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Most of us look forward to seeing swallows when the spring comes, but there’s so much more about them. Swallows are noted for their strong and nimble flight, but they’re also associated with sailors and the sea. While cultural significance varies, they represent good things in life that you’ll find inspiring for a tattoo.
What Do Swallow Tattoos Mean?
Love and Loyalty
In ancient Greece, swallows were deemed sacred for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. These birds have only one mate for life, associating them with loyalty and fidelity. If you want to show your devotion to your special someone, a swallow tattoo is a meaningful choice.
A Representation of Journey
Throughout history, these birds never fail to amaze us with their migration across continents. Even if they’re land birds and prefer to migrate overland, they’re capable of crossing large bodies of water. it’s amazing how they travel from North America to Central and South America. In Europe, swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations.
More than that, the sailing season was also marked by the return of swallows. There are several Greek poems that show they’re closely associated with sailing. Some even believed that these creatures help to calm the sea. For many, a swallow tattoo is a reminder of a sailor returning from the sea, or a traveler returning home. When you’re feeling lost in your life’s journey, a swallow tattoo will inspire you to get back on track.
Safety and Protection
In American and European culture, sailors often got a commemorative swallow tattoo on their chest once they had travelled 5,000 miles at the sea, and another one for the next 5,000 miles. For many, the tattoo expresses the sailor’s experience—but it can also be seen as a talisman, ensuring the wearer’s safe return to dry land. This is because sailors often find swallows a long way away from land, journeying across the seas.
Freedom and Independence
At first, swallow tattoos were preferred by sailors, but they soon became popular in convict tattoos also. By the early 20th century, swallow tattoos found their way into prison culture, sported by gangsters and criminals on their hands. Birds in general are a representation of freedom, so it’s not surprising that prisoners loved them. If you want to evoke the idea of independence and freedom in your body art, a swallow is a meaningful bird to go for.
A Symbol of Luck
In many cultures, it’s regarded as good luck when a barn swallow builds nest in one’s home. After all, these birds are very particular with where they build their nests. They’re thought to symbolize success, blessings and even children. In fact, many Chinese poets have written tributes to these birds, and the children’s song Little Swallow is dedicated to them.
Joy and Happiness
In some regions, particularly in Slavonia, swallows are believed to be the bird sent by god, bringing light and joy to the world. Since these birds are blue in color, they’re also used to represent the blue sky and happiness.
A Symbol of Spring
Many associate the arrival and departure of swallows with the changing of the seasons. In Europe and other parts of the world, the bird represents the arrival of spring. However, the swallow isn’t alone in greeting the new season, as the celandine flower, which derives its name from the bird, is also expected to bloom. In fact, the name celandine is an anglicised from of chelidon, which is the Greek term for swallow.
Swallows vs. Sparrows
Swallows and sparrows are often confused, especially in tattoo designs. The first thing you should remember is that the swallows typically have a forked tail, while sparrows have regular rounded tails.
These two birds are both small, but swallows are significantly larger than sparrows. When it comes to their colors, a swallow typically has bright blue feathers on the back, contrasting with its white underbody. On the other hand, sparrows rarely come in colors other than gray or brown, with the males having brown streaks on the chest.
There are different varieties of swallows across the world, but they generally have similar silhouettes, characterized by a cone-shaped body, long and pointed wings, and a deeply forked tail—in a shape of U or V. On the contrary, sparrows have a stocky body, shorter and broader wings, and a small, rounder tail.
In general, swallows tend to have leaner figures, while sparrows are chubbier. Both swallows and sparrows are songbirds and can be found all around the globe, except in the coldest regions. Both birds have similar symbolism, such as joy and freedom, but the swallow is the one that’s associated with love, fidelity, luck, travel, sailors and the sea.
- Note: There are several types of swallows so they may differ in color and form. There are cliff swallows, violet-green swallows and tree swallows. However, the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) is the world’s most common swallow and long-distance migrants that travel in the winter in search for a warmer temperature. It has the typical blue colored body and forked tail and is commonly depicted in tattoos.
Types of Swallow Tattoos
Swallow tattoos have become a popular nautical motif for sailors since the 19th century and remain a popular theme in body art. In fact, they’re a frequent choice for travelers and adventurers. Here are some tattoo inspirations you’ll surely love:
A Swallow in Flight
The swallow is one of the most beautiful and graceful birds in the world. If you’re fascinated with their aerobatic flight, you may depict the bird flying in your tattoo. Just make sure the design is recognizable with its angled wings and deeply forked tails. A swallow in flight tattoo is also perfect to remind you of your freedom, independence and life’s journey.
A Colorful Swallow Tattoo
If you admire the beauty of these birds, think of a real depiction of swallows in their true colors. While the barn swallow is commonly depicted with blue backs and white underbodies, you may also think of other species of the bird. The violet-green swallow boasts its greenish-bronze back and dark purple tail, while the red-rumped swallow is most recognized for its dark blue and reddish tones.
A Swallow with Compass
If you’re a wanderlust at heart, think of combining the image of the bird with a compass in your tattoo to remind you of your passion for traveling and adventure. The swallow is a traveler, migrating from one place to another, while a compass will guide you to your destination. It can also be a way of “earning your swallow,” as you visit the places on your bucket list!
Minimalist Swallow Tattoo
If you want something subtle, think of having the bird’s silhouette instead of having it in full colors. A minimalist swallow tattoo is feminine and elegant, and it also carries the meaning of love, freedom, joy and luck.
Origin of the Swallow Tattoo
It’s no doubt that the swallows have inspired the sailing culture with their agility and migratory patterns. By the late 18th century, it’s thought that British explorer James Cook brought tattooing to Britain after he came from Polynesia, but many suggest that it was done by sailors long before this time.
Even if British sailors didn’t wore complex tattoos like those of Polynesians’, they were noted for sporting small designs such as swallows and bluebirds. These two birds were sometimes confused with each other—but references say that the tattoo often depicts a swallow when it comes to its symbolisms, characteristics, appearance and behavior.
More than that, most of the designs depict a forked tail that’s of a swallow. For some sailors, the tattoo shows that they want to imitate the bird’s ability to travel across the sea, as well as boast their sailing experience. Many also opt for the tattoo to symbolize the hope of a safe return from a voyage. Eventually, a swallow in flight is used to depict the ideas of freedom, making it a popular theme in prison culture.
Symbolism of Swallow in Different Cultures
Throughout history, the swallow has been associated with superstitions and various beliefs, making it a popular theme in art and literary works. Did you know that the swallow is also the national bird of Austria and Estonia?
In Ancient Greek Culture
In a Minoan painting called the Spring Fresco, swallows are depicted dancing with lilies from a Bronze Age city, destroyed by a catastrophic volcanic eruption in 1646 BCE. Eventually, Greek poet Hesiod thought that these birds signaled spring, and other historians speculate that early humans had watched for swallows as a sign of spring.
Athenaeus of Naucratis, a Greek rhetorician in the 3rd century CE, wrote that the people of Rhodes loved swallows and even held a festival for them. It’s said that children would sing and give these birds some food. In fact, it was considered lucky if the bird nested in your house. No wonder, Rhodians soon made terracotta perfume bottles in the shape of swallows.
In Roman Culture
Swallows were keenly observed by the Romans, especially Pliny the Elder and Marcus Varro. Agricultural writer Columella advised farmers to prepare for planting when these birds returned. Even if they were wild, Pliny believed that they were sacred to gods. He also said that men learned the art of clay and brickmaking by watching them, and parents had observed these birds caring for their chicks in the house.
Roman author, Aelian, describes these birds sharing a house with humans, and said that humans in return should extend hospitality to these feathered creatures. After all, swallows are known to be gentle and meek. No wonder, they were a common motif in Roman art, which depicted them in traditional flight, as well as resting around the house.
In European Culture
In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, the swallow is depicted as an omen of upcoming disaster. The story goes that swallows nested in Cleopatra’s ship, which was believed to be an omen of their defeat at the Battle of Actium. As history has it, the Roman leader Octavian defeated the forces of Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, and Roman general Mark Antony.
This story influenced the cultural representation of the bird in Europe, but it remains a symbol of love in many cultures. In Portuguese homes, ceramic figures of swallows are popular. Artist Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro even created several ceramic swallows, which eventually became a true Portuguese symbol. Since these birds mate for life, they became associated with values like love, family and home.
Celebrities with Swallow Tattoos
Here are some celebrities who boast swallow tattoos:
- American actor Johnny Depp has a swallow tattoo on his right forearm. Many thought that the actor sports a sparrow tattoo, since the name of the bird reminds us of the character Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series he popularized. However, the tattoo design itself features the forked tail of a swallow.
- If you’re a minimalist, be inspired by Hilary Duff’s swallow tattoo. The former Lizzie McGuire star has a dainty swallow design on her forearm. It even includes the phrase Stand by me written under it.
- Reese Witherspoon has two swallows on her lower abdomen. The birds were added to the sides of her star tattoo after she married Jim Toth.
- Inked by Dr. Woo, Justin Bieber’s swallow tattoo covers half of his neck, including the word forever. Many fans find the tattoo familiar, as Shawn Mendez has been rocking a similar swallow design on his right hand, designed by Toronto-based tattoo artist Livia Tsang. It represents the Canadian singer’s love for home and traveling.
As we have seen, swallow tattoos are very meaningful for sailors, representing their sailing experience as well as serve as a protection for their safe return. If you’re lucky enough to see these birds up close, you’ll easily identify them with their deep forked tail and dark blue plumage. Just remember that they’re also symbols of love, loyalty, luck and freedom.