Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Peace of My Mind: Investigating the Peace Symbol

I am looking for someone who can take as much as I give
Give back as much as I need
And still have the will to live
--Blood and Fire, The Indigo Girls 
December is here and I find myself feeling sort of introspective, trying to look back at the year and decide what direction to head in the new.  I guess I’m searching for inner validation, the big tattoo of a peace sign on my soul.
But would that mean what I thought it did?  Or would I be like those poser chicks (here’s looking at you, Britney) who get Chinese letters inked on, only to realize later they now have a recipe for egg drop soup on their shoulder?
This Sunday’s mythbusters focuses on that ubiquitous circle of hippie code, the peace sign.

Artist Gerald Holtom is credited with designing the peace symbol as we know it for Britain’s pacifist organization against nuclear war, the Direct Action Committee.  It was first publicly displayed in the Aldermaston peace marches of 1958.  Holtom said to Hugh Brock, editor of Peace News, that he was in “deep despair” when he created it and took inspiration from Goya’s depiction of a peasant in front of a firing squad.  
Francisco Goya's Peasant Before the Firing Squad
Finding resistance in using depictions of the cross as part of his design, he decided to use downcast “arms”, taking a cue from semaphore code.  Supposedly, he combined the letters N and D into a unified structure to represent Nuclear Disarmament.  
Later in his life, Holtom expressed regret to Ken Kolsbun in his book “Peace: the Biography of a Symbol” that he did not stick with his original idea of upwardly cast “arms” given the negative connotations with the downcast model.
What negative connotations, you ask?  Some claim the origins of the peace sign were anything but peaceful, most citing its ancient links to paganism.  Indeed, the upright symbol resembles a Norse rune and some refer to it as “the Druid’s foot”.  The rune Algiz, aka the “elk” rune, is a protection rune symbolizing spirituality and the divine might of the universe.  Many anti-peace sign writers claim it is a “rune of death”, but most pagan scholars believe that in the reverse it simply means lack of protection or no connection with inner spirituality. 
The Elk Rune
The peace sign became an anti-Christian symbol in the first century A.D.  The Roman emperor Nero is historically known for his early persecution of Christians.  Some scholars attribute the execution of the Apostle Peter to him as well.  Peter was crucified upside down.  There are two possible reasons why--some literature claims he requested this as a symbol of his unworthiness when compared to Christ.  In the Catholic church, many still view the upside down cross as a symbol of humility.  However, others believed this was Nero’s attempt to denigrate Christianity.  Nero’s cross, aka “the broken Jew,” is still seen by many as a symbol of the “anti-Christ”.  Anton Levey, founder of the Church of Satan, supposedly uses the symbol as a backdrop for his altar.  Black metal and pop culture also encourage the Satanic implications of the symbol as an upside down cross/crucifixion.

The anti-Christianity tag stuck with the sign during the early A.D. centuries.  The Saracens, a group of desert warriors living in ancient Arabia, reportedly used a similar image on their shields. This group has been described originally as pagan or polytheistic, but towards the 1000s became synonymous with Islam (Wikipedia). This “broken cross” symbolized their refusal to accept Christianity. 

The Saracens now battle as a rugby team from St. Albans, England.
German calligrapher Rudolph Koch proposed a different meaning for the symbol.  In his “The Book of Signs” from 1930, the inner “witch’s foot” represents the death of man, while the outside circle is eternal life or the unborn child.  Some scholars argue this is simply a depiction of a pagan circle of life.  However, the Nazi's use of the symbol in their 3rd Panzer Division from 1941-1944 and on the graves of some SS soldiers led some to believe it represented the eternal destruction of mankind.
Rumor says the peace sign made its way to America in 1960 with Philip Altbach, a leading member of the Student Peace Union based at the University of Chicago.  This nationwide student organization expressed pacifist and humanitarian sentiments.  Much of their focus was on anti-nuclear protests and the peace sign eventually made its way across the country.  The ideas of pacifism and anti-war were often interpreted as cowardly--leading some to dub the peace sign "the footprint of the American chicken."  In cold war conspiracy theory, some claim that the Soviets were behind the proliferation of the symbol in an effort to cause political and social clashes.  The theories of Communism were seen by many as anti-Christian, and thus equated with the symbol. 

The desire for peace is far from cowardly.  Vietnam era helmet.  Taken from

Nowadays you can go into any department store in the U.S. and find articles emblazened with the peace sign, but I doubt most consumers know about its history.  When you see someone wearing a peace sign, I think for most it is an attempt to convey love and hope for a better tomorrow.  At least that’s what it is for me.

Peace to you all.  Don’t forget about Alex J. Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group coming up Wednesday.


  1. I think the upright symbol also communicates something on a more visceral, subliminal level. There's something pleasant and empowering about that orientation.

  2. Nice post, JULIE. I was already on top of this subject (you know me, gotta get up pretty early in the morning to get the drop on me when it comes to anything with political undertones, overtones, soulful bones, or kidney stones).

    In the late '60s I dressed like a tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippie. On one of my blogs I have even posted photos of all the original patches I used to wear on one denim jacket in the very early 1970s. Of course, all the usual images from that era were represented, including the Peace Sign.

    Nowadays, I would never wear that sign on anything. Not because of some of the anti-Christian history often associated with it, but because to me it has come to represent a certain type of young, naive mentality that jumps onboard popular, shall we say, "pseudo-counterculture" bandwagons without a fully educated understanding of where we came from, where we are, and - if the trend continues - where we're headed. (In truth, an adherence to Old School traditional values now would represent the genuine "counterculture" of this era.)

    No one - NO ONE! - wants peace in the world any more than I do (my blogs are filled with frustration at our totalitarian advance into an even more violently controlled society), but I don't have a lot of love for old dippy-hippie symbols that promote flower power; free love; "Turning On, Tuning In, And Dropping Out" as much or more than they promote a real educated demand for peace and liberty.

    Hmmm...? Was this much too serious a comment for a "fun" blog bit? Oops! I guess I got my 'Social Activisim' on.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  3. Interesting post! I had no idea about the origin of the peace sign, nor the relative recentness of its inception.

  4. I love the history of, well, stuff. Well done. Growing up in the south, I heard a great deal about the pagan connotations associated with the peace sign. I personally figured that the peace sign is like chicken. You know, it tastes like everything.

    The peace sign, it looks like everything, Norse glyphs, Roman symbols, whatever.

  5. I had never even thought of how the peace symbol came to be. Such an insightful post! My 9 yr old daughter has peace signs on a lot of her clothes and accessories. In bright, beautiful colors!

  6. Wow, I'd never heard any of that before. I always associate the sign with the anti-war movement during Viet Nam, but I had no idea the origins went back so far. Good stuff.

    So I wonder how the two fingers held up in a "V" came to mean peace? We need an addendum to the post. :)

  7. I considered getting a tattoo of a peace sign. Ended up getting a rosebud instead.

  8. Very interesting stuff! I was totally clueless regarding the Peace symbol. Thanks! :)

  9. Coincidentally, I just saw the scene from Hair where they were driving in a convertible singing Aquarius. You really threw me for a loop with the ancient origin of the peace symbol, but that's why it's a "Mythbuster!"

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  11. Oops. I'll try again. . .Thank you so much for this history. I love the Peace Sign and, in the '70s, felt ownership of it in many ways along with others of my generation. I was clueless about its development by Gerald Holtom, though, and much of the origins of its adoption. Good stuff.

  12. I never knew! I didn't realize there was such a rich history behind it. I kind of thought it had something to do with the shape of the human body though.

  13. So that's where the peace sign got its inspiration. Honestly, I've wondered this all my life. Probably should have Googled it but I can never remember to. Thanks for the clarification.

  14. Wow, that was fascinating! Had no idea. And totally missed that Mythbusters. Bummer.

  15. This is so interesting. I'd always "heard" that the peace sign was a dove's footprint. That sort of made sense. Thanks for this.

  16. I appreciate this information and will look at the peace sign differently and with even more respect. Thanks!

  17. I only knew part of the peace sign history, so thanks.

    Your crack: "who get Chinese letters inked on, only to realize later they now have a recipe for egg drop soup on their shoulder?" had me laughing. I was just discussing this with someone last week.

  18. I'm a bit like Mr. McCarthy above, got most of my peace sign wearing out of my system in the 70's. But I had no idea of it's history. Thanks for a fascinating post Julie!

  19. Suze--I do like the image of a human in exaltation as opposed to defeat.

    Stephen--so many symbols have lost their true meaning, becoming bastardized by pop culture or celebrity stupidity or what have you. Perhaps that is why I feel there is such a pervasive sense of isolation in the world now. There is no symbol to stand behind, no comraderie of mankind. I wish I would have experienced the community of that time. Was it misguided or naive? Maybe, but such an influence on people and society. And when I speak to people who really immersed themselves in the culture, there is such a sense of loss and disillusion about what it became. Very powerful, and I wonder if I will ever have the chance to experience something similar--or if it is even possible anymore. I am by no means a political person, and I have very superficial knowledge of that arena, but as I watch society become more angry and violent and irresponsible I feel perhaps we should revisit the ideas that resonated with so many. And that's me gettin' my social activism on. ;)

    Mohamed--I did not realize that, either, nor that it was specifically created for nuclear protests.

    Rusty--Ah, the South. Where everything is of the devil until it shows up on a Walmart shelf.

    Kelly--I wear them, too. Now I'll be a little more cognizant of the meaning.

    L.G.--You are on to something, lady!! Hand gestures sounds like a fantastic subject for a future blog.

    Sprinkles--love the idea of a rosebud--always ready to bloom

    DL--yeah, I was surprised about the negative associations

    ENI--I love Hair, one of my favorite soundtracks.

    Linda--It truly represented a generation. It bothers me to see symbols that once were so important reduced to fashion statements. I hope that people take the time to think about what a symbol truly means, whether it's a flag, a crest, or a design.

    Lydia--Peace can be deceiving, I guess.

    Stephen--I think if you examine any symbol close enough, you'll find all kinds of historical implications that have been lost or faded

    Alex--amazing all the drama behind a little peace sign, right?

    Cynthia--I love that image!! I think that should be the new folklore.

    Robyn--I wear them all the time, thinking I knew what it meant. It's a far more weighty symbol than what designers will have you believe, and now I'll be more empowered when I show it.

    Slamdunk--Those are some of my favorite tattoo faux pas. Celebrities seem to have a knack for trying to get something "deep and meaningful" and then they misspell it or interpret it wrong. That probably says something bad about me that I find it funny.

    Raelyn--I must admit, I wish that I had the opportunity to feel what that sense of community was like. Because when I discuss it with those who experienced it now, there is so much disappointment and disillusion associated with that time and what society has become. Makes you wonder if there are any symbols left that truly mean something, or if we could ever be unified with a positive social goal again.

  20. Goya was interesting in the fact that after he lost his hearing his paintings took on a whole other look.

  21. Anti-christian? Interesting, I've never heard that before. Learn something new everyday :)

  22. You're suffering from end of the year blues. Time to make those New Years resolutions. I had no idea there was so much history behind the peace sign. The Rune was cool, would love to have one.

    Have a great day. :)

  23. there's something I can't imagine the world ever truly knowing.

    Sad, but true.

  24. Wow, that was quite an informative and interesting lesson. Thanks for sharing all that. December is a time of introspection. Maybe something to do with the short days.

  25. JULIE ~
    Thanks for the great response. I think often my comments unintentionally alienate a lot of people in the Blogosphere. And I was afraid I had done it again here, but your reply makes it clear that you found my comment more stimulating than alienating.

    Well, Hokey-Smoke! I know you said you're not a particularly political person. But just before I read that, I came from your profile page and was almost floored to see that you list Ayn Rand as a favorite writer.

    I don't want to get too political here (that's what my blog "Ferret-Faced Fascist Friends" is for), but are you paying any attention to this upcoming presidential election?

    The man we need to get into the White House is Doctor Ron Paul! In his book "The Revolution: A Manifesto" he wrote the following:

    "I consider all of Rand's novels worth reading, in spite of my strong disagreements with her on important matters."

    Where he is in agreement with her is in the area of free-market Capitalism - something we've not experienced in this country since before 1913, the year The Federal Reserve System was established.

    I urge you to look into the history and political positions of Dr. Ron Paul, if you haven't already. In a nutshell I can tell you that he is and always has been 100% dedicated to the pure meaning of the U.S. Constitution and free-market Capitalism (a la Ayn Rand), and he is for getting Uncle Sam out of our lives to the full extent that our Founding Fathers intended. He hates, Hates, HATES all these undeclared, un-Constitutional wars that America engages in while attempting to expand its empire across the globe.

    Please look into him. Or, heck, just pay a visit to my F-FFF blog and check out some of the recent postings there. I guarantee you that Ron Paul is exactly the sort of statesman that the '60s generation was looking for!

    Hope I haven't gone beyond some unmarked, unstated boundary... as I usually seem to do.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'


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