Submitted to the Optic
As Alvin Korte recently travelled his native land, he became aware of and puzzled by the public display of an image that was deeply imprinted on his mind as a youth — the swastika.
With Korte’s special interest in images and their meanings, more questions were raised. Why were swastikas — which today are synonymous with the Nazis and with death and hate — displayed on the high corners of the El Porvenir Hotel in Gallinas Canyon?
Why was a Raton coal business named the “Swastika Fuel Company” in the early 1900s? And, why was a 1932 basketball championship won by boys from “Swastika School”?
Consequently, Korte wrote, Southwest Swastikas: Variations on a Design.
This booklet describes and illustrates the occurrence of the swastika on buildings, blankets, spurs, pottery, whiskey bottles, and on other media during the early 20th Century in regions of the American Southwest and northeastern New Mexico.
To learn more about the swastika, its presence and meanings join Korte at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 17 at the City Museum, 727 Grand Ave. Southwest Swastikas: Variations on a Design is the first in a Museum Series of publications by the Friends of the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection to provide a venue for scholarly research on subjects of community and regional interest.
As design, the swastika may appear relatively simple with lines, angles and symmetry. However, swastikas sometimes include human-like bodies with flowing hair as well as other natural and abstract image elements.
As early as 4,000 BC the swastika appears on pottery in Mesopotamia; it may even date much earlier in modern Russia on a mammoth tusk. Was this ancient figure invented by a single community member in a region of Eurasia and then copied or modified as it spread from one group to another? Or was a swastika figure independently created by individuals in several different and geographically isolated cultures and then spread from multiple centers across the globe? These questions remain unanswered.
However, this seems evident, from the archaeological and historical records: the swastika and its variations were a “written” expression in many cultures thousands of years ago in prehistoric Europe, the Near East, Africa and Asia, and more recently, in prehistoric Americas.
The early swastika may have begun as a simple design with relatively little or no special social or cultural meaning. Could it have begun as a doodle? Was it first used to fill space on a ceramic pot, or on a spear shaft, or in a rock carving or painting? Whatever function the image served at the time of its creation, it evolved into a symbol that could be “read” by many individuals and cultures to communicate ideas, emotions and meanings.
The swastika is a symbol. Symbols by design are arbitrary. That is, they in themselves are neither good nor evil. A symbol has no natural or inherent relationship to that which it represents; it is neutral.
The swastika design is arbitrary; it has no natural relationship to its culturally assigned ideas, emotions and meanings. But, humans bestow meaning to meaningless things. Meanings are often in the eye of the beholder. For example, three independent lines drawn on paper but arranged into the shape of the letter “A” or the letter “F” in the English language, and associated with western formal education, often convey significant meaning and emotion.
Symbols convey and reveal hidden levels of meaning that is often far beyond itself.
Cultures with very limited cross-cultural contact tend to have a common interpretation of their symbols. When different cultures meet and share their separate symbolic world, similar images may trigger different meanings and understandings.
A recent example occurred in Kentucky when several Amish males refused to obey state highway law for slow moving vehicles by not displaying the bright orange safety triangle on the rear of their horse-drawn buggies. According to their Amish tradition and religious beliefs the bright orange color and triangle shape are symbols of worldliness and lack of trust in God. The men were jailed.
We must remember, symbols are not static, but may change their meaning over time. Northern New Mexico may be a good example of this change.
And, as Rudolf Otto said, “Our language has no term that can isolate distinctly and gather into one word the total impressions that a thing may make on the mind.”
The swastika is such a “thing.”