Cultural Symbol: Definition & Examples

Cultural Symbol: Definition & Examples
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Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Cultural symbols can signify many things for a culture, such as an ideology or religious beliefs. Learn the definition of cultural symbol as well as examples of cultural symbols in this lesson.

Definition of a Cultural Symbol

A cultural symbol is a physical manifestation that signifies the ideology of a particular culture or that merely has meaning within a culture. What is culture, you may ask? Culture is an accumulation of the beliefs, traditions, language and values of a particular group of people.

The Christian culture has the cultural symbol of the cross, where the Jewish culture has the cultural symbol of the Star of David. Cultural symbols don't have to be actual symbols or signs; they can also be gestures such as hand shakes and hand signals. Additionally, the same symbol can mean different things in different cultures. Americans should be careful in Greece, for example. The thumbs up, which symbolizes that everything is great in American culture, is just like giving the middle finger in Greek culture.

Examples of Cultural Symbols

We have already reviewed some cultural symbols in the previous section, but we will illustrate some more symbols in this section for further clarification. Cultural symbols can represent any aspect of the culture, including nationalism, belief systems, traditions, language and values. We will specifically cover cultural symbols conveying nationalism and belief systems in this section.

Symbols Conveying Nationalism to a Country

First, let's look at symbols conveying nationalism to a country.

The Bald Eagle

If you're an American, you probably recognize the bald eagle as a symbol of America.

Sometimes an animal, in this case a bird, can represent nationalism. The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States and symbolizes freedom, strength and power. It was chosen as a national symbol in 1782 and was placed on the Great Seal of the United States.

Swastika

On the opposite end of things, there's the swastika, the symbol of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. The Holocaust was a murderously industrialized genocide, where over ten million people, mostly Jews, lost their lives at the hands of the National Socialist German Workers Party. Adolf Hitler, the mastermind and dictator behind the Nazis, had one ideology that rationalized the killing of all of these innocent people: the creation of a perfect (Aryan) race. One of the most haunting cultural symbols of the Nazi Germans is the swastika, which was worn on an armband on the Nazi uniform.

Somewhat ironically, the Nazi swastika has its roots in some Asian, non-Aryan religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, where it possesses a clockwise orientation, unlike the Nazi swastika, which is rotated 45 degrees. In Hinduism, it has Sanskrit roots that ultimately mean, making of goodness, and is sort of seen as a sign of good fortune and prosperity. This is only one meaning of many found throughout East and South Asia.

Symbols Conveying Religious Beliefs of a Culture

Now, let's look at some examples of symbols conveying religious beliefs of a culture.

The Hamsa

In the Jewish culture, the hamsa is a hand-shaped symbol that means the hand of God is protecting you. Usually, hamsas are beautifully decorated and ornate, whether they come in the form of jewelry, ceramics or paintings. You may see this symbol as a charm on a necklace or bracelet, or framed in a person's home.

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