Dot Wordsworth


The more this ancient symbol is removed from harmless uses, the more it will be associated with Nazism alone

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There is a nice row of swastikas at head height in Burlington Gardens, behind the Royal Academy. They are carved below a plaque ‘Founded ad MDCCCXXXVI’. (The date refers, not to the Academy, but to the University of London, which had its offices here until 1900.) The architect was James Pennethorne. His swastikas did not derive from India, I think, but from Greek temples he visited in Italy in 1826. Greek buildings often have swastika elements, if only by running together two strips of the key pattern.

I was thinking about this because of the news that, in prospect of the Olympic Games in 2020, Japan was planning to change the sign for a temple on tourist maps from swastikas to little pagodas. The Japanese symbol is called manji and derives from Chinese writing. Perhaps it arrived with Buddhism. In the Nazi swastika, the arm at the top bends to the right. Ancient Asian examples often bend to the left. Those at Burlington Gardens bend both ways. Naturally, the more the swastika is removed from innocent uses, the more it will be associated with Nazism alone. In 2014, when someone suddenly noticed swastikas carved on the facade of the Essex County Council building in Chelmsford, there was a hoo-ha, even though they dated from the 1930s.

Swastika was first used in English in the 1870s, taken straight from the Sanskrit svastika, ‘good fortune’ or ‘well being’. Some people say that an older English word is fylfot. But that word derives solely from Lansdowne Manuscript 874 in the British Library, dating from about 1500, which gives instructions for a memorial window. One element was ‘the fylfot in the nedermast pane’. But the reference was to the ‘fill-foot’, the patterning at the foot of the window, rather than to the shape of the devices.

Another academic word for the swastika has been ‘gamma--dion’ or ‘gammadion cross’, since it resembles four capital gammas stuck together at right angles. In heraldry, fylfot has been pecked up in a magpie fashion, but the term ‘cross cramponnee’ bears the same meaning.

In Dublin, the Swastika Laundry (founded 1912) throve until a generation after Hitler. Japan has held out a bit longer.