Friday, April 5, 2013

World of Symbols: HERALDRY by Michelle Snyder


Massachusetts State Seal

Heraldry – history’s shorthand

Heraldry has been called both the “shorthand of history and the noble science.” An inherited system of colors and symbols for personal identification, heraldic designs are an artistic expression of genealogies; the knowledge of the badges, knots, charges, crests, coats of arms, helmets, and other devices became a science. Developed to identify knights on the battlefield and in tournaments, these symbols also identify the bloodlines of nobles and monarchies. The knights of Faerie tales and many other wondrous childhood stories are full of characters with heraldic insignia. In Arthurian lore heroic knights Lancelot, Gawain, and the Green Knight have heraldic emblems unique to them. When monarchies merge through marriage, heraldic designs are created to reflect the new alliances and families.

Today heraldry is also a global system symbolizing national, civic, military, and religious hierarchies, as well as family lineage. A coat of arms must be granted and can, in extreme cases, be abated. The United States Army Institute of Heraldry provides heraldic services to government organizations, including the Executive Office of the President. The great seal of the United States Presidents was designed in 1782. Military Armed Forces award heraldic ribbons of honor to their heroes: the Medal of Honor is awarded for "gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty," the Army Distinguished Service Cross is awarded for “extraordinary heroism.” 

Heraldry has appeared on flags from its beginning. Flags and standards emote strong feelings of belonging. Flags are not exclusive to nations or nobility; the military holds regimental colors in highest honor. Identity is linked to heraldic insignia; few may remember that communists were called “Reds” because their (Bolshevik) flag was red.

The coat of arms of the state of Massachusetts is a blue shield with an Indian holding a bow and a five pointed star upon it. There have been several designs. A stained glass window above the Grand Stair Case at the state house shows all the seals used in Massachusetts, including royal seals of colonial days. The resting bow and golden arrow of the Indian signifies peace through strength; during the Renaissance, three golden arrows symbolized enlightenment during a time when that concept was heresy. The five pointed star represents 13 colonies, and is a symbol of Venus, the planet of the ancient mariner’s Venus Clock (ca 5000 BC) with which they calculated longitude. The arm in the cloud wielding a sword is an ancient European symbol derived from an older one designating the use of iron before the Iron Age. It is now thought to represent the arm of God.


Religious iconography is evident worldwide. The arms of Pope John Paul II display the symbols of the papacy: the crossed keys and tiara, the M in the corner designating Mary beneath the cross. These emblems also symbolize the marriages and generations of families; family heraldry is a continuing historic record of genealogies. It is interesting to note that of all the monarchies that engaged in WWI, few families still remained after WWII; their coats of arms are, for some, the only reminder of their family heritage.


Much of the symbolism used in Heraldic designs, such as the double-headed eagle, lion, unicorn, dragon, and griffin, as well as the shield, crown, sword, and ashera pole, comes from antiquity. The combination and placement of these symbols conveys meaning, designating family, rank, and nationality. A legitimate coat of arms must be confirmed by the proper authorities and, on very rare occasions, can be revoked. 



My ancestor’s coats of arms

1) Motto: Semper Constans fidelis (Always constant and faithful). The cross shows the ancestor to have been a Crusader. Billets indicate diplomatic service to the State. The oak indicates strength and firmness. The dragon pierced with a sword, shows that while being with courage and determination, a wound has been received with that weapon. 



2) The first Wallaces were primarily immigrants from Wales who settled chiefly in Scotland and to some extent in North-umberland, Durham, and Yorkshire. The roots of the name can be found in the Anglo-French “Walais” meaning “Welshman” or “Celt,” or the local Scots “Wallis,” meaning “Welshman,” or “foreigner.”


The language of symbols used in the art of Heraldry is ancient and has roots in our pre-historic past. Symbology: Decoding Classic Images traces many well-known images back to their origins, and discovers their ancient meanings making a fun study to find images that relate to your history. What symbols would you use to design a heraldic emblem for yourself or your family?