Originally it was a warning in the entrances of the cemeteries, and the image was adopted by many groups over the years to instill fear in their enemies or to symbolize an organization. Adopted famously by pirates, it has been used by military factions, secret societies and to warn people against poisons.
Some of the first uses of the skull and the crossed bones were to indicate cemeteries or resting places for the dead. European cultures used skulls and real bones to mark the entrances to these areas, and over time the image was associated with death. Part of the reason for its use was to repel grave robbers. It was also a warning to intruders during the Black Death, so as not to enter for fear of being infected with the plague. The practice continued for centuries and was taken to the New World by Spanish missionaries. They put skull and crossbones carvings near cemeteries and in churches.
During the Middle Ages, the Knights Templar adopted the image for the robes they wore in the battles against the Saracens. They found that the image, strange to most in the Middle East, instilled fear in their enemies, giving them an additional advantage in the fight. After the crusades, the image was adopted by the Masons to designate a teacher, largely as a tribute to the fraternal order that helped expand their organization. Today, the skull and crossbones are famously represented by the Yale Skull and Bones Society. The iconic image was combined with the number 322 for unspecified reasons.
Perhaps the most famous use of skull and bones is that of pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries. Known as the "Jolly Roger", the flag was frequently raised to make the victims surrender without fighting. Having the reputation of fierce and cutting heads gave pirates an advantage when attacking a ship, and putting the flag on their mast helped instill fear. The origins of the flag are a mystery, some attribute its creation to Blackbeard, although the term was already used in 1721. Other historians believe that a small band of Knights Templar escaped and used the image to attack loyal ships to Rome.
The state of New York enacted a law in 1829 that forced all poison manufacturers to place this image on their labels, to help illiterates more easily identify dangerous substances. This was standardized around 1850, when most countries moved to a system in which labels were made in bright colors with the image. However, in 1880, most labels returned to their original colors to save costs, but the skull and crossbones maintained their status. Today, each poison goes with a small image, symbolizing the possibility of death if the product is consumed.
There is a long military tradition in the use of this image as an emblem for battalions or for organizations. Under Nazi Germany, Hitler's SS agents wore a small pin with a skull and crossed bones in their hats. The Royal Lancers of the British Queen's Navy use the image as an emblem, adopted by a tradition established during the wars of France and India. The reconnaissance battalions of the US Marines use the image, along with the Jolly Roger Marine Fighting Squadron, which puts their planes in line with the skull and crossbones. The image has also been adopted by paramilitary factions in Chile, Estonia and Serbia.
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