Although the anchor has had a long and rich history of symbolism in nautical tattoos, and the fouled anchor in U. S. Marine tattoos, a particular kind of anchor has also been associated with Christian symbolism as well. Sometimes referred to as the crux dissimulata or disguised cross, this ancient symbol of the sea and early Christianity may owe its origin to a pun.
Naming an anchor a crux dissimulata implies an attempt to purposely hide the symbol of a cross within the image of the anchor, where the top crossbar of the anchor forms the cross. The hidden cross is a notion that finds resonance in history since we know that early Christians in Rome were persecuted to greater and lesser degrees in that city’s history and we can extend their desire for secrecy and remaining hidden to the use of secret symbols. However, there is no direct historic or archaeological data that makes this explicit association. Although the crux dissimulata may well be a modern disguised cross, early Christians almost surely did not use it in this manner. We must look into further detail to understand the origin of the anchor as an icon of early Christians.
To speak of early Christian symbolism is to speak of Rome in the first few centuries A.D., where early Christianity flourished. Like the early years of Buddhism, the icons of early Christianity were purposely without an image of its central figure. Although today it is common to see all manner of figures of Christ, the Holy Spirit, or God, the Father, such representations were once forbidden, as they were too similar to the practices of pagans. Clement (ca. 150-211 AD), bishop of Alexandria, wrote in his Paedogogus, “Let our signets be a dove or a fish or a ship running before a favorable wind or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or an anchor, which Seleucus [successor to Alexander the Great and founder of the Syrian dynasty] had engraved on his signet, and a fisherman will remember the apostle and the children drawn out of the water. For it is forbidden for us that the image of a god be impressed (on our signets) or the sword or bow for us pursuers of peace or the goblet for us temperate people.” Also, at this point, Clement seems to associate the anchor (at least as it would be used on a signet ring, or official seal) more with fishermen and Assyrian kings than with the only Bible verse which mentions the anchor. “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:19-20.
Among the ancient Romans, and most peoples who navigated the sea, the anchor had long been a symbol of stability and security, even in stormy seas, and by extension, trust and confidence. It was also taken as a symbol of the various sea gods to whom seafarers looked for protection. So, early Christians, Romans by any other name, likely did not invent their initial symbols but instead reinterpreted symbols of power with which they were already familiar, such as the anchor. It appears often in catacomb inscriptions, sometimes with Latin text, sometimes with associated fish, palms, or birds and also with Greek, spoken by early Jewish Christians. However, the use of the anchor in epitaphs, although popular in the second century AD, had fallen into disuse by the end of the third century. Many, if not most, symbols experience waves of popularity throughout their histories, a lesson that we know all too well from the world of tattoos. But the gradual fading of the anchor as a symbol for Christianity, or more specifically, Christian death, may have more to do with the Greek language than with ocean symbolism.
The Greek phrase en kurio, meaning “in the Lord”, is a familiar part of liturgy, especially as it relates to persons who have “died in the Lord” or been of the Christian faith at the time of their death. However, the Greek work for anchor is ankura, a bit of a sound-alike. It is interesting to speculate that the anchor would have been spoken ankura by the majority of people who created the catacomb carvings and that its use in epitaphs may been shorthand for en kurio to state in a single pictograph that the deceased had died in the Lord, or was a Christian. As the anchor faded from use in the later third century, it was the cross and crucifix which rose in popularity to replace it, even as Latin replaced Greek.
The anchor cross or crux dissimulata stands as a representation of Christian belief that is seemingly familiar and yet not often used explicitly in this way, particularly in modern tattoos. The anchor owes much of its symbolic meaning, in terms of security and confidence, to its maritime origins. However, its Christian symbolism can be traced directly to its early use in the milieu of languages and cultures that was Rome in the early centuries of the last millennium. Whether it is Greek shorthand, a Biblical reference, an adaptation of an already familiar and reassuring icon, or some compelling combination of these, the anchor cross remains a noteworthy option for Christian tattoo enthusiasts.