A History Lesson on Skull Necklaces and Their Meanings

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Badass? Intimidating? Awe-inspiring? You can use any of these adjectives to describe a skull necklaces. Some may say that skull jewelry is just one of the many trends of the present day and they will be fundamentally wrong. Skulls have been doubling as body ornaments for tens of millennia, and throughout their impressive history, they have performed many functions other than fashion statements.

Skull Necklaces in Primitive Societies

The history of skull necklaces dates back to the times when our ancestors lived in caves. Even then, people had a penchant for beauty and tried to decorate themselves and their dwellings in all possible ways. Unfortunately, they did not have such an abundance of materials as we have today, so they had to use the gifts of nature. One of the oldest necklaces found by archaeologists is approximately 40,000 years old. It was crafted from stones, dog teeth, animal bones, skulls, and shells.

At first, skulls did not have any sacred meaning. They were just easy-to-find material. However, it is in human nature to attach deep meanings to ordinary things, so the skull soon acquired the significance of an amulet. Small skulls were used to make protective jewelry, while human skulls turned into a kind of totem that safeguarded tribes against evil spirits, diseases, and misfortunes.

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At the same time, due to the stratification of primitive societies, jewelry became a sign of belonging to one or another class. Those at the top of the social ladder (leaders, healers, outstanding hunters and warriors, etc.) were entitled to wear elaborate necklaces, and the commoners could adorn themselves only with simple stone or bone beads.

Skull Necklaces in the Age of Ancient Civilizations

Now let’s fast forward to the era of ancient civilizations. The Egyptians and Aztecs revered skulls as the embodiment of the life and death cycle. Unlike modern people, our ancestors did not consider death to be something terrifying. It was just a transition from one world to another. Therefore, death was honored and worshiped. We were lucky to discover ancient Aztec temples full to the brim with human skulls as reminders of sacrifices to the gods. In addition to the skulls of animals and people, the ancients paid their respects to the cult of death by carving skulls on the walls of temples and dwellings, they applied skulls images on the weapons, and, of course, made skull ornaments.

The Egyptians were the first civilization to craft gold necklaces. The jewelry of the ancient Egyptians was very diverse: from simple beads to sophisticated pieces that dazzle the imagination. Prosperous Egyptians had fancy necklaces adorned with precious materials and stunning patterns. After their demise, their necklaces were buried with them.

The Significance of Skull Jewelry in the Middle Ages and Further

And now we will fast forward a few centuries again, this time to the Late Middle Ages. The 15th century saw a trend of memento mori jewelry, the fundamental feature of which was the images of death. Such jewelry was intended to remind people of their mortality. After all, memento mori means ‘remember that you must die’.

Queen Victoria took memento mori rings and necklaces to a whole new level. After the death of her husband, she never stopped wearing mourning jewelry. Her subjects couldn’t but follow the trend. Jewelry featuring skulls started appearing on the hands and necks of everyone who could afford it. However, instead of being reminders of the inevitability of death, these pieces were supposed to commemorate the memory of loved ones. Skulls were often depicted with wings to show that the soul of a deceased one went to heaven.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, jewelry featuring a skull without a lower jaw signified moral weakness and belonging to the underworld. It was worn by thieves, pirates, prostitutes, and other individuals rejected by society. Several centuries later, skulls have become the hallmark of modern subcultures that found little understanding among average Joes and Jills.

Skull Necklaces in the Modern Era

The revival of skulls and everything related to them is usually associated with the foundation of the biker subculture. The very first biker club, Hells Angels, had a winged skull engulfed in flames as its emblem. Even before the founding fathers of the motorcycle club got on two-wheelers, they were pilots of the US Air Force during the Second World War. There, they established a tradition to put skull images on their aircraft. So, when they had a chance to express their philosophy through jewelry, it came as no surprise that the skull was the first symbol they had in mind.

Along with that, skulls owe their appeal to Mexican jewelry. It became extremely popular in the biker community in the 1950s because of its abundance and low cost. Mexicans, as descendants of the Mayan and Aztec cultures, revered skulls and used them wherever possible, including jewelry. As riders got the taste of Mexican trinkets, skull images soon became ubiquitous in the biker subculture. Over time, the fashion for skulls embraced other niche communities – Goths, rockers, punks, etc. And since the 1980s, thanks to the flight of fancy of fashion designers, skull necklaces and other beskulled pieces of jewelry became the staple of young and edgy.

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