The fall of Rome is sometimes seen as a time when the Classical world was entirely separated from medieval European culture. The arts, sciences, philosophy, and infrastructure of Greece and Rome are often contrasted against the so-called Dark Ages.
In truth, however, not everything from Greece and Rome was lost. While ancient myths were suppressed or forgotten, some elements of them remained in the popular imagination.
Over the centuries, the origins of many of these details were largely forgotten. Even when they were loosely tied to Greek and Roman traditions, the myths that inspired them were not always remembered.
As a result, many symbols that are still used today have more ancient origins than many people realize. These five common symbols are among many remnants of ancient Greek symbolism that are still used today.
One of the most common symbols from ancient Greece that is still used today is of a god who is not as well-known as many others. The rod of Asclepius was the symbol of the god of medicine.
Asclepius became renowned as the greatest healer in the world. He was honored as the father of Greek medicine and the first true doctor.
He went too far, however, when he learned to bring the dead back to life.
The doctor was locked in the dungeons of King Minos, who was demanding that he resurrect a young man who had recently died. Asclepius did not know how to do this, despite his reputation for cheating death.
As he pondered his problem, a snake wound its way across the floor of his cell. He absentmindedly hit it with his staff and killed it.
A few minutes later, a second snake entered the cell. It carried an herb in its mouth which it laid on the head of the snake Asclepius had killed.
The first snake soon began to move again and in a matter of moments was completely restored. Asclepius learned the secrets of resurrecting the dead and the snake entwined around his rod became an immediately recognizable symbol of his profession.
The caduceus was the staff carried by messengers and heralds to identify them. It came to be associated more generally with trade and travel.
While the rod of Asclepius had only one snake, the caduceus was intertwined with two. It also had wings on the top in honor of the god it represented.
The caduceus is still sometimes used by merchants and messengers, but its modern use is more often in place of the rod of Asclepius. The two symbols were similar enough that in later eras, when the stories of the gods were not as well-known, they were confused for one another.
A crown or wreath of laurel leaves is a symbol of victory and achievement today. In ancient Greece, it was a symbol of Apollo.
After the nymph Daphne turned herself into a laurel tree to escape the god’s unwanted advances, Apollo adopted the plant as one of his sacred symbols. He made it an evergreen to symbolize the eternal nature of his love for Daphne.
As the god of athleticism and contests, Apollo was a patron of the Olympic games. Victors in the ancient Olympiads were given laurel crowns as prizes to show the eternal glory that was granted to them.
Laurels continue to be associated with the modern Olympics. The medals that are given to winners today often have traditional motifs including the laurel wreath of Apollo.
The Romans continued to associate the laurels with great achievement. To them, they were specifically symbols of military victory.
Laurel crowns were placed on the heads of generals when they were honored in a triumph. They later became common in the iconography of the emperors as well.
Today, the laurel is still used as a symbol of achievement.
Some schools use it as a symbol of academic achievement. Italian college graduates are called laureato and given a traditional wreath on the day of their graduation. Similar traditions exist in Sweden, Finland, and at some schools in the United States.
The laurel is the symbol for luxury car brand Alfa Romeo. They created their emblem to celebrate their victory after winning the first championship race held in the 1920s.
The Greek coat of arms pays tribute to the country’s classical traditions with a laurel crown that encircles the country’s flag.
Apollo’s laurel is also an ancient Greek symbol that has entered into the English language.
A laureate is a person who achieves the highest possible honors in their field. Nobel laureates are recognized for their contributions to science and the good of the world, while many countries honor fields even closely to Apollo’s traditions by naming a Poet Laureate.
The warning not to “rest on one’s laurels,” also has its roots in this ancient Greek symbol. Rather than relying only on past achievements, the adage warns, a person should continue to work toward even more ambitious goals.
At Valentine’s Day, weddings, and other romantic occasions, many Greek symbols are used that most modern viewers would never recognize.
The common image of Cupid as a chubby baby with a bow and arrow is largely based on Roman art instead of the original Greek god, Eros. Many other romantic symbols, however, have been passed down from the iconography of the love god’s mother.
As the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite was the goddess of all things that were beautiful on earth as well as the human form. This meant that she was closely linked to flowers.
Both Homer and Hesiod, for example, claimed that flowers sprung up from the ground the moment she stepped on land. Garlands of flowers adorned her temples and her art often included floral details.
Like many modern people, the Greeks often considered roses to be the most beautiful flowers in the world. Their soft petals were compared to a young woman’s skin and their delicate blooms made them even more highly prized.
Roses were also fitting because red varieties were relatively common. The color red was commonly associated with Aphrodite’s iconography and remains a symbol of both romantic love and lustful passion.
Birds were also sacred to Aphrodite, particularly those that were white. They represented purity and divinity.
Gulls were sometimes used in Aphrodite’s artwork because of her connection to the sea, but they were not usually considered fitting symbols for beauty and grace. A more calm and subdued white bird, the dove, was used more often.
A common tradition also held that doves mated for life. This made them an even more appropriate symbol for a goddess who inspired love.
These symbols of Aphrodite endured long after the Greco-Roman era ended. Ancient Greek symbols for love and romance are still used to celebrate relationships to this day.
The Horn of Plenty, as it is known by many today, is rarely used in the modern world. While the horn itself does not often adorn tables anymore, it is still used in art for harvest festivals and Thanksgiving holidays around the world.
The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of nourishment. In modern usage, it is typically filled with fresh vegetables and grains that spill out of it to represent the harvest.
According to many Greek myths, Zeus was the creator of the first horn of plenty.
When Zeus was born, he had to be hidden from his father. Cronus had already swallowed five of his children and would do the same if he found out that Zeus was still free.
To protect him, Rhea and Gaia hid him in a cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete. He was given bodyguards to both protect him and make noise so Cronus did not hear his cries.
Rhea would not be able to escape her husband’s notice if she constantly left to feed her new child, however. Instead of nursing him herself, she gave the task to a she-goat called Amalthea.
Amalthea dutifully cared for the young goat. Her milk made him quickly grow in strength.
Although he was young Zeus soon developed the strength of a fully-grown god. One day when the infant god pulled on his wetnurse’s horn, he did so with such force that it broke off.
Not wanting to hurt Amalthea again, Zeus decided to stop nursing from her. Instead, he enchanted the broken horn to provide milk and other nutrients when he grew old enough to be weaned.
The magical source of nourishment came to be associated with other deities who provided food to humans. Gaia and Demeter were pictured with the cornucopia in Greek art, while in Rome it was a symbol of Ceres, Abundantia, and Fortuna.
Through these goddesses, the cornucopia became a symbol of agricultural prosperity rather than general nourishment. It overflowed with the vegetables and grains that they gave the people.
Because harvest festivals continued to be celebrated long after the pagan gods were displaced by Christianity, many of the symbols of the harvest remained. The cornucopia was a major ancient Greek symbol that endured because its meaning was not connected to a specific deity or pantheon.
One of the most enduring animal symbols of ancient Greece to survive into the modern era is the owl of Athena.
Most Greek gods had at least one animal that was considered sacred to them. Few, however, were as closely identified with their deity as the owl.
The goddess of wisdom was often shown in art with a small owl perched on her shoulder or flying by her side.
The connection between Athena and her owl was especially important in Athens, which revered Athena as their patroness. Vases, weights, and even large amphoras were made in the bird’s shape and silver coins were known as glaux or “little owls” because her bird was shown on the back.
There are many possible reasons for the owl to become associated with the goddess of wisdom, but many Greek philosophers pointed to the owl’s ability to see in the dark. This symbolized, they said, the pursuit of knowledge which had to be distinguished from falsehood in the darkness of ignorance.
However the small owls that were common in the area around Athens came to be associated with the city’s patron goddess, they became a central part of her iconography in that city and beyond.
Athena remained important in later thought as the patron goddess of Athens’ great philosophers and thinkers. Even those who did not believe in her read what those men had written about the links between owls and wisdom.
Even the 19th century philosopher Hegel found new relationships between the owl and the philosophical pursuit of knowledge. Philosophy could only be understood, he said, when the age it applied to was nearly over just as the owl could only see when the daylight was nearly gone.
Outside of philosophy, the motif of the owl’s wisdom continued in popular culture.
Many schools use owls as their mascots. They are common decorative elements in libraries, universities, and other academic buildings.
The wise owl even features in many classic books, especially those written for children. C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series features several talking owls as philosophers and political advisors and Owl in Winnie the Pooh is known for his lectures and firm belief in his own knowledge.
These five symbols are just a few of the many ancient Greek motifs that are still in use today.
The specific gods and myths that inspired many of them are unknown to most people. Some are even debated among historians and scholars.
For over two thousand years, however, these ancient Greek symbols have remained a part of Western culture. Even those who do not know about the goat who nursed Zeus have seen a horn of plenty, and the gift of red roses is a proclamation of love even to those who do not know Aphrodite’s iconography.
These images have endured not because of any specific belief from a single place. Instead, they have become enduring symbols within the broader culture of Europe and the West.