Grateful Dead Symbols: The 13-Point Bolt
Welcome to the first in a series where we explore the most recognizable symbols used to represent and promote the Grateful Dead!
The most logical place to begin is the classic 13-point bolt. This symbol is quite possibly the most recognized of all the Grateful Dead logos, and it is particularly significant to Grateful Fred. When the company was still just a figment of our imagination, we dreamt of making a chrome bolt for the low-key deadhead.
Why, you might ask?
Well, we think it’s pretty much the most bad-ass and identifiable icon in the Dead’s repertoire of visual eye candy. We went through many rounds of renditions of our bolt before we finalized the design (we actually made and auctioned off a flag with some of our less than perfect bolts), and although we looked at MANY renditions of the 13-Point Bolt in the creation of our first product, we never quite sunk our teeth into the icon’s fascinating history…
So, here we go!
The Creation of the 13-Point Bolt
In the first few years of the Grateful Dead’s career, they played all sorts of shows and venues… from the legendary Acid Tests, to the streets of San Francisco, to the Monterey Pop Festival and beyond. In 1969, the band was regularly playing bigger venues and with other acts, and sound engineer, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, realized that they needed a symbol to identify their equipment - something that would be easy to recognize and easy to replicate (they planned to use a stencil and spray paint to mark their gear).
Photo © Rosie McGee
Owsley had an idea for a mark, inspired by a sign he had seen on the road with the band. He teamed up with his friend, a graphic designer named Bob Thomas to make his vision a reality, bringing to life the 13-Point Lightning Bolt – dividing a circle filled with red on one side and blue on the other.
How were the colors chosen?
There are many theories about why the colors were chosen, the most common being the Dead’s deep ties to America and American culture - what better color palette to identify an American band than Red, White and Blue?!
Another theory that we found (although we’re not sure if this was reason or coincidence), is that Owsley, in addition to being a sound engineer, was also an LSD Chemist, primarily known for his “brand” of LSD, the potent and extremely pure “Monterey Purple.” So, red and blue, with a little bit of “electricity”, and you’ve got purple (more theories about the hallucinatory tie-ins later). But honestly, we think the red, white, and blue patriotic rationale sticks a bit more.
Why was the symbol a lightning bolt?
Lightning bolts are a powerful symbol, and concept. In nature, there are few forces as powerful as a bolt of lightning, and culturally, humankind experienced massive transformation when we were able to harness the power of electricity. For this reason, lightning bolts are symbolic of divine inspiration and intervention, of epiphanies and transformative experiences. We think many Deadheads would agree that this is true of the music of the Dead as well.
Lucky Number 13
In our research and conversations, there are two main theories that emerge regarding the reasoning behind the 13 points.
The first speculates that the 13 points represent the 13 Colonies of the early days of America. This paired with the red, white, and blue color choice makes it a strong argument for a deeply American logo, representing a deeply American band.
The second relates a bit more to the counterculture side of the Grateful Dead, and Owsley’s deep connection with hallucinogens and LSD. Many think that the 13 points represent the 13 steps involved in the synthesis of LSD, or that they refer to an aspect of the molecule itself.
These theories both seem plausible to us, and of course, could both be relevant in the band’s decision to adopt the 13-Point Bolt as their primary identifying symbol. Looking into the history of the number 13, however, we have some other ideas to contribute to the conversation…
Historical and Cultural Meanings of the Number 13
- In the tradition of the Zodiac, 13 is seen as the eternal return. This is derived from the 12 signs of the Zodiac, which correspond to life, and the knowing that life ultimately ends for all - thereby, the 13th sign of the Zodiac is Death, or the eternal return.
- On a clock, there are 12 numbers, and the center, representing eternity. Another way to look at it is that 13 is the return to the beginning of the circle. In other words, the 13th hour is the first, and it repeats that way forever.
- In the Tarot, the Death card displays the number 13, which symbolizes transition, change, and inevitability. The Death Tarot card represents the end of something (the death) and a renewal, a rupture, that is to say a very important change.
- The number 13 also relates to the moon. The moon orbits an average of 13° each day, and a year contains 13 lunar months.
- 13 is a significant number in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Jesus and the 12 Apostles, Jacob and his 12 sons, and the celebration of the Epiphany takes place the thirteenth day after the nativity of Jesus, aka Christmas).
What do you think?
Fundamentally, the answer is - it doesn’t matter what theories a bunch of people on the internet have. The Dead were all about self expression and people finding their own path, so we ask you… What do you think the meaning of the 13-Point Bolt is? Because that is the most important answer!