A Brief History of the Winged Skull symbol

crossfitnsc winged skull

I really like the winged skull painted on the wall at Crossfit North Santa Cruz. I contemplate it while rowing (Concept2 rower). I’m not sure who the artist is, but it draws your attention.

Warriors winged skullA friend pointed out the similarities to the gang symbol of the Warriors in the 1979 cult classsic film of the same name. This started me wondering where the symbol came from – it seemed like it might be one of those coming from mankind’s common psyche, springing forth from what Jung called our collective subconscious (yes, I really believe this stuff).


Perhaps or maybe not, but it is an interesting story. Working backwards…

Harley Davidson winged skullThe skull with wings logo is used extensively in motorcycle club and motorcycle gang art. A Google images search on ‘winged skull’ shows many examples. This is because in the early 1930s, motorcycle riders started to develop a kind of modern-day outlaw reputation, inheriting some of the heritage of the outlaw pirates of the past. The motorcycle company Harley Davidson played to this image and capitalized on it by introducing a skull with wings logo - one of it’s first and longest lasting. Of course anything associated with old Harleys was and continues to be cool.

Later, chapters of the Hells Angels motorcycle club also often featured a winged skull on their jacket logos.

Hells Angels Winged Skull Jacket Northern California Winged Skull Motorcycle Jacket with Winged Skull

Even the Grateful Dead got into the act…

Grateful Dead Winged Skull Ticket Grateful Dead Winged Skull pin Grateful Dead Winged Skull


490th squadron winged skullThe skull with wings motif has also long been used in the U.S. Military - “The (Army) 490th has a proud and distinguished history dating back to its beginning in India on 15 September 1942, when the 490th Bombardment, Squadron (Medium) was activated. The first combat mission was flown on 18 February 1943 in B-25 Mitchell bombers bearing the now famous "Skull and Wings" insignia, an adaptation of the personal insignia of the commanding officer at that time, Major James A. Philpott”.

As it turns out, the painting on the wall at Crossfit North Santa Cruz was executed by a local Santa Cruz artist from a design on T-shirt donated from a recent joint-forces military exercise.

But as intimated earlier, it’s a very old symbol, much older than the 20th Century.

Italian winged skull circa 1700s









Through time there is a tight connection between the skull and bones logo and the skull with wings logo. A skull is representative of the transitory nature of life and death, or sometimes the death-resurrection cycle. Sometimes skulls are shown with wings (called death's heads or winged death--representing the fleeting nature of life and impending death) and sometimes with crossed bones beneath (representing death and the crucifixion).

gravestone winged skullBoth the skull and bones and the skull with wings were popular symbols in America in the 17th and early 18th centuries, particularly on grave headstones. Here the winged skull symbolized the flight of the soul from mortal man. In this example from an early northeastern Protestant headstone, “Memento Mori” is Latin for remember death.

Likewise at the same time the skull and crossbones was popular both on headstones and with the flags of seafaring pirates - inspired by the gravestone symbology and meaning 'you are about to die'....

The symbology is old. Gravestone carvers during this period drew from a canvas of skulls, crossbones, wings, and hourglasses handed down through the middle ages.. In the 18th century the style changed to more happy images such as cherubs and happy images - more like what we are more familiar with now.

freemason winged orbThe skull and crossbones version is an important emblem in the ancient semi-secret society of Freemasonry, where it symbolizes the hierarchic structure and the transience of the material world. U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush both are members of the ‘skull and bones’ society. This is a picture from the Washington monument - note the ancient Egyptian symbol (tie-in covered later) at the top of the door.

Going back before the 16th century to the middle ages the skull and crossbone symbol is also used in initiation rituals as a symbol of rebirth. In Kabbalistic rituals, it symbolized the ‘sephirah death’ on the kabbalistic tree of life, the gateway to the higher realms of understanding only achievable through spiritual death and rebirth. In this context a skull did not inspire horror, on the contrary, it symbolised the promise of a new life. In Astrology the skull simply symbolizes change.

Durham cathedral winged skullThe earliest example of a winged skull I found was from over a doorway in Durham Cathedral in the UK. It's magnificant. Durham Cathedral has been described as ‘one of the great architectural experiences of Europe’. It is renowned as a masterpiece of Romanesque (or Norman) architecture. It was built between 1093 and 1133.

Going back even further, it seems likely the winged skull symbol was an evolution of winged disk and winged figure symbols. Found in many ancient cultures around the world, the winged disk almost always represents solar energy. The Assyrian winged disk represents the sun God Shamash; the Egyptian figure, the sun God Re. Some believe the figure is based on the appearance of the sun's corona during a solar eclipse. This ancient symbol has several embodiments of the alchemical “union of opposites”, an ancient doctrine which accepts a syncretism of conflicting views, a harmony as opposed to a never-ending conflict between Good and Evil.

Egyptian winged orb

Other ancient variations of the winged disk symbol had a god figure in the center. This variation was used by the Asyrians, the Egyptians and later by the pre-christian Zorastorians. In Zorastorianism, the Faravahar or Farohar is the spirit of human being that exists before birth and will continue to exist after death. It is to remind one of the purpose of life on this Earth, which is to live in such a way that the soul progresses spiritually and attains union with Ahura-Mazda (the Wise Lord).

Farohar or Faravahar symbol

It seems the common thread here for the meaning of the winged skull is the link to death. However throughout time the meaning has not been absolute death, but rather an emphasis on a spirit transitioning - between successive planes of existance or between heaven and earth.

skull reflected in eyeNo wonder the winged skull on the wall at Crossfit NSC drew my attention!


Copyright (c) 2008, John Harker