Most of us could identify at least a couple of national flags. But how much do we actually understand about them: their history and the message they are trying to communicate? Before we discuss the significance of their symbols and colors, it is first necessary to consider their history.
Flags had a military beginning. They were used as field signs. They were used to basically let you know if someone was an ally or an enemy, a fighter, or a civilian. Most European countries had their own national flags by the 19th and 20th centuries. The designs often harked back to military emblems from previous times. The Swiss flag is one such example.
Maritime flags originated in the 17th century. They were put on ships to identify the country they came from, so they were not necessarily confrontational in nature.
Flags had a political element to them, for example, the Union Jack was a logo designed to reflect the uniting of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Flags communicate the ownership of and sovereignty over a territory. (You could consider here how Tenzing and Hilary put the Union Jack on Mount Everest in 1953, and Neil Armstrong put the American flag on the moon in 1969!)
A change in a flag could reflect the change in the political regime. The US flag was adopted by the nationalist masses as a political statement of identity after the American Revolution. It comes as no surprise that national flags are often mentioned in the national constitution for some countries.
Some flags are similar to those of surrounding nations, and this can be a reflection of their shared histories.
You will frequently find symbols in flags. Some are universal, others specific to one nation.
The sun is a picture of oneness and power. It appears in the Japanese flag, interestingly called ‘the land of the rising sun’. The Argentinian flag also includes the sun which represents Inti, the Inca god of the sun.
The moon also features in flags, usually in a crescent shape to differentiate it from the sun. Combine it with a star, and it adopts a religious significance, for instance for Islamic nations. (See also the Turkish and Tunisian flags, and the one for Singapore).
Stars convey a sense of energy, in a similar way to the sun. The Philippine flag has three stars, representing the three main groups of islands. The American flag has 50 stars representing all 50 states, all of which interestingly, have their own flags which you can see if you click here. Even more interesting, some of these state flags have stars of their own. Stars are quite common to see and New Zealand, Brazil, and Australia are just some other countries that have adopted stars in their flags.
A cross is often used as a religious symbol, such as for Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, and England. The earliest use of the cross actually referred to the four points of the compass – north, south, east, and west.
Triangles can be used to speak of the Trinity-being three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and yet One. Other nations engage the symbol of power and strength. Consider the Bahamas, Sudan, and so on.
The square conveys real political content, communicating equal opposites and a sense of balance. It’s a good example of a flag demonstrating a sense of belonging to the nation, its aims, faith, and rules.
Like symbols, colors mean different things to different cultures. Colors can be used to convey the virtues and strengths of a nation, or elements of nature found there. For instance, blue for sky, sea, and water, white for snow or clouds, green for forests and grasslands, or yellow for the sun or fields of maize or grain. I’m sure you could have guessed some of those.
You’ll find white and red on the majority of flags. Most contain primary colors. What are they? Red, blue, green, yellow, etc. Others contain secondary colors, or gold to convey royalty and sun.
When you think of white, do you think of innocence and purity? Some flags convey that, apart from the flags that mean ‘I surrender!’ in a battle! Red can be referring to revolution and blood – another one you may have guessed.
Black conveys its ethnic element, strong will, or military victory. Blue could be communicating good things like justice and freedom, peace, and prosperity. Similarly, yellow could convey wealth and justice. Green could speak of fertility in its agriculture or the Muslim faith.
All in all, it’s a fascinating subject and well worth researching more. There’s so much to learn from a country just by taking a deeper look into their flags. Some of them even have amazing stories behind them. I hope you enjoyed this whistle-stop tour as much as I did.