by Linda Heaphy May 02, 2017

Swastika from Roman mosaic 2nd Century CE. Sousse, Tunisia
Photo credit: Mathiasrex

The swastika is one of humankind's oldest known symbols.  It has the form of an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right-facing form or its left-facing mirror form. It is believed to have originally arose as a repeating design created by reed edges in the basket-weave designs of early Neolithic cultures around 11000 years ago, and has appeared in the motifs of many civilisations over the past 5000 years, representing perpetual motion (Ancient Greeks), law and order (Romans), the sun disk (ancient Egyptians and Bronze Age Europeans), the Christian cross and the Nordic thunder hammer.

Cultural use of the swastika around the world.
Photo credit: World Scouting Museum

The word swastika comes from the Sanscrit words su (good) and asati (to exist) which together mean "may good prevail." To this day the swastika is a particularly holy symbol of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions, symbolising happiness, good luck, auspiciousness, harmony and balance.  It is also widely used by Native American tribes; to the Navajo it is associated with the whirling log, a sacred image used in healing rituals; to the Hopi it represents the wandering Hopi clans.

Early 20th century Navajo Whirling Log rug. Photo credit: 

Because of its importance to Native Americans, the swastika also became important within the American Boy Scout movement as a symbol of nobility:

"… as you know from the account of the Swastika Thanks Badge which I have given to you in Scouting for Boys, the symbol was used in almost every part of the world in ancient days and therefore has various meanings given to it.

Anyway, whatever the origin was, the Swastika now stands for the badge of fellowship among Scouts all over the world, and when anyone has done a kindness to a Scout it is their privilege to present him or her with this token of their gratitude, which makes him a sort of member of the Brotherhood, and entitles him to the help of any other Scout at any time and at any place.

I want specially to remind Scouts to keep their eyes open and never fail to spot anyone wearing this badge.  It is their duty then to go up to such a person, make the scout sign, and ask if they can be of service to the wearer."

Robert Baden-Powell, What Scouts Can Do - More Yarns, 1921

Plaque, the Boy Scout Association, circa 1920. Photo credit: 
World Scouting Museum

The swastika's appropriation by the German National Socialists (popularly known as the Nazi Party) after 1918 as party emblem, and its subsequent adoption as the German National flag during the time of the Third Reich (albeit coloured black and rotated 90 degrees), unfortunately stigmatised it in the eyes of the world, and its continued use within Asian cultures may sometimes lead to confusion, particularly in Europe.  However, it may be hoped that in time the overall nobility of this emblem will override the stain of its historically brief association with German Nationalism.

References and Further Reading

Murray, Craig Swastikas in Scouting. Accessed April 2017

Wikipedia. Swastika. Accessed April 2017



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Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy

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