What's in a Name?: The Grateful Dead, Folklore, and Symbolism

The Grateful Dead have many images that have been seen in parking lots, on shirts, and even certain Walmart’s brandishing their mystical logos. The stealie, the dancing bears, the uncle sam; all these designs resonate within the culture and have a certain strange edge to them. What’s behind these symbols? What do they mean? What’s their origin? Let’s find out.
The Name
Let’s start with the name itself; The Grateful Dead. There’s speculation on how the name came about, but the most commonly believed story is from Jerry Garcia. One night, while the band was at their Haight-Ashbury home, they were befuddled by choosing a band name, as the Warlocks had already been taken. In a rare turn event...
“One day we were over at Phil's house...He had a big dictionary. I opened it and there was 'Grateful Dead', those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, 'How about Grateful Dead?' And that was it."
As it turns out, the dictionary that Jerry had picked up was very rare, as it is not common to find folk motifs at all within most dictionaries. Strangely enough, the one that Jerry did pick up, did contain this folktale, and thus, Grateful Dead was chosen. So what’s behind the entry? What is the Grateful Dead? Well, as the Funk & Wagnall’s 1955 edition of their dictionary dictates...
“GRATEFUL DEAD: The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts. He gives his last penny, either to pay the man's debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours, he meets with a traveling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune or saves his life. The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the hero had befriended.”
A beautiful tale, one of man giving away all that he has, just to bury a stranger. It’s story that resonates throughout humanity; we should all help one another, despite our shortcomings. Biblical in some ways, mystical in others, the motif is a wonderful name for a band that embraces community, music, and togetherness over all else. Speculation came later that the band received its name from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, though the band discredits this one. But it’s interesting nevertheless, and can be applied oddly enough to the band itself:
"We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead."
The Stealie
While the band’s name resonates strongly with Deadhead’s, so does the imagery. Most infamous of all the Grateful Dead designs, and most prevalent, is the ‘Stealie;’ the skull and bones, with the lightning bolt shimmering through the middle of it. The center of the stealie has been repurposed for all kinds of designs. T-Shirts with sports logos, band logos, and images of people have all replaced the lightning bolt for their own purpose in the center. The design is simple, letting people repurpose it for whatever flag they may wave, but the skull itself always harkens back to the fact that the person waving that flag is a Deadhead.
The Stealie was first widely seen on the ‘Steal Your Face’ album. It was used for a bit before on some band equipment, and on the inside jacket of the self-titled album the Grateful Dead had released, but it being first and foremost on an album led to th wide dissection of various symbols. It was designed by soundman and financer (and LSD entrepreneur) Owsley Stanley, in collaboration with artist Bob Thomas. They were inspired by, of all things, a freeway sign.
People often speculate why the bolt has thirteen points, and is often a topic of heady conversation. There is actually a broad and large amount of reasons why there are 13 points on the bolt, and one is as right as the other. It could represent the 13 colonies. It could represent the love of Jacob and his 12 sons, in biblical nomenclature. It could refer to the Sumerian zodiac that used 13 constellations. The 13th mystery of Tarot doesn’t have a name, often alluding to uncertainty, hesitation, or a very important change. This list could stretch on and on, but to summarize, it is what you make it, like most of the Dead’s music.
The Dancing Bears
A most loved symbol of the dead, the bears are often seen ‘dancing’ and smiling as they walk, often in a line. While not as popular as the Stealie, it is easily another recognizable symbol produced by artist Bob Thomas. He got the inspiration, oddly enough once more, from a “36-point lead slug of a smiling bear in an old-fashioned printers font box.” The bear has now seeped its ways onto stickers, mugs, and T-Shirts all across lots and head shops across America.
The bears have no direct meaning. It is what you make it. The bears could be dancing to the next show, or at one. The bears could represent strength, courage, and boldness. The anamorphism we portray of bears is one of a cute and cuddly looking creature, despite having the ability to claw away at people.
The dancing bears have also been featured in artwork preceding the Grateful Dead, which is where the design of the dancing bears may have originated from. William Holbrook Beard’s “Wall Street Jubilee” features a multitude of bears dancing in a clearing within a forest. Oddly enough, one can make the resemblance that they are at some kind of concert, with the jubilous revelry that is being featured in the image.
The Dancing Skeletons
It’s another staple of the dead’s imagery on bumper stickers all across America: the dancing skeletons. These dead figures seem absolutely marvelous despite being dead and seem to be giddily dancing next to each other. It’s a quintessential Dead image; Dead skeletons, just dancing and having a good time. Like in “Throwing Stones,” the kids can “dance and shake their bones” away to the music. So it does not always have to be a morbid image, it can be one a joyful dance. Though it has no specific origin, there is a story of a Swedish folktale from the sixteenth century. A man is chased by thieves into a cemetery, and upon seeing them closing in, he kneels and prays quickly for salvation. Just as he is, he is joined by the dead that has risen from the graves that surround him, and chase the thieves off.
Another origin story is from the Liber Chronicum, published in 1453. It’s a book dictating human history related in the Bible, and also one of the best documented early printed tome. On a particular page, there is an image of skeletons having joy in a graveyard. One is playing on a flute-like instrument, two others are spinning each other around, and another is laying watching the whole procession. Folk superstition dictates that the skeletons are either warming up to scare people away within the graveyard or that they simply just rose from the grave to have a good time; maybe just to dance and shake their bones? Though missing the top hat and cane we commonly see the Dead skeletons fashioning, the motions of dancing are very clear within the image.
The Rose
Come upon a lot, and you’ll see the rose engrossing clothing, jewelry, and cars. It’s a simple image that doesn’t attract much attention (great if you’re worried about getting pulled over!), but also one that kind of tips a hat at other deadheads nonchalantly when presented with the right design. The skull and roses are an infamous image of the band, and the rose is prevalent in lots of dead songs. “Run for the Roses,” a song about fleeting good, “Must Have Been the Roses,” a song about a lost love, and so on.
The rose is a symbol of beauty. It’s lush, vibrant, colorful in its simpleness. It also has small little thorns, creating this allegorical symbol of a dangerous beauty. It invites you, yet, one must be careful when handling such beauty. In the songs that they are mentioned in, it harkens of a beauty that is quick, slick, and dangerous. A beauty that is sought for, but yet dangerous in its nature itself.
As far as the origin is concerned, the image is actually (up to your opinion) very close, one would say almost plagiarized, from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a book of poems from a Persian prince. It’s a book filled with short poems and folklore imagery. The image of the skull and roses sits across from the stanzas of poem 26:
Oh, come with Old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.
Indeed, even the poem is ominous, and realistic about the quick, dangerous, beauty that arose holds. Even the Persian poet knew that life is quick and fleeting, and once our petals start to decay, so will the rest of the flower that is our body.
Dead Dancing Skeletons

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