At the time of this writing, Father's day is approaching here in the US. Consequently, this has prompted a lot of inquiries about father symbols, father figures, and symbolic meanings of fathers. This article is a response to that demand.
Before I go any further with fatherly symbolism - please know I'm speaking in generalized, archetypal terms. Not all fathers are the same, and I'd be deluded to clump them all in the same symbolic role. But, there are historically common themes in paternal archetypes, and that's what I'm tapping into. This page deals with broad generalities for the purpose of identifying the prime symbolism of the ubiquitous "father figure".
We see evidence of women taking on the traditional paternal role too. From lionesses to the hunter-provider women of the African Aka tribe...there are certainly mothers who serve in what is historically considered male/fatherly roles. So as you read this article, please keep in mind I'm speaking in generalities for the sake of defining universal father symbols.
There are tons of myths and legends honoring the mother archetype, and these legends are highly solicited throughout human history. Not so much with father archetypes. In general, father symbols are not nearly as prolific as mother symbols.
This confirms a nagging suspicion I've had for awhile. Fathers, in general, are grossly underappreciated and taken for granted. I suppose it's logical. Fathers are more background workers in the role of parenthood, whereas mothers are the forefront archetypes. Where mothers take on active roles of nurturing, healing, emotional support - fathers tend to take on more subtle roles of parental support. I mean this in the sense that their supportive presence is essential to a solid foundation, but it's often overlooked.
I'll give you an example from my own childhood. In learning how to ride a bicycle, my dad dutifully jogged behind me, holding onto the banana seat to keep me and the bike from toppling over. After untold hours, I finally began to gain confidence and pick up speed. I remember looking back, and seeing my poor dad huffing and puffing, his face red as a beet from running behind me - but still holding that yellow banana seat so I wouldn't fall. At some point, I looked back, and my dad wasn't behind me anymore. He had let go, and to my utter astonishment, I was bicycling without him.
I think this is a very cool and fitting illustration. My dad was rarely home. He worked himself ragged to provide a life for his family. So my dad was there, but not there. He was always providing and supporting the family - behind the scenes. Even when I wasn't looking, or couldn't see him, or didn't notice him - he was always being a dad - running behind me, supporting me and keeping me on the right track.
Fathers are the solid presence holding up the family structure. They are the protectors of, hearth, home and family. They are the providers. Essentially, fathers are the rebar of the family foundation - hidden from sight much of the time, but absolutely essential to building wholeness.
Without fathers, (the rebar) the archetypal family structure would crumble. Here is a list of symbolic meanings for fathers...
In truth, fatherhood, or "male-ness" is a very assertive, forefront kind of energy. Father symbols almost always represent dominance, assertion, provision, strength and bravery. But in a family setting, this is often overlooked because the father is expressing these bold behaviors on the battlefield, in the workplace, in the grain fields. In truth, the father fulfills is role - but far too often that function is performed outside the home, thus unseen. Furthermore, because many paternal acts take place outside the home and are unseen by the family, his sacrifices are frequently and sadly undervalued.
This underscores a keen observation: It is rare a father is exclusively a father. Overwhelmingly, from ancient, to modern day societies - a man is rarely a father without also being a soldier, a warrior, a king, an employee, a boss, a politician, etc.
Where a mother (especially in ancient times) can predominantly claim the exclusive title of "mother" - it's far more unlikely to see the title of "father" without some kind of provisional title accompanying the paternal label.
In essence, a male with offspring historically hold two titles: Father and Provider. The role of provider might be filled by a father serving his country, protecting his land, hunting food for his children, working in the fields to provide food.
Consequently, when we look at traditional father symbols, we're going to see themes of provision intimately linked to those provisional roles.
There are plenty of father symbols to be found by way of father gods in mythology. More importantly, the model of fatherhood is often measured against deities in myth. To wit, here are a few...
Roman sky god. He was considered the supreme deity in his day. He represented supremacy, ultimate rule, unquestioned authority. He was a father of a civilization, extolling strength, wisdom and sound reign over the Roman people.
Greek paternal god, he fathered the first deities of Greece, the Titans. As the father of the first godlettes, he is considered to be the original father in Western mythology. He is often associated with "Father Time" because his roots are so far-reaching in history. One of his symbols is the scythe - also associated with Father Time. In this context, the scythe (or sickle) is symbolic of harvest, reaping, which is synonymous with the ongoing cycles of time (both in terms of human life cycles and agricultural cycles).
The first known male god, and often thought of the father of the Norse mythological pantheon. His attributes substantiate his role of father because he stands for authority, guidance, sound leadership. His is also a symbol of wisdom, specifically wisdom gained by age, experience and introspection.
In Hindu mythology, Brahma is considered the original father. He is the father of Manu, who in turn, is the father of all humans. Braham represents the ultimate creative force. It is also written that Brahma is the father of the Prajapati, who are a group of fathers who maintain order, serve in protective roles and extend paternal energy to the human race.
A Native American sky god who, in the Zuni culture was considered the ultimate father figure. He oversees his people (the Zuni race), and protects them. He is an agricultural father, and is honored in ceremonies to insure prosperous corn crops.
"God the Father" in Christianity is a spiritual father, whose son, Christ is also represented in a fatherly light. God expresses fatherly aspects by being all-seeing, all-knowing, wise, provider, sustainer with unquestioned authority. His son, Christ is considered a father to his followers, and is often portrayed as a loving care-giver. Christ is also a symbol of ultimate fatherly sacrifice for his children.
Often referred to as Cernunnos in Celtic mythology. He was a god of ultimate creativity. He was said to call forth the life energy from the forests. He had special connection with animals, and is often depicted with antlers, and other animals in Celtic illustrations. He has a distinctive reputation for encouraging reproduction.
Egyptian sky god, and also a father figure, he was part man, part falcon. As well as sky, he was also associated with the sun, and thus represented fatherly ideals of clarity, intelligence and provision. Horus was also a god of hunting which reinforces the male/fatherly function of providing food for the family and community. Horus was also featured as a war god in Egypt. As many fathers engage in battle to protect their ideals, beliefs and homelands in the name of their family (and protection), Horus is often associated with fathers. Check out my article on the meaning of the Eye of Horus.
Father symbols are often found in nature, and the sky is a biggie. It is symbolic of expansiveness, territory and has a concept of pervasiveness (always watching over the family). Air and the sky is an intellectual element. As father energy is associated with logic, strategy and mental acuity, sky is a fitting association. We find further evidence of father-sky connections in mythology, where several gods are hailed as both fathers and rulers of the sky. Jupiter, for example is a paternal sky god of Rome. Horus was also a paternal god of Egypt, and ruler of the skies.
A symbol of radiance, warmth, giving, healing, provision - its meanings are synonymous with fatherhood. Overwhelmingly the sun is a symbol of male-ness, and fatherhood in countless cultural myths. Zeus for example is a sun god who is also the "father of the gods." The sun is a powerful male icon because of its consistency and intensity. It is ever-present, gives life, and illuminates the darkness. If you had a dad that chased away the boogie man, then you have experienced the symbolic "presence of the father-sun".
Just as the ideal father is a symbol of strength, so too is the oak tree. The oak leaf is a symbol of power and influence in Celtic Druidic wisdom, and the tree itself is position as a chief in the hierarchy of sacred trees. As father symbols go, the oak represents strong moral fiber, integrity, honesty and unbending scruples. It is a symbol of the father god Cernunnos (Celtic). Learn more about oak tree symbolism here.
As father symbols, lightning bolts deal with instant and wise intervention, strokes of intelligence (like good ideas our dad's have when we need solutions). Lightning is a major message from a fatherly source, a message to wake up and pay attention. Lightning was viewed as a creative fatherly spark to the Native Americans as it signified the winking Thunderbird. Linked with both fire and water, lightning is also viewed as a father symbol of creator and destroyer in many cultures. Learn more about the symbolism of lightning here.
You're going to see the presence of the sun and the sky associated with these father-affiliated animals. It carries on the mythological theme of father gods, and governance over male/fatherly domains.
Often female in many cultures (like the Hopi Mother Crow), the Canadian Arctic indigenous people called the Inuit, held a legend of the Father Raven. His name was Tulungersak, and he populated the earth with the Inuit people by rolling clumps of clay and animating them. Legend states he was also responsible for planting herbs, flowers and he also created all the animals on the land. Father Raven was a teacher. He taught the Inuit how to hunt, fish and tell time by the rising and setting of the sun. In some versions, Tulungersak created light from the darkness. In this culture, the raven is a father symbol who stands for creation, providing, caring and teaching the human family. Ravens are typically known for their restlessness. This ties in with the traditional role of the father. Working to provide, in addition to caring for the family and tending to their needs, a father, like the raven, is rarely idle.
The eagle is a solar animal, and so it shares father energy with the sun. As father symbols go, the eagle is sacred to the father gods Zeus and Jupiter. In myth and many cultures the eagle carries fatherly meanings such as virility, clarity, focus, power, dependability and virtue. In Native American wisdom the eagle is often synonymous with the Thunderbird, which is also a father figure. Thunderbirds are father symbols of authority, wisdom and creation. Eagles in many western cultures are considered all-seeing, and look down from the heavens with a protective gaze upon the family of humans.
Most notably, their antlers are symbolic of their dominance within the ranks of nature. As father symbols, stag antlers are culturally associated with tools and weapons (commonly associated with males). Father/Male themes continue to show up in stag symbolism as antlers are also iconic of battle for territory (protection) and sexual conquest. Stags are a father symbol of status, age (wisdom), elitism and superiority.
A symbol of the father-figure god, Horus (Egyptian), the falcon is a raptor - an expert hunter, and carries the fatherly ideal of hunting to provide food for the family. Falcons are solar creatures, and the sun is a strong feature of fathers. It's a symbol that radiates warmth, focus and progress as well as strength and deft skill in obtaining goals.
There are more father symbols to be found in nature, cultures and myths. This is just a primer article, introducing the fundamental ideals behind fatherhood. I hope this article inspires you to seek more father symbols and explore those symbols as a reminder of the importance fatherhood plays in societies.
Perhaps this article brings awareness to all the fathers in our lives. It is my hope this article proves my suspicions wrong (fatherhood as a thankless job).
Don't overlook the fathers of the world...don't let them go unnoticed. They may not always be in the home (having to go to work or war) - but they're influence is absolutely present. Personally, this Father's day, I'll be making an effort to thank my dad for the difference he made in my life!
Check out more articles about symbolic meanings listed at the end of this page.
An Important Note About Signs, Symbols and Their Meanings
Signs and symbols cultivate their meanings according to culture, context, passage of time in society as well as mass societal opinion. What's cool and highly important is that signs and symbols earn their most powerful meanings from our own personal perspectives.
This website strives to provide you with the best, time-honored information when defining signs and symbols. However, in the final analysis, "Beauty (and symbolism) is in the eye of the beholder."
Having said that, it's in our best interest to invest the time to do personal research on symbolic events happening to us. This website is just one perspective in an ocean of variety and diversity in the realm of symbolism. So dive in! There is a whole universe of deeper meanings to explore! You can start your research by clicking on the links at the end or to the side of this page. Odds are good I've got a follow-up article about this symbolic topic. ;)
As always, thanks for your willingness to learn more about the language of symbolism. It's a language that is universal and everywhere. It's super-groovy to travel with you on your symbolic path, and maybe offer a little translation along the way. Thanks for reading and exploring!