In 1541, St. Ignatius of Loyola adopted IHS as his seal as General of the military Society of Jesus. It is still central to the emblem of this Roman Catholic Jesuit order (see also Sun Cross).
There are several meanings of the letters 'IHS', the most popular explanation being an acronym of the Latin: Iesus Hominum Salvator, which in English translates to "Jesus, Saviour of man".
Christians do not dispute that Jesus Christ is indeed the Saviour of mankind, but there are different interpretations for what the letter IHS represent.
These include acronyms not only in Latin, but also in German and English:
- Jesus Hierosolymae Salvator (Jesus, Saviour of Jerusalem)
- Iesus Habemus Socium (Jesus is our companion)
- In Hoc Signo spes mea (This sign, the cross, is your hope)
- In Hoc Signo Vinces (By this sign you shall conquer)
- In Hoc Salus (Safety)
- Iesus Heiland Seligmacher (Jesus, Redeemer and Saviour)
- In His Service (a plagiarism from the British Royal Navy's His/Her Majesty's Ship or the British government's His/Her Majesty's Service, which went out of fashion after James Bond, 007)
However, the most likely meaning is simply the first three letters of 'Jesus' in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. The first two characters, iota (Ι) and eta (Η), are almost identical in appearance to the Latin 'IH'. Since there is no Latin character for the third character sigma (Σ), the pronunciation gives us a close approximation to the Latin 'S', giving us the set 'IHS'.
Another transliteration of the sigma (Σ) is 'C', giving us an alternative set 'IHC'. In addition, although there is no 'J' in the Greek alphabet, the first letter is sometimes changed from 'I' to 'J', giving us 'JHS' or 'JHC'. (This latter is thought to have led to the irreverent expletive 'Jesus H. Christ'.)
The IHS symbol became popular in the Middle Ages, just as the Chi Rho monogram did in Constantine's reign.
The three letters are often shown overlapping, as seen on these gravestones. The left-most photo was taken at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the centre one at Bellingen Cemetery, NSW, Australia, with a close-up of its IHS on the right.
Canada, Australia and about 30 other countries share the same symbol for their currency, the dollar. And if you thought the IHS symbol looked similar, well there is indeed a connection with the $ symbol. But where the "S" in the IHS symbol is from sigma (Σ), the "S" in the dollar symbol is from a serpent. See Serpent Cross for more about this.