1) Aphrodite/Venus. She holds only one,
identified as the apple of Eris
(Conflict), which bore the legend "To the
most beautiful (goddess)". Paris awarded
this apple to Aphrodite, rather than
either of her competitors for the title,
Athene and Hera, an incident which
triggered the Trojan War.
But the ancient Greeks saw apples as
suitable love gifts, and perhaps
Aphrodite's apple originally simply
referred to this, with a possible oblique
reference to the shape of a woman's
2) Atlas. This giant helped Heracles
fetch the apples of the Hesperides (see
3) Heracles/Hercules. Sometimes he
holds a few apples, identified with those
of the Hesperides. Fetching these fruits
from an island in the far west was one of
the heroic feats he had to perform.
This often represents that of the Hesperides. Cf. apple(s). Therefore the following people tend to be near:
3) The Hesperides, or one or two of
arrows. See bow and arrows.
Hades/Plutos may hold this flower,
supposed to grow in the Underworld, and
therefore in later poetry a metonymy
boots, winged. See sandals, winged.
bow and arrows. (A quiver may be
4) Heracles/Hercules. Cf. club.
1) Dionysus/Bacchus. His bowl has often
two ears, and is of a kind used in
2) Ganymede. He waited at the gods'
table; his bowl, too, is a drinking
3) Hestia/Vesta. It is understood in
this case that the bowl contains embers or
ashes from her hearth.
4) Zeus in scenes depicting his sacred
marriage to Hera may hold a large bowl. It
is probably implied that he and she will
ritually drink from it during the
1) The princess Europa is usually shown
riding on a bull. This is Zeus in
disguise, abducting her. According to
Robert Graves, "Europa", which may mean
"broad face", is a cow's name, and the
story may originally have been about a
sacred encounter between a cow goddess and
a bull god.
2) Mithras. The central myth where this
god figures is about his killing a bull.
Most Mithras representations show him
sitting on top of this animal, running his
sword into it.
The Minotaur is equipped with one,
though the rest of him is human.
caduceus. This is a staff
entwined with one or two serpents.
1) Asclepius/Aesculapius. His staff has
one snake only. The god represented
healing, as did the snakethat they
shed their sloughs and survive was
regarded as an instance, or symbol, of
rejuvenation, regeneration, and
immortality. Also today, the one-snake
staff is an emblem of medicine.
2) Hermes/Mercury. His staff is that of
a herald, and moreover entwined with two
snakes. Although that of Asclepius only
has one, it is easy to suspect that these
two staffs originally were the same.
Hermes, who conducted souls to the
Underworld, might have been felt in need
of such a regenerative object. His snakes
are often so stylized that they resemble
an upright figure of eight.
cap, soft and pointed.
1) Castor and Polydeuces/Pollux.
4) Mithras. (Sometimes this god instead
wears a crown or halo with rays emanating
Medea, who rejuvenated a ram in a
cauldron of boiling water. (This may be
the origin, or one origin, of the
traditional cauldron used by witches.)
Heracles/Hercules. He also sports a bow
and arrows, and is sometimes depicted with
all this equipment.
This bird, which crows at daybreak, was
linked with dawn and morning.
Paradoxically, it may have been for this
very reason that it was an emblem of some
Underworld deitiesas a kind of
insurance or defence against the nether
powers? In the Christian era, the cockerel
became a symbol of resurrection, and it is
therefore sometimes placed on church
2) Ganymede. A man who died young and
unmarried could be seen as a "Ganymede",
abducted for homosexual purposes by the
chthonic version of Zeus, as Ganymede in
the myth was abducted by Olympic Zeus. In
the former case, the "Ganymede" may hold a
cockerel. Though this has been explained
as a love gift, it seems more likely that
the bird constituted a defiance and a
promise of eventual defeat of the
3) Hades/Pluto. The cockerel, which he may hold in his lap, makes Hades an ambiguous character. Death implies immortality; "To conquer death, you only have to die" (Jesus Christ Superstar).
1) Annona, who personified the Roman
2) Roman lares (protective, perhaps ancestral spirits of the home, fields, crossroads, &c.).
3) Liber, who represented fertility and
vegetation. (He could be identified with
4) Various river gods (because rivers
make the surrounding land fertile).
See also diadem.
Rhea. This crown means that she was a
protectress of cities.
crown with rays.
These illustrate light.
2) Helios/Sol, the sun god.
3) Mithras. (But he might as well wear
a soft pointed cap, and no crown.)
1) Artemis/Diana. She is often
accompanied by either a doe or a male
2) Dionysus/Bacchus. Many horned or
antlered animals, including (male) deer,
were linkedor identifiedwith
3) Iphigenia. In one version of the myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Artemis substitutes a doe for the girl. (Cf. above about Artemis's doe or deer.) Occasionally girl and doe are depicted so that they seem to melt into each other. This appears to indicate that Iphigenia was felt, or meant, to be simply a human double of the goddess's victim, and therefore of Artemis herself. Generally speaking, victim and recipient deity were often, paradoxically, more or less identified.
1) Actaeon. He is normally shown as
surrounded, sometimes savaged by his own
hounds, with Artemis watching.
2) Aphrodite/Venus. This companion of
the goddess of love represents loyalty, so
that Aphrodite or Venus with a dog means
faithful love. The conjunction seems
3) Hades/Pluto. In late classical and
Roman art, he may be accompanied by
Cerberus (see below).
4) Heracles/Hercules. The dog is in his
case the three-headed Cerberus, guarding
the entrance of the Underworld (originally
perhaps so that the dead would not be able
to escape and return home).
5) Mithras. His canine companion has
been interpreted as representing Sirius,
the Dog Star.
2) Poseidon/Neptune. In his case, the
dolphin is a metonymy for the sea. (And,
more generally, this animal can be used
simply to indicate marine surroundings.)
3) Also the sea-nymph Thetis and her
sisters may ride on dolphins.
4) Anonymous little boys (each of them
recalling the legend of Arion) may be
shown straddling dolphins' backs. Some
lamp-posts in central Lund are decorated
with bas-reliefs showing such boys on
Silenus. He usually rides on it, and
appears very intoxicated. (So does the
1) Zeus/Jupiter. Like the thunderbolt, it represents lightning.
(In Crete, the double axe was rather an attribute of female deities.)
2) Hephaestus. In scenes depicting the
birth of Athene, this god may carry the
1) Ganymede, abducted by Zeus/Jupiter
in his eagle guise.
2) Zeus/Jupiter, who may appear in
human shape with the eagle as his
ear(s) of corn.
1) Annona, personification of the Roman
state-owned corn supply.
4) Triptolemus, whom Demeter/Ceres and
Core/Persephone/Proserpina taught the art
2) Pan. He played the syrinx, with
several pipes. Disney's Peter Pan has
inherited this instrument.
fruits, such as apples, figs,
2) Core/Persephone/Proserpina. She was
especially linked with the narcissus.
Dionysus/Bacchus. Also his devotees,
and sometimes his panther(s), are depicted
See under this word.
Zeus (at Dodona).
Juno Sospita, a rather archaic version
of the Roman goddess Juno (corresponding
to Hera), wears such a skin. She also
carries a spear.
Aphrodite/Venus. She may ride on such a bird. Cf. pigeon, swan.
1) Hermes/Mercury, as protector of
travellers and conductor of souls to the
Underworld, may wear the traveller's
typical broad-brimmed hat, with or without
wings, or a smaller winged hat.
2) Oedipus may also wear a traveller's
hat, but without wings.
3) So may Odysseus/Ulysses.
4) And so may Paris.
See also polos.
hippocamp(s). See under horse(s).
1) Castor and Polydeuces/Pollux. They ride on horses, or lead them by the reins. In Homer, only Castor is specifically linked with horses, however. Castor and Pollux in Roman art sometimes rather vaguely represent the equites (of equus, a horse) and/or the cavalry.
2) Helios/Sol, the sun god. Four horses
draw his chariot.
3) Heracles/Hercules is sometimes depicted with horses, those of Diomede, which were ferocious and ate human flesh. Heracles captured and tamed them.
4) Medusa. In this case, the horse is
usually, though not invariably, winged,
and represents Pegasus, sprung from her
blood when Perseus beheaded her.
5) Nyx (Night), whose chariot is drawn
by four horses.
6) Poseidon/Neptune. He is sometimes linked with horses, perhaps because curving breakers could be seen as similar to the necks and backs of such animals. Cf. the expression "white horses" (on the sea). In pictorial representations, his horses are sometimes shown with fishtailsthese creatures are called hippocamps, a kind of "merhorses". Four of them sometimes draw his and his consort Amphitrite's chariot.
7) Selene. As goddess of the moon, she
is shown in a chariot drawn by two horses,
or, more often, riding on a horse or mule.
Dionysus/Bacchus. He may wear a wreath of ivy, or carry a thyrsus entwined with it. So may his devotees, the Bacchantes. The ivy is this god's most important emblem by far.
Apollo. The laurel and the palm are his
sacred trees. He wears laurels as a
garland on his head, or holds a laurel
sprig or branch.
leopards or panthers.
Dionysus/Bacchus. These animals pulled
his chariot ("Bacchus and his pards" in
Keats), and indicated his eastern origin.
Sometimes the god has only one panther as
Hera. The Virgin Mary inherited this
In pre-Christian art, the flower often
refers to a planned or expected wedding.
Cf. how in Renaissance painting the lily
may be present in Annunciation contexts.
Cybele's chariot is drawn by two lions.
Sometimes she simply sits on a throne
flanked by such animals.
Heracles/Hercules. The skin is that of the Nemean lion, which he killed. He is often shown wearing this skin, with the lion's head on top of his own. When a Roman sculpture of the emperor Commodus depicts this ruler in the same kind of outfit, it means that he is identified with Hercules. The identification is emphasized by two other emblems: a club and some apples.
2) The Muses Erato and Terpsichore,
both linked with lyric poetry (i.e.,
accompanied on the lyre). All the nine
Muses' functions and hence emblems may
4) Silenus (occasionally).
1) Aphrodite/Venus. The mirror became
in later art one of her most important
emblems. Originally, she may have been
linked with mirrors partly because in
antiquity they were made of bronze, an
alloy of copper and some other metal
(usually tin), and copper was her special
metal. The "Venus mirror" sign, a cross
under a circle, signifies: a) In chemistry
and alchemy: Copper; b) In astronomy and
astrology: The planet Venus; c) In
biology: The female sex.
2) Core/Persephone/Proserpina (as a
Perhaps because of the link with
Aphrodite/Venus, the mirror was in Greece
and Rome connected with brides and
weddings in general.
moon (as a lunar crescent).
Many goddesses and mythological queens
Harmonia is only one example. She may hold a mirror as well. Her necklace was beautiful but proved unlucky.
A river-god, such as Tiberinus, god of
the Tiber, may hold such an object.
Athene. The tree was regarded as her
gift to the people of Athens.
She was, among other things, a goddess
who protected intellectual activities. Her
owl sometimes appears alone in
post-classical contexts, where it
indicates scholarship. A bas-relief of an
owl decorates the east façade of
the AF building in Lund.
A palm may also simply indicate that
the setting is exotic, from a European
point of view.
panthers. See leopards.
Aphrodite/Venus. Cf. goose, swan.
A plate held by a deity is usually a
sacrificial dish. In Roman
representations, a lar (a protective,
perhaps ancestral spirit) may carry such a
plate. The lares of a home received daily
A high, cylindrical or almost
cylindrical hat worn by:
1) Hera as a bride. She also wears a
veil in this context.
2) Demeter (when she has the epithet
Thesmophoros). She, too, wears the polos
with a veil.
In archaic art, all great goddesses may
wear the polos, however.
1) Athene with the epithet Core (the
Girl, the Maiden). This fruit is not one
of Athene's best known attributes.
3) Hera (as a bride). She sometimes
holds a pomegranate bud, rather than a
fruit, or a whole basket of pomegranates.
The fruit of the pomegranate is red, with blood-like juice, and contains numerous seeds. For these reasons, it seems to have been linked with female reproductive functionsthe blood of menstruation and childbirth, with the seeds as symbols of fertility. Therefore the fruit may have been seen as lucky for a bride. On the other hand, it also had Underworld associations. A pomegranate seed is that food of the dead which Core eats, and which, apparently, makes her an inhabitant of the nether world for ever. But because of the associations with reproduction, the pomegranate might have been seen as hopeful, a promise of rebirth, and suitable for the dead to eat. Cf. the similar ambiguity surrounding the cockerel and poppy.
Core/Persephone/Proserpina. The seeds of this flower were regarded as soporific. This referred to the goddess's annual stay (sleep) in the Underworld, and therefore also to death as a kind of sleep. An alternative interpretation is that the poppy stands for fertility, as each flower produces numerous seeds. The ambiguity of this plant recalls that of the cockerel and the pomegranate.
1) Electra, who may be carrying wine as
a libation to her father Agamemnon's
2) Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose
cult was imported into Rome. Water
allegedly fetched from the Nile was used
in her cult, and the pot is probably a
reference to this.
1) Helle. She rides on a flying ram, or
has just fallen off.
2) Hermes, who as a shepherd god
sometimes carries a small ram.
3) Medea. She rejuvenated a ram in a
cauldron of boiling water.
4) Helle's brother Phrixus. He rides on
the same ram, often together with her, but
sometimes alone after her fall.
5) Odysseus/Ulysses may be shown
clinging to the wool of a large ram, in
order to escape from Polyphemus's cave.
This is the Golden Fleece (perhaps an archaic sign of royalty). It may be shown hanging in a tree. Iason, helped by Medea, won the fleece and her love. The ram to which the fleece originally belonged was identical with that of Helle and Phrixus.
Tyche/Fortuna. Cf. wheel.
Hermes/Mercury. The wings represent
speed and movement. Boots may be
substituted for sandals.
3) Hera/Juno. Sometimes, in this case,
the sceptre is topped with a cuckoo.
Occasionally this goddess holds a sceptre
so long that it might as well be called a
4) Rhea. Also in her case, the sceptre
may be long enough to be called a staff.
Tritons. These marine deities of lower
rank may hold such seashells, perhaps use
them as trumpets. A triton with such an
instrument tops the university fountain in
In Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus",
the goddess stands up in a large, vertical
seashell of this kind. The motif may not
be older than this particular painting,
though the myth of Aphrodite's birth from
the sea certainly is.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd was later
depicted with such a staff. It developed
into the episcopal crozier.
shield with Gorgon's (Medusas's)
Also the Greek hoplites carried such
shields. The Gorgon's head was a typical
1) Cronus/Saturn. The latter was an old
agricultural Roman deity; the sickle was
an instrument of harvest (and perhaps a
lunar emblem as well, on account of the
crescent shape). When Cronus was
interpreted as Time personified, the
sickle became a symbol of his destructive
powers. In the Middle Ages, it turned into
the scythe wielded by Time, who thus
preserved an agricultural connection, or
Death. Today, the personified Old Year
sometimes borrows Time's emblems, the
scythe and the hourglass.
2) Perseus. The sickle as his weapon
seems gradually to have ousted his sword.
This rattling instrument is sometimes
held by Isis, the great Egyptian goddess
whose cult became popular in the Roman
empire. Her priests and other devotees
used sistra, perhaps for apotropaic
1) Asclepius/Aesculapius. See caduceus.
2) Athene. A small guardian snake may
be half hidden behind her shield.
3) Apollo, who killed Python, a much
larger and more dangerous serpent.
4) genii or iunones. The "soul" of the father of a Roman household was known as his genius, that of the mother as her iuno. These spirits could either be depicted with a snake, or as snakes (the male one was then bearded).
5) Hermes/Mercury. See caduceus.
6) The Hesperides. Their apple-tree is
guarded by a snake.
7) Iason. One cup-painting shows him as half regurgitated from the jaws of a huge serpent. The literary versions of the Iason stories do not mention this event, which may symbolize rebirth (Cf. caduceus). The name "Iason", suitably, means "healer".
8) Laocoon and his sons. They were
strangled by sea serpents.
Oedipus, who solved the riddle of a famous sphinx. Cf. wings.
2) Leda. She was seduced by Zeus
disguised as a swan. In one version, their
encounter caused Leda to lay two eggs,
each containing a famous pair of twins:
Helen and Clytaemnestra, and Castor and
Polydeuces/Pollux. Because of their mixed
parentage, sometimes only one of the twins
was in each case regarded as divine:
Helen, but not Clytaemnestra; Polydeuces,
but not Castor.
1) Aeneas. He is sometimes depicted
with a white sow that was the augury for
his founding of Lavinium. He sacrificed
the animal to Juno.
2) Atalanta. She was one of those who
killed the Calydonian boar, and is shown
as participating in this hunt.
3) Circe is occcasionally shown with
men who have partly been turned into swine
and other animals; perhaps these victims
of her magical powers are supposed to be
in the actual process of being
4) Heracles/Hercules may carry a boar.
This is the fierce Erymanthian wild boar,
and to capture this animal was one of
Heracles's Labours. The hero may be shown
as presenting this swine to Eurystheus,
for whom these were performed.
5) Meleager was also involved in the
Calydonian boar hunt, just as Atalanta
It represents lightning, and is often depicted as an oblong, rather plump "bomb" (but sometimes as a double axe).
1) Summanus, a Roman god in charge of
nocturnal thunder and lightning.
2) Vediovis. He was a Roman, rather
mysterious god who may have represented
some negative aspect of Jupiter, perhaps
his capacity to kill as the wielder of
This staff, topped with a pine cone, is
a typical emblem of Dionysus/Bacchus. Also
his worshippers, the Bacchantes, may carry
such staffs. It has been suggested that
the pine cone obliquely refers to that
pine resin with which some Greek wine was
(and is) flavoured.
1) Artemis/Diana. Torches in this
context have been interpreted as a
reference to nocturnal hunting. To me it
seems more likely that they symbolize the
light of the moon. Like Hecate, Artemis
and probably Diana were lunar deities,
among other things.
2) Eros/Amor/Cupid in connection with
weddings, when torches were used to
accompany the bride after dark.
3) Core/Persephone/Proserpina. A torch
may refer to her wedding, or rather
4) Hecate. She is sometimes shown in
triad, with three torches, as presiding
over a crossroads where three roads meet.
Both the torches and the number three
refer to the moon, the former because they
shine at night, the latter because it was
the lunar sacred number. (The moon had
three aspects: waxing, full, waning).
5) In sanctuaries dedicated to Mithras,
there were often two sculpted figures, one
holding an upright torch, the other an
inverted one, probably symbols of the
rising and setting sun. But also an almost
opposite interpretation is possible: that
the upright torch stands for night, when
torches were needed, and the other one for
day, or morning, when they were put out.
Poseidon/Neptune. The trident was a weapon used for tuna fishing. But the number three was also a sacred or lucky number. The god was supposed to stir up storms at sea with his trident. He could also use it to create freshwater or salt water springs.
Apollo and Heracles/Hercules are
sometimes shown as fighting for the tripod
of Apollo's temple at Delphi. The struggle
has been said to symbolize a Dorian
attempt to take over this cult centre. The
tripod was that on which the oracle
(sibyl) sat when she prophesied; three was
a sacred number.
veil or shawl.
3) Cybele may wear one with her crown.
4) Hera (as a bride).
5) Hestia/Vesta wears one on her head and shoulders. So did each Vestal in Rome. This was really a bridal headdress; Vesta was chaste, and so had the Vestals to be, because they were considered to be married to the eternal fire on Vesta's sacred hearth. Fire is almost always male in mythology and folklore. Cf. the veils of nuns, who in many ways were the Vestals' successors. Nuns were, and are, called the brides of Christ.
6) Nereids (sea nymphs) sometimes
holdrather than weararching or
billowing veils, probably representing the
waves of the sea.
7) Also sacrificing Roman heroes, such
as Aeneas, may be depicted with their
heads veiled, according to the custom in
Dionysus/Bacchus. It seems odd that the ivy is far more common as an emblem of his.
1) Circe as a sorceress.
2) Hermes/Mercury as conductor of souls
to the Underworld.
The later wands of fairies, witches and
wizards seem to be derived from these two
Tyche/Fortuna. She usually has either a
wheel or a rudder, as well as a
cornucopia. Perhaps the wheel originally
symbolized the turning year, but developed
into an emblem of the vicissitudes of
life. As such, the wheel was used well
into the Middle Ages. Fortuna as a Roman
goddess stood for chance rather than fate.
So did her later, more vulgar equivalents,
Dame Fortune and Lady Luck.
wild boar. See swine.
Many creatures in classical mythology
sport birds' wings. Quite often these
indicate speed, but sometimes the
reference is clearly rather to a position
"up there" (in the sky), or to
something/somebody that is not a material
object or person.
These are only a few examples,
relatively common in pictorial art:
1) Eos/Aurora, goddess of dawn.
2) Eros/Cupid/Amor. The son of
Aphrodite/Venus, he was depicted as a
naked winged boy, sometimes with a bow and
arrows. There are also cupids in the
plural; these tend to have a purely
3) Nike/Victoria (Victory).
Personifying military victory, she
usually, though not always, is equipped
with wings. It is possible that she
originally stood for a quick or unexpected
victoryhence the wings, meaning
4) Pegasus. See horse(s).
5) Psyche. She represents the human
soul, and is normally wingedperhaps
because thought is quick like a bird,
perhaps because the soul was believed to
rise, like a bird or butterfly, at the
moment of death. (There were also other
notions of the afterlife.)
6) Sirens. They were part women, part
birds. Post-classically, they developed
7) Sphinxes. The Greek ones were part
women, part lions, and had wings.
(Egyptian sphinxes, on the other hand, are
part men, part lions, and lack wings.)
8) Summanus. The Roman god of nocturnal thunder and lightning, he is sometimes depicted with wings, to indicate that he belongs to the upper regions (the sky). His other emblem is the thunderbolt.
9) Winds. Personified winds could have
See also sandals, winged.
Romulus and Remus. When these twins,
later founders of Rome, were newborn, they
were suckled by a she-wolf. The triad of
boys and wolf became a symbol of Rome, as
city and empire. The wolf was one of
Mars's sacred animals, and the myth is
symbolic. Mars was, or became, the Roman
god of war. Romulus and Remus stand for
all Romans: nourished on wolf's milk, they
were "inevitably" a martial people.