The inverted cross, also known as the Cross of St. Peter, has a long history and varied meanings. While today it is sometimes associated with the occult or satanism, traditionally it was not seen as a negative symbol. Here is an overview of the origins, history, and meanings of the inverted cross according to the Bible and Christian tradition.
Origins of the Inverted Cross
According to tradition, the apostle Peter was martyred in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero in the 1st century AD. It is said that Peter was crucified upside down by his own request. He did not feel worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus Christ, and therefore asked to be crucified on an inverted cross. The Cross of St. Peter takes its name and origins from this tradition about Peter’s martyrdom.
The earliest record of Peter’s inverted crucifixion comes from the apocryphal Acts of Peter, dating to the 2nd century AD. The story is also referenced by early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea in the 4th century AD. By the 9th century, the tradition of Peter’s inverted crucifixion was well established.
While the exact origins are uncertain, it seems clear the inverted cross symbol developed out of the ancient story that the apostle Peter was martyred by being crucified upside down. As one of the most important early Christian figures, symbols and stories connected to Peter have long been powerful symbols in the church.
History and Meaning in Christianity
For most of its history in Christian tradition, the inverted cross was not seen as a negative symbol. Rather, it was widely used as a Christian symbol and emblem of various Christian figures and ideas.
As a symbol of St. Peter’s martyrdom, the inverted cross came to stand for the unwavering faith and humility of the apostle. Peter refused to be crucified in the same upright manner as Christ, and therefore the inverted cross recalls his virtuous request at the time of martyrdom. As a result, for Christians the inverted cross has often symbolized Peter’s piety and humility.
The inverted cross is also sometimes known as the Cross of St. Philip, who according to medieval legends was also crucified upside down. Thus for Christians, the upside down cross also symbolized Philip’s faith and martyrdom. In some church iconography, many early Christian saints and martyrs are depicted as being crucified upside down.
In addition, the inverted cross has served as a symbol reflecting the theology of the Christian cross itself. In Holy Cross traditions, the inverted cross is seen as perfectly aligned with Christ’s actual cross. The inversion emphasizes that the true glory of the cross lies not in its upright vertical form, but rather in the willing sacrifice that it represents. Therefore, the inverted cross has sometimes been used within Holy Cross traditions as a visual symbol expressing key theological ideas.
For these reasons, throughout most of Christian history the inverted cross has not been considered an evil or anti-Christian symbol. It was widely used in traditional Christian iconography and church decoration without any evil associations.
Equivocal Meanings in the 19th Century
By the 19th century, the inverted cross began to take on some more equivocal meanings. Throughout this period, there arose various occult and anti-clerical movements that intentionally used traditional Christian symbols in provocative and sacrilegious ways.
Within 19th century occult circles, the inverted cross was sometimes used to signify opposite ideas or inverted powers. The inversion was intended to take on an opposite meaning from traditional Christianity. However, these usages remained limited to certain occult groups.
Anti-clerical political groups also sometimes used the inverted cross to express their opposition to church authority. As a traditional Christian symbol, the inverted cross was seen as a way to symbolically oppose or invert the power of priests and the official church. However, these political usages were rare.
Despite these alternative usages, most mainstream Christian churches continued to employ the inverted cross in traditional ways throughout the 19th century. Occult and anti-clerical meanings remained obscure.
Associations with Satanism in the 20th Century
It was not until the 20th century that the inverted cross came to take on strong associations with Satanism and the occult. This shift was driven largely by sensationalism and misinterpretation rather than genuine historical traditions.
In the late 19th century, French occultist Eliphas Levi published drawings of the upright and inverted cross, linking the inverted cross with representations of evil. This idea was picked up and spread with sensationalist stories about “black masses” and inverted symbols by authors like Maurice Magre in France and Montague Summers in England.
These sensationalist stories led to widespread misconceptions that the inverted cross symbolized anti-Christian beliefs. Misunderstanding the historical origins and meanings, people began to assume the symbol had always represented opposition to Christianity rather than the martyrdom of St. Peter.
In the mid-20th century, the inverted cross became even more strongly misconstrued and associated with Satanism within occult circles and pop culture. Satanist Anton LaVey adopted the symbol for his Church of Satan, spreading the mistaken link between the inverted cross and anti-Christian beliefs. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist cemented these inaccurate associations in pop culture.
While the inverted cross remained in use in some Christian traditions, by the latter 20th century it had taken on strong Satanic and anti-Christian connotations in popular culture. However, these associations were based largely on historical misinterpretation rather than any genuine dark tradition.
Modern Interpretations and Usage
Given the complex history, the meaning of the inverted cross today depends greatly on the context in which it is used. For many Christians, especially Catholics, it retains its traditional meaning as a symbol of the apostle Peter requesting to be crucified upside down. Just as Peter saw his inverted crucifixion as honoring Christ, modern Christians see the upside down cross as honoring the martyrdom of a great saint.
However, because of the inaccurate 20th century association with Satanism, many Christians today avoid using the inverted cross to avoid any misinterpretations. Other faiths may also avoid the symbol for similar reasons. Because of the mistaken links to the occult, the inverted cross now provokes unease or negative impressions among many people.
Within some occult or Satanist contexts, the inversion of the cross can take on an anti-Christian meaning of opposition. But such usages are relatively rare, and do not necessarily imply devil worship. Much more common is the secular use of the inverted cross in pop culture as a generic symbol of rebellion, counter-culture and religious irreverence. Used this way, the upside down cross is more about vague iconoclasm than any literal Satanism.
Historically, the inverted cross symbolized the martyrdom of saints like Peter and the glory of sacrifice. While still used sincerely by some Christians today, more often the ambiguity of the inverted cross reflects the complex intertwining of faith, misunderstanding, and popular culture over centuries of shifting meanings.
Key Bible Passages About the Cross
The Bible itself does not directly address the symbolic meaning of inverted crosses. However, scripture has a great deal to say about the cross in general as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)
These key passages emphasize the cross as a vital symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s love. They highlight the deep significance of the cross for Christian theology and salvation. Any interpretation of inverted crosses or other variations should be considered in the context of the cross’s biblical symbolism.
The inverted cross has a complex history, from its likely origins in the crucifixion of St. Peter to modern associations with the occult and pop culture. While sometimes used by anti-Christian or counter-cultural movements, traditionally the upside down cross was not viewed as an evil symbol in Christian iconography.
Rather, the inversion represented concepts like Peter’s humility and the glory of sacrifice. However, inaccurate 20th century links with Satanism caused many to misinterpret the symbol as anti-Christian. While this assumption is historically wrong, the inverted cross today provokes unease or confusion in many contexts.
Ultimately, the meaning depends greatly on the specific context and intent behind its use. But whatever the orientation, the cross in all its variations remains a vital symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s love as emphasized throughout scripture.