benedictine monastery at Lambach, Upper Austria. For a while he was a choirboy there and lived at the monastery during the winter of 1897-1898. There, chiseled into the wall above the spring grotto in the courtyard, was the date 1860 together with a swastika. The symbol was also located on the monastery portal.
Further, the personal coat of arms of Abbot Theoderich Hagn of the monastery in Lambach bore “a golden swastika with slanted points on a blue field.”*
Did the swastika make an impression upon young Hitler at that time? The opinions vary. But in the book Aus Adolf Hitlers Jugendland und Jugendzeit (The Period and Land of Adolf Hitler’s Youth) the following is said about the Benedictine monastery in Lambach: “Here it was that Adolf Hitler first came into contact with the swastika. . . . Even though Adolf Hitler later may have had entirely different motives in adopting this symbol, the fact cannot be obliterated that he spent a portion of his childhood under that symbol.”—Pp. 14-16.
In his book Oberdonau, die Heimat des Fuehrers (The Upper Danube, the Fuehrer’s Home), Robert Lenk writes: “Choirboy Adolf Hitler saw the angular sign of the sun-wheel for the first time on the escutcheon of the archway of Lambach.” (P. 102) In the same book the writer mentions six country churches of the reputedly strongly Catholic Muehlviertel of Upper Austria on which the swastika symbol appeared.—P. 42.
To many readers it may seem strange that Hitler’s political symbol was also to be found in a religious setting. However, upon examining additional cases of the use of the swastika throughout the world, one will find that the more common meaning of the swastika is decidedly religious rather than political. This we will see as we trace the swastika back to its origin.
Churches of Christendom
First we are confronted with the swastika in the floor mosaic of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In his book Vom Hakenkreuz (Concerning the Swastika) Joerg Lechler shows a number of swastika representations taken from churches of Christendom. Amid the voluminous picture material, one sees a so-called “hungercloth” (fasting or Lent cloth) from Heiligengrabe, Germany, upon which Christ’s garment is covered with swastikas. The swastika appears on an altar cloth of the Maria zur Wiese Church in Soest, Germany. It is also found on the bronze monument of Bishop Bocholt in Luebeck and on some medieval coins of the Catholic dioceses of Mainz and Halberstadt and of the Erfurt bishop Heinrich (1140-1150 C.E.).
On a picture in a church in Dalby (southern Sweden) the lamb representing Jesus Christ bore a swastika rather than a simple cross. A swastika was also used in the cast of the church bell of Utterslev, Denmark.
But from where did these churches of Christendom and their clergy borrow the symbol? It should not surprise us greatly that the swastika, as many other symbols, was adopted from pagan sources.
The early Christians rejected the use of such symbols. This was once voiced in these words: “Crosses, moreover, we neither worship nor wish for. You, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as parts of your gods. For your very standards, as well as your banners and flags of your camps, what else are they but crosses gilded and adorned? Your victorious trophies not only imitate the appearance of a simple cross, but also that of a man affixed to it.”—The Octavius of Minucius Felix, chap. 29, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, p. 191.
So the swastika did not originate with the early Christians, but comes from a pagan source. What was the meaning of this ancient symbol?
Symbol of Fertility and Life
In the Lower Danube area (Siebenbuergen, Romania) earthen vessels with representations of swastikas upon them have been found. Swastikas have also come to light in excavations at Troy, an ancient city of Asia Minor.
In the same cultural period in which the swastika appears in Troy and Romania, idol plastics related to the fertility cult come to the fore. The plastics are often nearly identical to those of the Near and Middle East. The manner in which the swastika is located on the bodies of female plastics at Troy indicates that it served as a symbol of fertility and life.
Further, in the trench graves of Mycenae, Greece, the swastika is found on rich golden jewelry. It also appears on coins. In a funeral scene depicted on an Athenian vase, three swastikas can be seen above the horse pulling the hearse. Goddesses of fertility found in tombs wear the symbol on their throats and breasts. On a sarcophagus we can see the “mistress of life,” who later became known as Artemis, surrounded by swastikas. It also seems to have been associated with the lotus flower and decorated the garment of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, called Venus by the Romans.
So, at Troy and in its representations in the Aegean area, the swastika conveyed the idea of fertility and life.
The Swastika’s Birthplace
In 1931 the results of excavations relative to the culture of the Indus Valley in Southern Asia were published. At Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa the remnants of a highly developed state culture were unearthed, a culture that was in bloom long before our Common Era. Seals with symbols of obvious religious nature were found, including some depictions of the swastika. The seal finds have been assigned to the third century B.C.E.
Of interest is what archaeologist V. Gordon Childe has to say about swastikas found in the Indus Valley: “The swastika and the cross, common on stamps and plaques, were religious or magical symbols as in Babylonia and Elam in the earliest prehistoric period.”—New Light on the Most Ancient East, by V. Gordon Childe, pp. 184, 185.
The swastika, then, must have had its origin in Mesopotamia. Swastika findings at Samarra, north of Baghdad, on the Tigris, and in early settlement stratum of Susa or Shushan (Neh. 1:1; Esther 1:2) point to a very ancient origin of the symbol in Mesopotamia. Yes, the swastika goes back to the ancient religious center of Babylon.
So, when traced to its beginning, the swastika is seen to be religious in nature. It is true that, in this twentieth century, it has also become a political emblem. But the one who adopted it as a political emblem first became acquainted with it by means of the church of which he was a member, the same church that signed a concordat with him when he rose to political power and whose clergy prayed for his armies when they went to war.
Die Wappen des Benediktiner-Klosters Lambach und seiner Aebte, by George Gruell, pp. 20, 23.
[Picture on page 21]
From the coat of arms of Abbot Hagn of Lambach monastery
[Picture on page 22]
Swastikas on a ceramic from Susa