Ancient Greek Symbols and Meanings That We Still Use Today

It is often said that much of the knowledge of the ancient world was lost in time. For instance, there is much that we do not know about Ancient Greece regardless of the efforts of past scholars in preserving such knowledge. Much of this knowledge would pertain to the worship of an entire pantheon of Gods as well as their symbolism.

Fortunately for us, not all was lost. Even if some ancient Greek symbols and meanings were lost in translation, their usage is still being put into practice today. Even some of our popular symbols and characters even trace their origins back to antiquity.

What Symbols Did the Ancient Greeks Use?

It is important to note that much of the Greek symbols that we revere today are but part of everyday communications for ancient Greeks. Thus, the symbols they use carry a practical purpose with them. Here are some of the more notable symbols used by the Greeks of ancient times.

The Gorgon

greek symbols and meanings the gorgon

The Gorgons were depicted as a group of women with hairs of snakes, serpentine features, and had horrifying expressions on their faces. Legends state that to look at the face of the Gorgon is to invite certain death. It was thought their gaze can petrify anyone who intrudes their lair.

For this reason, the Gorgon is one of several ancient Greek symbols and meanings that serve a creative yet practical purpose. Because of the terrifying curse that they can inflict, the face of the Gorgon in a wine krater serves as an anti-theft sign in the days of antiquity.

The Alpha and Omega

alpha and omega greek symbols

These symbols are part of the ancient Greek alphabet which is still used to this day. However, what makes these letters unique is where their symbolism originates from. As the Alpha is the first letter and Omega the last, these symbols together connote the sequential and consequential nature of the world.

As time passed, the Alpha and Omega is used by many Greeks during the Roman Empire to signify a person they worship but does not belong to the Olympians of antiquity: Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

The Knot of Heracles

what is the knot of hercules
Photo credit Hercules Knot necklace displayed in Berlin Art Museum

This symbol is depicted by two ropes tied together in the middle to form a knot. As the knot itself had to be undone to separate the two joined ropes, it has become one of the ancient Greek symbols and meanings associated with the famous son of Zeus and champion, Heracles.

Due to its association with the might and physique of Heracles, the Knot has become part of the girdle worn by women in ancient Greek weddings as a symbol of undying love and commitment. Aside from being a token of love in Ancient Greece, it is also a symbol of protection and healing in nearby Egypt.

The Staff of Hermes 

what is the staff of hermes

This is one of several ancient Greek symbols and meanings whose true purpose was lost over the years. The Staff of Hermes, the Caduceus, is symbolized by a winged staff flanked by two intertwining serpents. With that definition alone, it is easy to mistake the Staff of Hermes with the Rod of Aesculapius if one is not careful.

Unlike the famous healer’s rod, the Staff of Hermes is used in ancient times to symbolize fair trade and commerce. This is because Hermes, an agent, and messenger of the gods, spent a lot of his time delivering information to other Olympians. To invoke the staff of Hermes is thus to ensure that nobody will get the short end of any deal.

Hermes is also a sly god and is known to one-up his fellow Olympians in games of trickery. Thus, the Hermeticist cult uses his staff as a symbol of wisdom.


To tell apart the Rod of Aesculapius and the Staff of Hermes, look at the staff. If the staff has wings on the tip, it is the Staff of Hermes. If it has none, it is the Rod of Aesculapius,

The Cornucopia 

greek symbols cornucopia

When Zeus was still an infant and in hiding from his Titan father Kronos, he was fed and nursed by a sentient goat named Amalthea. Due to his strength, he accidentally broke off one of her horns which caused Amalthea great pain. Not wanting to hurt his nurse any further, Zeus enchanted the horn to produce milk and nourishment for him.  

When Zeus grew up and overthrew his father, he promised Amalthea a place in the heavens. This would become the constellation that is now known as Capricorn in modern times.

As for Amalthea’s horn, it became the Cornucopia which symbolizes abundance, nourishment, and prosperity. It is said that those who held the Cornucopia will have their needs provided. The Cornucopia is an ever-present fixture in Greek feasts as a horn-shaped basket will be displayed on the table and laden with all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and other produce.

It is also one of the few ancient Greek symbols and meanings whose original usage has been preserved in modern times.

Athena’s Owl

greek symbols and meanings athenas owl

The Greek Goddess of Wisdom is associated with many symbols and images, but none are more popular than the Owl. Almost every depiction of Athena in antiquity also shows a small owl perched on her shoulder.

It is unclear why the Owl is associated with Athena. However many speculate that it has to do with the owl’s ability to see clearly in the dark. In the same way that the Owl can see for miles even in the darkest of places, a wise person can see through the darkness of ignorance and falsehood.

Owls also only make noise when necessary during flight and are persistent predators. This is associated with Athena being also a Goddess of War who favored the use of stealth and tactics to win any engagement.

What Is the Most Famous Ancient Greek Symbol?

meander greek symbols and meanings

Surprisingly the most popular of the ancient Greek symbols and meanings happen to be the Meander. Named after the river Kara Meander, this symbol is depicted by two hands firmly gripping each other.

A firm hand grip signifies that both individuals will not let go of each other no matter what happens. Thus, the Meander became a symbol of Greek persistence and resilience in the face of adversity.

the knot of heracles greek symbols

What is even more surprising is that the meander remains widely visible in ancient Greek symbols and meanings today as it is incorporated in many Greek artworks. The “wave” pattern that one sees bordering vases, pieces of jewelry, and artworks is an expression of this symbol.

What Is the Greek Symbol for Life?

The Rod of Aesculapius is generally referred to as the Greek symbol for life and good health. Aesculapius was the son of Apollo and is deemed as the father of ancient Greek Medicine. It was said that he was so well-versed in the healing arts that he cheated death many times.

This demi-god was captured and imprisoned by King Minos. He held him in captivity until Aesculapius could figure out a way to resurrect a recently-deceased man. Perplexed by his situation, Aesculapius noticed a snake approaching him in his cell which he struck and killed with his rod.

A few moments later, another snake approached and placed herbs on the head of the first which resurrected it. From this bizarre occurrence, Aesculapius managed to learn the secrets of resurrection which bought him his freedom. From that point on, the Rod of Aesculapius became one of the most important ancient Greek symbols and meanings as it signified healing and renewal.

What Is the Greek Symbol for Immortality?

greek symbols snake of eternity

The Ouroboros or the Snake of Infinity is depicted by a snake or dragon eating itself from the tail. This symbol is actually of Egyptian origin but was widely used in Greek medicine and mysticism.

Despite the grotesque imagery, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclical aspect of life and death. A snake regularly sheds its skin and then eats the same for its nutrients. Thus, to ancient people seeing this ritual, it would seem that the snake was birthing and eating itself at the same time.

The Ouroboros entails that the end of life will signify the start of another. Thus, to find a way to personally apply this endless cycle of death, destruction, life, and creation is the path towards achieving true immortality.

For this reason, the Ouroboros has become a popular symbol in the more mystical studies and the occult. Any study that would focus on conquering death and achieving life eternal will most definitely include a reference or a depiction of this ancient Greek symbol.

What Ancient Greek Symbols Do We Still Use Today?

greek symbols we use today laurel leaf

As was previously stated, some ancient Greek symbols and meanings have become deeply entrenched in everyday life. The Rod of Aesculapius, for example, remains the symbol of healers and medicine to this day as it is used by nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals.

The Laurel, a symbol of Apollo, remains widely used in the Olympics and is regarded as a crown of sorts for top-performing athletes. Although it has been supplanted by medals, the laurel remains a symbol of athletic victory and glory to this day.

However, not everything has to remain the same for the uses of these symbols. The usage of some ancient Greek symbols has even evolved from their literal sense to a more metaphorical one. The Knot of Hercules, a symbol of marriage, is invoked whenever one wants to “tie the knot”.

When one wants to describe a lot of food, they say that there is a “cornucopia” of meals on the table. Apollo’s laurel crown has also some metaphors associated with it. If one wants to refer to a person achieving the highest possible honors in their field, they would call them a “laureate”. Alternatively, if someone is becoming complacent because they have achieved something, they are “resting on their laurels”.

The point is that the spirit of ancient Greece remains alive in many cultures today. Many of the practices, words, and imagery being used today pay homage to a lot of trends that were set in Ancient times. And so as long as these symbols and meanings are being used in their original form or adapted for modern times, ancient Greek culture will continue to influence the world for the next few centuries.

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