The symbolism of chains has a long and storied history. They are symbols of slavery and imprisonment but also symbols of connection, love and brotherhood.
Chains can symbolize the following:
- Shared Destiny
- A Bond between People
- A Connected Anchor
Below, I’ll outline all 12 symbols and explain their meaning throughout history.
Chains have historically been used to constrain convicts so they could not escape from imprisonment.
Leg irons would be wrapped around a prisoner’s ankles. The chain connecting the leg irons would prevent prisoners from taking long strides with their legs. In this way, they could not run from their captors.
Others would be chained to a fence post or other anchor to prevent them from wandering too far from their work camps.
Today, we still see chains as ominous signs of imprisonment. And in fact, many people still use chains to constrain guard dogs so they cannot flee too far from their yard.
People who are chained together have a shared destiny. They must go everywhere together as the chains will force them to remain connected.
This could be good and bad. It depends who you’re chained to!
A chain as a tattoo could represent your connection to and shared destiny with a specific person who you love.
A chain can also represent the shared destiny of entire groups of people.
But two people chained or handcuffed together may be seen as a negative ‘shared destiny’. You might want to go in one direction and the other person wants to go in another. The person you’re connected to might become your “ball and chain” – stopping you from taking your true path.
Since the rise of the internet, the concept of the ‘hyperlink’ has been represented by a chain link.
In this context, the chain link symbol is an icon representing interconnectivity. If you click the link, you get taken to the new webpage that is related to the one you were just reading.
The chain link was chosen as a symbol for hyperlinks because it shows how the website is interlinked like a chain. If we zoom out, the internet may look like an enormous entanglement of chains. Each webpage is one loop in an enormous interconnected ecosystem.
4. A Connection to your Origins
Chains can represent being grounded and connected to your origins. This is most common when the chain has an anchor on the end. You’re connected to something that holds you down and keeps you grounded.
This chain and anchor will represent that you know where you come from. You might travel around but you always know where you come from and you’ll never sway far from your origins.
This chain-and-anchor may be a reminder of:
- Your morals.
- Your family.
- Where you’re from.
You could also connect the chain to a fencepost or straight into the soil, rather than on a traditional anchor.
Chains that form a never-ending circle symbolize eternity.
The chain has no beginning or end. It will go around in a circle forever. This circular connectivity reminds us that something is going to go on forever.
We may use this ‘eternity’ symbolism when referring to our religious beliefs (that we will spend eternity with our god) or our never-ending love for our husband or wife.
6. Wealth and Opulence (Chain Necklace)
Big gold chain necklaces are worn in rapping culture in the United States. They were popularized by the band Run DMC in the 1980s.
These enormous gold chain necklaces are worn as signs of opulence. It is a signal that the rappers have become successful and can demonstrate this success by buying expensive jewelry.
But enormous gold chain jewelry was also widely worn in Germany in the 16th Century by wealthy people also seeking to show-off their wealth to others.
7. Exclusion (Chain Fence)
Chains are also commonly used as fences. When a chain is blocking you out of a location, the chain becomes a symbol of exclusion.
One of the best examples of this is the chain used at the front of a nightclub to let people in and out. The chain, usually accompanied by a security guard, is merely symbolic. Anyone could easily knock it down.
But it’s there to create a sense of exclusivity in the nightclub. Those who are allowed into the nightclub are ceremoniously given access by a security guard who unclips the chain to provide access.
Those who are not in yet stand in line behind the chain, waiting patiently for a discerning security guard to look them up and down and decide whether or not they are worthy of gaining entry.
Big iron chains symbolize strength. These are the sorts of chains you see in dockyards and other industrial sites.
They’re chains used to pull enormous ships and other industrial machinery. They are made to be extremely strong.
Here, the symbolism has strong overlaps with iron itself. Iron symbolizes strength and power – the the iron curtain and the iron lady.
9. Brotherhood (Communism)
Karl Marx famously announced: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
So clearly the communists saw chains as a symbol of imprisonment.
But you also regularly see chains in communist art. And often, these chains are designed as positive symbols: they’re signs of solidarity and union. Each person is a link in a chain that becomes strong when all the workers “link” together.
A ‘human chain’ usually represents protection. Humans link arms with a goal of showing that they are united in protecting something.
You might see this in a human chain that protesters use to protect trees from loggers. Or, you can see it in the many examples of Christians and Muslims forming human chains to protect each other while they pray as a sign of solidarity and peace.
Broken Chain Symbolism
The primary symbolism of a broken chain is that of freedom. If you have ‘broken your chains’, it means that you are now free from what was holding you back.
This is very common in left-wing working-class imagery where the working-class considers themselves to be held down and chained back by the capitalists.
But you also often see a broken chain image alongside a bird (usually a dove) who takes flight. It can finally use its wings and fulfil its natural potential now that it is freed.
If you long for connection, a broken chain can become a symbol of your sense of disconnection. You long to be together, but once the chain breaks, you drift away from one another.
This may be, for example, a chain of connection to your ancestors. When you lose your parents that chain ‘breaks’ and you can no longer talk to your elders from your family.
Similarly, the symbolic breaking of a necklace when two lovers break up can represent the disconnect between the two, and they begin to drift apart.
Other Symbolism Articles:
The symbolism of chains is highly contextual. This is, perhaps, thanks to the diverse ways in which they can be used.
While they usually mean imprisonment, there are situations where they also mean connectivity and love.
Furthermore, iron chains symbolize strength and chains worn as jewelry symbolize opulence.
The main element that gives chains their uniqueness is the interlinking of the chain links, which when interlinked can be strong and powerful.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.