Swallows and Tattoos

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Barn Swallow

Swallows seemed to have captured people’s imaginations over the years. They are attractive, acrobatic, long distance migrants and one of the most aerial birds. Aristotle noticed them around 363 BC and stipulated (Aristotle didn’t always collect data or do proper or sufficient observations) that since swallows disappeared from Europe, specifically Greece, for the winter and then showed up again flying over bodies of water the following spring, that the birds must have dived into the mud to spend the cold months. This myth, as ridiculous as we now know it to be, lasted for 1800 years into the 19th century. Really, nobody checked. Fishermen would tell stories of catching swallows in their nets and mud-encrusted swallows awakening and flying around fishermens’ quarters.

For many years the Swallow was considered the symbol of oncoming spring. Weather was predicted on swallows’ behavior. If they flew low it meant rain; flying high meant good weather. There is some truth to that as low pressure centers, which bring bad weather, are harder for birds to fly in. Farmers welcomed the arrival of swallows as the birds were thought to bring good fortune to the farm and protected farm animals from diseases.

In antiquity, swallows were associated with the gods, as well as the souls of the dead. In ancient Greece, the swallow was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, and was believed to bring good luck and happiness. In Greek and Roman mythology, deities were able to change their form and metamorphose into a swallow. Grieving mothers considered the bird to be sacred, as it was thought to carry the soul of their deceased children; killing a swallow was deemed unlucky.  Modern Christians see the swallow as a symbol of sacrifice and rebirth, as well as a symbol for new beginnings.

For sailors, swallow tattoos have specific meanings. Typically, a sailor who has traveled for more than 5,000 nautical miles will get a swallow tattoo to demonstrate that he is experienced. Swallow tattoos are also considered lucky for seafarers, as they believe that if they drown, the swallow will carry their soul away safely. Of British origin in the early days of sailing, it was the image of a Barn Swallow, usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck. The birds were also associated with working-class pride in England, and many fighters tattooed swallows on their knuckles or fists to symbolize their strength and swiftness.

The most popular swallow tattoo design was created by Norman Keith Collins, who is popularly known as Sailor Jerry because he mostly tattooed sailors. He learned how to tattoo by practicing on drunks in the late 1920’s skid row Chicago. Sailor Jerry’s swallow tattoo design is an iconic American tattoo with smooth, elegant lines and an expressive pose. The colors used in Sailor Jerry swallow tattoos are the blue, red and white of the Barn Swallow’s plumage; these tattoos are popular with people from the U.S., England, France and other countries which have these three colors in their national flag. 

I’m not a big fan of tattoos, but I do appreciate a good bird tattoo. Seeing an Archeopteryx (once called the first bird) tattoo on some woman in Australia, I asked for permission to photograph the tattoo. She said yes and then I asked why she decided on Archeopteryx. She just thought it looked cool; she had no idea what it was. It would seem to me that after having a bunch of ink injected into your arm, especially something that a lot of people will see but few would recognize, you might be curious as to what this thing on your arm is since you’ll probably live with it for decades. But who am I to judge?


5 thoughts on “Swallows and Tattoos”

  1. Thank you as I’m researching the swallow, as I carve and make jewellery, I carved the swallow as I was in the country alot, Cotswolds, beautiful, and these flying swallows captivated me, and had to carve one.. years later I only now figured, let me look up the swallow myth and history. Thankyou for your knowledge shared.

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