17 Symbols of Life and How They Connect Us to the Human Condition

Throughout history, humans have sought to understand the meaning and richness of life. In that spirit, different cultures have created symbols representing life in all its glory.

Symbols of Life

Humanity uses symbolism to represent everything from life to death, love, triumph, war, and despair.

Here, we explore some of the most common symbols of life used throughout history and today.


The Ankh hieroglyph representing eternal life carved on a wall.
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The Ankh is one of humanity’s oldest symbols of life. Originating in Ancient Egypt in the 4th millennium BC, it is known as the “key of life.”

Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife. As the Ankh represents eternal life, it was one of their most vital symbols. It appears in tombs, on caskets, and in jewelry. Religious imagery sees the symbol associated with Isis and Osiris, among other gods. In Egyptian writing, the Ankh is a hieroglyph meaning “life” or “breath of life,” depending on context.

The Ankh’s shape, a cross with a closed loop at the top, helped it survive the ages, as it became a crucial symbol in early Christianity.

Tree of Life

Graphic illustration of a Celtic tree of life. The tree is white on a black background.
Image Credit: Tanvir Ahmed Siddique via Shutterstock.com.

Many cultures use trees to represent life. Abrahamic religions all start with Adam and Eve, who eat the tree’s fruit. Norse and Chinese myths include trees bearing fruit that bless the gods with immortality.

One of the most famous renditions is the Celtic Tree of Life, which shows a massive tree with complex, interwoven branches mirroring its root system. The similarities between the branches and the roots remind us that although we’re individuals, we’re all connected to the Earth.

Although the tree was associated with rituals of the dead in Celtic culture, modern society celebrates it as a symbol of life.



The Sun

Hindu holy sun god idol
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Our earliest ancestors understood the truth: the sun is life. Mankind’s earliest religions put the sun at the center of the universe, knowing that if the sun went out, we’d cease to exist.

Over the centuries, many societies worshipped sun gods as life bringers and ultimate rulers. The sun’s daily stroll across the sky came to represent humanity’s cycle of life and death.


A grey bunny in the grass with eggs colored for Easter.
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Humans link bunnies with life so much that we created a mascot to memorialize them. Our beloved Easter Bunny originates in traditions that link the amorous rodent to the early stages of life: rebirth and renewal.

It starts with their biology. Baby bunnies appear en masse in early spring, just as the days are warming and the flowers bloom. These traits sparked the association with Eostre, a Germanic goddess of springtime.


A variety of Easter eggs in a basket on a table.
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A hatching egg represents the dawning of a new life. It features heavily in the Hindu creation myth, as according to its traditions, the entire world hatched from a giant cosmic egg.

Eggs are also closely associated with life, renewal, and creation in Christian religions. They stand beside bunnies as a top symbol of Easter.


Photo realistic illustration of a firey phoenix/
Illustration credit: Declan Hillman via Shutterstock.com.

When a phoenix dies, it arises from its ashes and becomes reborn. The mythical creature represents our most common cycles: life, death, and birth.

The phoenix has a long history. It originated in Ancient Egypt and appeared in classical myths of Greece and Rome. The creature remains popular today, appearing in books, television shows, and movies.


A decorative stone with a triskele carved into it sitting on a green table with a red background.
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Today, we associate the Triskele, a triple spiral joined at the center, with Celtic lore, but its origins predate the written word.

Archaeologists have discovered archaic triskele imagery from as early as the Neolithic period, 8000 BC. It has survived for millennia, appearing on everything from classical pottery to Gothic architecture. Sometimes, the spirals are replaced by three human legs.

The three symmetrical spears represent the cyclical yet eternal cycles of life and death.

Mother Goddess

Venus of Willendorf - one of the earliest known carvings of the mother goddess symbol of life and fertility.
Photo Credit: Dan Shachar via Shutterstock.com.

The divine feminine intrigued humanity from the moment we were able to question the world around us. The almost mystical nature of pregnancy and childbirth captivated men, who created icons representing the allusive mother goddess.

The most famous mother goddess figurines depict a female figure with large swollen breasts and a round pregnant belly—the oldest examples date to the 8th millennium BC. Mother goddess figures crop up in nearly all religions, from Mother Mary in Christianity to Durga in Hinduism and Nut in ancient Egyptian traditions.

The mother goddess symbolizes motherhood, fertility, and the promise of a new life.

Seed of Life

Graphic showcasing the seed of life in white on a light purple background.
Image credit: Christina Georgieva via Shutterstock.com.

The seed of life provides a geometric representation of the interconnectedness of all things. It consists of seven circles, six of which begin from the central point of the central circle to create what looks like a flower petal inside the central circle.

In Christian traditions, the seven circles represent the seven days of creation. However, the symbol predates Christianity by thousands of years. Similar symbols have been found worldwide, and the earliest known representations come from Ancient Egypt.

Dharma Wheel

A golden dharma wheel and deer adorn the roof of the Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Square, Lhasa, Tibet, China
Photo Credit: Stefano Politi Markovina via Shutterstock.com.

The Wheel of Dharma represents life, death, and birth cycles. Though it’s commonly used in Buddhism to signify Buddha’s teachings about morality, its origins can be traced to early Hinduism, where it may have been associated with the sun.


A door knocker shaped like an ouroboros.
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The Ouroboros depicts a snake eating itself. The circular snake with its tail in its mouth represents the never-ending cycle of life and death.

Though adopted as a gnostic symbol, the snake predates Christianity by centuries. The earliest known representation dates to the 14th century BCE.  The symbol transcends cultures and times, as there are references to similar iconography in ancient Greece and India, along with modern psychiatric thought.


Stylized photo of large drop of water falling into an open hand.
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Humanity needs water. Without it, all life on Earth would cease to exist. Humanity associated water with life before we even understood symbolism. We created civilization on irrigated lands and built our first cities near crucial waterways.

Water’s natural movement represents the flow of life. It washes away the old while nurturing the new, cleansing an area so new life can flourish.


A pink lotus flower blooming in a green pond.
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The Lotus flower appears as a symbol of life across the globe, from Ancient Egypt to modern China. Through its long history, it has represented everything from life to purity, enlightenment to creation.

The Lotus flower’s unique biology makes it perfect for the symbolism. The gorgeous bloom emerges from muddy waters, showing how beauty can come from something soiled. Like the sun, its petals disappear at night but reappear in the sunlight, representing the cycles of life and death.  


The bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan.
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Bamboo build China. Ancient Chinese societies cultivated the crop for food, clothing, building materials, and more. It was integral to the flourishing arts, used as instruments and book bindings.

Bamboo’s relevance to Chinese culture made it a crucial symbol representing resilience, growth, and prosperity.


Cross section of a nautilus shell showing the spirals on the inside.
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Spirals abound in nature. We see them in crustacean shells, pinecones, curled-up plant stems, and hurricanes. Their prevalence and easy-to-reproduce geometry make them an archetypal symbol, meaning they’re found across cultures and times. The spiral has appeared worldwide, from the ancient Celts to the Hindus and Egyptians.

In most cultures, a spiral represents growth and cyclical transformation. It starts at a small central point and expands outward, growing and changing as it flows from the central axis. The spiral’s geometry reminds us that to live is to grow and to grow is to change.


Hands holding a crystal ball with the infinity sign on the inside.
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Infinity is timeless. It’s eternal.

We represent infinity as a sideways figure of 8, a never-ending loop constantly flowing.  Infinity represents life because of its timeless nature. It’s a constant, never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth so that the cycle can begin again.


A light seafoam green carved scarab beetle amulet originating in Egypt.
Photo Credit: Dima Moroz via Shutterstock.com.

In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the sun god dies each night after his journey across the sky. He’s resurrected each morning in the form of a scarab beetle.

The myth, which helped ancient peoples understand the nature of life and death, elevated the scarab to the sacred symbol of this cycle.

Why So Many Circles?

Circles feature prominently in symbolism representing life. Their simple geometry serves as an easy-to-create icon signifying the cycles ancient humans relied on for survival: the Earth’s rotation on its axis and orbit around the sun.

These cycles represented life for our early ancestors. Daylight brings safety, warmth, and energy. The seasonal changes foretold by the sun’s position in the sky brought promise of planting and harvesting seasons. We relied on them for millennia.

Why Symbols of Life Matter

Symbolism is fundamental to the human experience, and life is our most precious gift. The icons we use to represent life in all its forms and cycles help us come to terms with the terrifying aspects of living that only we can understand.

Humans are the only species on the planet capable of recognizing their own mortality. We are blessed and cursed with the knowledge that we will die one day, which makes us ponder life’s biggest questions, like why we are here and what happens when we die.

Our intelligence also allowed us to understand nature’s nourishing cycles. We track seasonal changes, learning the best times to plant and harvest so we’ll always have food.

The symbols of life used throughout history each tie into one of these essential aspects of humanity. They help us understand the cycles we rely on to survive and give us a way to grapple with mortality.

They also connect us despite language, geographic, or even time barriers.  We don’t need to understand the Celtic language to grasp the powerful symbolism of a massive tree with roots connected to the world. Anyone can look at these pictures and feel a sense of the deeper meaning behind the image, which links us to the shared human experience.

In these ways, symbols of life become a part of what makes us human.

Author: Melanie Allen

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Pursuing Your Passions, Travel, Wellness, Hobbies, Finance, Gaming, Happiness

Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation and is a certified happiness life coach. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.