European Origins of Yin and Yang

When we think of balance, we often associate the energies of yin and yang with Asian culture, however its origins lie further back in ancient Europe.


Inherent Balance


Yin and yang are a complex and relational concept in Chinese culture that has developed over thousands of years. Simply, its meaning is that the universe is governed by a cosmic duality, of the interplay of two opposing yet complementary principles or energies that can be observed in nature. Yin represents female, dark, and moon, and yang represents male, light, and sun. These energies coexist and rely on the other for the existence of each. The nature of yin-yang lies in the interchange and interplay of the two components; without light there cannot be shadow. Therefore, balance is the two energies is key. If yin is stronger, yang will be weaker, and vice versa, yet this imbalance causes problems. This balance of yin and yang is perceived to exist in everything.


The yin-yang symbol is a circle divided by an S-shaped line into a dark and a light segment, representing respectively yin and yang, each containing a 'seed' of the other. Yin is the black side of the symbol with the white dot in it, and yang is the white side with the black dot in it. The ancient method used to track the movements of the sun, moon, and stars around the year. The symbol itself is what the mappings of these movements look like.


European Origins


The following images are of decoration engraved on the walls within two granary ‘shrines’ from the Neolithic European Cucuteni – Trypillia culture, which thrived between 5200 BC and 3500 BC in Eastern Europe and covered the land from the Carpathian Mountains to the Dniester and Dnieper regions, centred on modern-day Moldova and covering substantial parts of western Ukraine and northeastern Romania.

What appears to be the yin-yang symbol within the granaries, the home of every harvest, represents the importance of the relationship to the Tripillians between Mother Earth (yin) and Father Sky (yang).


The Notitia Dignitatum is a 15th century document that displays the shields of German soldiers who served in the Roman army. These shields depict the yin and yang symbol, making it the oldest evidence of its depiction in western Europe by the Germanic tribes of the 4th or 5th century. The Roman patterns predate the earliest Taoist versions by almost seven hundred years and there is no evidence for a connection between the two.

Latin for ‘The List of Offices’, the late Roman Empire Notitia Dignitatum document details the administrative organization of Rome’s Eastern and Western Empires. It is one of few surviving documents of Roman government and describes several thousand offices from the imperial court to provincial governments, diplomatic missions, and army units. It is usually considered to be accurate for the Western Roman Empire in the AD 420s and for the Eastern or Byzantine Empire in the AD 390s.


There are several surviving 15th and 16th century copies of the Notitia Dignitatum, as well as a colour-illuminated iteration from 1542. These surviving copies are derived either directly or indirectly from Codex Spirensis, a codex known to have existed in the library of the Chapter of Speyer Cathedral in 1542 but was lost before 1672 and has not been rediscovered. The Codex Spirensis was a collection of documents, of which the Notitia was the final and largest document with its 164 pages, which united several previous documents, including one from the 9th century.


The Notitia Dignitatum contains symbols similar to the shrine and shield depictions, which later came to be known as the yin and yang symbols. Romans Mauri Osismiaci and the infantry units Armigeri Defensores Seniores (shield-bearers) had a shield design which corresponds to the dynamic, clockwise version of the symbol, albeit with red dots, instead of dots of the opposite colour. The emblem of the Thebaei, another Western Roman infantry regiment, featured a pattern of concentric circles comparable to its static version.