How To Wear Mystical Symbols Without Looking Like An Idiot

It probably comes as no surprise that 83% of Americans identify as Christian. The twist is, the second most popular religious group isn’t Islam or Judaism — it’s not technically an organized religion at all. More and more Americans are identifying as spiritual — 7%, according to a 2012 Pew survey. And as we all know, with great spirituality comes great appropriation. No judgment! I, too, am "Spiritual not Religious" and without a source religion to pull from, it’s common to relate to aspects of other cultures that resonate more than the ones you can rightfully claim. (Flashback to the two years I dreamt of getting “tikkun olam” tattooed in Hebrew on my leg — which, given my Jewish friends’ stances on ink, would’ve been one big nope.)

Right now, there’s a lot of fresh awareness surrounding ancient symbols in fashion (think: the evil eye). But while it’s fully possible to embrace cultures that aren’t your own, you probably won’t be able to trust any spiritual connection made at the Forever 21 sales rack. Fashion tends to fast-track cultural understanding, in that it glosses over it entirely and dumps the burden of education on members of the appropriated culture. Aside from being exhausting and unfair, this “it’s just fashion lol” mentality basically requires the average shopper to have encyclopedic knowledge of symbolism or risk offending millions of people. Thanks, Fashion!

All this to say, if you want to wear another culture’s symbol respectfully, you’ll have to do your own research. Given the ubiquity of certain trending symbols right now, some might seem more cross-culture-friendly than others — but of course, the only way to wear a symbol respectfully is by considering the source of the item and understanding the symbol’s origin, meaning, and place in culture. This article will attempt to address some of the more prevalent ones, and how to wear them respectfully (if at all).

Of course, because cultures are made up of individuals, there’s no 100% consensus on the symbols I discuss below. Know that some people will accept and appreciate most well-intentioned homages to their culture, while others will wish you’d stayed in your lane. When it comes to wearing other cultures’ symbols, you’ll always be at risk of getting it wrong — even if you do your homework. Which is why I’d like to invite anyone reading this to correct me, add clarification, or share their own experiences with cultural symbols, whether I address them below or not. Here to learn, y’all!
Photo: Guroldinneden/Getty Images.
Advertisement
The Nazar
I’m of Mediterranean descent, so the Turkish Nazar (or Greek Mati) plays a supporting role in my Christmas stocking every year. It’s an amulet made of blue glass, and it’s meant to protect you from the evil eye. The definition of evil eye varies culturally, but in a broad sense, this amulet is meant to protect you from ill wishes and curses. In the case of the Nazar, these bad vibes typically come from someone who’s jealous or envious, and they’re delivered via staring. The person delivering the evil eye can do so on purpose, or unconsciously — so if you see someone wearing the Nazar, keep your staring to a less-than-serial-killer level.

While tons of cultures have some form of talisman to cast off evil eye, the Nazar originated in Turkey and is widely used across the Mediterranean. It can be seen hanging over doorways, in cars, and clipped to clothing. It can also be worn as a necklace or bracelet. Its abundance makes it a hit with tourists, and in this case, that’s actually okay! You certainly shouldn’t wear the Nazar with no conception of what it means or to mock it (that’s grounds for a cursing), but it’s not necessarily culturally insensitive to wear one. Just read up on the rituals associated with the Nazar and buy one from a Turkish artisan — designing the Nazar is a tradition that dates back 3,000 years and it’s a source of pride for the families who craft them. Oh, and don’t intentionally touch the pupil of the eye — that’s how the evil breaks loose.
Photo: Getty Images.
The Hamsa Hand
Like the Nazar, the Hamsa is a symbol of protection with multicultural roots — specifically in North African and Middle Eastern countries. The hand is a staple in both Judaism and Islam, but there’s evidence that it predates all modern religion, tracing back to Mesopotamia. The hand has multiple meanings, but it’s generally associated with an ancient female entity who offers protection from evil.

“Hamsa” means “five,” which represents the fingers of the right hand that appear on the amulet. The fingers of the hand can be spread apart (to ward off evil), or closed together (to welcome good luck). Sometimes it resembles a real hand, more often it’s seen with two opposable thumbs. It can be worn upside down or rightside up. It’s pretty versatile — even the meaning of the hand (and its name) varies by culture. For the Sunnis, the hamsa represents the Five Pillars of Islam (Belief, Worship, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Pilgrimage). For the Shi’tes, it represents the Five People of the Cloak (referring to Muhammad, his beloved daughter Fatimah, his cousin and godson Ali, and his grandsons Hassan and Husayn). In the Islamic faith, the hand is often called The Hand of Fatima.

In the Jewish culture, the hamsa symbolizes the Hand of God and might be called “hamesh,” also meaning “five.” The number five is a holy one — the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is “Hei,” one of God’s holy names, and “hamesh” is representative of the five books of the Torah. But this hand, also known as the Hand of Miriam, can have more universal connotations — it thanks God by celebrating the five senses.

So should you wear it? It depends. Some people view the hamsa symbol as one of unity, specifically highlighting similarities between the origins of Judaism and Islam. There’s also themes of protection and femininity, which might appeal to those outside of the origin cultures. And then there’s the fact that the symbol likely predates modern religion, making it more of a spiritual symbol than a religious one. At the same time, there’s not much room to divorce some form of God from the hamsa hand. If you’re a hardcore atheist, you might want to pick another symbol. Even if you’re not, the hand represents some pretty specific ideas — know what they are and what they mean to you before investing in one.
Photo: Dmitrri/Getty Images.
The Om Symbol
The westernization of yoga makes “Om” seem commonplace in American culture, but it’s one of the most important symbols in Hinduism and other Indian religions. For a two-letter word, Om is packed with meaning — it represents the inner self, the universe, and the connection between the two. Its three sounds (“Ahh,” “Ooh,” “Mmm”) are said to represent trios: everything from the states of consciousness to Hindu Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The symbol is also associated with the Lord Ganesha (another sacred symbol), and generally represents the source of all existence.

Big, important things! So wearing Om requires a two-pronged approach — first, understanding the origins and various meanings of the symbol, and second, treating it with respect. The commercialization of Om in itself has the potential to be offensive, so really consider the source of an item you're itching to buy. If you can get it from Lululemon…don’t. (Using child labor and racism to build a brand is pretty antithetical to the meaning of Om.) Also, consider the use of the item: A yoga mat with an Om symbol printed on it would be a disrespectful use of the symbolf, because you’re stepping on it with your feet. In fact, the symbol shouldn’t appear anywhere “dirty,” like shoes or underwear. Think of the Om symbol in terms of the Christian cross, and wear it with the same intention. If you have an understanding of and connection to the symbol, it’s perfectly fine to wear it as a necklace — but wouldn’t rocking Jesus on your bra be kind of weird and inappropriate?
Photo: A Sorapong Chaipanya/Getty Images.
Ganesha
Ganesha is one of the most worshipped — and most appropriated — Hindu deities. Chiefly known as the Lord of Obstacles, Ganesha is well-loved by travelers and merchants. This helped spread his influence from 10th-century India to current-century Urban Outfitters. Ganesha, with his sizeable elephant head (it’s full of knowledge), has been a Western fave for cultural appropriation. He’s appeared on Guess? tank tops, Urban bedspreads, and all manner of socks and undergarments. In case you were wondering, inappropriate is an understatement.

Because America is the country that popularized “Jesus is my Homeboy” tees and cross-burning, maybe we don’t truly grasp the respect other cultures have for their spiritual figures. But the Hindu community has made it pretty clear that putting your feet on Ganesha is a disrespectful way to treat a beloved deity. So is wearing punny T-shirts about him. In fact, some believe that even laundering Ganesha with other dirty clothes, tossing a worn shirt with his likeness on the floor, or unintentionally donating his image to some fast-fashion landfill is problematic.

And people have good reason for feeling this impassioned about Ganesha; he’s a super important part of multiple cultures. He’s worshipped across Hinduism regardless of sect, and his influence extends to Buddhists, Jains, and beyond. Aside from removing obstacles (or presenting them to the right people), he’s a patron of the arts and sciences, known for his wisdom. In other words, his image does not belong under your feet. The best way to give props to Ganesha is to learn about him, possibly hang art of him in a respectable place in your home (no bathrooms), and, if you must, wear him as a pendant — a more traditional practice. If you’re truly into Ganesha but don’t want to risk getting it wrong, consider symbolically representing him with red roses. They’re his favorite flower.
Advertisement