A cross is a geometrical figure consisting of two intersecting lines or bars, usually perpendicular to each other.

The lines usually run vertically and horizontally. A cross of oblique lines, in the shape of the Latin letter X, is also termed a saltire in heraldic terminology.

Name

The word cross is recorded in 10th-century Old English as cros, exclusively for the instrument of Christ’s crucifixion, replacing the native Old English word rood.

The word’s history is complicated; it appears to have entered English from Old Irish, possibly via Old Norse, ultimately from the Latin crux (or its accusative crucem and its genitive crucis), “stake, cross“.

The English verb arises from the noun c. 1200, first in the sense “to make the sign of the cross“; the generic meaning “to intersect” develops in the 15th century.

The Latin word was, however, influenced by popular etymology by a native Germanic word reconstructed as krukjo (English crook, Old English crycce, Old Norse krokr, Old High German krucka).

This word, by conflation with Latin crux, gave rise to Old French crocier (modern French crosse), the term for a shepherd’s crook, adopted in English as crosier.

Latin crux referred to the gibbet where criminals were executed, a stake or pole, with or without a transom, on which the condemned were impaled or hanged, but more particularly a cross or the pole of a carriage.

From this word was derived the Latin verb crucio “to put to death on the cross” or (more frequently) “to put to the rack, to torture, torment” especially in reference to mental troubles.

The field of etymology is of no help in an effort to trace a supposed original meaning of crux. A crux can be of various shapes: from a single beam used for impaling or suspending (crux simplex) to the various composite kinds of the it made from more beams than one.

The latter shapes include not only the traditional-shaped cross, but also the T-shaped, which the Early Christian descriptions of the execution cross indicate as the normal form in use at that time, and the X-shaped cross.

The Greek equivalent of Latin crux “stake, gibbet” is stauros, found in texts of four centuries or more before the gospels and always in the plural number to indicate a stake or pole.

From the first century BC, it is used to indicate an instrument used in executions. The Greek word is used in Early Christian descriptions of the execution cross, which indicate that its normal shape was similar to the Greek letter tau (Τ).

Pre-Christian

Due to the simplicity of the design (two intersecting lines), cross-shaped incisions make their appearance from deep prehistory; as petroglyphs in European cult caves, dating back to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, and throughout prehistory to the Iron Age.

Also of prehistoric age are numerous variants of the simple cross mark, including the crux gammata with curving or angular lines, and the Egyptian crux ansata with a loop.

Speculation has associated it – even in the prehistoric period – with astronomical or cosmological symbology involving “four elements” (Chevalier, 1997) or the cardinal points, or the unity of a vertical Axis Mundi or celestial pole with the horizontal world (Koch, 1955).

Speculation of this kind became especially popular in the mid- to late-19th century in the context of comparative mythology seeking to tie Christian mythology to ancient cosmological myths. Influential works in this vein included G. de Mortillet (1866), L. Müller (1865), W. W. Blake (1888), Ansault (1891), etc.

In the European Bronze Age, it is appeared to carry a religious meaning, perhaps as a symbol of consecration, especially pertaining to burial.

The cross sign occurs trivially in tally marks, and develops into a number symbol independently in the Roman numerals (X “ten”), the Chinese rod numerals (十 “ten”) and the Brahmi numerals (“four“, whence the numeral 4).

In the Phoenician alphabet and derived scripts, the cross symbol represented the phoneme /t/, i.e. the letter taw, which is the historical predecessor of Latin T. The letter name taw means “mark“, presumably continuing the Egyptian hieroglyph “two crossed sticks“.

According to W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, worshippers of Tammuz in Chaldea and thereabouts used it as a symbol of that god.

Christian cross

The shape of the cross (crux, stauros “stake, gibbet”), as represented by the letter T, came to be used as a “seal” or symbol of Early Christianity by the 2nd century.

Clement of Alexandria in the early 3rd century calls it  Lord’s sign ,he repeats the idea, current as early as the Epistle of Barnabas, that the number 318 (in Greek numerals, ΤΙΗ) in Genesis 14:14 was a foreshadowing (a “type”) of the cross (the letter Tau) and of Jesus (the letters Iota Eta).

Clement’s contemporary Tertullian rejects the accusation that Christians are crucis religiosi (i.e. “adorers of the gibbet”), and returns the accusation by likening the worship of pagan idols to the worship of poles or stakes.

In his book De Corona, written in 204, Tertullian tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross.

While early Christians used the T-shape to represent the cross in writing and gesture, the use of the Greek and Latin cross i.e. crosses with intersecting beams, appears in Christian art towards the end of Late Antiquity.

An early example of the cruciform halo, used to identify Christ in paintings, is found in the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. The Patriarchal cross, a Latin cross with an additional horizontal bar, first appears in the 10th century.

A wide variation of cross symbols is introduced for the purposes of heraldry beginning in the age of the Crusades.

Physical gestures

Cross shapes are made by a variety of physical gestures. Crossing the fingers of one hand is a common invocation of the symbol.

The sign of the cross associated with Christian genuflection is made with one hand: in Eastern Orthodox tradition the sequence is a head-heart-right shoulder-left shoulder, while in Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican tradition the sequence is head-heart-left-right.

Crossing the index fingers of both hands represents and a charm against evil in European folklore. Other gestures involving more than one hand include the “cross my heart” movement associated with making a promise and the Tau shape of the referee’s “time out” hand signal.

In Chinese-speaking cultures, crossed index fingers represent the number 10.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.