This post is referring mostly to barn swallows which are just called swallows in the UK. There are a number of swallow species which are closely related to martins and in some cases, especially when it comes to myth and folklore, the names are used interchangeably.
“a most inoffensive, harmless, entertaining, social, and useful tribe of birds: they touch no fruit in our gardens, delight in attaching themselves to our houses; amuse us with their migrations, songs and marvellous agility; and clear out outlets from the annoyance of gnats and other troublesome insects.”
– Gilbert White
It would be quite easy to leave the summing up of swallows to White but I won’t! The reason I’m looking at swallows today is that I’m getting my swallow tattoo this week!
Swallows live alongside us, having moved with us from caves to houses. They amuse us, they coexist with us though our ups and downs, they share our lives and capture the insects we consider pests. They were considered sacred to our gods, bringers of luck and are tied to a number of superstitions. We often revere them, treating them with the respect that comes from the intimacy of living so close.
In many parts of the world swallows are encouraged to live alongside us, enticing them by providing nesting places, and unlike many other birds, there is no significant attempt to kerb their freedom with cages; using the carrot not the stick to encourage their companionship. This is a good time to reflect on relationships you have and relationships you are kindling, are you using treats or threats to get the outcome you want?
At home in the air, swallows are incredibly manoeuvrable, twisting and turning as they use the sky as a stage for their acrobatics. Streamlined and aerodynamically efficient, they spend very little time on the ground which led to the belief that they didn’t have feet.
“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings”
Sometimes in life we are busy flitting from place to place or task to task and need to slow down however the swallow also brings with it an ability to switch from directions quickly and deal with changes well. Perhaps this is a suggestion that you move and dance and twirl and spin and do cartwheels if it’s possible. This kind of action and activity can get you out of your head and into your body.
They spend so much time in the air because they chase insects as they fly from flower to flower. It is this insect based diet that makes them vulnerable or sensitive to changes in weather and climate. Insects are less active when it’s cold or wet and so swallows find hunting much harder in these conditions. Prolonged cold or rain can result in large numbers of swallows dying. This is a key reason why swallows migrate hundreds of miles – swallows in the UK taking the epic journey to southern Africa, only to return again in Spring.
Aside: It’s probably due to a very sudden drop in sunlight that we’ve just experienced, but this is putting me in mind of Seasonal Affective Disorder and is a timely reminder to myself to start putting things in place to manage my mood for the coming winter.
Migration was not understood especially well until fairly recently. In the 6th century BC it was said they headed to Egypt or hibernated. A strange belief that took hold around the same time was the idea that they hibernated at the bottom of lakes and ponds, eye witness accounts were collected but experiments didn’t confirm this. By the early 1700s the Royal Society amongst others claimed that they headed off to the moon for the winter. As more and more people began travelling and saw swallows during the winter, the idea of migration became more reasonable. Interestingly, Angela Turner writes of reactions to this:
“How could such small birds, especially youngsters barely out of the nest, find their way and fly to such distant places? The idea that swallows and martins would just leave their home at the onset of cold weather also did not fit well with the concept of a well-ordered natural world created by God. Surely God would make better provision for his creatures?”
These intrepid explorers make huge journeys every spring and autumn making them dedicated travellers. It also emphasises their freedom, a quality admired by humans and perhaps your need for movement goes beyond cartwheels and requires trips further afield. This kind of journeying could also be less literal, perhaps an inner journey or venturing in seek of knowledge. Similarly, it may be about moving a paintbrush around more freely or taking a freestyle dance class instead of your usual tap class.
Following winter in africa, swallows head back north in time for spring, associating them with fertility and new life. As we’ve seen with so many other birds and animals, this also ties them to death and rebirth. Spring is often considered a time for renewal and this may be a good time to start a new project or come to terms with some kind of loss and move on.
Swallows usually return to the same nests but for younger birds, it is necessary to first find a mate. Once you’ve got a partner, you then work together to built a nest out of mud mixed with straw. This team work continues once the chicks are born and led to swallows being held up as icons of fidelity, of marital harmony and devoted parents.
“All the summer long is the swallow a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection; for, from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground.”
– Gilbert White, 1789
As well as taking a look at your own relationships, the swallow may be inviting you to think about how you can or do work to have to maintain harmony within them. Relationships are not easy and, as with the swallow, they work better when all parties are contributing.
It is considered good luck to have these birds living in your home and they have also been used to get rid of bad luck, such as in ancient Greece where women could get rid of bad luck by catching a swallow, dabbing oil on it and then releasing it. Like many good luck creatures, harming swallows would cause bad luck or misfortune.
“The robin and the red breast,
The martin and the swallow;
If ye touch one o’ their eggs,
Bad luck will surely follow”
– Medieval rhyme
If you killed or harmed a swallow the consequences could include cows going lame, stopping milk production, crops being ruined or deaths in the family. Other less lucky beliefs include the Irish belief that if a swallow uses your hair to line its nest, you’ll have headaches all summer. In a part of Scotland, a swallow flying under your arm would leave the arm paralysed. In parts of England, swallows perching on a church roof in the autumn were said to be decided who would die over the winter.
With that in mind, the fashion industry in the nineteenth century probably had a lot of bad luck as it was popular to wear dresses and hats decorated in feathers and even stuffed birds… This meant that millions of birds, including swallows, were killed for the clothing industry every year. It was this trade and wasteful killing that would lead to the creation of what would become the RSPB. In February 1889 a group of women near Manchester started a campaign against the killing of birds for fashion and worked to change attitudes about birds, encouraging a move from shooting to learning and protecting them. Definitely ask yourself the impact that beautifying yourself is having on others. It might be that your clothes are made in sweatshops or your make up is tested on animals and I am by no means perfect when it comes to these things but maybe just make one small decision to make things a little less harmful.
As a sentinel species, swallows are helpful in assessing the effect of pollution and climate change over time. At Chernobyl, swallows have been affected by the radiation and whilst background levels have declined, the impact on the swallows is still visible in their deformed bills and feet, their bent tails, their abnormal colouring and reduced reproductive success. What ill-health or situation is the swallow trying to alert you to? Watch out for warnings in the coming days.
In terms of climate change, swallows are used in phenology, a tracking of seasonal changes through the activity of animals like swallows. The arrival date of the swallow in the UK in spring and the last date they are seen in autumn are affected by temperature which dictates the availability of insects. Having said that, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “one swallow doesn’t make a spring” which dates back to ancient Greece and Aristotle: “To be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day”.
In many cultures, swallows are seen as good luck tokens but also as being able to predict natural or divine events such as flooding, thunder and lightening.
“When the swallow flieth high,
then the weather’s always dry;
But when she lowly skims the plain
Ere the morrow there’ll be rain.”
– Northumberland rhyme
This belief goes further that just prediction with some people praying to swallows for rain eg in china where throwing stones at swallows was done to get the attention of the gods. As well as predicting immediate weather, they were thought to predict the season’s weather and where they nested would indicate this.
Able to fly freely around the skies takes them closer to the gods and then, as they return to our houses, we find the divine and the mundane linked. This led them to be associated with household deities and, in different cultures, they have been asked to bring fertility to the women in the home and to bless marriages and births. Like with other birds, we also see them as being messengers of gods.
The link with spring, the renewal of life and their devoted parenting connected them with mother and fertility goddesses such as Isis and Ishtar. In Egypt, where they remained all year, they were associated not with spring but with the sun and sun god Ra. A particular spell could transform the dead into swallows and in that form they could freely enter the underworld. This link between swallow and death is seen elsewhere such as in Ukraine where it was said dead children return to their parents as swallows to console them and an Inuit tale that says swallows were once children who are playing at building igloos but using mud not ice.
Dreaming about swallows is a sign of a good marriage and a faithful bride. This can also be seen in heraldry where a swallow’s nest means that the man of the house won’t be cuckolded. This association with love was embodied in other traditions such as seeing one swallow foretelling marriage but two being a sign that you’ll remain single.
Although, on the whole, swallows are see in a good light – being faithful and committed partners and parents – their habit of abandoning their nest is seen as fickle and disloyal, and leaving their human flat mates has led to their reputation as false friends. They’ve also been portrayed as carefree, frivolous and proud. The latter is captured in one of Aesop’s fables where a raven and swallow are arguing about who is most beautiful. The raven tells the swallow that her beauty is only seen in spring and can’t withstand the cold of winter whereas the raven’s feathers are able to keep him warm all year round. The moral being that inner strength is better than surface beauty. Said raven obviously didn’t realise that the swallow flies for hundreds of miles and so has a lot of inner strength and resilience as well… For the purposes of oracle cards however, I think this is probably a nudge to look below the surface.
The chattery song of the swallow has meant they’ve been seen as gossips and pratterlers but also as giving good advice. That said, because of the tendency to being talkative, the swallows advice may not be wanted, don’t go telling other people what to do if they aren’t interested, it’s just annoying!
Turning from religion and folklore to medicine, swallows were thought to be a cure for epilepsy, sight problems, fevers and rabies. Swallow hearts could improve memory, their blood was used for unwanted hair growth and the ashes of their bill were mixed with myrrh and sprinkled on alcohol to prevent drunkenness – perhaps a medicine that worked by putting the drinker off drinking the alcohol? Many other remedies can be found but I’d not suggest trying any of them… On the whole the swallow seems to have been a bit of a cure all… It was also thought that parent swallows medicated their babies with greater celandine, also called swallows herb. Celandine was, as such, used in eye lotions but also for toothaches and to bring good fortune – I’ll be doing a post on greater celandine soon!
But returning to my point about tattoos, why do all those sailors have swallow tattoos? Swallows aren’t sea birds after all… well, how astute of you and fear not, I have the answer. Because they were seen to always return to the same nest, they were seen as able to ensure that the sailors too would return home safely.
I hope you too return to a place, physically and emotionally, where you feel at home.