Notes from a Time Sifter

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Flags, symbolism, and identity

During the summer of 2015, flags became a topic in the news when it was decided to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.  Flags are strong symbols representing many things and so provoke intense feelings among people.  They have been used for that reason for a very long time. The word “flag” comes from “fflaken”, an Old Saxon word meaning “to fly” and have been used as a way to identify a group or an idea since prehistoric times. Cloth flags “fly” in the breeze but not all flags were made of cloth.

The earliest flags appear to have been made of wooden poles with carvings at the top.  Egyptian Nome leaders carried standards as early as the Early Dynastic Period (31st century b.c.e.). Others were made of metal attached to a pole. The oldest metal “flag” is made of bronze and dates to the 4th millennium b.c.e.  It was found in Kerman, Iran. Other images of “flags” have been found on ancient Greek and Phoenician coins indicating the common use of flags.

As far as we know, the Romans were the first to fly a cloth flag.  More than two-thousand years ago, Romans fastened a piece of colored and decorated fabric to the end of a spear.  It was called a “vexillum” which means “guide” and was used to keep the unit together because the soldiers could see it above the battle.  Later Romans tied cloth flags to a pole creating the flag we know today.  Flags were also carried onto the battlefields so that one could tell the difference between friend and foe. The flag’s symbols were painted on shields for the same reason, and by the Middle Ages, painted on suits of armor to demonstrate the ancestry of the knight who wore it. This was the origin of the “Coat of Arms “originally intended to protect and identify the wearer, and later used to brag about one’s heritage (medievalclassroom.com).

Flags also identified the owners of ships as they sailed the seas.  During the “Age of Exploration” (15th – 17th centuries), rival ships attacked each other and pirates roamed the seas to steal cargo.  Pirate flags warned of the consequences of resistance by raising their flags which were red, signifying blood, or black, signifying death.  Sometimes the pirate flags carried the picture of a skull with crossed bones or swords beneath the skull to show that there was no mistake in their intentions.  The pirate flag that we see in the movies with a white skull on a black background called the “Jolly Roger” is accurate except that the white skull usually had a red background.  Its name comes from the French jolie rouge that translates as “pretty red,” but meant “don’t even think about resistance.”  Colors were important and still are. Red still means danger and a black flag can mean death or determination.  White flags meant peace and are still the universal symbol of surrender.  Blue generally stands for truth and justice, and green signifies hope and love (vexillologymatters.org ).  Maritime international code flags spell out messages to alert sailors to distress.

Important leaders and regions have used flags as symbols also.  The oldest state flag in the world that is still in use by an independent nation is the national flag of Denmark, the “Dannebrog.”  It has flown since 1219 (funtrivia.com).  By the 18th century, flags that were used to identify the nations of the world became more common.  Today, all nations have their own flags, now called vexilloids after the Roman flags, and they symbolize the same intense patriotic feelings they provoked so many thousands of years ago.

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