Every flag the world over has some kind of reasoning or rationale behind it, from the thirteen colonies and 50 states represented on the Stars and Stripes, to the original Union Jack’s combination of the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, the patron saints of England, Scotland, and Ireland. (Wales, still classed as part of England at the time the Union Jack was created in 1606, remains omitted from the design.)
But in some cases, national and regional flags incorporate much more besides block colors and straightforward geometric designs. From hats on sticks to jewel-encrusted dragons, here are the stories behind 10 of the world’s more unusual flag designs.
1. TWO RED DAIRY COWS (WITH BLUE HORNS) // ANDORRA
The tiny landlocked principality of Andorra sits high in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. At just 180 square miles, it’s one of the smallest independent nations in the world; six Andorras would fit inside Rhode Island with room to spare. Its flag is a straightforward tricolor of blue, yellow, and red—but in the center of the yellow field is the Andorran coat of arms, the bottom-right quarter of which contains an image of two bright red dairy cows, typically depicted with navy blue horns or hooves.
The four quarters of the Andorran arms represent the four coats of arms of two ancient Andorran princes, the Bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix, and two of the country’s former feudal lords, the King of Aragon and the French Viscount of Béarn. It’s the Viscount of Béarn’s coat of arms that contains the two cows, which are popularly said to represent the region’s strong agricultural heritage—although an alternative theory is that they’re a punning joke on the name of the Vaccaei (an ancient Celtic people from whom the Béarns could supposedly trace their ancestry), based on the Latin name for a cow, vacca.
2. A TWO-HEADED EAGLE // ALBANIA
The two-headed eagle is not as bizarre or as uncommon an emblem as it might sound, and has been used since antiquity as a symbol of fortitude, nationalism and empire. Although it appears on a number of local and national coats of arms (as well as the national flag of Serbia), by far the most conspicuous example today can be found on the flag of Albania. The two heads of the Albanian eagle are said to represent the northern and southern extremes of the country—and, according to local folklore, the Albanian name for Albania, Shqipëria, literally means “land of the eagles.”
3. A MACHETE // ANGOLA
The flag of Angola was adopted in 1975, and was based on that of MPLA or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola—the guerrilla group and eventual ruling political party that drove the country towards independence. The flag’s red and black background is said to represent the blood shed during the country’s colonization and the African continent itself, while in its center sits a star (representing solidarity), a cog wheel (representing industry), and a machete (representing both agriculture and the country’s bloody war for independence). The arrangement of the central design is reputedly based on the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, who supported the MPLA in the 1970s, while the general layout of the flag has been connected to the flag of the Viet Cong, who served as an inspiration in the fight for independence.
4. A SHIPWRECK // BERMUDA
A shipwreck might not seem like the most encouraging image to display on your flag, but the island of Bermuda makes an exception. Its flag features both the UK’s Union Jack and an English red lion holding a shield depicting a galleon running aground on a cliff face.
The ship in question isn’t just any old ship but the Sea Venture, the flagship of the Virginia Company that operated between England and colonial North America in the early 17th century. During one fateful Atlantic crossing in 1609, a hurricane struck, forcing Admiral Sir George Somers to intentionally steer the ship toward the reefs of Bermuda—the only land he and his crew had seen for weeks—in a desperate attempt to see out the bad weather. Miraculously, everyone on board survived the hurricane, the island of Bermuda was settled, and William Shakespeare got an idea for a play…
5. A DRAGON HOLDING FOUR GEMSTONES // BHUTAN
The saffron and orange background of the flag of Bhutan, a small landlocked kingdom in the eastern Himalayas, represents the King as well as the country’s predominant Buddhist faith. In the center of the flag is a pure white dragon holding four gemstones. The dragon, known as Druk or the “thunder dragon,” is a figure from Bhutanese mythology. The jewel or norbu that it holds in each claw represents wealth.
6. A RUNNING PINE MARTEN // CROATIA
The red, white and blue stripes of the flag of Croatia and the checkerboard shield in its center represent the traditional colors and coat of arms of the country and its constituent kingdoms. Above the shield, however, are the five regional coats of arms of Croatia, Dubrovnik, Dalmatia, Istria, and Slavonia—and in the center of the Slavonian coat of arms is a running pine marten, a carnivorous mammal in the weasel family. Pine marten skins were once a major source of revenue in Croatia (so much so that the name of the Croatian currency, the kuna, literally means “marten”), and so the Slavonian emblem not only alludes to the country’s former industry, but is likely intended to be a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
7. FIVE VOLCANOES (AND A HAT ON A STICK) // EL SALVADOR
In the middle stripe of the flag of El Salvador is the national coat of arms, the centerpiece of which is an image of five volcanoes, each representing one of the five founder nations of the former Federal Republic of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Rising high above the third of the five volcanoes, however, is a crimson hat balanced on the end of a long staff.
The hat in question is a Phrygian cap—a soft, conical cap originating in the eastern Mediterranean. In revolutionary America and France, the Phrygian cap erroneously came to be considered a symbol of liberty and emancipation due to confusion with the pileus, a similar linen or felt hat symbolically bestowed upon freed slaves in Ancient Rome. But despite the error, the association remains intact: Phrygian caps can be seen on the flags of Bolivia, Haiti, and Nicaragua, as well as the state flags of West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York—and in the official seal of the U.S. Senate.
8. A KALASHNIKOV AND A HOE // MOZAMBIQUE
Only a few countries in the world have firearms on their flags. Bolivia and Haiti have largely obscured bayoneted muskets and long guns, respectively, while Guatemala's flag features a central emblem containing two crossed rifles—a symbol of the country’s strong defenses—and Mozambique's less subtly depicts an AK-47 assault rifle with a bayonet attached.
Just like Angola's, the flag of Mozambique was adopted relatively recently (in 1983) and is based on that of the liberating movement (in this case, the Mozambican Liberation Front) that paved the way for the country’s independence. The rifle is said to represent both defense and vigilance—while the hoe and the open book that accompany it represent agriculture and education.
9. FIVE CARPETS // TURKMENISTAN
Slightly inset from the left-hand side of the flag of Turkmenistan is a red stripe depicting five guls—traditional oval or medallion-like designs used in carpets and rugs in central Asia—each one unique to one of the country’s five founding peoples or tribes. Because of the elaborate complexity of these designs, the Turkmenistan flag is claimed to be the most complex national flag in the world.
10. A CAMEL // PLZEŇ, CZECHIA
Local flora and fauna often feature on flags. A bird of paradise appears on the flag of Papua New Guinea. A condor appears on the flag of Ecuador. An alpaca appears on the flag of Bolivia. But a camel on the flag of the Czechia region of Plzeň? According to local folklore, in the early 15th century a camel was captured from an army of Hussites who besieged the city of Plzeň for more than nine months, without success. As a result, the camel quickly became a symbol of the city’s robust defenses and was added to the region’s coat of arms in 1433.
All images courtesy of iStock.