Why the Power of the Skull Terrifies You

Look familiar?

Black and Silver Jolly Roger pirate flag

From the early 17th century, a flag with a skull and crossbones, better known as the Jolly Roger, was the pirate’s logo. Designed to create fear.

And, it worked.

Flying from the mast of a ship, it would strike terror in sailors that spotted it on the horizon.

Especially if it was sailing towards them.

Did you know…

The Jolly Roger flag was not always black and white.

If it was red, those pirates wouldn’t be taking prisoners.


Red Jolly Roger Pirate flag


Why the Power of the Skull Terrifies YOU

Throughout history, humans have had a fascination with skulls.

For some, a skull means fear; fear of death, fear of mortality, darkness and evil.

For others; fear of nothing, live for the moment, make a statement.

Travel back through the centuries and you discover skulls have been used in lots of ways.


The Trophy Skull


A Skull cup made from the halfed, upturned skull of an enemy

The skull cup. Western cultures and tribes took the skull of their enemy, cut it in half and used it upside down, as a “trophy” drinking cup. Successful tribes had a large collection of them.


Aztec Tzompantli, a skull rack

And the Aztecs created skull racks – tzompantli – a wooden rack used to display the skulls of their enemies, or sacrificial victims.


The Kinship Skull

For decades, street gangs have used skulls to identify their group and send out “danger” vibes, warning rivals to stay off their turf.

One well-known club in the one-percenter Biker movement, started in the late 1940s, created a logo by merging together WW2 insignia used by the 552nd Bomb Squadron and the 85th Fighter Squadron.

This ‘death’s head’ image is still worn today on their leather gear.


85th Fighter Squadron air crew standing beside aircraft

Aircrew of the WW2 85th Fighter Squadron

And the skull image on Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in the 1954 film, The Wild One was the inspiration for another club’s insignia.

The Goth world often has a serpent crawling out of a skull eye socket. The serpent represents the God of knowledge, and the belief that knowledge always remains even after death.


The Good Luck Skull

During WW1, French Air Service flying Ace Charles Nungesser used a skull within a black heart as his “Good Luck” omen. It was painted on every aircraft he flew.

With the addition of a coffin, this patch left his enemies in no doubt as to their fate if they got into a dogfight with him.


WW1 Ace Charles Nungesser and his Black Heart insignia


And the WW1 13th Aero Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Service went one stage further using a full skeleton as their insignia. He was later nicknamed “Oscar.”

13th Aero Squadron

Bikers often have skulls tattooed on their bodies to “cheat death.”

And one of the most popular tattoos asked for in body ink studios?



The Fashion Skull

The late fashion designer Alexander McQueen introduced skulls to the fashion world, printed on his clothing. Skull jewelry and accessories soon followed. Today you’ll find skulls worn everywhere from the High street to the board room.  For some, a skull is a hot fashion statement.


Skull jewelry rings

The Warning Skull

In the 15th century a skull was a sign of power, used by the Church and Royalty to terrify and control their subjects.

The Skull Tower, built in the early 1800s on a main highway in Serbia, had the skulls of Serbian rebels embedded in the walls – a political warning from the ruling Ottoman dynasty.

During the Second World War, the Totenkopf (death’s head) appeared on German uniforms. It symbolized “loyalty until death.”

And if you see the skull and crossbones on a bottle or container, avoid it. There’s nasty stuff inside.


Hazard Material warning sign


Military Insignia with Attitude

Pirates had the right idea.

They needed a symbol anyone could understand. Something that would make their intended victims or enemies quake in their sea boots.

A flying butterfly or black striped flag wasn’t going to convince anyone they were a serious threat.

And from WW1 to the present day, the same idea applies to squadron and unit patches.


493rd Squadron insignia

USAAF 493rd Fighter Squadron
This patch gives out a strong message with the lightning bolts charging through the eye sockets and “Death to the Enemies” written in Latin.


363rd Skull and Dagger insignia

USAAF 363rd Fighter Squadron insignia
This skull is the insignia of the WWII 363rd Fighter Squadron. As they say, “a picture says 1000 words…”


VA12 Attack Squadron, the Flying Ubangis

U.S. VA-12 Attack Squadron “Kiss of Death”
Established May 12th, 1945 as Bomber Fighter Squadron 4, the VA-12 Attack Squadron , also known as the “Flying Ubangis” made more than thirty deployments aboard aircraft carriers, including two combat tours in the Vietnam war.


Israeli 101st Fighter Squadron

This intriguing patch belongs to the Israeli Air Force’s 101st Fighter Squadron.  It’s painted on all their aircraft.

And in the 1920s, the patch below symbolized unity, and the power of the group.

Arditi Del Popolo

Arditi del Popolo

Arditi del Popolo was the world’s first anti-fascist group.  Created in 1921 after members of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party attacked the Italian village of Livorno.

The local people rallied against the NFP and formed the Arditi del Popolo and by the summer of 1921 it had over 20,000 members.  For the next couple of years they fought against the NFP sabotaging their activities at every opportunity.


Día de los Muertos

Every November in the Catholic world, All Soul’s and All Saint’s Day are celebrated, and Mexicans celebrate the “Day of the Dead”. Special masses take place. People paint their faces to look like skulls.

Lady with skull face paint for Day of the Dead

Cemetery headstones and tombs are cleaned and decorated. And local markets are full of beautifully decorated sugar skulls (calavera).

A pile of decorated sugar skulls

In central and southern Mexico, ornate home altars (ofrenda) are created, decorated with these sugar skulls, made from a white sugar mixture. They often have the name of the dead written on the head.

And parties are held in local cemeteries while they wait for the spirit of their deceased relatives to return for the night.

Paris Catacombs

Visit the Catacombs below Paris and you’ll discover over 6 million skulls lining 190 miles of passageways. They date back to the 1800s.

Paris Catacombs passageway

If you plan to visit this subterranean world, book a Cataphile’s tour. This group of urban explorers will show you areas off limits to regular tours. Stay close to them,  you could get lost.

The last word on skulls comes from the Santa Maria della Concezione church in Rome.

Engraved on a wall in the skull-filled catacombs below the church are the words;

Noi eravamo quello che voi siete, e quello che noi siamo voi sarete.

“We were what you are; and what we are, you will be.”

Catacombs Santa Maria church Rome

Makes you think…



Image credits:
Author, Kellepics, Pexel, AnnBlack, Chief Hardy, Pinterest/WW1/WW2, Dailymail/18thC_pirate_flag, Natural History Museum/London,

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