Humans have a long history with symbols.
Ever since someone decided to draw on the wall of a cave, we've been attributing and exploring meaning to the depictions we create.
For the most part, we're used to that. We recognize businesses, ideologies, and complex ideas thanks to the images used to represent them.
Cults use symbols too, and they get really fascinating very quickly.
In this post, we talk about the main ways cults use, co-opt, and manipulate symbols to help attract and manipulate their followers. This overview will hopefully help you recognize these symbols in the wild - and what they are actually trying to convey.
Why Do Cults Use Symbols?
Cults use symbols because everyone uses symbols.
But in the case of cults, they tend to be used to support a greater cause in some specific ways:
They quickly convey meaning - like a code or shorthand.
They can illicit a sense of mysticism and wonder.
They are easy to disguise or share alongside other modern symbols.
They make outsiders curious and open the door for conversation and conversion.
They can be used to incite emotional responses like fear, guilt, or loyalty.
They can be used to control the thoughts and actions of group members.
Cults often use signs and symbols to establish group identity, communicate covertly, or invoke specific meanings among their members.
In some cases, the harmful ideas that many cults espouse are easier to disguise behind an easy to recognize symbol. The other side of this coin is that using symbols can make it easier to spot a cult.
That's why it's important to understand some of the ways they use these images.
#1: Emblems or Logos
Everyone has a brand these days - at least it seems that way.
Cults are no exception.
Many dangerous groups utilize a unique logo or emblem to represents their beliefs, ideologies, or leadership in a larger sense. A logo can be any combination of shapes, letters, or abstract designs, but you'll usually find that groups borrow heavily from ancient religious symbolism.
Here's a historical example from the Heaven's Gate group:
Image source - wikipedia
In most cases, the logo for a cult serves the same purpose as a business's logo - it provides a distinct image that the organization can rally behind. These are created and shared to enhance the group's sense of presence and togetherness.
#2: Seals and Sigils
You may be wondering at this point - what's the difference between an emblem/logo and a seal/sigil?
In short - physicality.
Sigils and seals are designs emblazoned on a item or structure believed to hold magical or spiritual power. These may be used in rituals, ceremonies, or as a more subtle representation of core beliefs.
A helpful analogy for this is a rubber stamp. It's a physical object that's used to leave a mark and convey that a human wanted to note their engagement with whatever is on the paper being stamped.
When a cult leaves their sigil on something, it means they want their followers to be drawn to it. It's another way for cult leaders to display their power over ideas and focus their followers or impart a sense of protection.
For adherents, this is powerful stuff.
#3: Occult Symbols and Ancient Imagery
Cults sometimes adopt ancient or occult symbols from various esoteric traditions.
These symbols can include pentagrams, inverted crosses, all-seeing eyes, or other mystical emblems.
In many cases, invoking an ancient image or an occult symbol is an appeal to higher powers - a tactic meant to create a sense of wonder and mystic might. It can also be framed as a method to evoke hidden knowledge from higher beings - but it all comes back to reinforcing a system of beliefs and exerting control.
Some of the places you might see occult or ancient imagery include:
Rituals and ceremony where a sense of spiritual significance is "needed".
Visualization practices or astral projection exercises.
Teachings on meditation or levitation for enlightenment or spiritual progression.
Talismans and amulets believed to possess magical or protective properties.
Cosmology and attempts to visit other planes of existence.
Divination meant to guide decision making or see into the future.
It's important to note that the use of occult symbols and ancient imagery does not inherently make a group a cult. Many legitimate spiritual and esoteric traditions incorporate these symbols in their practices.
However, in the context of cults, these symbols can be manipulated to exert control over members, promote a sense of exclusivity, or exploit individuals' spiritual curiosity or vulnerability.
#4: Gestures and Hand Signs
Hand gestures and signs can be found in various contexts, including social clubs, fraternities, religious organizations, and cultural groups. But like other types of symbols, cults can co-opt them for other purposes.
Certain hand signs or gestures may be used by cult members to identify each other or signal allegiance.
These gestures can be subtle or overt, such as handshakes, specific finger arrangements, or forming shapes with hands:
Secret Handshakes - The use of specific grips, movements, or patterns in the middle of a handshake can be used by cults to assess whether someone is part of a group. These secret handshakes can also be used in rituals to control a participant's actions and ensure conformity.
Mudras - Mudras are hand gestures commonly found in various spiritual and religious traditions, including some cults. These gestures can have specific meanings and are believed to influence energy flow or facilitate spiritual experiences. Cults may adopt particular mudras as part of their rituals or meditation practices.
Non-verbal signals - Winks, nods, or other non-verbal expressions can also be used to signal meaning between members of a cult. These signals are meant to be subtle ways to convey an idea without attracting attention from non-members.
Symbolic hand signs - a common instance of a hand sign is the "V for victory" or "peace" sign made by extending the index and middle finger (while balling other fingers into a fist). Any hand sign can be co-opted by a cult to create a recognizable signal and display adherence to a group's ideas.
In almost all cases, the intent and meaning behind a secret gesture is determined by the group using them.
People often use gestures as greetings, or to convey comradery between friends - so don't go assuming that every cool handshake you see means someone is using cult symbols.
#5: Clothing and Jewelry
Cult members may wear specific clothing or jewelry as a way to identify themselves and show their affiliation. These items can feature symbols, colors, or patterns associated with the cult.
A famous example of clothing and jewelry as a group-wide symbol are the red robes of the Rajneeshees - a divisive group that turned a sleepy Oregon town upside down in the 1980's.
Image sourced from Oregon.gov
Why did they wear this color? According to one source, the Bhagwan (leader) of the group claimed the colors symbolized "the sunrise of the inner world."
In reality, clothing is often used as another a device used to exert mind control on cult members. By requiring individual adherence to a recognizable group symbol, it becomes very easy to spot someone who may be having second thoughts about their participation.
It also helps as a recruitment tactic. Group members who needed to travel would still wear these clothes to stand out from the crowd and illicit curiosity from strangers. If someone was suggestible enough, simply asking about these strange clothes could change their life.
#6: Tattoos or Brandings
Cults sometimes use tattoos or brandings as a permanent mark of membership or loyalty.
These markings may feature symbols, sigils, or even the cult's name or initials.
Why would someone go through with such a lifelong act?
At a base level, it's a way for an individual to express their group identity - similar to wearing matching clothes or wearing a cultic sigil.
A deeper reality is that tattoos are often a form of psychological control.
If a marked member decides to leave at some point in the future, the permanence of these markings presents a constant reminder of their decision to join the group. This knowledge can even dissuade someone from leaving.
A tattoo can also push a person deeper into a group due to the stigma of the tattoo itself.
Depending on the notoriety of the group in question (or the symbol itself), having a certain brand on one's body can lead to judgement, rejection, or fear from society. This stigma can be used to entice someone further into their group identity even if they have doubts.
In extreme cases, brandings can also be used as a form of punishment. Forced brandings can be used by a cult leader to publicly humiliate a wayward member and even assert a sense ownership over that person.
#7: Secret Codes and Language
Most cults use some type of loaded language (or insider terms) to describe the ideas and practices of the group. This extends to the use of slang or idioms that carry specific meaning to members "in the know".
In extreme cases, cults may develop secret codes or language to communicate covertly among their members.
The goal of these codes is often to deceive or misdirect non-members. This can involve using specific words, phrases, or even altering the meaning of common language.
In more extreme groups, it's possible for leaders to develop ciphers or encryption methods designed to hide messages from outside observers. This can be as simple as letter substitution or as complex as a computer algorithm.
Secret codes are also a way to differentiate inner circles, secret societies, or foster a sense of belonging within the group. If you've ever read The Da Vinci code (or seen the movie), you're familiar with this type of idea.
#8: Sacred Geometry
You've probably heard stories about how the Great Seal of the United States carries some secret meaning.
The U.S. Treasury even has a short podcast episode on the subject. Those symbols have long been the subject of conspiracy theories, but the meaning they were intended to convey isn't mystical or spooky.
Cults, on the other hand, can use similar types of imagery for their own ends.
Some cults incorporate sacred geometry, such as specific geometric shapes or patterns, into their symbolism.
Great examples include:
The golden ratio
The Fibonacci sequence
Circles, squares, triangles, and pentagons
Flowers or trinitarian images
These geometric designs may represent spiritual concepts, cosmic harmony, or hidden knowledge. And since shapes are everywhere in the universe, these symbols can be invoked in almost all aspects of a person's life.
In many cases, sacred geometry is used to represent esoteric knowledge or tie the group to a wider historical context. They can even be used to invoke ideas of mystical healing or energy work, or even try to connect someone to the greater universe.
When used by cults, sacred geometry represents yet another form of coercive control. By associating common objects with mystical meanings, it's yet another way that a person can be brought back to the group's way of seeing the world.
Some cults attach special significance to specific numbers or number sequences.
Numerology may be used to interpret events, assign hidden meanings, or guide decision-making within the cult. This is often tied up in cults with ties to religions, as numbers (like the famed 666) have longstanding traditions and meanings to specific faiths.
Just to provide an example of how numbers are used to "interpret", here's a silly exercise:
There are 9 points in this blog post. If you were to assume that has meaning (it does not), then you might start to look for ways to use that number to guide a reinterpretation.
For instance, you could assume that the ninth word in the post - which is "long", if you count the title - holds some additional meaning. Maybe that the "long" awaited answers to the true nature of cult symbols are finally ready to be shared with society.
Believe me, it can get way more drawn out than that example.
Do these numbers actually mean anything?
Usually no, but that's also what someone would say who wants to ensure that you don't look deeper.
You see how this bleeds into circular logic very quickly.
People Leave Cults
It's important to note that not all organizations using signs or symbols are cults. McDonald's golden arches are instantly recognizable, but there's no illicit intent there - just tasty cheeseburgers.
Symbols and signs can have various meanings across different contexts, and their interpretation may vary depending on the group or culture using them.
You may have even noticed that PLC uses a playful version of cult symbols on our website - it's fun design and a little easter egg for former members.
At the end of the day, cult symbols can seem a little silly to outsiders - but don't discount what these can mean to a current or former cult member. Anything used with sinister intent (like mind control) is worthy of caution.