The sign of the cross, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly antedates, in both the East and the West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. In fact, some have sought to attach to the widespread use of this sign, a real ethnographic importance.
It is true that in the sign of the cross the decorative and geometrical concept, obtained by a juxtaposition of lines pleasing to the sight, is remarkably prominent; nevertheless, the cross was originally not a mere means or object of ornament, and from the earliest times had certainly another -- i. At successive periods this was modified, becoming curved at the extremities, or adding to them more complex lines or ornamental points, which latter also meet at the central intersection.
The swastika is a sacred sign in India, and is very ancient and widespread throughout the East. It has a solemn meaning among both Brahmins and Buddhists, though the elder Burnouf "Le lotus de la bonne loi, traduit du sanscrit", p. Asiatic Soc. It seems to have represented the apparatus used at one time by the fathers of the human race in kindling fire; and for this reason it was the symbol of living flame, of sacred fire, whose mother is Maia, the personification of productive power Burnouf, La science des religions.
It is also, according to Milani, a symbol of the sun Bertrand, La religion des Gaulois , p. Others have seen in it the mystic representation of lightning or of the god of the tempest, and even the emblem of the Aryan pantheon and the primitive Aryan civilization.
Emile Burnouf op.
In this way, especially through the adverbial particle, it would mean "sign of benediction", or "of good omen" svasti , also "of health" or "life". The swastika sign was very widespread throughout the Orient, the seat of the oldest civilizations. The celebrated excavations of Schliemann at Hissarlik on the site of ancient Troy brought to light numerous examples of the swastika: on spindle-racks, on a cube, sometimes attached to an animal, and even cut upon the womb of a female idol, a detail also noticeable on a small statue of the goddess Athis.
The swastika sign is seen on Hittite monuments, e. We find it also on the coins of Lycia and of Gaza in Palestine. In the Island of Cyprus it is found on earthenware vessels. II, sqq. It seems to have been unknown in Assyria, in Phnicia, and in Egypt.
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In the West it is most frequently found in Etruria. It appears on a cinerary urn of Chiusi, and on the fibula found in the famous Etruscan tomb at Cere Grifi, Mon. VI, no. There are many such emblems on the urns found at Capanna di Corneto, Bolsena, and Vetulonia; also in a Samnite tomb at Capua, where it appears in the centre of the tunic of the person there depicted Minervini, Bull. XVI, pt. II, p. Milan, I, , sqq.
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In the last monument the swastika is imperfect in form, and resembles a Phnician letter. We shall explain below the value and symbolical meaning of this crux gammata when found on Christian monuments. But the swastika is not the only sign of this kind known to antiquity. Cruciform objects have been found in Assyria. Cruciform earrings were found by Father Delattre in Punic tombs at Carthage. Another symbol which has been connected with the cross is the ansated cross crux ansata of the ancient Egyptians, wrongly called the "ansated key of the Nile".
It often appears as a symbolic sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhet. From the earliest times also it appears among the hieroglyphic signs symbolic of life or of the living, and was transliterated into Greek as Anse Ansa. But the meaning of this sign is very obscure Da Morgan, Recherches sur les origines de l'Egypte, ; perhaps it was originally, like the swastika, an astronomical sign. The ansated cross is found on many and various monuments of Egypt Prisse d'Avennes, L'art Egyptien, III, , p. II, , p.
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We may add that some have claimed to find the cross on Grecian monuments in the letter chi , which, sometimes in conjunction with rho , represented on coins the initial letters of the Greek word chrysoun , "gold", or other words indicative of the value of the coin, or the name of the coiner Madden, "History of Jewish Coinage", London, , ; Eckhel, "Doctrina nummorum", VIII, 89; F. We shall return, later on, to these letters.
In the bronze age we meet in different parts of Europe a more accurate representation of the cross, as conceived in Christian art, and in this shape it was soon widely diffused. This more precise characterization coincides with a corresponding general change in customs and beliefs. The cross is now met with, in various forms, on many objects: fibulas, cinctures, earthenware fragments, and on the bottom of drinking vessels. De Mortillet is of opinion that such use of the sign was not merely ornamental, but rather a symbol of consecration, especially in the case of objects pertaining to burial.
In the proto-Etruscan cemetery of Golasecca every tomb has a vase with a cross engraved on it. These pre-Christian figures of the cross have misled many writers to see in them types and symbols of the manner in which Jesus Christ was to expiate our sins. Such inferences are unwarranted, being contrary to the just rules of criticism and to the exact interpretation of ancient monuments.
The crucifixion of living persons was not practised among the Hebrews; capital punishment among them consisted in being stoned to death, e. But when Palestine became Roman territory the cross was introduced as a form of punishment, more particularly for those who could not prove their Roman citizenship; later on it was reserved for thieves and malefactors Josephus, Antiq.
Though not infrequent in the East, it was but rarely that the Greeks made use of it. It is mentioned by Demosthenes c. The stake and the gibbet were more common, the criminal being suspended on them or bound to them, but not nailed. Certain Greeks who had befriended the Carthaginians were crucified near Motya by order of Dionysius of Syracuse Diodor. It was at Rome, however, that from early republican times the cross was most frequently used as an instrument of punishment, and amid circumstances of great severity and even cruelty.
It was particularly the punishment for slaves found guilty of any serious crime. Hence in two places Pro Cluent. It is certain, however, that it was absolutely forbidden to inflict this degrading and infamous punishment on a Roman citizen Cic. Concerning a slave, the master might act in one of two ways; he might condemn the slave arbitrarily Horace, Sat. The legal immunity of the Roman citizen was somewhat modified when the poorer citizens humiliores were declared subject to the punishment of the cross Paul.
The punishment of the cross was regularly inflicted for such grave crimes as highway robbery and piracy Petron. On arrival at the place of execution the cross was uplifted Cic.
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Soon the sufferer, entirely naked, was bound to it with cords Plin. He was then, as Plautus tells us, fastened with four nails to the wood of the cross "Lact. Finally, a placard called the titulus bearing the name of the condemned man and his sentence, was placed at the top of the cross Euseb. Eccl", V, 1; Suet.
Slaves were crucified outside of Rome in a place called Sessorium, beyond the Esquiline Gate; their execution was entrusted to the carnifex servorum Tacit. Eventually this wretched locality became a forest of crosses Loiseleur, Des peines , while the bodies of the victims were the pray of vultures and other rapacious birds Horace, "Epod.
It often happened that the condemned man did not die of hunger or thirst, but lingered on the cross for several days Isid. To shorten his punishment therefore, and lessen his terrible sufferings, his legs were were sometimes broken crurifragium, crura frangere; Cic. This custom, exceptional among the Romans, was common with the Jews.