Jolly Roger

Possibly the most accurate version of the original “Jolly Roger”

I’ve recently learned a lot about the history of the traditional Pirate flag, aka skull-and-crossbones or the Jolly Roger. The story about how we got to this icon is probably something you didn’t even know — and might be surprised!

I was listening to a podcast (Jolly Roger relevancy from around 10:50-13:50) about how to warn people 10,000 years from today that there there is a spot in the desert that contains deadly nuclear material. Language changes (just read Shakespeare’s writing from only 400 years ago). And so do symbols…and in this case, about the same amount of time (if not faster!).

A suggestion was made by Carl Sagan who proposed the symbol of the skull and crossbones (aka the ‘Jolly Roger’) as an icon for danger. Unfortunately, this is another perfect example of how symbols change over time.

In the Middle Ages the icon of the skull and cross bones was used in Christian art. Originally the bones were in the shape of a crucifix (not an ‘X’) and the skull was of Adam, the first man. This icon not only represented death (bones) but also resurrection (the Cross of Jesus) and rebirth (or resurrection through Jesus because of the cross).

By the late 1600’s or early 1700’s, ship captains would scribe the skull and crossbones in the ship logs by the name of someone who died while en passage. It was intended by the captains as a positive epitaph but others couldn’t help but associate the icon with death.

Meanwhile, piracy was on the rise. They ruled the seas by threat and intimidation. Many pirates used flags that depicted a bleeding heart (as in what’s going to happen to you if you don’t comply) and/or an hourglass (as in your time is short to comply).

Then in 1720 there was a pirate named Calico Jack Rackham who was tried in England for piracy on the high seas. He became a sensation not just because he was a pirate, but because there was a woman on his ship pregnant with his child.

It was Rackham’s flag that was probably red with two swords shaped in a ‘X’ below a skull. It was this icon, that most likely became the ‘Jolly Roger’ (probably the English version of the French ‘Joli Rogue’ meaning ‘pretty red’).

So the point of this post was to talk about the Jolly Roger, but I realize my intro leaves you slightly hanging. The point is that symbols change too. The Jolly Roger went from an icon of hope in the afterlife to an intimidating symbol of death, or something you just slap on a lunchbox because the kid is ‘a rebel’.