Through the ages flags have been carried or displayed as symbols of countries, states, and other organizations.
In earlier times hunters and warriors made flags from feathers or animal skins and attached them to the ends of poles. Other hunters and warriors could look at the flags and tell whether they should prepare to fight or could meet as friends.
Egyptian soldiers made their flags by attaching metal birds, animals, or other objects to the tops of long poles. Each section of the Egyptian army had its own particular metal flag or emblem.
The twelve tribes of Israel were among the first peoples to use cloth flags, and each tribe had its own flag that it always displayed—when it went into battle, or when it was at peace; when it was traveling, or when it was in an encampment. The colors of each flag matched the colors of the stones that were set in the breastplate of the presiding high priest.
Reuben’s flag was red with figures of mandrakes. Simeon’s was green with a figure of the city of Shechem. Judah’s was azure and bore the form of a lion. Issachar’s was black with figures of the sun and moon. Zebulun’s was white with a picture of a ship. Dan’s was sapphire with a figure of a serpent. Naphtali’s was dull red with the figure of a deer, or hind. Asher’s was white with an olive tree emblazoned on it. The two tribes descending from Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, had black flags: Ephraim’s had a figure of a bullock; Manasseh’s, a picture of a wild ox. Gad’s was black and white with a picture of a tent. Benjamin’s flag had the colors of all the other tribes’ flags and a figure of a wolf.
Certainly one of the most unusual flags was fashioned by Moroni, commander of the Nephite armies. He made it from his coat to buoy up the flagging spirits of his fellow Christians in the Book of Mormon. (See Alma 46.)
The ancient Chinese carried cloth flags with a picture of a gold dragon on a yellow background.
Roman emperors’ flags were purple because they considered purple to be the color of royalty.
Kings often had their personal flags adopted as their country’s flag. The Danish flag, the Dannebrog, has a white cross on a red field. It is one of the oldest flags in continuous use. One account says that it was adopted in the early 1200s when King Waldemar carried it into battle. Another legend says that it came from the sky to King Waldemar II in 1219.
The Vikings, Scandinavian pirates of the eighth century, carried flags that had a black raven on a white field, or background.
Crusaders, Christian fighters of the eleventh century, carried different colored flags when they fought the Muslims to recover the Holy Land; they otherwise had flags with plain white crosses on a red field.
When Columbus sailed his three small ships to the shores of a new land in 1492, the ships displayed the Spanish flag, which had two white fields with figures of red lions and two red fields with pictures of castles.
As colonists settled on the North American continent, each colony had its own flag. These flags often depicted the colony’s struggles. Some of the early North American flags had pictures of pine trees, rattlesnakes, or anchors. Some had slogans such as HOPE, LIBERTY, APPEAL TO HEAVEN, and DON’T TREAD ON ME.
The first flag of the colonies to resemble the current United States banner was the Grand Union Flag. It had thirteen red and white stripes. In the upper left corner was a red cross and a white cross on a blue field. It is believed by some that this flag was first flown by the ships of the colonial fleet on the Delaware River in December 1775. It is known that this flag was unfurled over General George Washington’s camp outside Boston on New Year’s Day in 1776.
The flag of the United States of America, popularly known as the Stars and Stripes, dates back to June 14, 1777, when the Continental Congress resolved that the design of the colonies’ flag should include thirteen alternating red and white stripes and thirteen white stars on a blue background. As each new state joined the union, a star was added to the flag.
There are many, many flags in the world today. Some represent countries, such as Canada, Mexico, and Japan; others represent small units, such as military regiments, governmental offices, and even individual families; and still others represent international organizations, such as the Red Cross, the United Nations, and the Olympic Games. Whether its design is new or centuries old, each flag is a symbol of a group of people and that which that group considers important.