What does it mean?

(Puzzle 005)

Secret society symbol? Heraldic?

Secret society symbol?
(Click image to enlarge)

Here's another puzzle from our keen-eyed investigator in Sweden. The symbol has a Nordic/Celtic 'feel', but we don't know if it is local to that part of the world or used internationally. In fact, we have no idea at all who designed the symbol, for whom, its age, or anything else.

Hence this page. If you recognize this symbol, please pass on your thoughts through the box below.

(In the meantime, we are refering to this cross as the St. Catherine Cross.)

This symbol is curious for three reasons:

  1. Christians use the cross as a symbol because Jesus was crucified on one. A crucifixion cross is usually shown with four arms; three short arms and one long lower arm, as we see in the symbol above. This basic form is called a Latin Cross.

    Latin Cross

    Quadrate Cross

    The Christian Crusaders adopted the cross symbol as identification mark. As heraldry developed and to fit on a shield, the lower arm was shortened so that all four arms were equal length. In heraldry, this is known as a Quadrate Cross, and the Greek Cross is an obvious example.

    In the symbol above, we see a combination of both the Latin Cross and the Greek Cross. Not unusual, and often designed that way just for geometric convenience. (See the Compostelan Cross for another example.)

    We do not know what this symbol is; consequently we don't know if the Latin/Greek combination has any particular meaning or not. If you know, please tell us.

  2. The second item of note is the use of closed 'U' shapes. Many crosses have flayed ends (such as the Maltese Cross) but on this cross the ends are different; rather like church windows or perhaps shields. Our favourite explanation to date (12th June 2008) is from somebody who suggested they may be chalices. If so, do their contents represent grapes, which together with the chalices would make this some sort of Communion Cross? Do you have any alternative idea?

  3. Finally, within each 'U' we see a wheel with eight spokes or flower petals. These are known in heraldry as double quatrefoil. Eight commonly means 'life' in various religions; for example there are eight petals in the Buddhist lotus sutra, and eight beatitudes in a Christian context. A baptismal font often has eight sides, so does each 'U' represent a font and is this a Baptism Cross? There are six 'flowers'. Is that significant? If you have an idea, please tell us.

Somebody has suggested this might be based in a 13th or 14th century Scottish design, perhaps a coat of arms, but we have no details about this. Have you seen this in heraldry anywhere?


Another suggestion is that it's a doodle by "someone sitting some place listening to some boring platitudinous priest and decided to design his or her own version of a cross", little realising that their doodle would be flashed around the world countless times on a webpage such as this, taking up people's time in trying to figure out what it means!

By far the best idea to date (14th February 2010) is from an artist, writer, and teacher from Portland, OR, USA, (website) who suggests that the cross is attributed to St. Catherine of Alexandria who was martyred for her faith. When death didn't follow the torture of the spiked breaking wheel, she was beheaded. St. Catherine is venerated by the Orthodox Church a 'Great Martyr', and the Catholic Church rever her as one of the 'Fourteen Holy Helpers'.

So that's where we are for the moment. We have provisionally classified this puzzle as 'solved' and named it a St. Catherine's Cross. (But as with all our solved puzzles, if you have an alternative idea please email us.)

Feel free to email us with your thoughts.

Puzzling symbols index

Beatitude: One of the eight sayings at the beginning of Jesus' very first sermon - the Sermon on the Mount. In Latin each saying begins with beatus (blessed) and they are listed in Matt. 5:3-11.


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