Posts tagged ‘controversial arms’

Painful heraldry

As I was visiting the various blogs I regularly visit, I came across this post from the blog Georgian Heraldry by Alexander Mikaberidze.

The image above is of the coat of arms of Istvan Varallyay of Hungary. According to Mikaberidze, the armiger was a master farrier and gelder.

A farrier is a person who specializes in the care of a horse’s feet. However, the inspiration for the arms most probably came from Mr. Mikaberidze other specialty, gelding or castrating equines.

Heraldry originated in the European battlefields of the Middle Ages as decorated shields as a means of identification and is derived from the earlier practice in such places as Greece and elsewhere to instill fear in the enemy. The shield above identifies the family and most definitely instills fear in any male that gazes upon them!

Controversial arms – Skull and crossbones in heraldry

In this entry in the series on controversial arms we will explore the user of the skull and crossbones in heraldry.

This combination has for centuries been associated with death and has adorned cemeteries around the world. It has also become closely tied to piracy as variations of the theme were used on their flags by American and European pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. These skeletal images were collectively called the Jolly Roger.

Jolly Roger

The flag above, arguably the quintessential pirate flag, was actually that of Edward England, a pirate operating in the Indian ocean during the 18th century.

In the German speaking countries, the skull and crossbones is known as Totenkopf. The word literally means “dead man’s head”. The difference from the Jolly Roger is that the bones are placed directly behind the skull. Its use began in the 18th century by the Hussars of the Prussian army under King Frederick II the Great.

SS Division Totenkopf

The German tradition of the symbol was besmirched by the Nazi regime of Germany and used by the Schutzstaffel units, better known as the SS.

Kuperjanov BattalionInterestingly, this dubious history has not precluded its use by honorable groups, such as the Queen’s Royal Lancers and the recon battalions of the USMC. The arms above is the insignia of the Kuperjanov Battalion of the Estonian Army infantry, one of the elite of that country’s armed forces.

Hazard Skull and Crossbones

This association with death has also made the skull and crossbones as the international symbol for danger of death, especially for poison. The symbol above is the one used to denote a toxic substance.

So far, we’ve looked at the history of the skull and crossbones but, this is a post on heraldry. Let’s look at some coats of arms with this symbol.

COA Mallemort

The shield above is that of the French commune of Mallemort, located in the Bouches-du-Rhône department in the south of the country. The blazon of these arms would be:  Sable, at the fesspoint a death’s head above two bones in saltire Argent in chief a vase couche Or, all within a bordure Argent charged with the word MALLEMORT Sable.

COA La Coruña

This shield is that of La Coruña in Spain. The blazon for these arms would be: Azure, upon rocks proper charged with a skull crowned Or over two bones in saltire Argent, a lighthouse Argent masoned Sable its lantern room Gules all between to dexter and sinister three coquiles and in base one coquile Or.

COA Riumors

Another shield with the cross and skullbones, this time of Riumors, Girona in Spain. The blazon here would be: Argent in chief two skull each above two bones in saltire Sable and in base two bars wavy Azure.

The following images are from the site http://herbypomorskie.lo2.slupsk.pl/ displaying an armorial of Polish arms.

COA von ParsowThe arms above of von Parsow would be blazoned: Azure two thighbones in saltire Argent between at each end of the bones 4 estoiles of 6 Or.


COA von Oesterling

The arms above of von Oesterling would be blazoned: Quarterly, first and fourth Sable two thighbones in saltire Argent, second and third Or a human skull Argent. What is interesting in these arms is that the crest follows the same theme of two thighbones in saltire.

COA BiałogłowskiAbove, we have these Polish arms of Białogłowski blazoned: Gules three human skulls Argent 1 and 2.

COA Kerkovius

Finally, Mr. Ton de Witte supplied me with the arms above of the Dutch family of Kerkovius. The name means “cemetery” and therefore the arms allude to that. A very impressive and, dare I say, morbid shield but nonetheless well designed. I would blazon the arms as: Sable three Totenkopfs 1 and 2 above a fence fleury enarched Argent.

Controversial arms: Moors in heraldry

San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja

San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja


Alozaina, Málaga

Alozaina, Málaga


Continuing in the series of “Controversial arms”, in this entry we’ll look at the various arms created over the years depicting Moors or disembodied Moor heads.

Once again, let’s look at the history of the subject first. The name “Moor” was used to identify those of north African descent and also covered Arabs. It used to apply to primarily Muslims of Berber, Arab and also Iberian descent. However, over the years it has become a synonym to black Africans and that is how the term “Moor” is blazoned. It may be due to the relation of the Spanish word for Moor being “Moro” and the Spanish word for a black person being “moreno”; both words having as it’s root the Greek word for black “μαύρο”.

The Moors, as it is well known, occupied the Iberian peninsula from the 8th through the 15th centuries and left behind innumerable works of spectacular art. Perhaps their most famous legacy in Spain are the Alhambra palace in Granada and the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

However, their legacy also has left a number of wars with their Christian neighbors in Europe and in particular the Spanish. Perhaps the most known series of wars between Christians and Moors was what is called the “Reconquista”, where the Christian Spaniards reclaimed the peninsula from the Muslims. During these centuries of warfare, it was common for the Christian nobles to flaunt their victories on their coats of arms. This is why we see so many shields with the heads of nameless Moors in Europe.


Aragon, Spain


On a more pacifist side, depictions of Moors many times have deeply religious meanings and their blazoning is used to represent that. Perhaps the most famous coat of arms today depicting a Moor’s head is that of His Holiness the Pope Benedict XVI. His arms as Pope use some of the same charges as those arms he used when he was Archibishop of Munich & Freising and the Moor on this sheild is the “Freising Moor”. Though it is not certain who exactly it’s supposed to be, it is believed it is one of the following: Balthazar, St. Maurice, St. Zeno, St. Sigismund or St. Crobinian; all of which were (or thought to have been) Moors.









Controversial arms: The swastika in heraldry

Boreyko coat of arms

Boreyko coat of arms

Arms of Leonard Chamberlayne

Arms of Leonard Chamberlayne


We all know that heraldry started sometime during the Middle Ages, possibly around the 12th century and thus it predates all of the modern sensitivities. Sensitivities developed because of events that occurred over the centuries or because our society has changed and what was normal and accepted before, today is considered wrong, deplorable and even criminal.

Much of the heraldry of the world was created before any of these norms developed and therefore many would be considered controversial today and very few, if any, prospective armigers of today would adopt such arms.

Perhaps one of the most controversial images in the world today is that of the swastika, the hated symbol of the Nazi regime. A symbol used by the Nazi 3rd Reich responsible for the destruction of Europe during World War 2, the death of millions, countless atrocities and the Holocaust. A truly dark and disgraceful period of human history that should never again be repeated.

However, what may surprise many westerners, is that the symbol of the swastika has a more benign manifestation as well. In the historical record, we find it in areas such as Greece, Iran and the Indus valley. It appears to have been a very common pattern, due to its simplicity. Moreover, the symbol used to be called by it’s Greek name of gammadion or tetragammadion (named thus due to the similarity to the Greek letter “gamma” Γ) until the 19th century.

In eastern religions, the swastika is a symbol of the creator god Brahma (in Hinduism) and of Dharma or universal harmony (in Buddhism). Most surprising to today’s society is the use of the swastika pattern in Judaism! It has appeared in Kabbalistic work by Rabbi Eliezer Fischl and even on the floor of the synagogue at Ein Gedi in present day Israel, built 3rd century AD.

Even in the Americas, the symbol was widely used among the native tribes and displayed it with pride on their clothing and elsewhere.

Coming back to Europe, we find the swastika shape in various ornaments in Germany (pre-Nazism), Slavic countries, Finland and the Basque country of the Iberian peninsula. Other names given to the swastika or similar patterns in Europe is the “fylfot”, “kolovrat”, “swarzyca” and “labauro”.

Knowing this history of the symbol, tarnished by Nazism, we can then understand how it ended up on the coats of arms of various families, towns and regions. However, when blazoning a coat of arms, the term for this symbol is usually “fylfot” or even “cross cramponned” or “cramponnée” or “cramponny”; in other words, a cross potent with one arm of each “T” ending being broken off.

Finland has a special history with this symbol as it is evidenced by its continued use by official organizations of the government and military.

Standard of the Finnish Air Force Academy

Standard of the Finnish Air Force Academy

Presidential standard of Finland

Presidential standard of Finland


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