WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic
File:200px-Soviet War Factory.jpg

This trope occurs when a creator will include religious or cultural symbols without realizing that they are religious or cultural symbols for use in a particular context. They'll have seen the imagery turning up in the art of another culture and so use it for that ethnic or fantastical flavor. They'll use a saint's name because they like the sound, or make every building look like a church because they like the pretty arches. This can confound any audience member who knows what those images really are about and wonders, "What's that doing there?"

This is a subtrope of Did Not Do the Research. Contrast it with Faux Symbolism. In that trope, the creator knows it has some symbolic meaning and tries to throw these ideas on top of the work, in vaguely appropriate situations to try to make things seem deep and meaningful. In this trope, the placement being out of joint with any appropriate context highlights the lack of intended depth.

Not to be confused with Dan Browned. Actually, it should be, since there's no field of study called symbology.[1]

Examples of Symbology Research Failure include:

Anime and Manga

  • Situations where crosses are meant to denote "gaijin" (not Church Militant, just normal European war forces) in some anime/manga.

Comic Books

  • Parodied in Problem Sleuth where several stats are shown using very out-of-place Christian imagery, such as monstrances, communion wafers, the Gifts of the Magi, etc.


  • Played straight in The Boondock Saints. Smecker interprets the McManus brothers' habit of placing pennies in the eyes of the dead to be a payment to Charon (Greek ferrymen of the dead across the river Styx), so they can cross over and atone for what they did in life. The payment to Charon was a coin under the tongue. Placing coins on the eyes simply served as a weight to keep the eyelids from opening on their own post-mortem. Not to mention that two very Christian Irishmen would probably not participate in a pagan Greek funeral rite.

Video Games

  • The Soviet War Factory from Red Alert 2, with an "onion dome" -- a traditional element of Russian Orthodox church architecture -- lodged on its roof. Several other Soviet structures in this game were given similar "attachments". On the other hand, Red Alert is built entirely on Camp and Rule of Cool/Rule of Funny, so this can be excused by the MST3K Mantra.
    • May be justified as the Bolsheviks (especially at the beginning) found new uses for building of "opium of the people". The churches were converted into stables, warehouses etc.
    • ...or just blown up. The Bolsheviks were openly anti-religious and any Christian symbolism was prohibited until The Eighties.
  • The Kremlin wonder in Rise of Nations actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
  • The Kremlin wonder in Civilization IV ... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
    • Likewise, the Masjid al-Haram wonder in Civilization IV is actually the Dome of the Rock. (For those not in the know, the former is the Kaaba--the Black Cube--in a big mosque in Mecca. The latter is the blue and gold octagon in Jerusalem, which while cool and significant isn't half as cool or significant as the actual Masjid, which is the holiest site in Islam).
  • The Kremlin wonder in Civilization V really is the Kremlin, but the little icon for it actually St. Basil's Cathedral.
  • Mayincatec castles in the Age of Empires II expansion The Conquerors are very impractical sacrifice pyramids. Probably done on purpose as realistic Mesoamerican fortresses wouldn't be as iconic.
    • Similarly, in the The War Chiefs expansion of Age of Empires III, where the Native American civilizations don't build temples -- they get a fire pit where the villagers dance in exchange of new units and techs instead -- the inevitable lack of pyramids in the Aztecs is solved by having pyramid-shaped barracks.

Several Media

  • Use of San(to)/Santa ("Saint") followed by any random word to name fictional Spanish-speaking locations.
  • The Kremlin in a great deal of American source material actually St. Basil's Cathedral. This is probably due to Western journalism superimposing an image of the Cathedral while announcing news relating to Russia during much of the 20th century. Perhaps ironically, Red Alert 2 does feature both, having models for what is a incorrectly-designed Grand Kremlin Palace and the cathedral.
    • It doesn't help that when you do a Google image search for "Kremlin," what shows up most prominently actually St. Basil's Cathedral. It's a shame because there are some rather nice-looking churches on the Kremlin grounds.
    • To clarify: The Kremlin is a fortress. With red walls and green roofs. Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed stands just outside the Kremlin. It is a colorful temple.
  • The Greek capital letter L looks like a Latin A without the horizontal dash. It has the advantage of being recongisable as a letter (the wrong one) while making anything look instantly Greek. Many authors therefore use it as a substitute for A, leading to nonsensical things like the poster for Agora which actually says "LGORL" in a mix of Greek and Latin letters.
    • The Backwards R is this trope applied to the Russian alphabet.
    • Ancient Greek hoplites in fiction almost invariably carry the capital L on their shields. It was indeed used as such in Ancient times, but only by the Spartans - the L stood for Lakedaimonia, the homeland of the Spartans. Symbology Research Failure ensues when even the Realism mod of Rome: Total War has Athenians carrying this mark. Athenians, or for that matter Thebans, Argives, Megarians and citizens of nearly a thousand other states would not be caught dead carrying their mortal enemy's emblem on their shields...

Western Animation

  • Seth MacFarlane is obviously a pretty big fan of Rule of Funny and generally just doesn't care, but his use of Jewish symbols is, unsurprisingly, way off the mark. In at least a couple episodes in Family Guy he shows Jews wearing prayer shawls at the wrong times (either outside of prayer, or at nighttime services when they are not worn), and The Cleveland Show at one point, in a fantasy cutaway, shows Cleveland reciting Kol Nidre, the Aramaic annulment of vows that begins Yom Kippur, by reading it out of a Torah scroll. It is a legal declaration, not a Biblical passage, and is certainly not found in the Torah (it's not even in the same language).

Real Life

  • Those Wacky Nazis appropriating swastikas. The swastika, previous to encounters with India and Buddhism, was already a very popular symbol in the West It was commonly associated with, among other things Thor, the god of thunder. In fact, the swastika is so ubiquitous in world cultures that some, including Carl Sagan, theorized that it was, in fact, based off the image of a comet seen straight on. Others have hypothesized that it represents the sun. The Nazis made the mistake of assuming it to be an Aryan symbol above all else, and proved a connection between the mythic white Aryans (real Aryans, AKA Proto-Indo-Europeans, almost certainly weren't blonde-haired, blue eyed Nordics, and resembled North Indians or Iranians[2]) and the Scandinavian cultures they admired.
  • FIFA though it would be a great idea to release a football bearing the flags of the countries that had classified for the 2002 World Cup. And it would have, if one of those countries wasn't Saudi Arabia, which has the 'Shahada' or declaration of islamic creed sewn into it, taken straight from the Quran. Add to that that hitting something with your shoes or feet is a supreme insult in Arab culture and you can figure where this is going.
  • Some coins made in Britain during the Dark Ages like those of King Offa of Mercia have Arab inscriptions reading "there is no God but Allah" or claiming to have been struck in Damascus a number of years after the Hegira. It is believed that the engravers responsible copied contemporary Abassid gold dinars and mistook the Arabic writing for mere decoration.

This page... is actually St. Basil's Cathedral.


  1. It's actually called semiotics
  2. the words "Aryan" and "Iran" are cognates, incidentally
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.