Singular Symbols

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 22, 2018

Here is a little quiz for you: What country is represented by (a) a part of a tree? (b) a whole tree? 

The part of a tree is a leaf, and the maple leaf has been the symbol of Canada for centuries, though it did not get onto the national flag until 1965. A key factor in this tree’s historical popularity appears to have been the maple sugar derived from its sap. Except for one other, which we will get to eventually, not many political entities have chosen an emblem so pleasantly associated with sweetness

The whole tree I asked you about is the Cedar of Lebanon, which is the central feature of that country’s flag, and has been associated with Lebanon since ancient times. Indeed, it is said to be mentioned no fewer than 70 times in the Bible (though I haven’t counted them), apparently always with positive connotations, such as holiness, peace, and longevity. Here’s one example, from Psalm 92: 

The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, He will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. 

But of course, trees, and other vegetation, form only one source from which national symbols are derived. There are also animals and birds. The Kiwi, for example, is a flightless bird with no tail – a nocturnal creature with few endearing characteristics. Perhaps only New Zealanders could love them – which they do, to the extent of actually calling themselves Kiwis.

Then there is that long-time favorite of cartoonists – the Russian Bear, which, after the fall of the Soviet Union, actually came close to being officially adopted as a national symbol, but, somewhat surprisingly, lost out to the old Tsarist two-headed eagle. It did succeed, however, in becoming the Russian “mascot” in the 1980 Moscow summer Olympic Games, in the form of a cute little bear cub named Mishka. (Unfortunately, most Americans were hardly aware of this, because the U.S. – thanks to President Jimmy Carter – boycotted that whole event, in a little tiff over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.) 

Some purely geometric shapes also have had their allure as symbols. The Cross, of course has been the pre-eminent symbol of Christian entities, from the Emperor Constantine (who, around 300 A.D., supposedly saw a cross in the sky with the message “In this sign, conquer”) through the Crusades, to the flag of Switzerland (which inspired a modern humanitarian movement to reverse the Swiss white cross on a red background and call itself the Red Cross.) 

Another kind of cross, the Swastika, had a long and (until Hitler) not dishonorable history, reaching far back into Asian mysticism. On the other hand, the six-pointed “Star of David,” consisting of two interlocked triangles, which is now the official symbol of the State of Israel, can’t be traced back more than a few centuries, and has no deep religious significance in Judaism.

But sometimes neither pictures nor abstract figures, just words or letters, can convey an entire national ethos. An outstanding example was the official use by the ancient Romans of the letters “S P Q R” – which were often carried at the head of legions on the march.

Those characters were simply the initial letters of the Latin expression:  SENATUS POPULUS QUE ROMANUS, meaning “The Senate and the Roman People.”

But if you want a truly unique national symbol, with a grotesque story behind it, look no further than Ulster, the Irish province, most of which became what is today Northern Ireland. The flag and many other emblems of Ulster prominently display a Red Hand. The legend behind it (and we must hope that it is only a legend) tells us that, when Ulster was a kingdom and the throne was in dispute, the contenders agreed on a boat race, the winner and rightful king to be the first who touched the shore. One potential king so desired the crown that, upon seeing that he was losing the race, he cut off his hand and threw it to the shore—thus winning the kingship.

To conclude on a more upbeat note, we can return to the symbolic sweetness we started out with. The state of Utah, even before it was a recognized U.S. territory, has always had as its symbol a beehive. Of course, the only purpose of raising bees is to secure their honey – though officially, this beehive represents not the sweetness of the honey but the labor of the bees. In fact, the state motto of Utah is the single word “Industry.”


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