The symbolic meaning of the cardinal is derived from its brilliant red plumage, its resonant but sharp song, and its association with life’s transitions.
The Latin word from which we get the name of this bird, cardinalis, refers to turning on a hinge.
Cardinals are thought to open doors to understanding, to comfort, and to new experiences.
This red-feathered finch has come to symbolize romance because it sings to its mate even in fierce weather.
Cardinals have come to symbolize leadership and respect in the Roman Catholic tradition. After all, cardinals are the most senior clergy in the Church, second only to the Pope.
And cultures around the world have recognized cardinals as symbols of energy, life, and unity in diversity.
Cardinal Symbolism and Meaning in Native American and First Peoples Cultures
Many tribes across the United States regarded cardinals as messengers from deceased loved ones.
The Cherokee associated cardinals with the Sun, and one Cherokee story describes the First Redbird as the daughter of the Sun.
There was also a Cherokee belief that cardinals could predict the weather.
Stories of the Ojibwe people depict cardinals as watchful guardians of the people. Pueblo peoples described cardinals as guardians of the south, the direction of the temperate breezes of summer, and times of good hunting.
The Pima Aikimel O’odham tribe of southern Arizona and northern Mexico associated cardinals with lightning and believed that they could predict rain.
The Cherokees had a story in which the cardinal shared its powers with the eagle.
The Maya had a version of the story in which the cardinal gave its voice to the mockingbird, so the cardinal could no longer sing well.
A Romantic Story American Settlers Interpreted from Indian Legend
Some American folklore that may or may not have Native American roots held that if a single person saw a cardinal crossing their path, they would be in love soon.
If a person in a committed relationship encountered a cardinal crossing their path, they could expect a renewed spark of romance.
Cardinals, in Native American or early American folklore, remind unfaithful spouses of their wedding vows.
This is why the native folklore believed that if a single person spotted a cardinal crossing their path, they could expect a romantic relationship soon.
If a person in a committed relationship encounters the red bird of wonders, they can expect a renewed spark of romance in their relationship.
The origins of these stories may be a Choctaw legend in which a cardinal came across a beautiful maiden with many virtues. Seeing that she was lonely, the cardinal decided to help.
The cardinal alter came across a brave young man who likewise had no partner. The cardinal tricked the brave into following him and led him to the young maiden. The couple quickly fell in love.
The connection between cardinals and romance would have been obvious to Native Americans and settlers alike. People who spent hours observed nature would have observed that cardinals are (mostly) monogamous.
The male will bring food to his mate while she is sitting on her eggs. Unlike other songbirds that break up at the end of mating season, pairs of cardinals stay together all year round.
This connection between cardinals and romance is not unfounded. These birds are largely monogamous, and a male cardinal will bring food to his mate while she sits on the nest, offering it to her in a gentle, kiss-like gesture.
Cardinals also remain together as dedicated pairs throughout the year, unlike many songbirds that split up after the mating season.
Cardinals aren’t just “romantic” birds. They are also social. While a male and female pair stay together for years, they make “friends” with other cardinals whom they seem to get to know.
How the Cardinal Became a Native American Symbol of Good Luck
Native Americans associated the number 12 with good luck.Cardinals’ nests usually contain 12 eggs.
Among tribes in the American Southwest, a legend developed that if you see a cardinal, you will have good luck within 12 days.
What about Cardinal Symbolism and Meaning in Celtic, European, African, and Asian Traditions?
Cardinals are a bird of North and South America. Cultures in the Old World didn’t develop a mythology about cardinals because they didn’t encounter them.
However, since the European settlement of the Americas, cardinals have become part of Catholic symbolism.
Cardinal Symbolism and Meaning in Christian Tradition
In Christianity, the dove is the well-known symbol of peace, purity, and the Holy Spirit, but the cardinal is the symbol of the fire and vitality of God and the sacred blood of Christ.
In the same way that the Bible describes the blood of Christ as eternal, “By His blood, we are freed from sin to serve the living God, to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him forever,” the cardinal is a symbol of life, hope, and resurrection.
In the Christian tradition, the cardinal reminds the faithful that because there was a resurrection there is always hope.
Cardinal symbolism and meaning in traditional Christianity, primarily in Roman Catholicism, is like other Christian symbols, is purely Christian-centric.Christian ideas about what cardinals mean don’t translate to other faith traditions.
But cardinals have taken on a rich meaning in Christianity, especially in Roman Catholicism
The Cardinal Christ
In the Christian faith, the cardinal figure is Jesus Christ.
The red feathers of the cardinal remind the faithful of the living blood of Christ, at least in the Roman Catholic understanding of the Christian tradition.
Beyond the cardinal’s representation of the blood of Christ, it reminds the faithful of four attributes of Christ: key, hinge, heart, and cross.
Meditating on the cardinal reminds believers that Christ is key to right living, that Christ opened the door to salvation, that Christ’s heart was wounded by human sin, and Christ accomplished redemption on the cross.
The Cardinal Key
In Latin, a “cardo” was a hinge of a door. The Romans used the word “cardo” in much the same as we use the term “door”in modern English, as a vital, important, principal, main, or significant passage.
Christ is the “cardo” in Christianity. He is the cardinal key to knowing God and understanding the mysteries of the Christian faith.
But Christ is not the only “cardinal” in the Christian tradition. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter, whose name in Greek translates to something similar to “Rocky,” “Upon this rock I build my church.”
That passage also records that Jesus gave Peter “the keys to the Kingdom.” The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Roman Catholicism interprets the term “keys to the kingdom” as the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, but at the time of the event, the keys to the kingdom were understanding the spiritual knowledge that Jesus entrusted to humankind.
About 70 years after the beginning of Christianity, the 95-year-old Apostle John wrote the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation. He made multiple references to Jesus as key, the cardo.
Revelation 12 17-18. “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. Revelation I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.'”
John wrote an admonition to the early church in the Roman city of Philadelphia (which was in what is now Turkey);
Revelation 3: 7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds.”
In hand-copied manuscripts of this book of the Bible, these passages are illustrated by cardinals, the bird.
The Cardinal Hinge
Another reason the cardinal has become a symbol of Christianity is its association with hinges.
The cardinal has come to symbolize the hinge of a door or a pivot on which something turns.
Unlike the Greek god Atlas who held the weight of the world, Jesus becomes the axis on which the world revolves. In Christian mysticism, cardinals have come to be symbols of all-encompassing truths that apply to all of life.
Cardinals remind the faithful that Jesus opened the door to realizing fullness of life.
The Cardinal Heart
Although our word cardinal was derived from the Latin word cardo, meaning hinge or key, it sounds a great deal like the Greek word kardio, meaning heart.
In Roman Catholic tradition, cardinals have become associated with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, symbolizing God’s passionate and boundless love for humankind. Cardinals symbolize devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The Cardinal Cross
In the connections between the cardinal and the cross, Christianity echoes some contributions from its pagan origins (although many priests and ministers would vigorously dispute that point).
In pre-Christian mythology, cardinals were seen as guides to show us the right turn to take at a crossroad.
In the Latin language spoken around the time of Jesus, a crux, or cross, had come to mean a guidepost that gives directions at a crossroads or a fork in the road. (The T-shaped cross was not the only symbol of crucifixion.)
In Christianity, Jesus is imagined as a “guidepost” who offers directions to travelers deciding which path to take in life. When the road splits in two, our cardinal shows us the right road to take.
In its cardinal sense, the cross represents the unity of the four directions, north, south, east, and west, the four elements, earth, air, wind, and fire, and the four gospels. Four cardinals can remind us of this unity.
So, how can non-Christians appropriate Christian symbolism and meaning about cardinals?
If you are not a Christian, or if you are a Christian whose belief system doesn’t focus on the blood of Jesus and the crucifixion of Christ, there is still a takeaway from Christian tradition about the spiritual meaning of cardinals.
Jesus once told a crowd of followers “Consider the birds of the air, how they neither reap nor sow, yet God provides for them.”
When you see a cardinal, you can remember that your needs are not just a matter of personal responsibility. You will find all you need if you take the right path.
And the cardinal is pointing you toward the right path.
The Cardinal as a Spirit Animal
The cardinal’s spiritual meaning is love. When a cardinal flies into your life, you are on the edge of a meaningful romantic event.
Or you just became pregnant, and the cardinal brought you the news first (no matter which partner you are).
Cardinals as spirit animals signify individuality and staying true to yourself.
They reveal the power we have to overcome our insecurities. They give us a push from the “beyond” to keep reaching our goals.
The Cardinal as a Totem Animal
A person with a cardinal as a totem animal is someone other people want to know.
Choosing a cardinal to be your totem means you love life, you have deep reserves of energy, and you are capable of being happy in all kinds of situations.
Cardinals don’t migrate in the winter. Your basic temperament stands up to adversity.
You may call on your totem animal to help you deal with seasonal depression or sad events, but you find a way forward to embrace life.
Were you born with the cardinal as your totem animal?
This means you’ll always stand out from the crowd. You are not someone who can hide from life.
You know the meaning of home. And whatever you choose, you see it through.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cardinal Symbolism and Meaning
Cardinals are sufficiently well-loved that they are the state bird of seven US states.
There is a professional football team and a professional baseball team that uses the cardinal as a mascot.
It’s only natural to have many questions about cardinals.
Q. There’s nothing about cardinals in Greek or Roman mythology at all?
A. In Greek and Roman mythology, the phoenix took the role that the cardinal takes in Native American lore.
Q. Is there meaning to the cardinal’s song?
A. Although cardinals don’t have the most lyrical songs of all songbirds, they sing clear and resonant notes and have at least 28 phrases.
Q. What is the spiritual significance of cardinals?
A. Cardinals are symbols of good luck, manifested desires, loyal friends, domestic harmony, and clear boundaries.
They show up in dreams or in the 3D world to bring encouragement.
The appearance of a cardinal in a dream or during meditation may mean that you need to keep pushing toward a goal, or that you can find comfort after the loss of a relationship or the death of someone you love.
Frequent appearances of cardinals in dreams, during meditation, or in the physical world is a sign of good luck.
Q. What is the meaning of having a dream about cardinals?
A. Cardinals appear in dreams, some dream experts say, when there is a favorable situation you have overlooked. Maybe there is good news that you didn’t realize was possible.
Or maybe you are about to be the recipient of unexpected good fortune for which your subconscious mind is already prepared.
The general meaning is that things are going better than you thought.
Q. Is there ever a situation in which a cardinal is a bad omen?
A. A cardinal that crashes into your window and dies could be interpreted as an omen of bad news.
Keep in mind that omens are never expected, and they are never something that you asked for. They just appear in your life.
Q. What is the spiritual significance of seeing a cardinal?
A. Cardinals appear when angels are near.
When Heaven sends you a cardinal, love is nearby. If you keep seeing cardinals, you are being reminded to look for love in all the right places. Don’t give up on relationships.
You are on the right path, but you aren’t at your destination yet.
Q. What does “when cardinals appear angels are near” mean?
A. The traditional understanding of this saying was that when you see a cardinal, a deceased loved one is watching over you.
It could also mean that you will be or have been rescued from a desperate situation by supernatural intervention.
Q. How can I discern the message the appearance of a cardinal is sending me?
A. Ask yourself “What was I thinking when the cardinal showed up? Where was I going when I saw the cardinal? Who was with me?” The cardinal is telling you that you are approaching a decision point and that heaven has help for you.
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