Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Swastika on the Floor of the Library

We have a wonderful public library.

It is a beautiful historic building built in 1901. The whole bottom floor was built to be the children's section and it is a wonderful space. Out of all the cities we have lived in this by far the best children's library that we have ever had.

There is a back entrance to get to the children's section and I was surprised the first time we used it to see this on the floor.

Yes, that is a swastika on the floor of the public library
The floor is a mosaic of brown tile randomly broken up by tiles with symbols and designs on them. This swastika is one of the very first designs you see when you walk in the door. It took me by shock the first time I saw it. It seemed so very strange to see this symbol displayed openly in a public building.

It made me uncomfortable and a bit apprehensive of the new city we had just moved to.

I asked the librarian to help me find materials about the history of the library and as I read them I discovered that much of the building had been restored in the 1970's. It turned out that during the renovation the tile floor by the children's section had been uncovered and restored. Meaning that the tile with the swastika was part of the original floor built in 1901.

This was very interesting to me because at the turn of the century the swastika was a popular good luck symbol in the United States and around much of the world. The symbol originated in India and was widely used in Indian religions. The name  "swastika" comes from the Sanskrit "svastika", which means  "to be good" or "being with higher self". In the late 1800's and the early 1900's it was a popular symbol and was widely used. It was worn as jewelry, used as a symbol for sports clubs, placed on highway markers, used as boy scout badge, placed on public buildings, and even sewed into quilt squares (you can see examples here).

I can just imagine that when our library was constructed the person doing the floor thought it fitting and meaningful to place a swastika-- what he saw as a symbol of good luck and peace-- front and center in the hallway. This was 25 years before the Nazi party in Germany would adopt the swastika as its symbol and forever change its meaning. The man laying the floor in 1901 couldn't have imagined that 100 years later his symbol choice would mean exactly the opposite of what it originally meant. Nor could he imagine that seeing it displayed prominently in a public building would shock and alarm a mother with her children.

The swastika on the floor of the library reminds me how hard it is can be to interpret ancient symbolism with modern eyes. Satan has had millennium, much longer than any of us can even conceive of being alive, to twist and contort the meaning of so many of God's most powerful symbols. Sometimes he does it quickly, while at other times he has done it gradually over several generations. Unfortunately he has been successful in contorting many of the symbols that God uses  so that they no longer have the same meaning in our modern context as they originally did.

One good example of a symbol whose meaning was shifted by Satan is that of the serpent. In Genesis we read that Satan appeared to Adam and Eve as a "serpent." This symbol has been adopted by our Western culture as a universal symbol of treachery and deceit. Just think about any children's movie you have ever seen that has a snake in it... Jungle Book, Aladdin, Rikki Tiki Tavi, Harry Potter... snakes are never the good guys.

It then gets confusing why in Numbers 21 Moses cured the Israelites from their poisonous stings by holding up a serpent on a staff. It always seemed strange to me that he would choose that symbol. Yet in Helaman 8: 14- 15 we are taught that Moses held up the serpent as a symbol of Christ.

 "Yea, did he [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal."

The truth is that the serpent is an ancient symbol of Christ (if you want to learn more about serpent symbols this is a fascinating article) and when Moses wrote the book of Genesis describing Satan appearing as a "serpent" to Adam and Eve his readers would have understood what that meant. It meant that Satan had attempted to appear to Adam and Eve as a being of light who had power and with authority. Satan used a powerful symbol, one that Adam and Eve would have associated with Christ, to try to deceive and confuse them into doing what he wanted them to do.

Satan is still up to the same old tricks today. He understands the power of symbols, just like God does, and he is constantly trying to use them to deceive. 

One of the great challenges of spiritual learning to see symbols for what they really are. God's message for His children has been the same since the world was started. He adapts and teaches each generation as they need to be taught, but many of the symbols He uses are ancient. To really understand what they mean we have to learn to take off our modern/cultural//historical lenses and look at things with our pure spiritual eyes. When we let go of what we think we already know God will open our understanding and teach us things that we never even imagined could be.

I know that for me whenever I start to get upset about something I don't understand in the scriptures  I try really hard to push aside my own limited understanding and try to look at things differently. Sometimes this means learning more about the historical context in which scriptures were written, or in better understanding the meaning of ancient symbols and rituals,  but usually it means allowing God to open my eyes to see and my ears to hear.

Like the blind man that Jesus healed by washing clay out of his eyes (John 9:6) sometimes I just need to have Him wash the world--and all its distortions-- from my eyes so that I can truly see things as they really are.

The swastika on the floor of our library fascinates me. Perhaps if we lived in a bigger city someone would have demanded it removed by now, but I love that it is still there.

It is a beautiful reminder to me that things aren't always what they appear to be...  and that I know so much less about everything than I think I do.

Now when I go to the library I am often reminded of my favorite scripture:

"Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend." Mosiah 4:9 

It is humbling to remember that I am really just a baby. A baby who is growing and learning and striving for further light and knoweldge... but a baby none the less.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very insightful post! History and symbolism fascinate me! Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  3. Wow! That is fascinating, and your connections are really profound. A lot to ponder...

    Thank you for sharing!!

  4. When I learned that it meant something other than what the Nazi's used it for (back in my days at BYU-Idaho), I made a vow to try and reclaim that original meaning. On anything other than Nazi things, I try to point out to people that it means something different and that we should try to reclaim it for good.

  5. Our courthouse here in Idaho Falls has swastikas in the tile floor, but every so often they paint over part of it to change the shape...before moving to Idaho I had no idea it had ever meant anything else.

  6. Wow. Thank you so much for posting this! I knew the swastika had a more spiritual origin than now associated; this blog post was very eye opening on everything. Makes me want to take a course in symbology now.

  7. Actually, the swastika in your library is not the same that the Nazi party used as their symbol. They used a "right-facing" symbol, and the one in your library faces to the left. My brother served his mission in South Korea and visited a Buddhist temple while there. He is posing by a swastika symbol like the one in your library, facing the left.

    1. Thought you might find this interesting on the difference between the left and right. It appears there is a difference but the actual swastika (left or right) had positive connotations. "There are actually two types of swastikas--the right-facing and the left-facing swastikas, which are mirror-images of each other. These two forms are said to represent the two forms of Lord Brahma, the creator: The right-facing swastika indicates the evolution of the universe (Pravritti) and the left-facing swastika symbolizes involution of the universe (Nivritti, the process that allows creation to happen)."

    2. Way cool! That even makes the symbolism and the distortion so much more intriguing! Thanks!

  8. Thanks for this post Heather. Fascinating! I didn't have any idea about the swastika. My husband, just a few months ago, came home and shared that he had learned the ancient symbolism of the serpent as representing Christ. He was so excited! But neither of us had put together Satan appearing as a serpent in the garden of Eden!! I cannot wait to share that with him tonight! :-)

  9. Interesting and confirms my long ago wondering about the symbol. I remember after a college class looking at the swastika and experimenting with drawing it. To me it clearly had a cross in the middle, another symbol. Unfortunately I left my drawings on my dads white board at work. You can imagine what his coworker a dear Jewish friend may have thought. Needless to say I was invited not to draw on the whiteboard anymore.

  10. Another example of the adversary adopting good symbols is the upside-down five-pointed star. It was used as an early Christian symbol to represent "the morning star:" Christ (although the adversary is also referred to as "the morning star" in the scriptures). It's on the Nauvoo temple, as well. Now it's been adopted as a pagan symbol, which is now the common meaning which is unfortunate. You can find the upside-down five-pointed star on lots of early Christian artwork in stained glass windows in catherdrals, etc.

  11. Cool insight: "Satan used a powerful symbol, one that Adam and Eve would have associated with Christ, to try to deceive and confuse them into doing what he wanted them to do."

  12. Love this. Miss you, friend.

  13. Great insight on the symbolism of the serpent! I am originally from Mexico and I have always wondered why the aztec civilization represented their God with a "serpent" which by interpretation I understood it was Christ... but it was confusing to me because I always associated the serpent with evil things (sadly) but it now make perfect sense...
    Thanks for sharing!

  14. I know I’m years behind reading this, but it reminds me of the Book of Revelation, where Satan counters almost everything that the Lord would have... all of Lucifer’s counterfeits mirror the Savior’s in a distorted way. For instance, in the Book of Revelation we find:

    - Two Kingdoms: the Savior's kingdom vs. Lucifer's kingdom.
    - Two Suppers: the Supper of the Lamb vs. The Supper of the Great God.
    - Two Women: The Bride of Christ vs. The Whore of all the Earth
    - Two Gatherings/Cities: The New Jerusalem vs. Babylon
    - Two Stars: The Bright & Morning Star vs. The Fallen Star
    - Two Mounts: The Mount of the Lord’s House vs. the Mount of Megiddon (Armageddon)
    - Two Marks: The Seal in the Forehead of the Righteous vs the Mark of the Beast
    - Two Harvests (both dominated by an angel with a sharp sickle) one gathers the white field; the other the grapes of wrap

    The list goes on and on, including horses, things that come out of the mouth, keys, armies, rising of the dead, and much more. With all this parallel imagery, John is saying that we have to make a choice as to whom we will follow, and the latter-days will make us choose. If we don't choose one, it will mean that we are choosing the other.