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The Swallow by Sue Perryman

Folklore, Magic and Tattoos

Element: Fire

Planet: Sun

Magical properties: Protection, home, luck, love, loyalty, wealth, freedom, strength, perseverance.

Lately, my dog walks over the fields near my home have taken much longer. This is due to my fascination with watching the swallows gracefully swooping over the corn fields as they feed on flying insects. They are such magical birds to watch in flight, and only my dogs barking reminds me it's time to go home.

These amazing birds arrive in the UK around April and for many they are seen as the herald of Spring, in turn they also indicate the end of Summer when they migrate to warmer climes around October.

Their migration takes them an impressive 6000 miles to South Africa, which they fly twice a year in search of food. They can cover approx. 200 miles a day across Europe and the Sahara Desert, facing the constant risk of starvation, exhaustion and extremes of weather.

For such a small bird, they show incredible strength, determination and perseverance, they would make a brilliant spirit animal to work with when you are in need of either quality. There is a lot of folklore and legends surrounding swallows too, and reading about them, as well as learning about the swallows’ habits can give you an insight into the symbolism of this popular bird.

The old proverb ' One swallow does not a summer make', is probably the most well-known belief. But as a seasonal bird, there is quite a bit of weather lore connected to it. In the past it was believed that swallows flying low would indicate rain and flying high meant that fine weather would follow. There is some truth to this as in warmer weather there are more flying insects around for the swallows to feed on.

Swallows are seen as bringers of good luck and protection. A swallow nesting on your house is said to bring luck and protection from fires and storms. It's even luckier if one flies into your home, though if it flies off in a hurry, misfortune will likely follow.

It is said to be incredibly unlucky to kill a swallow, and in the past farmers across Europe believed that if they killed one the milk yield from their cows will suffer, and if they disturb a nest their crops will fail.

The English Author Thomas Browne wrote in the 5th edition of his book 'Vulgar Errors' which addressed the superstitions of the day:

'“Though useless unto us, and rather of molestation, we commonly refrain from killing Swallows, and esteem it unlucky to destroy them: whether herein there be not a Pagan relique, we have some reason to doubt. For we read in Elian, that these birds were sacred unto the Penates or houshold gods of the ancients, and therefore were preserved. The same they also honoured as the nuncios of the spring; and we finde in Athenæus that the Rhodians had a solemn song to welcome in the Swallow.”

Penates were household gods of the Ancient Romans, closely linked to Vesta and the Lares. I can't find any other reference to this claim online, but if it's true it may point to why swallows are so strongly connected with luck and protection of the home.

The birds perpetual flight also led to the perception of them as spiritual creatures, especially during the Middle Ages when the fact that they never seemed to land led many people to believe they had no feet.

In Danish folklore they are known as Svale, the bird of consolation. The name was given to them because they were believed to have tried to comfort Jesus on the cross by flying above him and singing 'svale svale' which translates as 'cheer up, cheer up'.

In some parts of Europe swallows were associated with love and marriage, it was believed that when a young man sees the first swallow of Spring, he should stand still and check under his shoe to see if there was a hair there, the colour of the hair indicated the colour hair of his future love. If a young girl saw a swallow skim over the surface of water, she would marry before the age of 19.

Swallow tattoos have a rich history and symbolism all over the world. Traditionally linked to sailors, reflecting their hope of coming home safely, as swallows return home every year. The swallow tattoo is also a way for the sailor to show off his sailing experience, some sailors would have another tattoo every 5000 nautical miles.

A tattoo of 2 swallows represents freedom, making it a popular tattoo with ex-prisoners. A Swallow tattoo on the fists indicates the person is a good fighter. To others, a swallow tattoo symbolises hope, loyalty to family, a hardship survived and victory.

It seems I'm not alone in my fascination with this graceful bird.


Animal Speak - Ted Andrews

image - RSPB

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