The best national coats of arms

As you’ve probably guessed from Dove’s many Game of Thrones cross-stitches, there are few things we like more than a good coat of arms. The one problem is that the sigils used in A Song of Ice and Fire don’t quite ring true in the real world. Most of arms of the great families just consist of a single animal on a plain background. A couple of players shake things up a bit – Stannis puts the stag, traditional symbol of his family, inside a flaming heart, while the Freys choose to commemorate the fortified bridge that keeps them as major players in Westerosian politics – but for the most part, they’re simple and ancient.

Compare those to the real world coat of arms of medieval Europe. They’re a mess of intermarried houses, surreal imagery, symbolism piled on symbolism, and eye-searing patterns, with the occasional minimalistic one thrown in too (and if there’s one thing medieval heraldry proves, it’s that everyone thought of themselves as lions. Real Westeros would just have have seven families of lions.).

So, here are some of my favourite coats of arms – bold, distinctive and clever, and barely a lion in sight.

Mexico

Coat of arms of Mexico

Your eyes do not deceive you. That is a golden eagle, standing on a cactus, tearing apart a rattlesnake with its beak and talons. That is a country you would not want to mess with.

Zambia

Coat of arms of Zambia

Too many countries put really elaborate national dress on their coats of arms. Zambia keeps it nice and simple. Shorts for the guy, comfy dress and a sensible haircut for the lass. I also love the tiny zebra trotting around the woman’s feet. They’d better not drop that shield on it.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Coat of arms of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Look at that seal. That seal straight up does not give a toss about you. When it’s finished holding up this picture of a lion holding a torch, it is going to lie on that rock sunning it for the rest of the day. The penguin doesn’t look too happy either, though penguins rarely do.

That reindeer scares me a bit, though.

Panama

Coat of arms of PanamaA depressing number of countries put weapons on their coat of arms – infamously, Mozambique’s flag and arms prominently feature an AK-47. Panama has the right idea. The weapons are hung on strings, to represent museum pieces, and contrasted with the shovel and pickaxe, the tools behind the country’s current prosperity. Plus, the picture of Panama in the middle is side on, the way people actually see it as they sail towards it, rather than being a top-down squiggle like a lot of countries. Someone should tell them that sunrise sunset doesn’t work that way though.

Thailand

Thai Garuda

This is a Garuda. In Hinduism, Garuda is the mount of lord Vishnu, while in Buddhism, Garuda are a species of divine birds. Either way, they are vicious warriors, and sworn enemies of the Naga. And they are the national symbol and seal of Thailand. The US may have its bald eagle, Mexico may have its rattlesnake eating golden eagle, but Thailand, I think, wins the bird game.

Mauritius

Coat of arms of MauritiusOr perhaps not. It takes guts to put an extinct bird on your coat of arms, but the dodo is also one of the greatest symbols of evolution (it evolved from the dove family, but without any predators, it grew to enormous sizes) and the environmental movement. I can think of far worse birds to be proud of. Plus, they’re holding up sugar cane, so yum.

North Korea

Coat of arms of North Korea

Communist and former Soviet states have some of the best emblems, partly because they were all founded after graphic design and marketing were invented, and partly because, as single-party totalitarians, they were hardly going to lose votes if they spent their days in parliament debating coat of arms (though spare a thought for poor Macedonia, who after independence were left with an unpopular coat of arms featuring both tobacco and opium, but found themselves unable to go back to their previous arms). What does North Korea have? Dams and rice. Remember that.

Laos

Coat of arms of Laos

Just to one up North Korea, here’s Laos, who as well as a dam and the prerequisite Soviet ears of grain, have a rice paddy, a forest, the Pha That Luang shrine (which contrary to the depicition, does not sit on top of a dam) and a road. It is, of all the national coat of arms, probably the most honest.

Finland

Coat of arms of Finland

In the Middle Ages, few Europeans, especially those up north, had ever seen a real lion. Instead, all they had to go on were paintings passed down through the generations, getting steadily more exaggerated with every painting. In Finland’s case, that worked to its advantage. A real lion would look rubbish here, but a lion wearing a crown, with a human face, with the tongue of a dragon and a single armoured leg, holding a broadsword while trampling on a scimitar is a brilliant, distinctive image. The Lannisters have nothing on Finland. The white roses are a nice touch too. (Fun fact: the Lannisters and Starks are based on the houses of Lancaster and York, hence why the Stark colours are white and grey (white rose of Yorkshire) while the Lannister ones are red and gold (red rose of Lancashire).)

Italy

Emblem of Italy

You know all those steampunk books where inexplicably, countries introduce all this mechanical imagery into their national symbols, with thrones covered in pistons and crowns made of coal and it all feels so contrived? Well, apparently Italy fell straight out of one of those steampunk worlds with this gorgeous emblem. The olive and oak branches are a nice touch too, even if the star seems a bit much. Cleverly, the cogteeth at the top also recall the shape of a crown (so sayeth Wikipedia), which manages to continue the symbolism of centuries of arms while acknowledging the fact Italy is now a republic.

Jamaica

Coat of arms of Jamaica

As far as I can tell, Jamaica is the only country with a topless woman in its coat of arms (though not the only one with a topless man). It’s also the only country to put pineapples on its coat of arms, and the only country to put a crocodile on its coat of arms. Apparently, the coat of arms used to be quite racist, with the motto at the bottom pointing out explicitly that the West Indian tribes served the British. “Out of many, one people” is a far nicer slogan, and arguably has more of a ring to it than “E Pluribus Unum”, the Latin equivalent.

British Indian Ocean Territory

British Indian Ocean Territory coat of arms

Turtles are never going to look happy. These ones just deserve credit for standing upright as long as they have. Also, that silver crown around the tower is, without a doubt, the greatest crown. I sincerely hope the queen has to wear that whenever she visits the British Indian Ocean Territory (except she would never, ever, visit the British Indian Ocean Territory, since the British government would like to pretend the place doesn’t exist any more).

Botswana

Coat of arms of Botswana

Two zebra are holding up a shield decorated with gears, your argument is invalid. (Not sure I approve of that ivory, though)

New Zealand

Coat of arms of New ZealandFinally, here’s New Zealand. The New Zealand coat of arms are very nice and optimistic. The white woman and Maori man look to each other as equals, there’s a clever symmetry in how the supporters hold the flag and the taiaha (a traditional weapon used the Maori welcoming ceremony) and the arms draw on both natural (the Southern Cross, the silver fern) and the man-made (the ships, the hammers). It’s just a really nice synthesis of all the symbols of New Zealand.

Oh, and there’s a dead sheep there too.

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