The ability to take off whenever, the freedom of not being tethered to the ground, and being able to soar through the sky – there are many reasons to be a bit envious of birds. Most people have had at least one dream or fantasy of flying through a clear blue sky.
While the freedom of flight may be one representation of birds, avian tattoos can symbolize many different things.
Fearlessness and Independence
Hurling yourself through the air requires a certain level of fearlessness. A bird tattoo can represent bravery, and a boldness to go beyond comfort to achieve your goals.
One part of being courageous is being able to embrace independence.
Birds have instincts – they know where to go for the winter, and what time of the year they need to return home. This type of awareness and independence is something that many would covet.
A design of an inked bird can be an amazing way to remind yourself to follow your intuition and continue aiming for self-actualization.
Birds, Spirituality and Mythology
Throughout the world and different cultures, birds have made a few significant appearances.
In the feature Bird Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens) in World Birds, Garth Clifford references the prominence of birds in many Native American cultures.
“Native American mythology and folklore speaks profoundly of different kinds and species of birds serving as a connection between the human world and the spirit one. The divinities charge these winged creatures with duties like delivering messages from the Creator to us.”
Birds also make important appearances in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, a dove brings Noah an olive branch as a sign of dry land. As Clifford points out, “They bring bread to the prophets when they are hungry, hope when they feel defeated or alone, and relief when they feel anxious.”
As explained by Irish Central, the Celtic bird symbol represents freedom and transcendence. “Birds were thought to bring messages of guidance and prophecy from the gods down to the earth, making them mediators between humans and the heavens.”
The ancient Greeks also saw a messenger quality in birds, specifically owls. One Greek goddess that was rather fond of owls is Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. It is said that she was taken by the bird’s solemn look, and now you can find many depictions of Athena with an owl.
According to the playwright, Aristophanes, the Greeks owed their victory against the Persians to the flight of an owl which was Athena’s messenger.
The ancients saw birds as messengers and amazing symbolism was attached to them.
“The meanings of birds and their symbolism varies greatly from representing immortality, departed souls, and spirit messengers to representing fertility, protection, and strength. The difference in the meaning of their symbolism and representations is rooted in their different [species] and kinds,” explains Clifford.
Historical Tattoos and Swallows
People have been getting tattooed for thousands of years – literally. Ötzi, the over 5,300-year-old mummy found in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, has 61 tattoos in total.
While they are mostly sets of horizontal and vertical lines, and scientists are not completely sure of their meaning, it shows that humans have long had the desire for permanent inking to serve as reminders.
In many cultures, eye-catching, detailed designs have been inked on people for ages, such as in Samoa.
Tattooing is a significant part of Samoan culture, and has been so for thousands of years. Getting inked signifies an important rite of passage in a young person’s life, a tradition that has survived over the years, despite colonization.
Certain styles of ink have also been used to identify people as being part of a certain group or tribe – this tradition has stood the test of time, and birds have been used to mark a particular group of people.
Historically, sailors would get tattooed to mark when they’ve reached a particular number of miles out at sea – and the symbol used was often a swallow. Back in the day, travelling by sea was often a risky business, so when you came across a sailor with one or two swallow tattoos, you’d know that he was experienced on the rig.
Why a swallow, you may ask? This species of bird returns to the same location every year to mate and nest – when you’re out at sea with a plethora of dangers, this type of symbolism can definitely strike a chord.
For more details about swallow tattoos, click here.
The Different Species of Birds and Their Meanings
A red bird, or cardinal, can represent energy and happiness, and can certainly catch attention due to its bright hue.
According to Tattooseo, cardinal tattoos can also represent power and loyalty, “Cardinals are known to fight for hours on end each day to defend their territory… The sense of duty that the cardinal has in protecting their territory shows how prideful they are and they would never let another outsider invade.”
If you want a tattoo that represents rebirth and renewal, there is no better bird to get inked than a phoenix. These birds of Greek mythology are said to regenerate and rise from the ashes of its former self. The civilization of Rome took on the symbolism of the phoenix, adding the bird to its coins, to represent the empire’s immortality.
While eagles are a symbol of North American pride, the bird has a longer history, one that spans across countries and cultures. Once such culture that revered the eagle is the Native American tribe known as the Delaware people.
As explained by Tatt Mag, “The Delaware peoples believed that if a young warrior, or brave, could pluck a feather from a live eagle’s tail, he would be blessed with good luck and courage by adorning himself with the feather.”
As Athena was the goddess of wisdom, it comes as no surprise that her favorite bird, the owl, represents intelligence. According to World Birds, “This is because owls are both great thinkers and hunters; they prefer to plan out their strategies instead of using brute force.”
If you want your tattoo to accentuate the bright colors that birds have, then you may want to consider a watercolor design.
Throughout the ages, different types of birds have represented different things. A bird tattoo can be a beautiful, permanent reminder to embrace freedom and have the courage to fly high, or symbolize coming home safely. What matters is that you find meaning in the design, and that your bird will carry a worthwhile message to you for years to come.