The "Meaning" of Coats of Arms

Generally speaking it is almost always impossible to accurately decipher the meaning of the symbolism on any personal coat of arms. Many of the arms in use today, or on which today's coats of arms are based, were granted hundreds of years ago and if there was ever a specific meaning to the symbols, then this is probably lost in history. Even in situations where there are records of the granting of arms, rarely, if ever, is the symbolic significance recorded.

There are of course exceptions. For example, in civic heraldry, coats of arms of towns, regions and countries often have clear symbolism. For example, the coat of arms of Cork shows a tall ship entering the harbour, clearly symbolising Cork history as an important sea-port. Rarely though are personal arms so easily deciphered, but sometimes it can be done.

Occupational names can often be reflected in their arms. Examples include the Catherine wheel on the Wheeler arms (the Catherine wheel is an instrument of torture, so I hesitate to guess what the Wheeler's original occupation was); the garbs (or sheaf) found on some Weaver arms; the wheel on the Cartwright arms and so on.

Other easily deciphered symbols are those of canting arms in which the arms represent a pun on the bearer's name. For example the arms of Calfe include a calf (the animal not the body part), those of Dove a dove and the Ahernes and Hearns proudly display a heron.

Some emigrant families added symbols relating to their homeland to their arms. It is not unusual to find arms of people of Irish origin living in England decorated with green trefoils (shamrocks). Similarly many French families living abroad added a fleur de lys.

Animals, real and mythical, are used frequently in heraldry and have some general significance. The lion is conventionally regal, the unicorn is a symbol of purity, the boar is a Celtic symbol of endurance and courage, and so on.

There are some symbols that have a specific significance in Irish Heraldry . . .

The severed red right hand (dexter hand couped at the wrist gules) is a feature of many coats of arms for families of the Uí Neill (i.e. descendants of Niall). This same symbol is associated with the province of Ulster and appears on the Arms of that province and on the modern flag of Northern Ireland. There are at least three explanations of its origins. The first relates to the name of the son of Bolg or Nuadu, the Sun God of the Celts, and by some accounts the divine progenitor of all Celts. This son was known as Labraid Lámhdhearg (Labraid of the Red Hand). The association of the symbolic red hand with the Sun God, therefore makes it an appropriate heraldic icon. The second relates to Nuada, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who had his right hand severed by Sreng during a great battle with the Fomorians. No imperfect man being allowed to hold the throne, Nuada was forced to abdicate in favour of Bres. However, a silver hand was fashioned for him and the power of ancient magic was used to cause flesh and sinew to grow back around the prosthesis. When Bres died, Nuada again assumed his royal place. The third explanation is somewhat more fanciful. The story tells of a pact among the seven sons of Miledh of Esbain, the Celtic king who sons conquered Ireland that the ruler of the new land would be whosoever among them first touched the soil of the island. As the flotilla approached the shore, one of the sons took his sword, cut off his right hand and threw it to land, thus becoming the ruler. He must have been either left handed or pretty stupid (or both) otherwise it is unlikely that he could have thrown the severed hand well enough to accomplish his purpose. Certainly, he was left handed for the rest of his life. The story, if true, may relate to Erimhon who is reputed to have been the first Celtic ruler of the northern part of Ireland. His brother Ebher ruled the southern half. They were the only two of the seven brothers who survived the conquest.

The stag which appears in the arms of many Munster families - MacCarthy, O'Sullivan and many others - relates very clearly to the kingship myth of the Erainn peoples. In this myth, the legitimacy of the ruling house is confirmed when a stag enters; the animal is hunted, and the border of the territory is defined by the chase; the future ruler is the individual who eventually slays the stag. What the many families displaying the stag in their arms have in common is that they were originally part of the great Eoghanacht tribal grouping, which dominated Munster until the time of Brian Boru. The stag was self-evidently an appropriate choice of symbol.

As in Ulster and Munster, so in Connacht the arms of the ruling family, the O'Conors, and of a whole host of others connected with them - Flanagan, O'Beirne and many more - all display a common symbol, in this case the oak tree. Again, the reason lies in pre-Christian belief, in the old Celtic reverence for the oak, and its resulting association with kingship. Medieval sources record ruling families having at least one sacred tree outside the family's ring-fort.

Another peculiarly Irish heraldic symbol is the evett or lizard, which is almost always depicted green. I am unaware of its significance, but given Ireland's general lack of reptiles, it is a rather odd symbol to be almost exclusively Gaelic. Perhaps it is associated with St. Patrick's banishment of snakes, toads and other obnoxious reptiles.

The harp is the main heraldic symbol of Ireland and it appears on the coat of arms of the country. However, it rarely features on personal coats of arms.

There is a heraldic crown that is known as an "ancient Irish crown". This symbol features on the arms of Munster and also on several personal arms as an adornment on animals such as lions, either worn on the head or around the neck.

Apart from those mentioned above, it is just about impossible to know quite what the herald or bearer had in mind when a coat of arms was originally designed.

I hope in the above text I have given you some sense of the futility of trying to interpret the symbolism on a coat of arms. Having done that (and if I haven't please re-read the foregoing passages) I would now like to point out some general meanings that have been attached to heraldic symbols. This is not to say that I believe these interpretations to be accurate. I am merely reporting them here in order to avoid future correspondence asking me to interpret coats of arms. The "meanings" below are NOT mine – nor do I put any faith in them.

For what they are worth (which is not much) here they are

Tinctures (colours)
Or (yellow or gold): Generosity and elevation of the mind
Argent (white or silver): Peace and sincerity
Gules (Red): Warrior or martyr; Military strength and magnanimity
Azure (Blue): Truth and loyalty
Vert (Green): Hope, joy, and loyalty in love
Sable (Black): Constancy or grief
Pupure (Purple): Royal majesty, sovereignty, and justice
Tawny or Tenne (Orange): Worthy ambition
Sanguine or Murray (Maroon): Patience in battle, and yet victorious
Furs (ermine, ermines, erminois, vair, counter vair, pean, potent counter potent): Dignity

Arms may include lines or ordinaries that are shaped by lines as follows . . .
Nebuly: Clouds or air
Wavy: Sea or water
Engrailed: Earth or land
Invected: Earth or land
Indented: Fire
Dancette: Water
Raguly: Difficulties that have been encountered
Embattled: Walls of a fortress or town (also, fire)

Symbols

In additon to symbolic meanings, some symbols are used to signify relationship to the original grantee. These symbols are known as "differences" or "marks of cadency" and are the distinctions sometimes used to indicate the various branches or cadets of one family. These are quite specific and range as follows
 Label - eldest son
 Crescent - second son
 Mullet - third son
 Martlet - fourth son
 Annulet - fifth son
 Fleur-de-lis - sixth son
 Rose - seventh son
 Cross moline - eigth son
 Double quatrefoil - ninth son

Symbolic meanings
 Acacia: Eternal and affectionate remembrance
 Agricultural Tools: Labouring in the earth and depending upon providence
 Anchor: Hope
 Angel: Dignity, glory, and honour; missionary; bearer of joyful news
 Ant: Great labour, wisdom, and providence in one's affairs
 Antlers: Strength and fortitude
 Anvil: Honour
 Apple: Felicity and peace
 Arm in Armour: Leadership
 Arm Naked: Industry
 Arrow: Readiness (for battle); if depicted with a cross, represents an affliction
 Ass: Patience and humility
 Axe: Execution of military duty
 Banners: Special action in which bearer was captured, or a reward for valiant service
 Bar, Barry, or Barrulet: One who sets the bar of conscience, religion, and honour against angry passions and evil temptations
 Barry Wavy: Troubles keep us in continuous exercise and reminders of providence (as waves in a storm at sea)
 Baton: Authority
 Battle Axe: Execution of military duty
 Bay Leaves: Poet or victor's laurel
 Beacon: One who is watchful, who gave the signal in time of danger
 Bear: Strength, cunning, ferocity in the protection of one's kindred
 Beaver: Industry and perseverance
 Bee: Efficient industry
 Bell: Power to disperse evil spirits; a hawk's bells denotes one not afraid of signalling his approach in peace or war
 Bend: Scarf or shield suspender of a knight commander; signifies defence or protection
 Boar: Bravery; fights to the death. Celtic symbol of endurance and courage
 Boar's Head: Hospitality
 Bones: Mortality
 Book: Open: manifestation; closed: counsel
 Bow: Readiness (for battle)
 Bridge: Governor or magistrate
 Broom: Humility
 Buck: One who will not fight unless provoked; peace and harmony
 Buckle: Victorious fidelity in authority
 Bull: Valour, bravery, generosity
 Bull's Horns: Strength and fortitude
 Butterfly: Soul
 Camel: Docility, patience, and perseverance
 Cannon and Cannon Balls: One who has dared the terror of such a weapon in battle
 Canton: Recognition from the sovereign for performance of eminent service
 Carnation: Admiration
 Carpenter's Square: Conforming one's actions to the laws of right and equity
 Castle: Safety. May represent an actual building
 Cat: Liberty, vigilance, forecast, and courage
 Centaur: Eminence in the field of battle
 Chain: Reward for acceptable and weighty service; with crowns and collars, this suggests the bearer bore the chain of obligation or obliged others because of services done
 Chaplet: Crown of joy and admiration
 Cherub: Dignity, glory, and honour; missionary; bearer of joyful news
 Chevron: Protection; Builders or others who have accomplished some work of faithful service
 Chough (Cornish): Strategist in battle; watchful for friends
 Cinquefoils: Hope and joy
 Civic Wreath: (of oak leaves and acorns) One who saved a fellow citizen's life or shown patriotism in defence of one's native land
 Clarion: Ready for war
 Claw: The biter bitten
 Cock: Courage and perseverance; hero; able in politics
 Cockatrice: Terror to all beholders
 Column: Fortitude and constancy; with serpent coiled around it, wisdom with fortitude
 Cornucopia: Bounty of nature
 Crane: Close parental bond; Vigilance if holding a rock
 Crescent: One who has been honoured by the sovereign; hope of greater glory. Mark of the second son.
 Cresset: One who is watchful, who gave the signal in time of danger
 Cross: Service in the Crusades
 Cross Crosslet: The fourfold mystery of the cross
 Cross Flory: One who has conquered
 Cross Raguly: Difficulties encountered
 Crown (Mural): Defender of a fortress, token of civic honour; one who first mounted the breach in the walls of a fortress
 Crown (Naval): One who first boarded an enemy's ship; distinguished naval commander
 Cup (covered): Office of the king's butler
 Cushions: Authority
 Cygnet: Where gorged with a crown around its neck, signifies dignity
 Cypress: Death and eternal life thereafter
 Deer: One who will not fight unless provoked; peace and harmony
 Dice: Constancy
 Dolphin: Swiftness, diligence, charity, and love
 Dragon: Valiant defender of treasure; valour and protection
 Drops: One who has endured torrents of liquids, as in battle, depending upon the colour of the liquid.
  Yellow: gold Blue: tears Green: oil White: water Black: pitch or tar Red: blood
 Drum: Ready for war
 Dove: Loving constancy and peace; with an olive branch in its bill, good tidings
 Duck: Resourcefulness
 Eagle: Nobility, strength, bravery, and alertness; or one who is high-spirited, ingenious, quick-witted, and judicious
 Eagle displayed (wings spread): protection
 Eagle (two headed): Conjoining of two forces
 Elephant: Great strength, wit, and ambition
 Escallop: (sea shell) Traveller to far places or victorious naval commander
 Escarbuncle: Supremacy; brilliant gem
 Escutcheon of Pretence: Claim of a prince to sovereignty; or marriage to an heiress of the family
 Estoile: Celestial goodness; nobility
 Falcon: One who does not rest until objective achieved
 Feathers: Obedience and serenity
 Fess: Military belt or girdle of honour; represents readiness to serve the public
 Fetterlock: Victory; one who has taken prisoners or rescued prisoners of war
 Fife: Ready for war
 Fire: Zealousness
 Fish: A true, generous mind; virtuous for himself, not because of his heritage
 Flag: Refer to special action in which bearer was captured, or a reward for valiant service
 Fleur-de-lys: Purity; light; floral badge of France; represents sixth son as mark of cadency
 Flint: Readiness for zealous service
 Flowers: Hope and joy
 Fountain: Water, a spring
 Fox: Defensive wisdom and wit
 Fret: Persuasion
 Fruit: Felicity and peace
 Fusil: Travel and labour
 Fusil of Yarn: Negotiation
 Gannet: One who has to subsist by virtue and merit
 Garb or Sheaf of wheat: The harvest of one's hopes has been secured
 Gauntlet: Armed for the performance of martial enterprise
 Goat: Political ability
 Goose: Resourcefulness
 Grasshopper: Noble and home-bred
 Grenade: One who has dared the terror of such a weapon in battle
 Greyhound: Courage, vigilance, and loyalty
 Griffin: Valour and death-defying bravery; vigilance
 Hammer: Honour; emblem of trade
 Hand: Pledge of faith, sincerity, and justice; two right hands conjoined represent union and alliance
 Hare: One who enjoys a peaceable and retired life
 Harp: Well-composed person of tempered judgement; contemplation; heraldic symbol of Ireland
 Harpy: Ferocity under provocation
 Hawk: One who does not rest until objective achieved
 Head (Human): Honour; if the head of a "blackamoor" or Moor, refers to deeds of prowess in the Crusades
 Heart Flaming: Intense, burning affection
 Heart Human: Charity and sincerity
 Hedgehog: Provident provider
 Helmet: wisdom and security in defence
 Hind: Peace and harmony
 Holly: Truth
 Horns: Strength and fortitude
 Horse: Readiness for all employment for king and country
 Horseshoe: Good luck and safeguard against evil spirits
 Hourglass: Flight of time; mortality
 Hunting Horn: One who is fond of the chase, of high pursuits
 Hydra: Conquest of a very powerful enemy
 Inescutcheon: Claim of a prince to sovereignty; or marriage to an heiress of the family
 Ivy: Strong and lasting friendship
 Inkhorn: Art of writing and educated employment
 Keys: Guardianship and dominion
 Ladder: Fearlessness; against a tower, be on guard against spiritual and corporeal enemies
 Lamb: Gentleness and patience under suffering
 Lamb (Agnus Dei): Faith, Bravery, resolute spirit
 Laurel: Peace; triumph
 Leg: Strength, stability, and expedition
 Leopard: Valiant and hardy warrior who enterprises hazardous things by force and courage
 Lightning Bolt: Swiftness and power
 Lily: Purity
 Lion: Dauntless courage; often represents a person or group of people
 Lozenge: Constancy
 Lyre: Contemplation; tempered judgement
 Marigold: Devotion and piety
 Martlet: Symbol of the fourth son (mark of difference); one who subsists by virtue and merit, not inheritance
 Mascle: Persuasiveness
 Mastiff: Courage, vigilance, and loyalty
 Maunch: For the sake of my lady
 Mermaid: Eloquence
 Moon: Serene power over mundane actions
 Moor: Dates back to the Middle Ages when it was considered an honour to take a Moor's head
 Mortar: One who has dared the terror of such a weapon in battle
 Mule: Often borne by abbots and abbesses who have pastoral jurisdiction, but not real jurisdiction
 Mullet: Divine quality from above; mark of third son
 Musical: Pipes Festivity and rejoicing
 Oak: Great age and strength
 Oak with Acorns: Continuous growth and fertility
 Olive: Peace and concordance
 Ostrich: Willing obedience and serenity
 Otter: One who lives life to the fullest
 Ox: Valour and generosity
 Pale: Military strength
 Palm: Victory, justice, and royal honour
 Panther: Fierce, but tender and loving to children and will defend children to the death
 Passion Nails: Poignant suffering undergone by the bearer
 Pavilion: Readiness for battle
 Peacock: Beauty, power, and knowledge
 Pears: Felicity and peace
 Pegasus: Poetic genius and inspiration
 Pelican: Self-sacrifice and charitable nature (based on the myth that of times of famine a female pelican will nourish her young by piercing her breast having them feed on her blood)
 Pen: Art of writing and educated employment
 Pheon: Dexterity and nimble wit; readiness for battle
 Phoenix: Resurrection
 Pile: Engineering skills, builder
 Pillar: Fortitude and constancy; with serpent coiled around, wisdom with fortitude
 Pincers: Honour; emblem of the smith's trade
 Pine: Death and eternal life thereafter
 Pine Cone: Life
 Pipes: Festivity and rejoicing
 Plume: Willing obedience and serenity of mind
 Pomegranate: Fertility and abundance
 Portcullis: Protection in an emergency
 Quatrefoil: Good tidings
 Rabbit: Peaceable and retired life
 Rainbow: Good times after bad
 Ram: Authority
 Ratch-hound: Loyalty, courage, and vigilance
 Raven: Divine providence
 Rhinoceros: Ferocious when aroused
 Rock: Safety and protection; refuge
 Rose: Mark of cadency of the seventh son
 Rose Red: Grace and beauty
 Rose White: Love and faith
 Roundles
  Gold / Yellow (bezant): trustworthy or treasure
  White / silver (plate): generosity
  Green (pomeis): apple
  Purple (golpe): wounded
  Blue (hurt): berry
  Black (pellet or ogress): cannonball
  Red (torteau): communion wafer or manchet cake
  Tawney (orange): oranges
 Saddle: Preparedness for active service
 Salamander: Protection
 Saltire: Resolution
 Scythe / Sickle: The hope of a fruitful harvest
 Seraphim: Dignity, glory, and honour missionary; bearer of joyful news
 Serpent / Snake: Wisdom
 Shacklebolt: Victory; one who has taken prisoners or rescued prisoners of war
 Shamrock: Perpetuity; floral device of Ireland
 Shield: Defender
 Ship: Sea voyages
 Ship: Demasted Disaster at sea
 Skull: Mortality
 Snail: Deliberation and perseverance
 Snake: Wisdom
 Spear: Honourable warrior; valiant knight
 Spearhead: Dexterity and nimble wit; readiness for battle
 Sphere: Geographical or scientific reference
 Sphinx: Omniscience and secrecy
 Spider: Wisdom, labour, and prudence
 Spur: Preparedness for active service; pressing onward
 Squares: Constancy
 Squirrel: Lover of the woods
 Stag: One who will not fight unless provoked; peace and harmony
 Stag's Antlers: Strength and fortitude
 Steel: Readiness for zealous service
 Stirrup: Readiness for active service
 Stool: Hospitality
 Stork: Filial duty; close parental bond; holding a rock; vigilance
 Sun: Glory and splendour; fountain of life
 Swallow: One who is prompt and ready in doing business; bearer of good news
 Swan: Poetic harmony and learning, or lover thereof
 Sword: Justice and military honour
 Table: Hospitality
 Tabor: Festivity and rejoicing
 Talbot: Courage, vigilance, and loyalty
 Tent: Readiness for battle
 Tiger: Fierceness and valour; resentment dangerous if aroused
 Torch: Zealousness; engaging in signal service
 Tortoise: Invulnerability to attack
 Tower: Safety and grandeur; sometimes a building
 Tree: Trunk New life sprouting from the old
 Trefoil: Perpetuity, if green, symbol of Ireland
 Trestle: Hospitality
 Trumpet: Ready for war
 Unicorn: Extreme courage; virtue and strength
 Vine: Strong and lasting friendship
 Water Bouget: One who carried water to an army or a besieged place
 Wheat-Ears: Faithfulness
 Wheat Garb or Sheaf: The harvest of one's hopes has been secured
 Wheel: Fortune
 Wheel (Catherine): Torture
 Wings: Swiftness and protection
 Wolf: Reward from perseverance in long sieges and/or hard industry
 Woodbine: Love that does not injure that which it clings to
 Wreath: Triumph
 Wyvern: Valour and protection
 Yew: Death and eternal life thereafter

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