Vexillology Information, Part 2 of 4

(more about the study of flags and their significance)

Focusing on Flags

of the World

Origins of Flags

Flag is a word of Teutonic (Germanic) origin used from the 15th to the 16th centuries in various northern European languages to signify a piece of cloth, bunting, or similar material that displayed the insignia of a community, an armed force, an office, or an individual.

  • Originally, flags were used primarily in warfare; and to some extent, they remain the insignia of leadership, serving for identification of friend and foe, and as rallying points.
  • Flags are now also extensively used for signaling, for decoration, and for display.
  • "Although Switzerland did not adopt its national flag until 1848, the white cross on red was used by Swiss soldiers perhaps as early as 1339. The design is popularly believed to be a combination of the cross of the crusaders with the plain red flag of Schwyz, one of the original cantons."

    Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 9;
    Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.; William Benton, Publisher;
    Chicago; 1968; page 398.
  • Since the usefulness of flags is for purposes of identification, they must be made of materials that allow them to “fly” freely.
  • The earliest insignia used in battles were not flags but they are usually described as standards.
  • Ancient standards were made of some solid object fixed on a bracket at the top of a pole, sometimes with streamers attached.
  • The objects displayed were usually a sacred symbol; of the four standards carried before the kings of ancient Egypt, for example, one is claimed to have represented the king's placenta.
  • Other variants may have been the display (as in China) of the head of an enemy.
  • This might be the origin of the Greek custom of bearing a helmet or other piece of armor on a spear point.
  • The various Greek cities had more distinctive signs; such as, a sphinx or a Pegasus, and the Romans continued the process by using the effigies of gods, of generals, or of animals (wolves, horses, eagles, and bears).
  • According to Pliny, it was G. Marius who, in his second consulship, ordered that the Roman legions should have only the eagle as the standard.
  • The vexillum, or Roman cavalry flag, was closer to a flag in the modern sense and it is still used in ecclesiastical ceremonies.
  • It is described by Livy as a square piece of cloth fastened to a bar fixed crosswise on a spearhead.
  • This description is confirmed on Roman coins, medals, and sculptures.
  • The vexillium may have had special appeal for Christian Churches because it was cruciform.
  • Used in both Latin and Byzantine religious processions, the ecclesiastical banner has an unbroken continuity with ancient Rome.

  • The Significance of Flags

  • Flags can be easily and quickly made, altered, transmitted, and disposed of.
  • To display a flag is to participate in a group or a philosophy that spans time and distances; it is to express one's own views to others in a concise but dramatic form.
  • The flag is a powerful instrument for social participation and communication.
  • Flags, far from being merely a colorful exterior to the world of real events, constitute factors affecting that world directly as they manipulate and are manipulated by groups of people.
  • Examples of this can be found in even the most ancient societies.
  • Like other symbols, flags express the unity and identity of one group as against all others; it is a way of asserting the bonds that link people despite differences in their wealth, social standing, power, or age.
  • Flags are considered to be an externalization of the fears and hopes, the myths, and the magic of those who carry it.
  • While the earliest flags were vexilloids, the emblem at the top of the staff varied.
  • It might have been the tail of a tiger, a metal vane, a ribbon, a carved animal, a windsock of woven grasses or crude cloth, or a construction combining more than one material.
  • Vexilloids very early acquired a religious significance that they have never lost.
  • From earliest times to the present we find political entities named for their symbols; from the Black Bull and Two Shields Provinces of predynastic Egypt to the banners (political-military districts) of medieval France and Mongolia and the Bear Flag Republic of 1846 in California.
  • The line is difficult to draw between a flag as a sacred object to be worshipped and one rather to be employed simply as an instrument for communication with the gods.
  • In the Roman Empire, for example, the Eagles and other vexilloids were worshipped; for soldiers thousands of miles from Rome, these portable deities formed a link to the divinity of the emperor and the sacred devotions performed in his name.
  • Like Roman religion, these vexilloids had official recognition in the Roman pantheon even for the totemic vexilloids of barbarian troops serving in the Roman army.
  • It was a matter of great surprise to the Romans when the monotheistic Jews rioted in ca. 26 A.D. when the sacred Roman vexilloids were introduced into the Temple on order of Pilate.
—Compiled from information located in
Flags Through the Ages and Across the World by Whitney Smith;
McGraw-Hill Book Company; New York; 1975; pages 36-56.

Here is more Information about the Origins of Flags and Vexilloids, Part 3 of 4.

Also see the vexillogical word entries about flags at this vexill- unit.