Symbols & Meanings


The Snake

The snake is a universal symbol with complex and various connotations.

The snake used as a symbol goes back to the story of Adam and Eve.  For tempting Eve, the snake was seen as causing the Fall of Man and came to be seen as crafty and malevolent.  Later it was the symbol of Satan and sin. In ancient cultures it was believed that because the snake shed its skin, it symbolized immortality and became associated with the Roman god of healing and many Hindu gods. The ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks regarded it as a protective spirit.

The snake has been used as the symbol on many of our early flags that were commissioned by the US Navy since the Fall of 1775. When shown coiled as on the historical Gadsden flag, it represents dynamic potential.  The First Navy Jack also with the slogan “Don’t Tread On Me” shows the snake extended across the field from Fly corner to Hoist corner.

The flag of Proctor’s Independent Battalion, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania was raised in 1775.  The flag of the battalion is an old English red ensign that was altered.  The field measures 70 x 76 inches and in the center is a large rattlesnake, coiled to strike facing the English ensign in the canton.  The tail of the snake has thirteen rattles and below it in large letters the motto reads, “Don’t Tread on Me”.  This flag was preserved by Colonel Proctor and it is not known if it was ever flown in battle.  It is at the William Penn Museum in Harrisburg, PA and is believed to be one of the few surviving rattlesnake flags of the American Revolution.

Another rattlesnake flag, the regimental Sullivan flag, represents the campaign in Rhode Island in 1777.  It is a silk fragment consisting of nine blue and white stripes, with white at the top and bottom.  The remains of the canton show that it was white with a rattlesnake painted on it with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” painted on a curved ribbon above the snake.  This flag is preserved in the Rhode Island Historical Society located in Providence.





The eagle is the universal symbol of the All-Seeing Sky God.  Today it stands for courage, victory and power, height, thunder and storms.  Many states have adopted the eagle as their symbol of nationhood and sovereignty.  The United States has taken the eagle as its national bird.  In Native American cultures the eagles feathers represent the sun’s rays. When worn as a headdress the feathers represent the Thunderbird and Great Spirit.  The eagle is the king of the birds, an emblem of royalty, and its status is that of the most popular emblem.  When displaying the United States Flag in parade or formal indoor setting the eagle is used in place of all other spears on top of the pole.  It is inappropriate to use the eagle with any other flags in the display.



star.jpg                                                                               star_of_david.jpg

Stars in different forms appear on the flags of twenty five percent of the nations around the world.

Because stars light up the night sky they signify spiritual enlightenment and wisdom.  Human aspirations are an additional meaning.  The most obvious representation of stars in the night sky is the United States Stars and Stripes with the fifty stars in the Dark Blue canton.  The State of Israel has used the Star of David, the six-pointed star on its flag since 1948.  Stars can also represent political significance as in the flag of Iraq.  The flag was adopted in 1963 and the three green stars show the hope of uniting with Egypt and Syria.  This hope seems more and more remote since the Gulf War of 1991 when Egypt and Syria united to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Stars are used as symbols on several of the State flags of the United States.  Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi and Rhode Island have used the star as a significant part of the design.




The Star and Crescent is the foremost symbol of Islam and stands for concentration, openness and victory.  In addition it signifies sovereignty and divinity.

The Star and Crescent came to represent Islam and the Turkish empire after Constantinople fell to Mohammed II in 1453.  It is now the universal symbol of Islam and is displayed on the national flags of Turkey, Algeria, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Tunisia, North Cyprus and the League of Arab States.  It is also the emblem of the Islamic counterpart of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent Society.



The sun is one of the most important symbols in nearly all world cultures.  As the primary source of light its energy was recognized by the earliest cultures.

It has become a significant symbol on national flags as seen on the flags of Argentina, Japan, Uruguay, the Philippines and Taiwan.

The rising sun is a symbol of hope, progress, freedom and  new beginnings.  Arizona has used the rays of the sun as an important part of the design.  Florida, Illinois, and Michigan have incorporated the rising sun into the State Seal placed on the State flag.




This is the very old symbol of death and has come to warn of danger.  The skull indicates the impermanence of human life while the crossed thigh bones is a symbol of the vital force of the loins.  This frightening symbol has been used by many warring armies most notably the Nazi SS during the 1940’s. Today it is recognized as a warning on poisonous substances.  The skull and crossbones is most famous on the “Jolly Roger” pirate flag.


Reference:  Signs and Symbols, Claire Gibson

So Proudly We Hail, Rear Admiral William Furlong and

Commodore Byron McCandless

Flags of The World Eve Devereux

Previous Post

Flags of the Civil War

Next Post

Flags Of Ireland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *