2. Early History
In its origin, and throughout its history until down to recent times, the banner, standard or flag executed primarily a religious purpose with an object to indicate something rather than to gather people together. The earliest known representation of Egyptian banners are those found on the votive tablet of Nar-Mer (4000-5000 B.C.) at Hierakonpolis; on this are represented four bearers, carrying poles with various emblems on the top of them. Artifacts indicate that as early as 4000 B.C., the Egyptian ships also utalized a standard. Similar standards are found in many of the ancient cultures of the Middle East. Among the Indo-Germanic peoples, the use of the flags goes back to very early times. The Athara Veda (v.xxi.12) speaks of the armies of the gods as suryaketu (sun-bannered) and the Mahabharata (x16, lxxxii.23) of the hero Meghasandhi as vanaraketana (monkey-bannered). In the Avesta (Yasna x.14) there is mention of the kine banner (gaus drafso).
The ensigns referred to in the Bible (Nu. 1:52, 2:2) were most probably of this type. The word degel (Nu. 21.9) perhaps corresponds more with the banner in the strict senses. Among the Phoenicians and Greek they were employed simply for signaling purposes in naval warfare. The Romans used at least six kinds of standard for their military and naval forces. Roman legions sometimes went into the battle behind the effigy of an eagle, wolf or bear borne at lance point. A more familiar form was the Roman cavalry flag, a square piece of cloth attached to a crossbar at the point of a spear. The Chinese were using silk flags as early as the 5th century B.C. This was so popular flag that after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was employed in Britain from the 8th century until as late as 1485.
According to "American Educator" (New York, 1973, 7th vol., p. 131), "Flags in the modern sense probably originated in either the Orient or the Middle East. More certain is the tradition that the Saracens (the Muslims) introduced true flags, including attachment to the Europeans during the Crusades." It may also be noted that the fastening of the cloth directly to the lance is recorded as an Arab peculiarity. In Europe there was usually no device on the cloth or, if there was one, it was purely ornamental.