I was reading about the arguments for and against bombing Syria and I came across the most well-known antiwar symbol that has ever existed. I wondered just where does the peace sign come from? What I thought would take only 10 minutes to research ended up being far more complicated!
There are a few different stories about where this symbol originated. There is the official story. This version is sometimes referred to as "the cover story" because some believe the peace sign actually has a sinister origin. Those that believe the peace sign is secretly a symbol of evil attribute it to Germanic tribes while another story claims the symbol came from witchcraft. But even the official story has a hint of a magickal element to those that know what to look for.
The Official Story
The official story is that it was originally designed in 1958 for the British nuclear disarmament movement by Gerald Holtom. Holtom's design was adapted by Eric Austen and made into ceramic lapel badges for people to wear during a protest march in London to to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston.
The symbol itself is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters "N" and "D," standing for "nuclear disarmament". A semaphore signal is a way of communication by a person holding two flags or lighted rods into different positions.
The different symbols of the peace sign are a combination of the letter "N" which is formed by a person holding two flags in an inverted "V" while the the letter "D" is formed by holding one flag pointed straight up and the other pointed straight down. Holtom drew these symbols using simple lines and then
superimposed these two "letters" into the shape of the center of the peace symbol. Holtom does not explain any significance of the circle enclosing the symbol.
Superimposing? Here's where the magickal element comes in. In magick, superimposing letters to create such a symbol is called making a sigil. A sigil is often used as a talisman for something specific such as protection or prosperity. Whether or not Holtom knew he was doing a magickal practice that has been done for centuries is anyone's guess.
The symbol was used by the wider disarmament and anti-war movements but didn't "cross the pond" until a few years later. It was first seen in the United States in 1958 when protestor Albert Bigelow sailed a small boat adorned with a peace sign banner into a nuclear testing area.
However, it took two more years before it became popular with Americans. In 1960, a college student at the University of Chicago by the name of Philip Altbach had traveled to England as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU). There he saw the symbol and convinced the SPU to adopt the symbol after returning home. Between 1960 and 1964, the SPU sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses. By the end of the decade, the symbol had been adopted by the entire peace movement.
The Unofficial Story - Version One
The unofficial story is that the symbol has Satanic origins. Christian fundamentalists often claim these origins make the symbol a sinister symbol inspired by the Devil himself. The negative associations seem to have more to do with the fear of Communism than anything.
In the June 1970 issue of American Opinion" the symbol was said to be "a manifestation of a witch's foot or crow's foot", supposedly icons of the devil in the Middle Ages. It was claimed that the peace symbol represented "a Satanic Medieval symbol shown on page 83 of the authoritative Book of Signs by Rudolf Koch."
However Koch makes no mention of Satanism. He says they "were, at first, private signs of peasant proprietors, and their use was originally confined to their holdings, all moveable property upon which was distinguished by the holdings-mark" and that "they were used as trade-marks and the marks of craftsmen and artists." He prints the witch's foot next to a mundane anchor, carpenter's square and pot-hanger.
Here is what Koch's version of the witches foot looks like.
This version of the symbol is known by different names including witch's foot, witches foot, raven's claw, crow's claw, broken cross, and Nero cross (which comes from Peter being crucified by Nero on an upside down cross). It is attributed to witchcraft, Nazis, Communism, the antichrist, the Masons, and most recently the Illuminati.
But is it really a symbol of witchcraft? It seems Koch may be only partially correct. The witches foot is said to be a real magickal symbol but other sources show this is only about three fifths of the symbol. There are two more arms or spokes. Some sources say the actual witches foot looks like this:
It seems it doesn't resemble a claw at all but a snowflake. The witches foot symbol depicts the four cardinal directions with the horizontal line representing above and below. The symbol is said to be used to invoke powers and to pierce the veil so that all dimensions of the world are accessed and utilized.
You may think the symbol looks more like a star. Sometimes the witches foot symbol is associated with the pentagram and seems to have a similar meaning. However, it's possible this symbol isn't really used in witchcraft at all. Most sources that I found say it is the pentagram that is called the witches foot. They don't describe this snowflake like symbol at all.
The Unofficial Story - Version Two
The third origin story claims the peace symbol is a version of the Germanic (sometimes called Teutonic or Futhark) rune Algiz turned upside down.
Christian fundamentalists and Illuminati conspiracy theorists will tell you that Algiz (sometimes called Elhaz) is associated with the peace sign because it is the "rune of death," because it is used for divination by pagans, used in the occult, and worst of all, it was used by the Nazis.
What they won't tell you is that Elder Futhark runes were a writing system that was used by the Germanic people from the from the 2nd to 8th centuries. The rune Algiz corresponds to our letter "z." The most common meaning given to it is "elk." Other meanings (to name just a few) include "protection, a shield, defense, warding off of evil, shield, guardian."
The lore, history, and uses of the Elder Futhark runes fills entire books and is beyond the scope of this article so I will limit my explanation to how the rune supposedly relates to the peace symbol.
When Algiz is reversed it means "hidden danger, warning, turn away, that which repels, loss of divine link, take great care, caution." Others give Algiz reversed the meaning "death or end of a cycle." One source says in Scandinavian countries, Algiz is inscribed on tombstones to identify the date of birth (upright position) and the date of death (downward position). This would explain why it's referred to as "the rune of death."
But what on earth does this have to do with the peace symbol?
My research shows not a thing. It seems it's a coincidence that the symbols are the same. Many others believe the exact same thing. The idea that the peace symbol is linked to Algiz is perpetuated mostly among Christian fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists. However, it is true that the rune was used by Nazis so to the uneducated they assume that it must mean something evil. If a symbol used by Nazis looks exactly like the peace sign then it must be related, right? Wrong.
There are a few pagans that truly believe the peace sign originated from the Futhark runes. I understand the desire to believe that such an iconic symbol from the twentieth century dates back to preChristian times but the evidence just isn't there.
What I didn't expect to find is that some pagans theorize the coincidence in appearance is why the peace symbol has not worked to stop war. Some pagans believe this is because the meaning of Algiz reversed and the meaning of the peace sign are contradictory. They say a symbol that means "death, caution, that which repels, and loss of divine link" is going to do the exact opposite that is intended with the peace sign. They claim it's cautioning against peace not war!
Yet there were different pagans who say the similarity of the peace symbol to the rune Algiz is exactly why the peace sign means what it does. The fact that the rune is reversed makes no difference. Since reversed it means "that which repels, caution" it will repel and caution against war.
Both seem to imply that the peace symbol and Algiz are so similar because they come out of the same collective consciousness (or Akashic records) and reach the unconscious. Perhaps this makes the peace sign a magickal symbol after all.