Symbolism in Hmong folk-art

In the arts of the Hmong we find many examples of the use of symbols. Symbols in most cultures can be traced to a time before a majority of people could read and write. Everything stood for something – if you have the “right dictionary”, you could read the symbols. Colors were significant as well as the designs themselves. The younger generation tends to forget the meaning of these symbols. As a local enterprise, Indigo Cat did some research to preserve the great Hmong heritage that we simply call “Hmong folk-art”.

Shapes of designs, expressions of nature, and spiritual depictions all have specific meanings. One caution, though, is that diversity is one of the most salient characteristic of the Hmong. For instance, different groups may have different interpretations for designs that are considered the “real” ones. The overall pattern of the symbols, however, is common to all groups.

Symbols of Creatures

The following designs of the symbols are based on our own interpretation of what we studied in a mix of batik, applique and stitching designs.

snailSnails are a symbol of family growth and interrelatedness.
The center of the coil of the snail’s symbolizes the ancestors.
The outer spirals are the successive generations.

centipedeCentipedes are known and valued for medicinal qualities.

roosterThe rooster is a feisty protector.
It is also the bird who awakens the sun at dawn.
Most of the time his symbol represents his leg.

The cracrabb covers the opening to the sky that permits the flood waters to flow.

snailThe elephants are respected for their strength. Some say that elephants lead dead spirits to the other world and a particular black hoof on the elephant symbolizes whether the dead spirit is a mother, father, sister or brother. His symbol represents his hoof.

birdIf a bird flies into a house and roosts, it is a warning or a bad omen. His symbol is often his wings.

spiderSpiders are not removed from the home. Their webs are used medicinally to stop a small bleeding for example.

These next symbols could not be found in any patterns but these creatures are also very important and significant for the Hmong.

  • The toad lives on the moon and is connected to thunder.
  • The tortoise brings advice from the spirit world and ancestors to people on earth.
  • The grasshoppers were the first living things on earth. The sky spirit was dissatisfied because he thought the grasshoppers were stupid, so he created humans.
  • The bear is feared.
  • Butterflies may be the souls of the dead.
  • If a snake enters the house, it is a sign that someone in the family will die soon.
  • Dragons were thought to be snakes that grew huge. The protective armor of the dragon represents the mythical dragon that lives forever, never knows sickness, and is respected by all.
  • Tracks can be considered the spirit imprints of the person or animal who has passed by.

Other Symbols

Triansnailgles are used to represent teeth, fish scales, fences, mountains, or protective barriers to keep good spirits in and evil spirits out.

diamondA diamond in a square represents the altar maintained in the home, mountains, or the imprint of the most powerful good spirit.

cucumnber_seedThe cucumber seed is used like a symbol that makes children happy when the family harvests these vegetables. According to a tale, the cucumber seed is used on children’s hats. It is thought that young soul tends to wander and that this pattern bonds a child’s soul to its head until the soul is used to being in a new environment.

fish_hookA fish hook symbolizes a young girl’s hope of finding a suitor.

starA star indicates good luck and is a protective symbol.

dream_mazeThe dream maze is a pattern of right-angles. Legend has it that a Hmong woman awoke from a dream to cut out this new and different pattern.

wooden_boxA wooden box is used during the harvest of the rice to collect the rice grains.

mouse_footprintsThe mouse footprints are the way to find the rice in a house.

bamboo_carding_machineThe bamboo carding machine is used in the manufacture of the hemp.