30 Universal Symbols and What They Mean

1. Raven

Ravens feast on the dead so people naturally tend to associate them with morbid connotations. After all, there is a reason a group of ravens is called a conspiracy or unkindness. The symbol is used to depict demise and tragedy. Commonly spotted on the battlefield after a battle, the raven is linked to death in the imagination of man.

2. Dove

A dove is typically used as a symbol of harmony and peace. This universal symbol is used in a theological sense to symbolize salvation and spirituality. The dove is also connected with healing, relaxation, and goodness. It has been so common that major world religions, such as Christianity and Judaism feature this symbol as the purest expression of peace, love and holiness. The dove has also become correlated with pacifism and the termination of the war in the recent era.

3. Butterfly

A butterfly signifies change. Throughout the world, in both mythology and art, the butterfly is depicted as a sign of development and transition due to its transformation from a caterpillar to a beautiful insect. In some traditions, this prominent insect is a symbol of a spirit. It’s used in mythical stories to indicate the presence of the deceased or the prospect of the afterlife.

4. Cross

This is probably one of the most prominent universal symbols. The cross is an emblem of faith and recovery. Culturally, the four points of the cross reflect self-nature, intelligence, and spiritual force. Across the world, the cross is connected to Christianity, faith, salvation, liberation, and the ability to heal. More precisely, it stands for the death of Jesus and his triumph over evil. A red cross is widely used as a symbol for clinical and emergency relief in war zones and other general medical implications.

5. Owl

While illustrating a visual narrative, an owl is used to reflect the intellect of a protagonist or a message to be taught. Its timeless connection to wisdom is taken from Greek mythology where an owl always follows Athena, the goddess of learning. In Native American cultures, the owl is perceived as a creature of the night, synonymous with the paranormal and even mortality.

Ancient Greek shield bearing an owl (from Dreamstime.com)

6. Fire

A blazing fire can symbolize rage, revenge and devastation. Interestingly, it can also mean resurrection, as in the tale of the phoenix. The symbolism of fire is quite contradictory and can also mean strength and intelligence. This is due to its major role in the growth of culture in human history.

7. Rain/Storm

Not surprisingly, rain is a symbol of sorrow and depression.  It is generally associated with sorrow and misery and you can guess why. The gloom of rainy weather creates feelings of drowsiness, isolation, and unhappiness. Rain can also symbolize rejuvenation as it drains away pollution and destruction. From a different perspective, it symbolizes the purification of the human soul.

8. Peace sign

Crafted in the 1950s as a symbol of the British nuclear effort, it was eventually accepted by the anti-war movement. A variation of the symbol displays the letters “N” and “D” which stand for “nuclear disarmament”.

9. Occult and symbols

Meaning “secret” or “unknown,” the occult draws attention to all things mysterious and supernatural. It represents hauntings, paranormal activities and basically anything past scientific rationality. There are many variations of occult symbols used for many purposes from sorcery and occultism to the Kabbalah and other mysterious beliefs.

10. Heart

Being possibly the most widely used symbol today, the heart speaks the universal language of love. This famous symbol when used in art and design can also signify bravery, integrity and compassion. The heart may have religious meanings as well, especially when surrounded by fire or thorns. It can have many more intricate interpretations with countless variations being developed over time.

11. Skull

Skulls quite often cultivate a sense of terror and despair. So it’s no wonder they are used as a warning against toxic materials as well as a sign of danger and risk. Popularly associated with death, this universal symbol has a lot of significance in society today.

Skulls signify danger and ominous signs

12. Crescent

The astrological sign representing the moon. The crescent symbolizes a fresh start and the fulfillment of desires. On a religious note, the crescent moon has been a symbol of Islam for several centuries. It was also used by primitive civilizations in Central Asia and Siberia to honor the gods of the sun, moon, and sky.

13. Light

It is a symbol of hope, virtue, honesty and awakening. In religion, light is also connected with immortality and supreme energy. Being a sign of happiness and life-giving strength, light is also sometimes associated with liberation.

14. Darkness

The natural opposite of light, darkness illustrates the negative, the mysterious and the bad. Much as yin is to yang, darkness and light represent two contrasting factors of life – positive and negative, love and hatred, joy and misery.

15. Lion

Popularly known as the king of the jungle, the lion is a symbol of power, aristocracy, and supremacy. This majestic animal is also used in spiritual acts to portray God as the King.

16. Swan

Representing elegance, harmony and sophistication in ancient Greece, the swan is often connected with passion, literature and composition.

17. Spider

Apart from signifying uncertainty and formation, spiders reflect the authority to develop truth through our choices.

18. Wolf

This universal symbol is used as a sign of integrity, guardianship, power, democracy and liberty. It can also depict maturity and intelligence.

19. Viking

Although the old Norse word means “pirate” or “raider,” vikings are sometimes related to ideas such as energy, wizardry and money.

20. Phoenix

This mythical creature is best known for its ability to rise from its own ruins. Thus, it implies regeneration, creation and life.

21. Dragon

Dragons depict strength, leadership, knowledge, fortune and enchantment. They are one of the most respected symbols of Asian mythology today.

Dragons are popular symbols in many Asian cultures

22. Angel

Identified as disciples of God in spirituality, an angel reflects guardianship, faith, security and kindness. Its association with the afterlife also leads people to connect angels with death.

23. Egg

Traditionally, an egg is linked to new life, pregnancy, development, divinity and one’s capacity for success.

24. Witch

Being a very well-known icon in today’s media, a witch signifies wickedness and gloom. Commonly portrayed as villains in children’s stories, a witch symbolizes paranormal happenings and the cruelty of human souls.

25. Rabbit  

A rabbit is mostly associated with the cute and cuddly. It is also linked to factors such as love, security, stability and birth.

26. Planet

In astrology, every planet depicts different things. The most popular symbolism is that of Venus which stands for love, attractiveness and culture. Mercury portrays intelligence and intent.

27. Sun

The star around which all planets revolve. The sun stands for existence, creation, strength, fame and dreams.

28. Forest

While a tree symbolizes fertility and existence, a forest signifies the mystery of the unseen and the unaware.

Forests tend to give off an air of mystery

29. Peacock  

Despite the common misconception that the peacock only stands for pride, this splendid bird is also correlated with glamour, enlightenment, dignity, self-expression and honesty.

30. Rose

Other than being a symbol of love and intimacy, the rose is also popular in history books after the War of the Roses. The Romans and Greeks revered the rose as signs of the goddesses of love, Venus and Aphrodite.

When do Universal Symbols Come in Handy for Designers?

Designers can use the symbols above to:

• add a bit of imagination to their illustrations

• make presentations more interesting and engaging

• split text material in dense papers

• make their content more relatable

Which symbols did you find most intriguing? Is there a symbol you have in mind but can’t find on the list? Let us know in the comments section!

FAQs: Universal Symbols and Their Meanings

1)What is a symbol?

A symbol is an emblem, sign or word that represents a concept, subject or connection. A symbol can be interpreted in different ways and is used to depict various ideas based on culture, tradition and beliefs.

2) How are symbols used in messaging today?

Modern messaging symbols or emoticons are found on nearly every messaging platform. They can also be recognized as ordinary keyboard characters used in text-based messages to reflect human facial expressions.

3) How are symbols used in writing?

Symbols essentially work as graphics that help writers speak without using words. Writers use symbolism to express abstract concepts or communicate emotions and thoughts effectively.