What Do the Symbols on a Coat of Arms Mean?

Written by rebekah brooks
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What Do the Symbols on a Coat of Arms Mean?
Images on a coat of arms can tell you about the history of its owner. (Dublin city crest on street light image by Peter Helin from Fotolia.com)

Coats of arms have been used since the middle ages as a way for a family, city or country to express its identity and status. The coat of arms, often known as a family crest, is often decorated with specific colours and symbols that represent a distinguishing trait of its owner, such as bravery or courage. Knowing what the symbols mean can help you determine what a coat of arms says about its owner.

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Animals

Animals are one of the most common symbols used in coat of arms and the symbols are specific for each animal. Dragons usually symbolise protection and defenders of great treasure. Other animals commonly used were dogs, such as greyhounds and mastiffs, that symbolise loyalty and courage. Serpents and spiders mean wisdom and prudence, and larger animals like bears symbolise strength and cunning. A boars head stands for hospitality, while a whole boar means bravery and a fight to the death. Bulls and bull heads also symbolise bravery, and cats represent liberty and vigilance.

Weapons & Tools

Agricultural tools like scythes and shovels usually meant the owner worked the land for sustenance. Symbols of arrows indicate readiness for war unless shown with a cross, which then represents an affliction. Axes indicate an execution of military duty and batons are a symbol of authority. A bow and arrow symbolise war and power, and other weapons, like cannons and grenades, mean the family used those weapons in war. Swords and daggers represent justice and military honour. Drums and spearheads indicate a readiness for war, and a pilgrim staff indicates strong Christian faith. Flaming torches represent life, truth and intelligence.

Nature

Trees are often found on coats of arms and they usually symbolise life and a connection between heaven and earth. Cypress trees specifically mean death and eternal life, but apples and apple trees symbolise liberty and peace. Acorns mean antiquity and strength, while bay leaves symbolise poetry. A broom plant often means humility. A civic wreath made of oak leaves and acorns indicate someone in the family saved a person's life or showed patriotism. Clouds mean mystery and obscurity, and a cornucopia indicates a bounty of nature's gifts.

Structures and Furniture

A structure such as a castle represents safety, while a bridge stands for a governor or magistrate. Towers also mean safety as well as grandeur. Fountains represent water or a spring. Tables mean hospitality, and tents indicate readiness for battle. Castle gates usually stand for protection. Pillars symbolise fortitude, or wisdom with fortitude when a snake is wrapped around the pillar. Ships indicate an ancient and noble voyage that made the owner famous, but a dismasted ship means a disaster at sea.

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