On Balkan national symbols and their antiquity

The recent history of the Balkans was a turbulent one and for this reason, a lot of bad blood still exists among the neighboring countries. In order to define the clear boundaries between “us and them” the use of national symbols became more prominent than ever. And so, one man’s pride became an insult to another.

But we are not here to discuss the recent events. We will take a look at a few of the most popular symbols, their meaning, and origin.

Coat of Arms of Yugoslavia

Checkered flag 

The checkered flag is a common symbol on European royal emblems. In heraldry related literature, Croatia usually lists as the first example. It is also a popular motif on the royal insignia of Poland and the Czech Republic – a region where once existed White Croatia.

Various medieval dynasties of Western Europe had a checkered flag too. However, here it never reached a level of a national symbol, as in the case of Croatia, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

During the Renaissance, checkered floors became a fashion trend in the Royal courts from Paris to Rome – a tradition preserved in the modern Masonic temples.

Persian origins of the checkered flag

In heraldry, this symbol is known as “check“, “šahovnica” in Croatian. Both of the words are related to chess, a game whose ancient origins lie on the stretch between India and Persia.

Indeed, this symbol appears on the very ancient Persian artifacts. Even nowadays, the tradition lives on, in the form of the traditional scarf – the Keffiyeh. This checkered scarf comes in the combination of black and white, or red and white colors. It is a national symbol for numerous Middle Eastern countries. But the ancient Turkic tribes also knew this symbol.

For obvious reason, there is a theory that it reached Europe with Scythian and Sarmatian tribes. According to the Croatian legend, the red color represents the South (modern Croatia), and the white symbolizes the West (White Croatia) – a Scythian designation of the cardinal directions.

But the truth is that this symbol predates the Bronze age. We see it also on the Neolithic structures of Sardinia (Tomba della Schachiera) and Malta, to name a few places. It appears even in Neolithic China.

The meaning of the checkered flag

The obvious interpretation is that the checked pattern represents duality. Having it on the royal emblem would, therefore, mean dominion over the visible and invisible, material and spiritual, space and time. This idea is even more emphasized when one is walking over it, as in the case of Renaissance Europe or the Masonic lodges. In this way, the individual stands above the dual world, and hence he is equal to the Creator of the universe, no less.

But that is the West. The more ancient use of this symbol comes from the East. Namely, textiles similar to Keffiyeh are a national symbol of Bali. Just like the Keffiyeh, they are black and white or red and white. The locals call them “poleng” (two-toned). The connotation of duality is still present. But the primary purpose of the poleng seems to be a protection from the spirits, or marking of the sacred space. Polengs are usually wrapped around the body while praying, or around the sacred statues and other objects.

One may assume that similarities between Keffiyeh and Poleng are a result of some ancient trade routes. However, this approach would still fail to explain why ancient figures and artifacts wrapped in checkered patterns exist all over Mesoamerica.

In conclusion, at least since the Neolithic, the colors used for this symbol were black and white or red and white. Its purpose was obviously protective and sacred.

Ocilo a.k.a. “The Serbian cross”

Ocilo is a national symbol of Serbia, of both state and the church. The tradition dates it to the 12th or 13th century, and the common belief is that it came via Byzanthian influence.

Namely, this symbol was on the emblem of Palaiologos, a famous Byzanthian dynasty of the middle ages. Apparently, the cross surrounded by four “beta” letters was an abbreviation for their family motto: “Basileus Basileōn, Basileuōn Basileuontōn”, meaning “King of Kings, Ruling Over Kings”.

In Serbia, the symbols around the cross look like the Cyrillic letter “S” (C). Serbian national motto may have been inspired by the Byzantine one. It states: “Само Слога Србина Спашава”, or “Only Unity Saves Serbs.”

The origins of Ocilo

If there was any Byzantine influence at all, it probably did not go further than the moto. The Palaiologos dynasty did not invent the symbol. They could have borrowed it from ancient Greece as the ancient Greek pottery also has it.

However, the oldest evidence comes from the Neolithic culture of Vinca, whose epicenter was in modern-day Serbia!

It is quite interesting that this symbol is depicted on a statue of a guardian of a gate in Dresden, Germany. Before being assimilated into Germany, this area was inhabited by Sorbs, who now have a status of minority.

Also, just like in the case of the Croatian checkers, we may see this symbol all over the ancient world, Mesoamerica included. However, the other examples need a little imagination, so I did not include them in the picture above. Here are two examples from Peru:

The meaning of Ocilo symbol

Another, a closely related symbol is the cross with four dots. This symbol is by far more common and it appears on all four corners of the world, from the earliest of times.

One popular theory states that the “dotted” cross is a solar symbol, while the one with the “crescent” is lunar. This could be true. There are four key events related to the movement of the Sun – the solstices and equinoxes. In the case of the Moon, there are four weeks, in which the crescent moon changes direction, quite similar to the ocilo sign.

A picture below illustrates the Moon cycle over a course of two weeks. It would take twice as much to complete a period of one month. For the second half of the month, the Moon goes backward, depicting the sign of ocilo in the process.

Indeed, the first calendars were lunar. In Serbian, a word for “month” is the same as the one for the “moon”. It is a relic of the times when months were measured by the phases of the moon.

However, we would probably be wrong to assume that the only purpose of this symbol is to signify a month. There was definitely a sacred element there, related to Matriarchat and the Goddess, but what it was is hard to tell, since the symbol is without a doubt, Neolithic.

Double-headed eagle

And finally, we will discuss the symbol of a double-headed eagle. In heraldry, this symbol is supposed to represent an empire. The oldest evidence for its use comes from the Ancient Near East, and cultures such as Hittites and Mittani.

More than two thousand years later, it was revived by the Byzantine empire, around the 10th century. It started to represent an empire with the Palaiologoi dynasty.

From Byzantium, this symbol had spread over the whole area of its influence. Around the same time, between the 12th and the 14th century, it became a national symbol of Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Albania, Germany, Austria, and numerous other countries.

The origins of a double-headed eagle

In a recent World-cup game in Russia, two Albanian players were provoking the Serbian team while celebrating their goals with a double-headed eagle symbol, made with their palms. But what was perceived as insulting is only a political message that lied behind that gesture. Since the double-headed eagle is a national symbol of Albania, Serbia, and even Russia, it is not an exaggeration to claim that most of the audience that day simply saw their own national symbol being flashed.

But I am mentioning this event for another reason. These sorts of hand gestures are known as mudras in India. And one of these mudras is the Garuda mudra. It looks exactly like the gesture of the Albanian players. However, its use in India is to “cultivate perseverance, commitment, discipline, and to balance the energy”.

The meaning of a double-headed eagle

Garuda, the eagle, is mentioned in the oldest of the Vedas. This period probably predates one of the Hittites and the Mittani. But it has to be said that Mittani were Indo-European speakers, and the oldest form of Sanskrit is recorded in their inscriptions.

Before it became an imperial symbol, the double-headed eagle was probably an astronomical image – that of the constellation of Aquilla. In those days, this constellation was marking the autumn equinox – a period when the rainy season will start. It does not take much imagination to see why this would be an important symbol for those civilizations that lived in the areas deprived of water.

But here is another interesting fact. Double-headed eagles existed even in the pre-Colombian cultures of Mesoamerica. There, they are known as “thunder-birds”. However, for Montezuma, the double-headed eagle was clearly a part of the royal insignia. His flag even looked similar to a flag of modern Albania!

Note the Sun and the Moon symbols on the Maya eagle (equinox, balance of the energies), as well as the cross with the dots od the Mittani.

Photo credit for Mesoamerican images: Zachar Butov

Conclusion

In this article, we saw the origin of the three most common national symbols of South Slavs and their neighbors. Without any doubt, all three of them date to Neolith, and for our ancestors, they were sacred.

However, if we exclude the possibility of an ocean-route communication with Mesoamerica, then their antiquity moves at least to the Mesolithic age. This was the last time the land connection with America through a Berring crossing was possible. But this is not necessarily the case. (see “Sea people” category of this website for more articles)

And that brings us to the main point of this article. It is obvious that once clean from the dirty layers of politics, these symbols still have the power to shine some light on the important events from the journey of our civilization. As always, the beauty of the truth lies solely in the eye of the beholder.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I am astonished that Armenia is not mentioned in the article. For millennia, the two-headed eagle has been a symbol of Armenia. The Republic of Armenia’s coat-of-arms has the two-headed eagle as its central element.

    • Thanks for bringing that up – definitely a fact. Armenia lies on the route between India and kingdoms of Mittani and the Hittites, and the use of the symbol is probably equally ancient. The point of the article was just to illustrate the idea, as listing all of the examples (there are many more) would put-off the readers from getting until the end of the text.

  2. Great article. The checkered flag of Croatia is very similar to the Moravian Eagle, the national symbol of Moravia (the eastern province of what is now Czech Republic), which also features red-and-white checkers (šachy). Bavarian flag features blue-and-white checkers, still present in the famous BMW logo.

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