7 Peace Symbols (That Aren't the Peace Symbol)
Much like a simple stock image that becomes a meme, the peace sign was invented for one specific purpose and adapted for much broader ones by countless people across the globe. British artist and activist Gerald Holtom designed the emblem in 1958 for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Holtom based its look on the flag semaphore movements for an N (two flags pointed down at angles) and D (one flag straight up, the other straight down), for “nuclear disarmament.” He also based it on the peasant before the firing squad in Goya’s The Third of May 1808.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament produced a series of ceramic buttons with the symbol for demonstrations, but the design was embraced around the world and became a general anti-war symbol. While it may be ubiquitous, it’s not the only symbol of peace. Here are seven others that you might want to add to the back of your car.
1. OLIVE BRANCH
The use of the olive branch as a symbol for peace and end of conflict dates back to ancient Greece, where it was worn by brides and bestowed on Olympic winners. In mythology, the sea god Poseidon once battled the wisdom goddess Athena for rule of Athens. Poseidon dug his trident into the ground and produced a well of ocean water. Athena hurled her javelin and out of the earth came an olive tree. This was more valued by the citizenry than a limitless supply of undrinkable water, and the city rallied to Athena (hence its name). The olive tree continues this significance in the Abrahamic faiths.
In the Bible, when the flood waters receded, Noah sent out a dove which returned with an olive leaf, indicating life had returned to the earth (Genesis 8:10 – 11). (It was an old sailor’s trick: Release a bird and note its direction upon return to find land.) This tale imbued the bird as a symbol of peace and holiness. It appears in Judeo-Christian iconography, often with a sprig in its beak. Like the olive branch, the dove as a symbol is probably borrowed from other Near East and Mediterranean sources. It was strewn through ancient temples and associated with the goddesses Asherah, Venus, and Fortunata. Picasso’s Dove, meanwhile, became a symbol to Cold War-era peace activism.
3. WHITE POPPY
The sprouting of poppy flowers on battlefields and grave sites across Europe marked the conclusion of World War I. The flowers feature prominently in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” After the war, the Royal British Legion (a nonprofit similar to the American Legion) promoted the wearing of red poppies on November 11, which is Remembrance Day. Britons also place wreaths of them on graves. In 1933, the anti-war Women’s Co-operative Guild began selling white poppies to embody both remembrance and pacifism. The whiteness symbolized a lack of bloodshed.
While they were not meant to conflict with the red poppy, the white poppy has sometimes been seen as a political symbol. According to the BBC, "many veterans felt that its significance undermined their contribution and the lasting meaning of the red poppy. Such was the seriousness of this issue that some women lost their jobs in the 1930s for wearing white poppies.” Today, however, the Royal British Legion neither condemns nor endorses them. Another group, the Peace Pledge Union, has taken over the white poppy push.
4. “V” HAND SYMBOL
The “V” gesture, middle and index fingers raised, is a versatile and long-lived one. Promoted by BBC presenter Douglas “Colonel Britton” Ritchie, resistance fighters in German-occupied territories used it as a symbol of camaraderie and strength during World War II—it is the first letter of the French, Flemish, and English words for victory (victoire, vrijheid, and victory, respectively). UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill adopted it to stand for the English victory, and Charles de Gaulle was known to flash a full-arm version of the V-sign during speeches. Extended to embody the end of that conflict, it was then co-opted by ’60s lefties as an anti-war symbol, though they certainly had no exclusive domain over it (President Richard Nixon famously flashed two V's upon his exit from the White House).
5. PAPER CRANE
Sadako Sasaki was 2 years old when the atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima. Due to radiation, she developed leukemia. Her final days were spent constructing origami cranes, reportedly after being told about a bit of Japanese folklore that promises the granting of a wish to whoever produces 1000 of them. Some say Sadako reached the benchmark but kept going, while others say that she reached 644 paper cranes before she was too weak to continue, dying in 1955 at age 12. Her story inspired the adoption of the paper bird as a symbol of peace in Japan. A statue of the girl stands in Hiroshima's Peace Park, and another, in Seattle’s Peace Park, is often draped in paper cranes by anonymous visitors.
6. PACE RAINBOW FLAG
For a peace march in 1961, philosopher and activist Aldo Capitini had several colored stripes sewn together to make a flag. Rainbow versions of it (independent of the similar gay pride flag), usually adorned with the world pace (Italian for "peace"), have spread and endured across the country. Pace flags underwent a resurgence in 2002 due to the buildup to the second Gulf War.
7. BROKEN RIFLE
London-based group War Resisters’ International uses an illustration of two hands breaking a rifle in two as its logo. Founded in 1921, the alliance is active in more than 40 countries and uses the cross-cultural simplicity of the emblem to convey its message. The Broken Rifle is also the name of its newsletter.