The Skull Symbol: Subculture or Pop Culture

These days, we see the skull symbol emblazoned on everything from toddler socks to disco wear. In any American mall, youth specialty store, or discount store, you can see your image in many ways. Jewelery, jackets, t-shirts and other garments sparkly with rhinestones or other artistic representations. Heads aren’t just for Halloween anymore!

Why so much interest? Skulls are not a sign of rebellion or devil worship today. Once a powerful symbol of death and intellectualism, the skeletal remains of the human head are now cliché, perhaps even boring. Too ordinary for a true motorcyclist and so ordinary, even in its many artistic renderings, that it doesn’t even satisfy the morbid curiosity of the average elementary school student.

Skull images have long been associated with death and its significance; human spirituality, so to speak. It is a reminder of our mortality, the transitory nature of life, and, because of its existence after the end of chronological life, the limitations of human knowledge and understanding.

Skulls have also been endowed with magical properties and religious significance throughout humanity’s existence. Skull necklaces have been worn by people of many cultures to protect themselves from evil deities, or alternatively, by the gods themselves, to communicate anger and misery to those who oppose them. Christians associate skulls with penitent holiness and the washing away of human sin. Masons use the emblem to symbolize the hierarchy of their organization, as well as the transience of materialism.

Interestingly, the bones of the human head are more often expressed as icons of good luck or resurrection than bad luck. The misfortune of death is ultimately followed by the possibility of final liberation in Native American and Mexican folklore. The Day of the Dead, a popular Mexican tradition, celebrates the passing of ancestors and relatives, through the use of skulls in jewelry, as well as the cranial consumption in fabulously morbid sweets! In the same vein, skulls can be used as a gambling talisman, it is believed to reverse bad luck and symbolize luck in adversity, similar to black cats and the number seven, in the tradition of the game.

Skulls are known to most of us as emblems of danger, as depicted on a poison bottle; hatred as shown at the entrance to the Nazi death camps or fear, as expressed by the apocolyptic iconography shown on the t-shirts. This symbolic art no longer inspires horror, but it can still draw attention to a myriad of social causes or antisocial distress, so wear your skulls with pride and let the rest of us guess its message!

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