The first question that comes to mind for anyone who has ever seen a coat-of-arms, also referred to as a family crest, is what do all of the painted symbols and icons on the shield and crest mean? While heraldic scholars are not in complete agreement (academics rarely agree on anything), you’ll find an A-Z glossary of most heraldic symbols here, along with their meaning. With Shield & Crests' 30 years experience in heraldic art, and an extensive library of authentic heraldic books, the terms and meanings outlined here should shed light on the ancestry for almost all family names.
ABYSS: The honor point of the shield, the very center.
ACORN: The symbol of plenty, also used in coats of arms as a pun on the name (Canting arms)
ANCHOR: The emblem of hope, usually painted with a rope attached.
ANNULET: A ring, the symbol of strength. The Roman symbol of Liberty.
ANT: Also known as the Emmet, patience and forethought.
ANTELOPE: The symbol of peace and harmony, the heraldic antelope is unlike its cousin in the zoo or safari park, featuring the body of a stag with the tail of the Unicorn and fearsome horns.
APE and MONKEY: Used to signify sagacity. The crest of Fitzgerald.
ARK-NOAHS: Rarely encountered, the symbol of the Church.
ARM: Very common in crests, denotes industry.
ARROW: The symbol of readiness, commonly used as a pun on the surname, as in Fletcher (arrow maker), usually seen in crests, but occurs regularly on the shield also.
ASS: Uncommon in heraldry, represents patience.
AXE: The symbol of military service and duty. Very common in crests, less so on the shield.
BADGER: Also known as a brock, denotes intelligence. Rarely used.
BARNACLE: Not a sea creature, but a horse grooming tool. Denotes service.
BAR-SHOT: Two cannonballs connected by an iron bar. Symbol of military service.
BAT: The representation of watchfulness.
BEACON: From the Saxon word becnian, symbol of the call to arms.
BEAR: The emblem of family protection.
BEAVER: Industry and perseverance.
BEE: A more common symbol of industry. Denotes a self made man.
BELL: The emblem of warning. Also used in canting arms.
BEZANT: Symbolizes someone involved in banking, and equal dealing.
BILLET: An oblong square, said to represent building bricks.
BISHOPS MITRE: The emblem of service to the Church.
BLACKAMOOR: The symbol of one who fought in the Crusades, also termed a Moor.
BOAR: Also termed a Sanglier, the emblem of the fiercely combative.
BOOK: Denotes learning and a willingness to listen. Often painted with a motto on the page.
BUCKLE: The emblem of fidelity and firmness. Common in Scottish arms.
BUGLE HORN: Another symbol of military service, not to be confused with the hunting horn.
BULL: Represents valor. Usually shown in a walking position.
BUTTERFLY: Symbol of peace. Canting arms device used in Butterfield arms.
CADUCEU’S: Also known as Mercury’s Rod. The symbol of wisdom & medicine.
CALDRONA: Boiling pot, denotes a willingness to do battle.
CALTRAP: A nasty device to disable cavalry horses. An emblem of warning.
CAMELEOPARD: Actually a giraffe, denotes somebody who distinguished themselves in Africa.
CANNON: Another common symbol of military service.
CAP: Also termed Cap of Maintenance, denotes service to King and country.
CARTWHEEL: A common symbol of industry. Also used as a pun, as in the arms of Carter.
CASTLE: The emblem of safety. As in the arms of Gonzalez.
CAT: Not to be confused with the household kitty. This is a Scottish wildcat, represents vigilance and courage. There are still 400 in the Highlands of Scotland.
CATHERINE WHEEL: The symbol of martyrdom, a torture device in its day.
CHAPLET: The emblem of peace and understanding.
CHOUGH: A raven like bird, symbolizes death.
CINQUEFOIL: Said to denote joy and plenty.
CLAYMORE: Denotes military fortitude. The Highland broadsword.
CLOUD: Symbol of faith and consistency.
COCK: The rooster is the emblem of vigilance, virility, and bravery.
COCKATRICE: A fantastic creature of heraldry said to symbolize sin.
CORMORANT: This sea bird denotes wisdom and watchfulness.
CORNUCOPIA: The horn of plenty.
CRAB: An uncommon symbol of patience and cunning.
CRANE: Often shown holding a stone, which would drop if he fell asleep, thus waking him, this is an ancient representation of vigilance.
CRESCENT: Said to denote service in the Crusades.
CROSS: The symbol of Christianity, there are over 200 different types in heraldry.
CUSHION: A symbol of authority.
DAGGER: Honor in battle, a common charge in crests.
DART: An arrow, the symbol of readiness, certain “artists” have depicted an actual dart.
DOLPHIN: The symbol of charity. In heraldry, the dolphin is green and red with scales and spikes on his back. He is most certainly not Flipper.
DOVE: The emblem of peace and chastity.
DRAGON: This fantastic heraldic monster symbolizes courage.
EAGLE: Emblematic of fortitude and magnanimity of mind.
ELEPHANT: Normally awarded to those who distinguished themselves in the Far East.
ENFIELD: A fantastic mix of animals found on the crest of Kelly, symbolizing strength.
ESCALLOP: An early symbol of Christianity, worn on the sleeve.
ESCARBUNCLE: The symbol of a leader, it was a series of clasps and bolts that strengthened a shield.
EYE: The eternal emblem of providence.
FALCON: Representing a man of action.
FASCES: Symbolizing those who have held magisterial office. The fasces were also the emblem of the Italian fascist party under Benito Mussolini.
FETTERLOCK: A symbol of authority, is frequently painted as a fetlock, the lower leg of a horse. It is, in fact, a medieval handcuff.
FISH: Another very common Christian symbol in heraldry.
FLEUR DE LYS: Said to represent the Christian Trinity. The national emblem of France it just as common in English, Spanish and Italian heraldry.
FORK: An emblem of industry, normally a hay or dug fork.
FOX: Emblematic of intelligence and a refusal to be captured.
FRET: The true love knot of heraldry. Also said to be a symbol of persuasion.
FROG: The symbol of harmony and peace.
FUSIL: A spindle used in the spinning industry, emblem of industry.
GALTRAP: Another word for the Cheval Trap to disable horse cavalry. A spiked weapon.
GARB: The symbol of plenty, a sheaf of wheat.
GAUNTLET: Said to signify military service.
GILLY FLOWER: An ancient emblem of generosity.
GLOBE: When shown fractured with clouds and rainbow is the symbol of hope.
GOAT: Emblematic of persistence and strength.
GRAPE: Denotes industry and plenty.
GRENADE: A bomb that constitutes a warning in heraldry.
GRIFFIN: The beautiful mythical mix of eagle and loin is the most well known of all the heraldic monsters. It is the emblem of valor and magnanimity.
HALBERT: A battle axe, the symbol of military service.
HAND: Emblematic of faith.
HARE: Denotes one who is intelligent in warfare.
HARP: The heraldic symbol of Ireland for centuries.
HARPY: A cross between a virgin and a vulture, its meaning is unknown
HAWK: The symbol of a man of action.
HAWTHORN TREE: Denotes bad luck to one’s enemies.
HEART: Sometimes depicted in flames, the emblem of love and devotion.
HEDGEHOG: An ancient symbol of cunning and perseverance.
HIND: The female of the stag, emblematic of one who will fight if provoked.
HORSE: Denotes one who is ready to do battle.
HORSE SHOE: The age-old symbol of good luck.
HOUND: Usually a Talbot, the emblem of leadership.
HYDRA: A fantastic monster with seven heads, a symbol of fortitude.
IBIS: The Egyptian bird is emblematic of patience and virtue.
IMPERIAL EAGLE: An eagle with two heads. The symbol of fortitude and magnanimity of mind.
INK-MOLINE: The center of a mill wheel, an emblem of industry.
IVY: The symbol of eternal life.
JACKDAW: A member of the crow family, symbolic of death.
JANUS HEAD: Emblematic of the passage of time.
JOUSTING LANCE: Symbol of a knight in service.
KEY: An emblem of one in the service of the Church.
KINGFISHER: Symbol of the halcyon of the ancients. Rarely found.
KNOT: A symbol of love and faith in its many forms.
LAMB: Normally painted with the staff and flag is the emblem of Christianity.
LANCE: Denotes one in active service as a knight.
LARK: An ancient symbol of eloquence.
LAUREL: Sometimes shown in a wreath, is the emblem of triumph.
LEGS IN ARMOR: The emblem of The Isle Of Man, seen also on the arms of MacLeod.
LEOPARD: Emblematic of a valiant warrior.
LILY: The regular kind, is the symbol of purity.
LION: Regarded as the noblest of all the wild beasts, making it the symbol of strength and valor. The best known heraldic symbol.
LIZARD: An emblem of vigilance.
LOCHABER AXE: From the Scottish region of the same name, a symbol of military duty.
LOZENGE: A diamond shape symbol of a widow.
LURE: A hawks lure, an emblem of pursuit.
LYMPHAD: An ancient one-masted ship, emblematic of expedition.
LYNX: The wildcat denotes vigilance.
MACE: Ornamental staff, the emblem of authority.
MAUNCH: The sleeve of a lady’s dress. Denotes service as a knight. It appears the cutting off of the sleeve and giving it to the knight was considered a high honor.
MARINE-WOLF: A rather fanciful name for a seal. A symbol of vigilance.
MARTLET: It was thought in medieval times that the swallow (martlet) did not have any feet. It is painted with two feathers where the feet should be and denotes somebody who subsists on wings of virtue.
MERMAID: The age-old symbol of eloquence.
MILL-RIND: The center part of the mill wheel, a symbol of industry.
MILL-WHEEL: Another symbol of industry, often found in the arms of Miller.
MITRE: Emblem of high authority in the Church.
MOON: Emblematic of serenity.
MULLET: A star of 5,6,8, or 12 points associated with military service.
MURAL CROWN: A crown composed of bricks, an emblem of power.
MYRTLE: Given to those who were victorious at the Julian Games.
NAIL: A symbol of passion.
NAVAL-CROWN: Denotes one with service in the navy, composed of masts and rigging.
NIGHTINGALE: Emblematic of eloquence and truth.
OAK: Painted as the tree, or leaf, it is an emblem of virtue and strength.
OLIVE TREE: The best known symbol of peace and harmony.
OSTRICH: An emblem of knowledge and understanding.
OTTER: Denotes one who is intelligent and industrious.
OWL: No surprise, the symbol of prudence and wisdom.
OX: An emblem of persistence.
PALMER STAFF: Along with the Palmers Script, are symbols of those who fought in the Crusades.
PARCHMENT: Depicted in a roll, an emblem of wisdom.
PEACOCK: A symbol of power and omniscience, used in ecclesiastical heraldry often.
PEAR: Used as a canting device as in the name Perry, a symbol of plenty.
PEGASUS: The emblem of fame.
PELICAN: Normally depicted in heraldry wounding herself in the chest and feeding her young with her own blood. The pelican is the symbol of charity.
PENTAGON: Rarely found in heraldry, an emblem of health.
PHEON: A broad arrow head, symbolizes readiness to do battle.
PHOENIX: Known to all as the symbol of resurrection.
PILLOW: Emblematic of authority.
PLATE: A piece of silver, said to denote involvement in the Crusades.
POMEGRANATE: This seedy fruit is an ancient symbol of plenty.
PORTCULLIS: The armored gate with the chains and spikes is a symbol of protection.
PROBOSCIS: The elephant trunk is an emblem of nobility.
QUATREFOIL: The primrose, and early spring flower in Europe. The symbol of revived nature, and was adopted by the Church as a symbol of immortality.
QUIVER: A case filled with arrows, symbolizes military readiness.
RABBIT: Termed a coney, the emblem of courage and wisdom.
RAINBOW: A symbol of hope and prosperity.
RAM: The male sheep is an emblem of strength and perseverance.
RAVEN: The symbol of Divine Providence.
ROCK: Used often as a pun on the surname. It is an emblem of security.
ROSE: Denotes distinction. Also used to denote belonging to the House of York (white rose) or the House of Lancaster (red rose) and is the symbol of England.
SALAMANDER: Depicted in flames, an emblem of sacrifice.
SALMON: From ancient times in Ireland, the symbol of knowledge.
SAVAGE: A wild man, usually painted with a club, or indeed a tree, over his shoulder. A common symbol of strength and valor.
SCEPTRE: A royal staff, emblematic of authority.
SCIMITAR: The curved sword of the Saracens denotes one who took part in the Crusades.
SCYTHE: The emblem of husbandry, not death.
SEAX: A scimitar with a notch cut into it. The arms of the county of Essex, England.
SHAMROCK: Not widely used, the regular trefoil is more common, but is of course the symbol of the Christian trinity. And Ireland.
SHEAF: Termed a garb in heraldry, an emblem of peace and plenty.
SHELL: Worn on the sleeve as a symbol of pilgrimage.
SHIELD: Used as an emblem of defense.
SIREN: A mermaid, the emblem of eloquence.
SKELETON: The emblem of mortality. When depicted with a crown it is the symbol of Christian death.
SNAIL: Rarely encountered, the symbol of patience and reward.
SNAKE: A common heraldic charge, emblematic of wisdom & medicine.
SPEAR: In its many forms, symbolizes a knight in service.
SPUR: An emblem of readiness to do battle.
SQUIRREL: An early symbol of patience and perseverance.
STAG: A very common heraldic animal, often shown “at gaze.” An emblem of one who will fight if provoked.
STONE: A symbol of solidity.
SUN: Often depicted with a face and termed “in its splendor” it is the emblem of glory.
SWAN: The royal bird is the symbol of harmony.
SWORD: The age-old emblem of honor in battle.
TALBOT: A medieval type of hunting hound. Emblematic of leadership.
THISTLE: The heraldic badge of Scotland.
THUNDERBOLT: The emblem of Jupiter, sometimes termed Jupiter’s Thunderbolt.
TIGER, HERALDIC: A different beast to the Bengal variety, a symbol of courage.
TILTING SPEAR: A tournament lance, emblematic of a knight in service.
TOWER: The symbol of strength and protection.
TRIDENT: A three pronged fork, an emblem of solidity.
TUN: A barrel, emblematic of industry.
UNICORN: The head, neck, and body of a horse, the legs of a buck, and the tail of a lion all topped off with a twisted horn. A symbol of courage.
VINE LEAVES: A symbol of industry and plenty.
VULTURE: An uncommon emblem of rapacity.
WALL: A symbol of solidity, usually embattled.
WATER-BOUGET: A device used in ancient times to carry water to the camp. A symbol of military service.
WHALE: Emblematic of patience and understanding.
WHEAT: A symbol of plenty.
WHEEL: A symbol of industry, often used as a pun on the name. Used in the arms of Carter.
WING: Termed a Vol in heraldry it is an emblem of protection.
WYVERN: A cross between a dragon and a serpent and is a symbol of courage.
WOOL-PACK: An emblem of industry.
YEW TREE: An ancient English symbol of hope.
ZODIAC: An unusual emblem of the celestial sphere.