All around the world, across many centuries humans have decorated their bodies with symbols of protection. Whether it’s as a jewelry design, body painting or tattoos, many cultures have visual imagery of universal protection.
The endurance in the popularity of these symbols suggests that people find strength and comfort in having them around. These days, such talismans of protection often feature in jewelry designs as well as in body ink.
For people thinking of getting a symbol of protection as a tattoo design, it’s worth taking a little time to research what the symbol represents. It’s also interesting to find out where the symbol originated from. This article explores some of the more common symbols of protections still chosen as contemporary tattoo designs. It will also draw attention to some that are more unusual.
Investing in proper research before going under the needle ensures that the chosen tattoo will be both meaningful and esthetically pleasing to the wearer for life.
1. Viking Symbols
Viking and Norse symbols still make very popular contemporary tattoo design choices. The Vikings believed a range of symbols and runes offered protection to the wearer.
Algiz is the rune that corresponds with the letter Z in the alphabet. The correct pronunciation is ‘awl-gh-eeze’. Vikings believed that the Algiz provided magical protection. It is a simple image that looks a bit like a tree. Formed of a single line that points upwards, it has two forks splitting off either side near the top. The rune depicts the horns of the elk which provide the animal with some protection. Other interpretations are that the symbol looks like the upraised arms of a person and symbolizes a human reaching up to divine beings in the heavens. In either interpretation it represents a gesture of protection. Norse culture considered the Algiz a powerful rune.
Another more complex Norse design is the Aegishjalmur, also known as the Helm of Awe. It features eight branches of magical staves, creating a circular design. Viking warriors decorated their helmets with the Helm of Awe, to protect them when going into battle. Close comparison of the Helm of Awe symbol with the Algiz rune reveal that the Helm of Awe is an eightfold repetition of the Algiz rune. It makes an attractive tattoo design and who is to say it won’t offer the wearer eight times the protection of an Algiz tattoo alone!
2. Celtic Symbols
The Celtic Shield Knot symbolizes universal protection and like all other Celtic knots represents the infinite with no beginning and end to the design. It is a four-cornered design, sometimes appearing as a square and sometimes encircled.
As the name suggests the Celtic Shield Knot was traditionally used on the shields of Celtic warriors. In daily life, people used it as a symbol for warding off evil spirits. The Celtic Shield Knot probably derived from a Norse symbol known as Odin’s Cross.
Odin’s Cross is based on one of the most ancient symbols in the world, the solar cross. The solar cross is formed of a cross with equal length arms that are encircled. The arms of the cross extend out to touch the edge of the circle. The solar cross is believed to represent the movement of the sun through the day in morning afternoon evening and night as well as the four seasons of the year.
Another popular Celtic symbol of protection that has made its way into tattoo designs is the triquetra. It is a three-cornered design and sometimes a circle is weaved in. It represents The triquetra is an ancient symbol, said to date back to as far as 500 BC where it was believed to represent the three aspects of the goddess – maiden, mother and crone. With the advent of Christianity, the same symbol came to represent the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost to the early Irish Christians. It is also representative of the three elements of life – earth, air and water.
It is a very popular design in the 21st century and is often used in jewelry and other decorative work. The Australian singer, Jenna McDougall, has a large triquetra tattoo on the nape of her neck.
3. African Symbols
Africa is a vast continent made up of many countries. In North Africa, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the falcon god Horus was the Sky God with the moon as one eye and the sun as the other. Horus was the son of the goddess Isis. Ancient Egyptians used the Eye of Horus to provide protection. The symbol appeared on ships and pharaohs entombed in the pyramids wore an Eye of Horus amulet around their neck. It was believed this would protect them on the journey into the next life.
The actress, model, dancer and singer Ashley Roberts has a decorative Eye of Horus tattoo on the inside of her left forearm. The artist was none other than the much in demand celebrity tattooist Dr Woo who works out of LA. The Eye of Horus lends itself to a range of styles, from single line to the use of colors and is equally popular with men as it is women. Dr Woo has also tattooed an eye under the chin of the singer Usher. Whilst it is not a traditional rendering of the Eye of Horus, it may have formed part of the inspiration.
The Ivory Coast and Ghana are two neighboring countries in western Africa. The area is rich in Adinkra symbols. The Ashanti and Akan people use the symbols in architecture, pottery and cloth. Tattoo artists draw on these Adinkra symbols far beyond Africa.
One such symbol, called the tree of god, or Nyame Dua, represents the presence and protection of a divine being. In the local culture, the Nyame Dua is a sacred place, like an altar, where rituals are conducted. It is made from a tree that is cut down in the place where at least three branches join. As a tattoo design, the Nyame Dua is a symmetrical four-part heart-shaped symbol that is also intended to depict an aerial cross-section of a palm tree.
There are many attractive Adinkra symbols with different meanings. If a new tattoo is under serious consideration it is worth checking them out for something a little different.
4. Middle East
The Hamsa is a hand-shaped amulet seen in traditional henna tattoos in the Middle East. The Hamsa Hand symbolizes the Hand of God. It is a protective sign reputed to bring the wearer good fortune, health and happiness.
The Hand of Hamsa holds significance across a number of religions and also goes by other names: the Hand of Fatima and the Hand of Miriam. It has two ways of being depicted. One design is based on the usual hand, but the other has two thumbs. The hand can be worn facing up or downward. If it is tattooed facing down the hand signifies luck and abundance. The hand facing up is the more powerful symbol of protection against negative energies.
5. Native American Symbols
Dreamcatchers are incredibly popular tattoos. They may not be thought of as symbols of protection but in traditional Native American culture they catch bad dreams and keep the sleeping person free of nightmares.
Dreamcatcher tattoos come in a wide range of styles and colors. Many are decorated with feathers and beads. Some designs incorporate animals linked to the Native Americans such as wolves, horses and eagles.
The circular shape of the dreamcatcher provides the tattoo artist with something of a blank canvas on which to work. Some keep it simple with the central design as the web for catching bad dreams, but others fill the central area with rich colors, maybe a tree of life symbol, flowers, in fact, anything the wearer wants.
6. Chinese and Japanese Characters
Chinese characters have become a firm favorite with tattoo fans over recent years, but it’s really important that these are properly researched. Make sure that the tattoo artist knows what they are doing if they are unfamiliar with the language and script. The need to do the research has been highlighted from time by the publicity around celebrity tattoo catastrophes.
One of the best known was a Japanese script tattoo that Ariana Grande had inked early in 2019. Intended to say ‘7 Rings’, to mark the success of her song of the same name, the Japanese characters actually mean ‘small charcoal grill’. Oops.
Ariana is not alone in being mistakenly inked. Britney Spears has also suffered the same fate. Twice. She used to have three Hebrew characters on the back of her neck. These were intended to have the meaning ‘God’. Unfortunately for Britney, the tattoo artist got the characters in the wrong order so they ended meaning nothing at all. Undeterred Britney went on to have the Chinese characters for rebellious tattooed on her hip. By the time the tattoo was complete, they actually read as ‘strange’.
Providing these celebrity tales of woe are not sufficiently off putting, there are plenty of Chinese and Japanese characters to choose from. One Chinese three-character tattoo means ‘keep safe from harm and injury’. Another four-characters that is used as a tattoo means guardian angel in both Chinese and Japanese Kanji. In this tattoo the first two characters mean to guard and protect. The final characters mean angel, or heaven’s messenger.
There’s no doubt that these characters make impressive and eye-catching tattoos, but be sure that the right ones are getting done.
7. Wiccan Symbols
Wicca is a pagan witchcraft practice rich in symbols for spells and protection. One of the best known of these is the pentacle. There is some confusion between the pentagram and the pentacle. The pentagram has previously been wrongly associated with the darker aspect of pagan practice, so not unlike the Chinese and Japanese characters previously, it is worth being clear which is which.
The pentagram is a five-pointed star upright star. The pentacle is the same five-pointed star, but it appears in the center of the circle. The pentacle is associated with good or white magic and is used for spells of protection, and warding off any evil. In the pentacle, four of the star’s points represent the elements of fire, water, earth and air. The fifth point represents the self.
The actress and model Jaime King has a pentacle on the back of her neck, which is only visible if her hair is worn short, or in an updo. Wiccan people say that the pentacle is the most powerful symbol of protection in Wiccan rituals. So whilst most people with pentacle tattoos won’t practice witchcraft, if casting spells is a possibility, the pentacle’s protection is a must.