Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

swallowTattoo

Why have sea dogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life on board a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.

Sources:

  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  4. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, AW. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings,” 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.

“Tweeting” Before Twitter

tweet

For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”

A Little Bird Told Me…

Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.

Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).

Avian Express Messaging Systems

While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).

Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).

War Pigeons

Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).

As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.

Sources:

  1. Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
  2. Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
  3. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
  4. Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
  5. Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
  6. Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
  7. Werness, H.B. p. 188.
  8. Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
  9. Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
  10. Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers.” Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
  11. Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History.” The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
  12. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe.” Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
  13. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
  14. “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger.” Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
  15. Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap,” 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
  16. Dash, M.
  17. Razes, J. “Pigeons of War,” August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
  18. “All About Birds: Navigation.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
  19. Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads,” 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
  20. Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved,” 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.

Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

UnderwaterSwallows_web

Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming.” This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite far fetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1–6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39:26–30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  3. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”

How Come Crows and Ravens are Black?

crowheron_JustSo

Why do swallows have forked tails and herons have bent necks? Why do robins have red breasts? And why are crows and ravens black? For the simple, unscientific answers to such questions, one doesn’t have to look far. Folklore offers some interesting answers.

Such stories are sometimes referred to as etiological myths. They’re common in many cultures, and are often referred to as “just-so” or pourquoi (French for “why”) stories. The famous British author and poet Rudyard Kipling actually published a book in 1902 called Just So Stories for Little Children that offers responses on an assortment of things, including the origins of the leopard’s spots and the camel’s hump. You’ve probably heard of such explanations. Well, similar tales also exist throughout the world to account for the characteristics of certain birds.

So why exactly does the swallow have a forked tale? Well, according to a Palestinian folktale, the bird narrowly escaped from the striking serpent’s bite, losing part of its tail feathers (1). For the Buriat, those feathers were detached by an arrow flung by the sky god Tengri (2). Also, in a similar story from Namibia, Africa, the heron managed to evade an attacking jackal, but the incident left the bird with a crooked neck (3). Somehow, these traits, through a kind of unnatural selection, apparently have been passed down ever since.

Many “just-so” stories account for the color of a particular bird’s feathers. The Pima have a legend that relates how the bluebird bathed in a lake for several mornings, eventually shedding its unattractive feathers and growing beautiful blue ones in their place (4, 5). The Cherokee have a similar story about a “magic red pool” that transformed the cardinal, thought to be originally brown (6). A darker tale from Wales reports that the European robin got its red breast—burned from hellfire—while compassionately tending to the damned (7).

Fire does seem to play a role in lots of these etiological accounts. According to the Brule Sioux, crows were originally white, and owe their black plumage to a charring incident involving an angry council of Native American hunters and their campfire (8). The idea of soot, ash, or smoke being responsible for a bird’s color is remarkably widespread, too, ranging from an old account in Brescia, Italy, of blackbirds in chimneys to the Cherokee’s story about ravens transformed inside a hollow tree struck by lightning (9).

Tales like these indicate how the human mind can easily misconstrue aspects of biological development and/or evolution. Perhaps one of the strangest cases involving such misunderstandings, though, arose centuries ago. We will look next week at the bird some people thought was a fish.

Sources:

  1. McNamee, G. (editor). The Serpent’s Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2000. pp. 52–54.
  2. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 139.
  3. Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 38.
  4. Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. (editors). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. pp. 346–347.
  5. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (first edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  6. Martin, L.C. p. 23.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., UK: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 51.
  8. Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. pp. 395–396.
  9. Tate, P. pp. 1, 116.