Do you remember in my post, Why I Love Graveyards, I mentioned a weird symbol that I saw on more than one grave (a picture is below)? Well, I now know what it means! All it took was a quick Google search. But I didn’t originally look up that symbol; I was actually looking for something else, but I did not know that they were the same thing.
I went to a different graveyard, and as well as seeing that symbol, I saw many graves with the letters IHS on them, at the top. My dad and I thought for ages about what it could mean. First we reckoned that it was definitely Latin, and I thought it could have been ‘in horto sedet’, which were the only Latin words I could think of at that point. And since it means ‘he/she/it sits in the garden’, it probably didn’t stand for that. So when we got home I looked up what the letters IHS stood for. I found this website and had a look. I was surprised to find that IHS and this symbol:
were exactly the same thing! If you read the page I linked to above, you will know that it has a few different proposed meanings. First of all IHS (or IHC, JHS or JHC) are the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek (iota eta sigma, which looks like this: ΙΗΣ), but also IHS could stand for ‘in hoc signo’ which is a shortened version of ‘in hoc signo vinces’ which means ‘by this sign we conquer’. Just ‘in hoc signo’ on its own would just mean ‘by this sign’ (the ‘sign’ refers to the Christian cross, by the way). So when I looked at the Wikipedia page for ‘Christogram‘, I saw the gravestone symbol AGAIN and found that there is another proposed meaning for IHS: that it stands for ‘Iesus (they didn’t have a J!) Hominum Salvator’ which means ‘Jesus, saviour of mankind’. So now I knew that there are THREE different interpretations of IHS.
But there are more. ‘In His Service’ or ‘I Have Suffered’ are other English meanings of IHS, but obviously made up after the generally understood meaning of the three letters. In fact, if you read the Wikipedia page it mentions how IHS can be called a backronym, because when people started using the letters they were not an acronym (they were just the first three letters of Jesus’ name) and afterwards it was made into an acronym: ‘in hoc signo’, ‘I Have Suffered’ or ‘In His Service’.
Wow. When I finished all this research, I was empowered and also overwhelmed by this new knowledge. I only looked up what IHS stood for and I cam away with so much more information, and I found out that the weird symbol I’d seen on so many gravestones WAS actually IHS! It’s a small world.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. Ever heard someone go ‘Jesus H. Christ!’ (instead of saying something rude)? Well, THAT comes from IHS as well. Jesus H. Christ– JHC– IHS– you see? Since the Greek letter Σ I assume can be translated as an S or a C, IHS can also be IHC. AND, since the Greeks (and Romans for that matter) did not have a letter J, but the word Jesus now does, IHS can also be JHS, and in turn JHC. So Jesus H. Christ is just another (humorous) interpretation of IHS.
We’ve been on a long journey, starting with IHS on gravestones and ending in Greek letters, Latin mottos, backronyms and Jesus H. Christ. WHEW. We’re done now! I hope you learned something, because I certainly did. It was quite difficult to put all this down into one coherent blog post, mostly because there’s a lot to write about and it’s pretty confusing at times. But I hope you understood it and now are empowered by some new knowledge!
But I still do not know what the symbols/IHS on the gravestones was referring to: ‘in hoc signo’, ‘ΙΗΣ’, ‘Iesus Hominum Salvator’, ‘In His Service’ or ‘I Have Suffered’? I do think that maybe, when the gravestone was being made, IHS was just a normal thing to put on them, so they did, without it meaning a specific one of those things. Or maybe, at the time period the gravestones were made, IHS only stood for one of the things? I don’t know, but that is another mystery for another day.
Your researching blogger, Jaz