One of the oldest and most widespread symbols in history, the cross is best known as a sign of the Christian faith. However, the cross has played a significant role in many other cultures as well. Peoples as different as the ancient Egyptians and modern peace marchers have adopted it to represent an idea they considered important.

Shapes and Uses of the Cross

Throughout the world and through the ages, people have used the shape of the cross to decorate religious articles, to protect against illness, to bring good luck, and for countless other purposes. Many different versions of the cross exist, including the Xshaped St. Andrews cross and the T-shaped tau cross (named after the Greek letter). In addition, a wide variety of items have been made in the shape of the cross, including small amulets and jewelry, church altars and gravestones, and decorations on flags and shields.

Among the ancient civilizations who used the cross as a religious symbol were the Egyptians. The ankh, or Egyptian cross, was a tau cross with a circle or oval on top. The T part of the cross represented life or wisdom, and the circle or oval stood for eternity. Under the pharaoh Akhenaten, the ankh became the symbol of the Egyptian sun god, and gods and pharaohs were often shown holding the cross. Early Egyptian Christians adopted it as a symbol of eternal life through Christ's sacrifice.

Other ancient peoples, such as the Phoenicians* of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aztecs of central Mexico, also used the ankh. For the Aztecs, it was a symbol of secret knowledge available to only a few.

A Fearsome Symbol

The swastika has come to be feared and despised because of its association with the Nazis in World War II. Yet historically, the swastika was widely used as a religious symbol. To some ancient peoples, it was a pictograph of the sun revolving in the universe. American Indians used it to symbolize the workings of the winds and the waters. To the Norse, the swastika represented Thor's hammer. Early Christians used it as a disguised cross on tombs during the time when it was dangerous to display a Christian cross. Hindus use the swastika, considered a symbol of good fortune, to decorate doorways and books.

amulet small object thought to have supernatural or magical powers

The Greek cross, with two equal bars that intersect in the middle, was adopted by many peoples. The ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians all used it to represent the basic elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—from which they believed all living things were created. They also marked religious articles with the sign of the cross. Ancient Buddhists and Hindus followed a similar practice. In addition, the Greek cross has been found on items used by the Druids of Celtic* Britain and by the Aztecs. But its meaning for these peoples has not been established.

The ankh, or Egyptian cross, features a T-shaped cross with a circle on top. The Τ part represents life or wisdom, and the circle stands for eternity.
The ankh, or Egyptian cross, features a T-shaped cross with a circle on top. The Τ part represents life or wisdom, and the circle stands for eternity.

The four equal bars of the Greek cross may represent the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or the four basic elements (earth, water, wind, and fire).
The four equal bars of the Greek cross may represent the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or the four basic elements (earth, water, wind, and fire).

In other cultures, the Greek cross represented the four principal directions (north, south, east, and west). The Plains Indians place the cross within a circle to signify the four main directions of the heavens. In the Bible, paradise is said to be divided by four rivers that form a cross. In parts of Africa, people believe that crossroads are places where the worlds of the living and the dead meet.

The Christian Cross

The cross is the most important symbol of Christianity. It stands for the cross on which Jesus was crucified and represents the greatness of God's sacrifice and the spiritual salvation that humans gained as a result.

A Changing Symbol. In the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, crucifixion was used mainly as a method of execution for political and religious opponents, pirates, and slaves. The condemned were tied or nailed to a cross and died of exhaustion or heart failure.

Early Christians were hesitant to adopt the cross as their symbol. Many could not accept an instrument of death as the symbol of their devotion. Moreover, until the A . D . 300S, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire and crucifixion was banned, open use of the cross could lead to persecution.

The earliest crosses were empty, emphasizing Christ's triumph over death and the eternal life available to humankind. By the 300s, the figure of a lamb was added over it, symbolizing Christ. Later the human figure of Christ was portrayed on the cross, emphasizing at first his divine nature but later his human suffering.

relics pieces of bone, possessions, or other items belonging to a saint or sacred person

The True Cross. According to legend, the cross on which Jesus had been crucified was found by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The story relates that she found three crosses (Jesus had been crucified along with two thieves). To determine which of them belonged to Christ, Helena ordered that a corpse be brought and placed on each cross in turn. When the corpse was laid on one of the crosses, it came to life, thus showing that that was the cross of Christ. Fragments of the cross were later sold as relics and honored in churches throughout Europe.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

User Contributions:

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Jun 3, 2006 @ 12:12 pm
I do not believe Jesus was cruxified on a cross. I believe the correct translation would be a pole or a stake. Wasn't the cross use (as in many cultures) used to unite the supposedly unfaithful. Throughout history items from pagan cultures have been use so the non believers can convert or at least are more willing to. (my opinion thank you for reading it)
Daliesha' Dill
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Apr 19, 2008 @ 8:20 pm
If Jesus was crucified on a pole then how could they have stretched out his arms and nailed his hands? (Something to think about)
It was definitely a cross.
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Aug 29, 2013 @ 8:20 pm
I agree with Daliesha' Dill. Based on Biblical evidence it was a crucifix if not something every similar. Plus the Romans were pagans, and so they used the cross in punishment - but that does not mean Christians cannot use it. Again, I believe Jesus was crucified on a cross, not a pole nor stake.
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Jan 24, 2014 @ 3:03 am
There is no evidence of the cross being used by Christians before 300AD, I am not sure what "biblical evidence" you have read. But real evience there is none, Constantine himself said that he saw the symbol in a dream.
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Apr 23, 2016 @ 1:01 am
The cross was not a symbol of the early church they saw the cross for what it was a horrible object used to murder the savior but God had a plan to show the real true Messiah who conquered death hell and the grave the reason he chose the cross for the weapon to be used agsinst him may be explained from the story of the women in Ezekiel 8:14 mourning the death of Tammuz a God who was killed by the evil one in their false belief who's symbol was the cross representing the letter of t t of his name so maybe God used the symbol of the cross which was what the women were mourning over to show Christ is the True conquer over the evil one and and to only worship him so much that Jesus took the keys of death hell and the grave to show his power where as for Tammuz he died in their false belief of him being a true God because evil over came him to his death so tammuz didn't over come so once again showing Israel's worship of a false gods to be in vain but God judged them for it so the cross was the symbol of tammuz so God may of used it as further proof Christ was their Messiah my last remark is if I jumped out in front of u and and took the bullet meant for u and I died I would hope u wouldn't hang the gun that killed me on your wall or show it any honor of any kind !! because as too with Christ its what Christ selfless act that was done the shedding of his blood that has the power to heal us and give us the power to also be over comers The weapon of choice the cross had no power other then the plot to kill our savior which felled cause Jesus is the real deal


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