The skull and crossbones symbol is a ‘memento mori’ which is Latin for ‘Remember that you have to die’ or ‘Remember that you are mortal.’ It’s a reminder of the temporary, transient nature of human life. We are all born to die and should try to make the most of life.
The skull and long bones crossed together are the survivors after death along with the other bones as they are the body parts that survive after the flesh has gone. It originated in ‘The Danse Macabre’, a medieval European allegory, in which the universality of death invites everyone, from all walks of life, to dance along to the grave. They are often accompanied by a pope, emperor, king, child, or
labourer as key symbols and people. It was intended to remind people of the fragility of their lives and that earthy glories were i n vain. Skeletons lead them to their death. The images of the Danse Macabre were not only reminders of the ultimate fate for us all but they were often humourous as well. But its most powerful theme is of death’s indiscriminate nature. In the Danse, Death wears many faces, as he brandishes his scythe, sounds the death toll bell or plays a violin – he is a friend as well as the inevitable.
The skull and crossbones was also a reminder that, on the Day of Judgement, the bones and skull would attach themselves together and the deceased would be able to walk again.
This symbol has appeared in other, more ancient cultures such as the Mayans. This example comes from Mexico.
The skull and crossbones was also appropriated in the 18th century by sea pirates and rechristened as The Jolly Roger. This emphasises the skull’s eternal wide open grin. There are also military connections and also counter culture with Hells Angels etc claiming it for their own. According to blogger, Amy Johnson Crow, there is also a Christian connection as she claims that the crossed long bones resemble the Christian cross.
The skull and crossbones is one of the most potent and universal symbols that has come down through the centuries. It will always remind us that the skull looking back at us reveals our own ultimate fate.
‘Death’ Richard Harris, Wellcome Collection
An Illustrated encyclopedia of traditional symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978
UT Southwestern Digital Services website
Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell unless indicated otherwise.