Â Skull symbolism is instinctive in human nature. The human mind is primed to recognize faces, and so eager to find them that it can see faces in a few dots and lines or punctuation marks; the face that looks back from a human skull cannot avoid recognition as having been once human. Moreover, a human skull, with its eyes much larger than in life, displays a degree of neoteny (think of kittens, puppies and babies, no, seriously), which humans often find visually appealing. Yet, a skull is obviously dead. As such, human skulls have a visual appeal beyond the other bones of the human skeleton, and can fascinate even as they repel.
One look at a skull and we can see death staring at us from those big empty sockets. It’s not surprising then that the skull is known all over the world as a symbol of death. In many cultures, it is held up as a reminder of our own mortality or, in the universal Latin, a memento mori – a memento of mortality.
In Christian art and culture, the skull has been seen as a symbol of eternity, repentance, and human vanity and, therefore, a reminder to keep to the straight and narrow. It appears in medieval religious paintings as Adam’s skull placed at the foot of the Cross and symbolizing the Redemption. An ancient symbol of the skull with a serpent crawling through the sockets was the symbol of knowledge and immortality. The serpent in the skull is also a favourite emblem denoting ‘”knowledge surviving death”.Many great Renaissance masterpieces prominently feature skulls, and most portraits of Saints, Cardinals, Popes and Royalty contained a skull as a reminder of the importance of living a virtuous life.
Historically, the skull was a popular symbol of triumph over the enemy, and a warning to the people defeated in battle. Collections of skulls might be stacked by the victors in public places, as an obvious declaration of victory and grim reminder of the losses of the vanquished. It was also worn as a trophy and even drunk out of by conquering kings. Centuries ago, heads were stuck on pikes at Traitor’s Gate in London, and left to rot — a dire warning to all who walked by. The skull, or Totenkopf was the Nazi SS insignia in WW2, a symbol to be feared, but when tattooed on the arm of a biker outlaw, it is a death-defying symbol believed to cheat death. In New Guinea, skulls were placed in the rafters of the medicine house as a reminder of death always present in life. Ancient Pompeii came up with the image of the skull crowned with the spirit level, the carpenter’s favorite tool, suggesting Death as the great leveller.