The symbolic meaning behind a skull has evolved over the years and recently it’s morphed into a “cool” emblem tattooed on forearms, splashed across t-shirts, and painted on to printed, decorative items.
In these instances, the image of the skull might well represent something different to the “wearer” and the viewer. And, for many, it’s simply a stylish decorative feature, much like a flower or a geometric pattern. However, skull has a long and varied history of use with multiple overlapping interpretations.
The significance of skulls in different traditions
Skulls are commonly featured in the myths of many cultures, from the Mayan or Aztec to the tribal groupings of North America.
To many of the Eastern traditions, the skull is an esoteric symbol used in secret rituals. Some legends associate the skull with powerful protector deities; and in the Chinese, Hindu and Tibetan traditions, countless divine Gods and Goddesses depicted wearing skull necklaces, carrying skull weapons etc.
Skulls in ancient India
In India, skulls played a particularly important role in religious depictions. Skulls often adorned ancient gods and goddess as necklaces or bracelets, showing their ability to conquer death. For instance, Nataraja, an incarnation of Shiva, dances the cosmic dance of creation with a necklace of skulls adorning him. The garland of skulls around his neck identifies him as time, and the death of all beings. To the Hindu, this is a natural progression of life; everything moves in a circular fashion.
Life and death are both part of the cosmic drama and are embraced – not resisted.
Skulls in Buddhism
While the representation of skulls in Hinduism is fairly straightforward, Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism take it a little deeper, with unique perspectives. Similar to Hinduism, skulls are generally depicted as a necklace around a deity. They’re known as munda malas. However, instead of representing death or loss, it represents the important Buddhist concept of emptiness. In Buddhism, emptiness is considered to be a quality of the universe.
This means that phenomena we experience has no inherent nature by itself; instead, we attach meaning to what we experience. It’s basically saying all events are neutral- but we choose to magnify them in our minds. A skull´s four canine teeth are described as symbols of biting through of the four maras (obstructions). Single skulls appear in various forms and functions in Tibetan iconography. For example, a skull-lamp, which burns human fat, with its tongue burning as a wick, would be described as a purification symbol. The body (skull) is purified by the flames, as are speech (tongue) and mind (fat). This example derives from ancient Hindu cremation rituals. Rather gruesome, but it gets to the point: life is transitory.
Skulls in Celtic traditions
Celtic culture viewed the head or skull to be the seat of power. Some texts point to the skull as the house of the soul.
Archeological findings show us the Celts tossed skulls into sacred wells as offerings. What’s the symbolism of this?
We can look to the symbolism of water, and know it carries meanings of cleansing, purification and fluidity of motion (emotions are also a water symbol). Then, if skulls symbolize the seat of the soul and power, perhaps hurling them into the dark depths of sacred well water indicates an intent to cleanse the soul or offer divine clarity and renewal for the soul.
Sacred wells aren’t the only place ritualistic skull symbols and heads pop up in Celtic realms. We see carvings of heads used to decorate doorways and hallways of ancient ceremonial grounds and sanctuaries.
The human skull has five openings with two eyes, two nose cavities, and one mouth, thus a special interest to Celtics. Also, the number five was believed to have magical properties according to Celtic Mythology.
Practically, there are only three major holes in the skull (two eyes, one mouth) such that it was a considered to be a sacred number in their Mythology. When these three points (two eyes and one mouth) are connected, they come up with an Upside –down triangle that represent popular Celtic theme – Trinity.
The trinity symbolizes Celtics’ way of binding concepts and ideology together to originate something new. Celts believe the three openings in skull represent Magic, Creation and Transformation that endlessly happen across life.
When these three elements of life are put together, formation of strong and productive energy takes place such that these mystical forces unite and an energetic apperance of great omen is originated.
Celtic culture also had strong relations with the circle. Since the head (and celtic skulls) are naturally circular in shape as well as the eyes. So this depicts cyclical nature of life and also of the feeling of togetherness in our communities.
In addition to these beliefs, the Oracle shape of eyes and mouth of skull represent or viewed as gateways for receiving knowledge. Everything that we see comes through our eyes, and thus depict our strongest method of learning and accepting knowledge that we the humans naturally posses.
Celtic skulls are magnificent and symbols of boundless power in this omnipresent cyclical nature of life, the eternal and infinite, and the entrances that permits us to rejoin with the spirits.
To celebrate the dead
In Mexico, skulls are decorated in garish colours and patterns to commemorate the dead. The annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time for families to come together, dress up, party, and celebrate the lives of those they have lost.
The sugar skulls, as they’re known, are the symbols of this time of year.
During the festival, decorated skulls are placed around the gravestones of the deceased to create whimsical decorations that celebrate death instead of mourn lost relatives and friends.
They are known as sugar skulls because they were originally made from molded sugar and decorated with bright feathers, beads, and icing. Today, they are made from all sorts of materials, but they all remain similar in design, recognisable by the lashings of flowers, the bright colours, and the intricate detailing around the eyes and mouths.
Skulls still retain a huge symbolic status around the world, and most likely we’ll continue to see their sunken forms appear in art and culture of all different varieties.