The symbol of the skull and crossbones is the essence of the pirate mystique. Modern pirate fans wear the symbol everywhere… Jewelry, belt buckles, tattoos, and of course the pirate flag. Let’s look at this symbol, and see what it might have meant to pirates, and how it became their emblem.
The skull and crossbones got its start during the Black Plague, which hit Europe in the mid-1300’s and killed over a third of the world’s population. This horrible event had a profound effect on the survivors. People of the time knew nothing about germs. They believed the disease was a punishment from God.
The most popular method to ward off the plague was to carve a cross on the front door of one’s house, along with the words, “God have mercy on us.” It was also believed that the smell of flowers would help prevent infection.
What does this have to do with bones? Well, it’s pretty obvious that these methods didn’t work. The dead piled up at a rate that broke the system. It’s funny when Monty Python does the “Bring out your dead” routine. But in real life it wasn’t funny at all.
Beginning at this time Death becomes a character in his own right. Survivor’s guilt caused those who lived through these terrible events to imagine Death as a malign being who stalked them constantly, and the sight of rotting bodies familiarized everyone with the process of decay.
This was the beginning of the Memento Mori, the reminder of death. Painting, statues and later even jewelry carried the image of personified death. And the earliest examples were truly horrifying.
Artists knew that corpses desiccate, that the skin falls off in patches, that the hair remains mostly intact long after the rest has decayed. They showed this in their artwork. “Death” wasn’t an empty black shroud or a clean, aesthetic skeleton. It was juicy.
As the horrors of the plague faded, slowly, from the conscious of the survivors, the image gradually became less ghastly. By the 1600’s – the earliest dates for Golden Age pirates, the rotting, worm-ridden corpse had become a clean, dry skeleton. These skeletons were shown in pictures doing everyday things such as dancing, resting, and speaking to the living.
Memento mori jewelry was also popular as gifts to those who had attended a funeral. A part of the deceased estate would be spent to create these morbid pieces. But in the days before photographs these may have been the only remembrances some people had of friends and relatives who had passed.
The message here was still the same. People were supposed to remember that wealth, status and beauty were temporary. Death was permanent. Because of this, people should worry more about the state of their souls than the state of their wallets.
By about 1700 – Squarely in the time period of the pirates – another change had taken place. The skeleton had been reduced to a few symbolic bones. Conveniently, these were often shown crossed beneath a skull, the most poignant and recognizable of human bones.
This was the time when the Jolly Roger was invented. Most pirates flew a black flag when they went into battle. It was a symbol that they had come to fight. But individual pirate captains began to want to mark themselves, to claim what might be called “Brand recognition.”
Pirate flags also showed other memento mori images. An hour glass symbolized that time was running out. A spear or dart spoke to haw quickly and unexpectedly death could strike. These symbols had been common for quite a while. People recognized them. Notice how closely this 16th century necklace resembles Black Beard’s flag.
Why? The message that death was coming, that life was more important than money was a potent image to inspire potential robbery victims to give up their cash in order to preserve their lives.
Pirates, after all, didn’t actually want to fight. They wanted to take the money and leave, ideally without getting hurt or killed themselves. A merchant ship who’s captain was thinking about the value of human life was much more likely hand over the goods peacefully than a man who was thinking about his finances.
And did pirates adorn themselves with their symbol? Probably not. After all, these images were mostly associated with religion (the church strongly approved of the memento mori message) and graveyards, neither of which was a matter of much interest of pirates.
Pirates also wanted to be able to deny their occupation. If the port authorities got too nosey, or the navy showed up, the pirates wanted to be able to say, “Hey this is all a misunderstanding. I'm an honest privateer/trader/merchant. You have no grounds to arrest me at all.” It was a lot easier than fighting your way clear. It also worked on a fairly regular basis.
So did pirate wear the beautiful rings with the skull and cross bones? Probably not. Or if they did it was most likely only as a way of keeping the gold near until it was needed to purchase a drink or entertain a lady.