22 Symbols Of Death From Ancient & Modern Cultures


Throughout history, the human mind has tried to understand death. When words fail, symbols are used to describe and understand death. 

Death can be symbolized by hundreds of symbols. Despite the differences between these symbols, collectively they reveal insights into death’s meaning.

Sometimes, these symbols are an omen of death, while other death symbols are simply indicative of a death that has already occurred. 

When you’re looking at these symbols of death, you’ll want to pay specific attention to symbols that come from your culture and heritage’s beliefs, since these will energetically match your own life.

Most of these symbols of death are from ancient cultures, so they have a lot of energetic meanings attached to them. Read on to learn more about the most common symbols of death and why they symbolize the ultimate rest!

22. Raven

symbols of death, death symbols

Ravens are associated with death in many cultures, especially in the aftermath of a bloody or significant battle. Ravens are often seen in pairs and are usually used as messengers of bad news, usually announcing the death of a hero, at least in ancient mythology.

Yet they convey a deeper meaning than mere carrion-eating. They also possess a gifted sense of prophecy. So sometimes, the raven is a prophetical symbol of death, while other times the raven just shows us what we already know, appearing after battles, at cemeteries, and in other death-related areas.

While ravens are well-known death symbols throughout time, they also have many other positive significances, so it really depends on the circumstances.

21. Vultures

symbols of death, death symbols

In the spirit world, vultures are seen as messengers between life and death. Because they circle waiting for something to die and then swoop in to get it, they represent impending death.

The Mayans believed that the vultures were a symbol of transformation. As they eat the dead body, the spirit is transformed. So you can see that vultures as death symbols aren’t all bad!

20. Cypress Trees

symbols of death, death symbols

Cypress trees have been a symbol of mourning since ancient times. Until modern times, these trees dominated both Muslim and European cemeteries.

The Bible mentions cypress trees as a symbol of death. They are good plants to represent death because they represent evergreens and hence everlasting life. So in some ways, the Cypress Tree represents the soul after death.

The cypress tree is also a symbol of Hades, Greek god of the Underworld, because the aromatic branches were used to mask the smell of death, so the tree became sacred to this major god. 

19. Candles

symbols of death, death symbols

Candles represent the light of the next world. Additionally, they are a symbol of Christ as the guiding light of salvation. Although they symbolize death, they also symbolize hope.

Latin Americans believe that lighting these candles on certain days of the year brings them closer to their departed loved ones. Thus, candles can be associated with mourning, remembering and death.

Candles can be used in both religious and cultural rituals, such as lighting a candle for the deceased to reduce the gap between the living and the dead. 

18. Tombstones

symbols of death, death symbols

Tombstones themselves are symbols of death. Often used as grave markers, the stones indicate the location of graves.

Their presence is a memorial. Usually made of stone, these monuments preserve the memory of the deceased after their death. Some cultures also hold the belief that the soul has a unique tie to the stone.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in souls, tombstones are one of the most obvious death symbols today.

17. Bats

symbols of death, death symbols

Western cultures typically associate bats with death and destruction due to their perceived “unclean” status. However, Eastern cultures actually see bats as a sign of good fortune. Bats definitely aren’t one of the ancient symbols of death but have more recently been associated with the afterlife, and not in a good way.

Early Christians believed bats to be evil and representatives of Dracula – a blood-thirsty vampire, so bats represented the worst kind of death: the sort where you couldn’t fully die. Some Christians also felt that bats represented demons (due to their demon-like wings versus angel wings).

16. Hyacinth

symbols of death, death symbols

In ancient Greek lore, Hyacinthus is accidentally killed by Apollo, and from his blood grows the Hyacinth flower. Now, Hyacinth flowers still represent symbols of death in various different cultures, mostly stemming from different versions of this ancient mythology. 

While Hyacinth is one of the well-known symbols of death, it’s also a symbol of everlasting love, especially for those who have passed on.

15. Black Butterflies

symbols of death, death symbols

Black butterflies are usually associated with death and are considered unlucky. They are also symbolic of rebirth and death in some cultures and are one of the most ancient symbols of death.

Typically, butterflies come in a variety of colors, but black butterflies are uncommon. Black butterflies are often regarded as ominous and cryptic symbols of death and misfortune in many cultures. 

Black butterflies may indicate the death of a loved one if they hover around or land on your skin. A black butterfly or moth inside one’s house can also be a sign that a beloved has died.

Additionally, some Celtic and Irish myths associated black butterflies with the souls of the dead who were unable to move on to the next life. In other cultures, black butterflies are associated with witchcraft.

14. Clocks

symbols of death, death symbols

Symbols of death include clocks, grandfather clocks, and other timepieces. The clock is regarded as a symbol of death because it measures the time we have left on earth. It is a symbol of mortality. Time symbolizes the cycle of life in every way.

Death is symbolized by both a physical and symbolic clock. Time is important when it comes to death, especially in ancient lore – death is not random but often draws closer based on the time of the clock. The macabre is more real at night, especially at midnight. Life stops when the clock stops, at least metaphorically, so clocks are one of the symbols of death in more ways than just the physical.

One of the most recognizable time-related symbols of death is the hourglass. When an hourglass is turned upside down, the grains of sand eventually run out, symbolizing death.

Other common time-related symbols of death are ancient sundials. Sunrise marks the beginning of time, but nightfall is a symbol of death’s darkness.

13. Scythe

symbols of death, death symbols

Death (the Grim Reaper) is often shown holding a scythe (a curved, sharp blade at the end of a long handle), which he uses to cut down the living. These images are derived from pagan harvest rituals.

12. Crows

symbols of death, death symbols

Crows were considered an omen of death in ancient times. They were also linked to the occult. They are regarded as bad omens, just as most blackbirds and carrion birds (birds that feed on dead flesh).

According to some folklore, the appearance of a crow could be a sign of a hero’s death.

According to Native American tradition, crows symbolize death. In Native American folklore, however, the crow is also described as a trickster; they are seen as messengers who can connect this world with the next.

A crow often represented the gods or goddesses in ancient Rome who were shapeshifters. Crows are often associated with negative events, particularly when they represented death. Furthermore, Romans used different animals to predict the future, and the crow was an omen of murder.

The Morrigan, the Celtic goddess, transformed into a crow and often appeared at or before battles. The Morrigan shapeshifts into a raven in some versions of the story. The Celts believed that the crow symbolized death because the Morrigan is a death omen. Learn more about The Morrigan here.

In much the same way as blackbirds, crows can represent metaphysical death – the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

11. Chrysanthemums

symbols of death, death symbols

Roses are a universal symbol of love, and chrysanthemums are a symbol of death, grief, and mourning in many European countries. 

White chrysanthemums are traditionally associated with grief, adversity, and sadness in Asian countries. As they survive the winter frost, they also symbolize immortality. 

10. Lilies

symbols of death, death symbols

In a funeral setting, lilies represent a soul that has been restored to innocence after death. Ancient Egyptians believed that lilies were sacred, so it’s no wonder that they’re one of the most revered symbols of death.

White lilies signify a rejuvenation of the soul and are popular both for weddings and funerals. They can symbolize purity, commitment, and rebirth, which is why they’re often used as Sympathy Flowers.

In fact, lilies are some of the most widely accepted symbols of death. There’s a reason why Harry Potter’s mother is named Lily – the word signifies death, certainly, but it also is a sacred symbol of the purest kind of death.

9. Banshee

symbols of death, death symbols

In ancient Celtic (Irish and Scottish) lore, a Banshee is a type of Fae creature who forewarns men and women of the time of their death. You will see her as a young woman, a stately matron, or a raddled old hag. Her way of announcing a death is by wearing a gray cloak and moaning.

The Celts believed that if they hear a banshee crying, wailing, screaming, or keening, a relative would soon die.

8. The Color Black

Death is symbolized most powerfully by the color black. When you die, any light you had in your life ceases to exist, at least in the physical body. Black most closely represents death because the light is literally snuffed out. In contrast to white, which symbolizes innocence and light, black represents endings.

This color (or absence of color) and the decay and darkness that it represents are common in the art world. Throughout history, black has been used as a symbol of death, nothingness, and the end of life in literature, movies, shows, poetry, music, and more.

Black is the color of death and mourning in the West. The color black is associated with the underworld and evil. Queen Victoria shunned bright jewelry after the death of her husband Albert, when she favored jewelry made of jet, a hard black stone that can be polished to a brilliant shine. 

Clothing plays an important role in representing death and mourning. Black clothing is often used to represent death. Families grieving the loss of a loved one have worn black for centuries to show that they are in mourning.

In addition, the popular grim reaper from countless novels and movies wears a black robe when he comes with his scythe to take your soul. Death is certainly represented by black.

7. The Skull

symbols of death, death symbols

Death being a symbol of the skull makes sense, literally. When a person’s body decays, the skull is left behind. For centuries, burial techniques left bodies more vulnerable to earth’s elements, and as a result, skulls were readily visible in graveyards and other places.

Occasionally, skulls are shown with crossbones that crisscrosses them, a symbol that came into being during the Middle Ages. These symbols of death were used by pirates and later to mark poison bottles.

There are many examples of skulls in literature. As far back as William Shakespeare’s writings, skulls have been symbolic of death. Hamlet is playing catch with skulls in a graveyard in Act 5. While he grieves for the loss of his father, he faces his own mortality, and he literally uses symbols of death to puzzle this out.

6. Flag At Half Mast

It is a sign of mourning to fly the flag at half-mast (halfway up the flagpole); the space at the top of the flagpole is reserved for an invisible flag of death.

5. The Cross

symbols of death, death symbols

For Christians, the cross represents eternal life and salvation. Before Christianity, however, the cross was an infamous symbol of torture, execution, and death. For example, the Romans used it to crucify their criminals and outlaws. There were numerous ways that the Romans punished criminals, including stoning, strangling, and burning, but the most menacing punishment was the crucifixion. The cross is the world’s most recognized symbol today.

4. White Horses

symbols of death, death symbols

For centuries, cultures from around the world have revered white horses in mythology. In addition to their association with warrior heroes, saviors, and magic, they have also represented death and bad luck. There’s a white horse for every unicorn and Pegasus – the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

So it makes sense that people in the midlands and southern counties of England are likely to spit over their left shoulder when confronted by a white horse. It is best to remain silent until you see a white horse in Lincolnshire if you see a white dog. White animals appearing in Sussex at night are a sign of death. In other parts of the country, if you dream of a white horse, beware – that’s a sign of doom.

This sentiment traveled to the US, where hearses drawn by white horses signify imminent death in Maine. A pregnant woman in Newfoundland should avoid looking at one as much as possible, otherwise a difficult birth awaits.

It may have something to do with the belief that the appearance of a white horse in your field meant you were about to ascend (or descend, depending on your perspective) to a new celestial plane throughout history.

3. The Owl

symbols of death, death symbols

In many cultures, the owl is seen as an omen of death. It is said that the owl is an ominous presence in Native American mythology with many tales of warnings about its appearance. It is often a symbol of death in Native American mythology.

The owl is regarded as a symbol of death as well in many cultures around the world. The evening hooting of the owl is believed to be a warning of doom and death. According to Aztec and Mayan folklore, the owl was a companion/messenger of the gods of death.

2. An Urn

symbols of death, death symbols

Urns were originally used as a repository for the ashes of the dead in ancient times, so they became symbols of death and mourning in ancient Greece. In several ancient drawings, it appears as if an Angel is inspecting the contents. The Urn may sometimes emit a sacred flame, indicating that life continues after death.

1. The Fourth Horseman

symbols of death, death symbols

With their fiery personalities, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are found in the last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation. 

Each horse and rider represents something different. Christ or the Antichrist rides the white horse, which symbolizes conquest. The red horse symbolizes war’s bloodshed. Famine is symbolized by the black horse, which carries a balance scale.

The fourth horse represents death itself. It is also known as the pale horsemen. The number four reflects the importance of four in the creation story and at the end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation, it symbolizes the end of the world.

As a way to bring sense and peace to death’s unyielding nature, these symbols gained popularity. Although death is inevitable, there are signs of hope in nature and in stories. From the familiar skull to the watchful eye of a raven, these images have earned their place in human history. 

We take steps towards accepting our own mortality by examining death’s culture and symbolism. We don’t have to let death stand in the way of living a full life, despite the fact that it is the great equalizer.

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