The symbol of the skull and cross shins, with all its popularity, is also one of the most ambiguous symbols if we talk about its history. The symbol is commonly associated with the Jolly Roger, a flag with a skull and two crossed bones that pirates would use to identify their ships.

The origin of the symbol, however, is an unsolved mystery that sets historians back two thousand years.


The symbolism of the skull and crossbones has its traces in antiquity. It was first seen on the tomb of Tutankhamun in ancient Egypt, with a diagonal cross arrangement.


A stick or sceptre was the symbol of universal power. The flail of arms (on the left side of the picture above) was used to beat animals and even people and to show authority, while a stick or staff (on the right side of the picture) was used to pull wandering animals by the neck without causing them harm.


the knights templars

It is widely accepted that the skull and crossbones were first used by the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages. The Templars or Knights Templar, sometimes documented as the Order of the Temple, the Poor Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon was the largest charity for nearly two centuries, especially after it was officially approved by the Catholic Church in 1129. Its peace-loving members became known for many good deeds, as well as for the supposed introduction of the skull symbol and crossed shins.

According to Masonic legend, the skull and crossbones are the bones of Jackes de Molay. In an effort to seize the wealth of the Templars, the Church ordered the dissolution of the society. De Molay, the 23rd and last Grand Master of the Knights, was burned alive by the Church. When three of the Knights Templar came looking for his bones, they found only his skull and femurs. At that time, the Knights Templar had become very talented sailors, and the skull and femurs of the last Grand Master became their nautical symbol: the Jolly Roger.

The legend of the Skull of Sidon also contains some clues about the relationship between the Jolly Roger and the Knights Templar. The Lord of Sidon, himself a Knight Templar, lost his love when she was young. On the night of her burial, the Knight Templar sneaked back to her grave and dug up her body. At the same time, he heard a voice asking him to return after nine months to find a son. Nine months later, the Knight Templar cut up his grave to find a head resting on the femurs of the skeleton. The same voice told him to keep the head, because it would bless all his efforts and defeat all enemies before him. The symbol of the son, or skull and crossbones, became the protective symbol for the Templars.

What should be noted here is that the port of Sidon had always nested pirates. Therefore, the skull and crossbones could have been used as a symbol for the pirate flag before the time of the Knights Templar.

funerary symbol


Adherents of Christianity maintained one of the earliest uses for the symbol. Towards the end of the Roman Empire and until the Middle Ages, Christians frequently used the skull and crossbones to symbolize death. The symbol was discovered in various Christian catacombs around Italy, some of which date as far back as the second century.

During the same early period, the skull and crossbones were also considered to represent "memento mori", a Latin term used in Rome that can mean, "remember that you are going to die".

Entrances to Spanish cemeteries were marked with a real skull and a set of femurs.s Throughout the Middle Ages, many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, began to have the symbol carved into their headstones. Present in various manifestations throughout funerary traditions, the skull and crossbones is nevertheless a clear universal message: "every human being dies".


During the late Middle Ages (1400s), the use of the skull and crossbones began to decline until it was almost non-existent. The symbol was essentially unused for the next century, until it was adopted by some of the most feared people in the world: pirates. Originally, pirates simply used a red flag on top of the mast of their ships. Red symbolized bloodshed, and the fact that pirates would show no mercy. However, many pirates quickly changed their flags from red to black, and began to weave skull and crossbones. The Jolly Roger, as the flag came to be called, symbolized death with its color and symbol. Miranda Bruce-Mitford writes in her book, The Illustrated Book of Signs - Symbols, "The skull-and-crossbones emblem [was] adopted by pirates as a sinister warning of their evil intentions. "This flag filled sailors with fear and signaled death to all who saw it.

The importance of the symbol travelled with the importance of piracy, which ended in the mid-1700s. Here are some of the famous pirate flags used from 1693 to 1724:





used by companies

The skull and crossbones did not reappear as a major recognized symbol again for nearly two centuries, until students at the prestigious Yale University formed a secret society called "Skull and Bones". This Society has been part of the university since 1832 and remains one of its most exclusive. This society embraced (and continues to use) the skull and crossbones as a symbol not to represent death, but to represent the mystery surrounding the society.

Skull used by sports teams

The skull and crossbones were first adopted by a sports team in 1870. Already popular among many football teams and fans in Great Britain, the skull and crossbones were officially adopted by The Rugby Unions in 1870. In 1876 it was added for a brief period to the uniforms of the Cardiff Rugby Football Club. It was later removed due to pressure from the players' parents.

  • used in the chemical industry


Shortly after the creation of the company "Skull and Bones", the symbol also took on another purpose. In 1829, New York State law was amended to require all containers of toxic substances to be labelled. The skull and crossbones first illustrated these labels in 1850.

The skull and crossbones are now used less and less to label toxic materials. Its negative and anti-environmental connotations discourage manufacturers from using the symbol, although it still appears in warnings for children because of its playful associations with pirates.

Mr. Yuk, is a trademark graphic that warns of the presence of a toxic substance. This new symbol is primarily intended for children as a less abrasive way to demonstrate the dangers of poison.


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses the skull and crossbones in various "danger" signs to mark extremely toxic materials as hazardous to life. A study conducted at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada in 1986 determined the most effective skull and crossbones symbol to truly universalize a shape of the graphic. A white skull and crossbones in a black triangle were found to be the most effective in communicating danger quickly and effectively. Although this graphic language is not universally used, the study helped to demonstrate the importance of widespread symbolic knowledge.


The skull and crossbones that adorn the pirate flag, more popularly known as the Jolly Roger, also saw its use in naval warfare. From time to time, the Jolly Roger has become a flag of victory, shown to celebrate the tenacity it takes to achieve victory, a characteristic common to victors and pirates alike.


In Indian culture, Lord Shiva and the goddess Kali wear a garland of skulls and bones. In Tibetan and Nepalese culture, deities like Kurukulla also wear necklaces with skulls.

The skull and bones are also an important neo-Nazi symbol. The Skull of Death or Totenkopf was a symbol of the Nazi Schultzstaffel (SS). The aim of the organization was to guard the concentration camps. The current use of the Nazi skull and crossbones is posthumous: the skull and crossbones are tattooed on a body to indicate that the person was killed by one of the so-called "enemies" of the movement. In contrast, in pre-Columbian America, the skull and its accompanying symbols were honoured and treated with importance among Aztec and Mexican tribes.

The symbol of the skull and crossbones has not always been effective. Before the war on terror, widely distributed bags of arsenic-infected corn seed were labelled with skull and crossbones symbols. Many residents were unaware of the connotations of the symbol, resulting in a number of deaths.

The skull and crossbones became an icon in the sign and tagging industry around the world. Although there is some evidence that the symbol and its connotations are not always effective, the skull and crossbones are generally dreaded and keep people away from dangerous substances and reduce the risk of poisoning or infection. With its rich and multi-faceted history, the skull and crossbones symbol has become a global safety icon. Its universalization has led to its widespread success, warning of the dangers of toxic materials throughout history and for generations to come.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published