Humanity has often used birds as symbols of meaning and ideology. With crows and ravens, they are closely associated with death or fate, with eagles, it is strength and bravery, and with owls the association is wisdom and hidden knowledge.
However, with other birds, the message is not so clear. If I were to ask you about the meaning of a robin in mythology, some might give a vague answer about Christmas or about their appearance in the springtime, but not much else.
Swallows as a design are even harder for people to pin down, as they are a symbol in certain circles, and we have all seen someone with the faded swallow tattoo walking by, but unless you already know what the swallow means, then it’s really hard to guess.
Is it beauty in flight? The distance they travel? Their speed as they flap around? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure, the swallow tattoo has a deep and intricate meaning both culturally and ideologically.
In today’s article, we explore the questions: what is the meaning behind the swallow tattoo, and what does it say about you as a person?
History And Cultural Significance
Thanks to our sturdy houses that are perfect for nesting and the abundance of insects that infest our crops and farms, swallows have not made our dwellings their home for thousands of years but have been actively encouraged to nest in our roofs and in our fields.
Being small birds that only take what they need, they are not seen as a bother and being voracious insectivores, they help keep our crops safe.
As such, swallows have developed in close proximity to human civilization, and humanity in turn has made many different myths and legends about swallows across many different cultures.
In ancient Greek mythology, swallows were frequently associated with Aphrodite, along with swans, sparrows, doves, myrtles, and roses.
They were seen by the Greeks as symbols of good luck and happiness, thanks to this association.
For the ancient Roman Empire, swallows were less fortuitous, as seeing a swallow was the same as seeing the soul of a lost child trapped in the body of a bird and these birds became totems and symbols for mothers who had lost their children in childbirth.
These omens were carried over into Christianity when it was legally incorporated into the Roman Empire but with more positive ideas behind the original concept, as Christians began to see swallows as a symbol of sacrifice and of rebirth, which is certainly not as tragic.
However, the current and most abundant meaning of the swallow tattoo does not come from ancient history or from religious connections, but in fact from sailors and mariners.
Tattooing in Europe had diminished quite a bit by the turn of the 1700s, with it not being socially as acceptable as before.
While it still remained, it remained as something only certain groups of people did, such as sailors, tradesmen, pilgrims to the holy land, and Europeans living amongst indigenous groups abroad.
However, when Captain Cook made his voyages to Polynesia, they met with the native Tahitians, who saw tattooing as an important piece of their culture and their cultural art.
When the crew of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, returned to England, they not only brought back the word ‘tattoo’ from Tahiti but many of the mariners displayed tattoos themselves, including Sir Joseph Banks, a member of high society at the time.
From there tattooing became prominent in English and then European society once again, waning and waxing in its popularity in the upper classes, but for the working class, especially sailors, tattooing remained a beloved and culturally significant form of art.
When I say especially sailors, I mean so as, to many sailors, tattoos not only showed their experience and experiences while working in a dangerous and, oftentimes, lethal profession, they also worked as good luck charms, omens, and protection against the merciless waves.
The meaning of the swallow tattoo can range from person to person, due not only to the historical significance that is still very relevant in today’s society, but how different groups in these individual societies view swallows.
We will start with the most prominent and most popular meaning, that given by sailors who, to this day, still revere the swallow as an important symbol.
Before the modern day, there were very few ways to prove you had done something without a bunch of people backing you up.
To sailors in the waters of Britain this presented a bit of a challenge, as their profession was highly skilled, difficult, transient, and quite dangerous.
This meant that many records, logs, and people who could vouch for them were either dead or somewhere far away, which didn’t help when you wanted another sailing job.
Tattooing sorted this problem, as tattoos became indispensable symbols and a way to show what you had accomplished, and amongst these tattoos nothing was more coveted than the swallow.
The swallow tattoo was only given to a sailor that had sailed over 5,000 nautical miles, showing enormous experience when traversing the waves.
Each swallow tattooed on a sailor’s skin was an additional tally to this total, with a sailor who had two swallows on their skin travelling 10,000 nautical miles and so on.
To have travelled these great distances by ship, especially before mechanized shipping, was extremely dangerous, difficult, and earned a sailor a huge amount of respect.
Swallows were also significant as a symbol of safety to mariners. Since swallows travel great distances in migratory patterns between the north and south hemisphere, while returning to the exact same places, they were seen as guiding lights and spirits that could get you home safely, no matter the distance.
This myth was taken further with the idea that swallows could carry a sailor’s soul to heaven if they drowned, giving the tattoo significant importance amongst the sailing community until the modern day.
However, this significance has carried over with many people in the general public seeing swallows as heavenly symbols of peace and beauty that are often inked onto a body when a loved one has passed on.
Excluding sailing practice and tradition, to most people today, swallows are closely associated with new life, rebirth, renewal, purity, and hope.
This is because one of the first creatures that people see after a long frost-bitten winter is a swallow darting through the air.
They are to most cultures living in the snow-covered lands of the north a sure sign spring has arrived and, in the fall, their disappearance signals the start of winter.
After they appear, flowers begin to bloom, and life returns to the world giving rise to the idea of hope and purity in the world, with seeing the first swallow being a good omen and marking you for financial success.
This is taken further with new love, as two lovers have been known to get a swallow each to mark their love, no matter how far apart they may be.
With as many meanings as a swallow has, there also comes many variations of the tattoo that people have put together over the years.
The sailing style of swallow comes from the design of the prolific and revolutionary tattoo artist Sailor Jerry (aka Norman Collins), who used a barn swallow as his basis – like most sailors before and after –, but there are many other designs to choose from as well. Here are some of the most popular:
Two Swallows On Each Wrist
This can be beautiful and symmetrical, especially if they are in mid-flight. Sailors tattooed one before and after a difficult voyage for protection in this manner.
A flying swallow is believed to be a good luck charm and bring the wearer wealth and success no matter where they are.
Swallows With Cards
A Sailor Jerry design, these are often worn by gamblers and gamers. They are regarded as good luck with whatever item you combine them with in the tattoo. For example, a swallow with a card tattoo will make you luckier at card games.
Swallow With Flower Or Plant Stem
The tattoo that symbolizes springtime. This representation can also be about enjoying life after coming out of a hard time.
The swallow tattoo may be one of the most unique for its origin. It does not necessarily come from a place of faith or high society or folklore or sacred items, instead it originally comes from the admiration of sailors and mariners for these little, plucky travelling birds.
From there, people have found their own meaning, whether that be historical or not, for a swallow tattoo with most of the meanings coming from the joy, love, and life that swallows bring.
Should you get a swallow tattoo, think of the meaning you can give it, I’m sure it’ll be as wonderful as the bird itself.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Do Sailors Get Swallow Tattoos?
There are a lot of reasons, but it really boils down to a deep respect for their craft, an admiration for the swallow, and a quiet prayer of hope and protection, especially as the waves are roaring outside their window.
Why Do People Get Twin Swallows On Their Body?
People can get twin swallows to represent nautical experience if they are sailors. In the case of most people, it is to show care and affection for others, remembrance of those lost, or a deep admiration for a renewal after a particularly dark period of time in their life.
Is A Swallow Tattoo Very Traditional?
It is a very traditional tattoo, dating back hundreds of years! However, there are other newer designs that look very modern and are really cool, often they will have bright colors and different line styles. If you want to get a more modern swallow, speak to your tattoo artist, and they will help you out.
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