Is it possible to have a skull symbolizes good stuff rather than evil?

Making a skull a positive symbol is challenging. Let’s see why it is hard, and if it has been done, and what it would take to do it.

Two reasons why it is hard to make a skull a positive symbol

Skulls are, I think, an inevitable reminder of death. The bare, lifeless bone without blood and flesh tell us, “this person is dead.” There is also the long history of the stacked skulls and bones of the dead – reburied bones removed from graves when the rotting was done, for reasons of space – in the catacombs beneath Paris and other cities:

Photo from Paris Catacombs Special Access Tour: Triphobo

From these, we also get the skull and cross bones symbol that is a warning of fierce fighter battalions, piracy and murder, and, more recently poison.

The particular image of skull and crossbones, ironically, comes from a practical fact that the skull and humerus (upper leg bone) are the largest bones in human remnants. So when designing storage of reburied bones after corpses have fully decayed, the skull and crossbones stand out:

 

The problems with creating a positive symbolism for skulls arises, I think, from these two points:

  • One cannot have a human skull unless a person died. So the symbolism of death is unavoidable, it is a true symbol (in the religious sense) not an arbitrary linguistic symbol.
  • These associations of the skull with death and danger are ancient – about a thousand years old in Western symbolism, and so, deeply ingrained. They are almost always going to be a person’s first reaction to a skull. How do you create a positive reaction in a person when, most likely, this negative reaction has already occurred as soon as any person sees the word or image?

Has the skull ever been a positive symbol?

The richest, most positive tradition that includes skulls in its positive imagery is the holiday The Day of the Dead in Mexico. This is related to All Saints Day, and therefore Halloween, but is also a family holiday to remember loved ones. It is full of bright colors. In 2018, this Google Doodle was used to celebrate Day of the Dead – Wikipedia:

Have you ever seen such a happy set of skulls?

My friend cecalli blog, a graphic artist and social media guru in Mexico City, adds:

Let’s celebrate The Day of the Dead. From 11/1 through midnight 11/2, put your offering for the people you love that passed away.

Candles, yellow flowers, fruit, water, wine, salt, incense, your beloved photo, candies, and some mexican decorations.

There is an ancient Christian practice called memento mori which means “remember that you have to die.” This may not sound positive to us, but, in context, it was considered a spiritually and psychologically useful practice. Most often, in the Christian context, it was a reminder of the dangers of hell and a call to repentance.

Visual memento mori are very powerful and can include skulls.

“Still Life With a Skull” by Phillippe de Champagne from contains a tulip for life, a skull for death, and an hourglass for time. The goal is to remind us of the vanity of worldly goals and the importance of spiritual goals. Some memento mori are considerably more gruesome. A favorite of mine is life-sized sculpures of the deceased on top of their own sarcophagi, but the sculptures are of their supine corpses rotting and crawling with worms.

Some Buddhists have a similar practice where we meditate on death to come to peace with it, release all fears, and also remember how little time we have to Awaken during our lives. One symbol of our dedication is the ascetic Buddha statue:

Image from What does an emaciated Buddha statue represent?

In this image, the Buddha is almost a skeleton, but actually still living, though nearly starved to death. It is based on a story the Buddha told of himself – all historians agree it is true – about how he followed a severely ascetic path too far, and nearly died. It is a reminder of the dedication our practice calls for, and also of the importance of not pushing it to this extreme.

So, in these situations, the skull, still a symbol of death, is part of a symbolic system encouraging spiritual transformation and freedom from fear and from sin.

There is one other positive use of the skull as an image, the Crystal Skull. For a full discussion, see Crystal skull – Wikipedia. Before we dive in, please note that evidence is that any connection between crystal skulls and American archaeology have been proven false. These are a European invention projected onto America, and, more recently, a trope for thrillers, science fiction, and fantasy stories.

Image from above Wikipedia article

However recent, the imagery related to this crystal skull is often a positive one, particularly as a symbol or tool of mental or psychic powers.

What it would take to make a new positive symbolic image of the skull

I think that making a positive symbol out of a skull requires either that the skull have some profound distinctive quality – such as being made of pure crystal. It might be good if that quality had positive associations – perhaps a rainbow skull or some such.

It would be easier to do if the image fit into a context of fantasy world building. Create a world with magical objects of power. Perhaps a marble hand that gives the holder the power of telekinesis and an animal ear that lets people listen in on distant conversations. Then a rainbow skull that gives telepathic powers would fit right in.

Making a skull work as a positive symbol in this world today would be far harder. Making the crystal skull ambiguous, eerie but positive, required a multi-million dollar Hollywood special effects budget.