Derick E. Hingle–USA TODAY Sports

You can’t help but notice the “fleur-de-lis” (lily flower) on the helmets of the New Orleans Saints. The symbol has become associated with the National Football League team, but what is its significance? Why did the Saints select the flower design for the team’s logo? As you can probably imagine, there’s a unique story behind the symbol, but it’s not as happy as you think.

A symbol of royalty and religion

The “fleur-de-lis” is an ancient symbol that has long been associated with French royalty. Displaying a stylized lily or lotus flower, the emblem has represented peace, war, politics, religion, royalty, and so much more. The symbol originated with French monarchs, dating all the way back to the baptismal lily used during the crowning of King Clovis I in 509 BCE.

The ancient tale suggests the lily flower was given to Clovis by either an angel or even the Virgin Mary herself. Supposedly, the lily had sprung from the tears of Eve as she left the Garden of Eden. The flower became a symbol of purity and whenever Clovis had it with him, he succeeded in every battle. You probably had no idea the symbol was associated with religion when you watched the New Orleans Saints play football.

The symbol was later adopted by other nobles, but it mostly stayed in the French monarchy. King Louis VII became the first French monarch to wear the “fleur-de-lis” on his shield. If you wore the symbol, you were highly distinguished. Maybe that’s why the Saints wear it on their helmets. It distinguishes them from other football teams.

A symbol of Louisiana

The “fleur-de-lis” has now become a strong symbol of Louisiana, a state deeply rooted in French history and heritage. The symbol is featured in architecture, the state flag, on the Saints’ helmets and logo, and many other places. You can’t grow up in Louisiana and not know the “fleur-de-lis.”

But while it’s now seen as a mark of the state, the symbol wasn’t always associated with positive traditions. Instead, it was once used to mark slaves. The symbol was a part of Louisiana’s black code, a set of regulations adopted in 1724 influenced by other French colonies from around the world. The black code was designed to govern Louisiana’s slave population, including branding slaves with the “fleur-de-lis” symbol on their bodies if they ever ran away from their plantations.

“He [a slave] would be taken before a court and the sentence would be being branded on one shoulder with the ‘fleur-de-lis,’ and then they would crop their ears,” said slave historian Ibrahima Seck. If slaves ran away a second time, they would be branded again, and their hamstrings would be brutally cut.

For anyone who knows the history of the symbol, looking at it only brings more sadness. Seck commented, “I think people whose ancestors were enslaved here [in Louisiana] may feel it even harder than I do as an African.”

According to Tulane University [located in New Orleans] history professor Terence Fitzmorris, the “fleur-d-lis” was one of the most brutal ways to mark someone as your territory. He remarked, “It was a brutal way of scarring someone and also identifying someone as a particular troublemaker.”

Even Joan of Arc used it

On a lighter note, Joan of Arc is famous for using the “fleur-de-lis” in her historic victory. While she led the French troops to defeat the English in support of Charles VII, she carried a white banner decorated with the French royal symbol. The “fleur-de-lis” may have later become a symbol of slavery and ownership, but it wasn’t always associated with negativity. It was once a sign of bravery, strength, and dedication to the French royal throne. This is something to think about the next time you watch the New Orleans Saints.