'Obelisk' usually refers to a stone monolith, perhaps having a rectangular cross section tapering towards a pyramidal top. Famous ones include the 3,300 year-old 250 ton lump shown on the right, inscribed with various ancient hieroglyphics, exalting the reign of the pharaoh Ramses II. The word 'obelisk' comes from the Greek word for 'pointed pillar' and 'needle'.
Obelisk (or Obelus) is also from the Greek word for 'a roasting spit', which inspired the naming of a typographical mark that looks a bit like an implement suitable for jabbing into a lump of meat for holding over the flames. Such a skewer with two handles is known as a Diesis or 'double obelisk'.
The single cross-bar also mimics a dagger's quillon (crossguard), hence the alternative name for the single-armed obelisk; Dagger. When used as a reference marker in text, it always points downwards.
The glyph, with one or two cross-bars, may be written or printed as an alternative to the asterisk and is seen in ancient manuscripts.
One example is to indicate where those chanting a Psalm should briefly pause (like the quaver 'rest' used in music notation). The asterisk is used to mark the end of more major phrase (like the crotchet 'rest' used in music).
In reciting Psalms, commas and semicolons are grammatical punctuation and not intended to interrupt speech flow. A breath mark is indicated by an obelisk or an asterisk. Consequently you might see both the comma and the obelisk together.
Parátum cor ejus speráre in Dómino, † confirmátum est cor ejus * non commovébitur donec despíciat inimicos suos.
See http://www.llpb.us/psalmody.htm for more examples.
The symbol is used in both liturgical and non-liturgical text to refer to a footnote. Conventionally, an asterisk is used for the first footnote of a page or chapter, the single-armed obelisk (dagger) for a second footnote, and a double-armed obelisk (diesis) for a third. Other symbols might be used for further footnotes, or a numbering system as seen on pages of this website.
Other (non-liturgical) uses include:
- ...in text positioned immediately before or immediately after the name of a deceased person or the date of their death. Like a euphemism, this circumvents having to use the word "died" and instead, uses a symbol representing everlasting life.
- ...various indicators in scientific literature: biology, chemistry and physics
- ...a mathematical operator, called 'obelisk' or 'dagger'. (But not 'obelus'. In mathematics 'obelus' usually refers to the division symbol ÷)
- ...various indicators in game literature:
- Chess; suffixed to the move resulting in a check
- Cricket; appended to the wicket keeper's name on a team listing. Wisden Cricketers' Almanack uses the same symbol for a player who deputised for an appointed captain
The style of the obelisk and diesis varies according to the font. Many are similar but have subtle differences (pattée, buds, aiguisé and so on):
Click any image to enlarge
Click any image to enlarge