A "spiral" and a "helix" are two terms that are easily confused, but represent different objects.
A spiral is typically a planar curve (that is, flat), like the groove on a record or the arms of a spiral galaxy. A helix, on the other hand, is a three-dimensional coil that runs along the surface of a cylinder, like a screw. There are many instances where in colloquial usage spiral is used as a synonym for helix, notably spiral staircase and spiral binding of books. Mathematically this is incorrect but the terms are increasing in common usage.
In the side picture, the black curve at the bottom is an Archimedean spiral, while the green curve is a helix. A cross between a spiral and a helix, such as the curve shown in red, is known as a conic helix. An example of a conic helix is the spring used to hold and make contact with the negative terminals of AA or AAA batteries in remote controls.
Some of the more important sorts of two-dimensional spirals include:
For a helix with thickness, see spring (math).
Another kind of spiral is a conic spiral along a circle. This spiral is formed along the surface of a cone whose axis is bent and restricted to a circle:
This image is reminiscent of a Ouroboros symbol and could be mistaken for a torus with a continuously-increasing diameter:
A spherical spiral (rhumb line or loxodrome, left picture) is the curve on a sphere traced by a ship traveling from one pole to the other while keeping a fixed angle (unequal to 0° and to 90°) with respect to the meridians of longitude, i.e. keeping the same bearing. The curve has an infinite number of revolutions, with the distance between them decreasing as the curve approaches either of the poles.
The gap between the curves of an Archimedean spiral (right picture) remains constant as the curve progresses across the surface of the sphere. Therefore, this line has finite length. Notice that this is not the same thing as the rhumb line described earlier.
While scholars are still debating the subject, there is a growing acceptance that the simple spiral, when found in Chinese art, is an early symbol for the sun. Roof tiles dating back to the Tang Dynasty with this symbol have been found west of the ancient city of Chang'an (modern-day Xian).
The spiral is the most ancient symbol found on every civilized continent. Due to its appearance at burial sites across the globe, the spiral most likely represented the "life-death-rebirth" cycle. Similarly, the spiral symbolized the sun, as ancient people thought the sun was born each morning, died each night, and was reborn the next morning.
Spirals are also a symbol of hypnosis, stemming from the cliché of people and cartoon characters being hypnotized by staring into a spinning spiral (One example being Kaa in Disney's The Jungle Book). They are also used as a symbol of dizziness, where the eyes of a cartoon character, especially in anime and manga, will turn into spirals to show they are dizzy or dazed. The spiral is also a prominent symbol in the anime Gurren Lagann, where it symbolizes the double helix structure of DNA, representing biological evolution, and the spiral structure of a galaxy, representing universal evolution.
The study of spirals in nature have a long history, Christopher Wren observed that many shells form a logarithmic spiral. Jan Swammerdam observed the common mathematical characteristics of a wide range of shells from Helix to Spirula and Henry Nottidge Moseley described the mathematics of univalve shells. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form gives extensive treatment to these spirals. He describes how shells are formed by rotating a closed curve around a fixed axis, the shape of the curve remains fixed but its size grows in a geometric progression. In some shell such as Nautilus and ammonites the generating curve revolves in a plane pirpendicular to the axis and the shell will form a planer discoid shape. In others it follows a skew path forming a helico-spiral pattern.
Spirals in plants and animals are frequently described as whorls.
The spiral also represents infinance, or 'infinity.' Starting at a single point, and revolving outwardly until the end of the universe. Because of this, some civilizations believe that the Spiral is a pathway to the afterlife.