menu

What Is the Symbolism of Skeleton Keys?


From pendants to fine art, literature to songs, key symbolism permeates cultures worldwide. A key opens a lock and thus provides access. Skeleton keys, sometimes called passkeys, have usually been crafted or altered in some way to provide access to more than one lock.

Name
Light shines through a key hole on an ornate door fixture.

The skeleton key got its name because of the shape of the opening it fits in. Rounded at the top with a narrowing triangle at the bottom, the keyhole resembles a stylized skull. Another name for key is clavicle.

Opening
A close-up of a box with a key hole.

Keys provide access to locked rooms, cabinets or boxes. Thus, key symbolism indicates opening or discovering that which is hidden or secret. Because skeleton keys usually can open more than one lock, they are often considered a powerful symbol.

Religious Symbolism
An emblem on a relief sculpture signified by two keys crossing.

Keys often symbolize St. Peter, who is said to hold the "keys to the kingdom," or the keys to heaven. In the tarot, The hierophant (trump number five) appears as a religious leader with two crossed keys. The two crossed keys are often associated with papal authority as well. The 21 cards of the tarot's major aracana are called "keys," referring to the ability to illuminate archetypes and stages of life. In Judaism, the key to the synagogue was sometimes to given to a pregnant woman, symbolizing "unlocking" her womb.

Keys in Popular Culture
A gold skeleton key in the shape of a heart.

The symbolism of keys is present in both ancient and modern culture. A visiting celebrity or lauded individual might be given a "key to the city," an honor that implies power. The phrase "key to my heart" refers to intimacy and the "unlocking" of emotions or tenderness. Keys also connote the ability to uncover secret knowledge, illuminate hidden wisdom and gain entry to fortified areas. Keys can also symbolize initiation and freedom. Common phrases using key symbolism include: "key to my heart," "key to life," "key to wisdom," "under lock and key," "key to success," "key to wisdom," "key phrase" and "keywords."

References
  • "Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meaning;" Dorling Kindersley; 2008
  • "The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols;" Adele Nozedar; 2008
Photo Credits
  • kevinruss/iStock/Getty Images