What is the Meaning of Eagle and Snake Tattoos?
Eagle and snake tattoos are symbols in their own right. However, some of the most powerful imagery seen in tattoos are when these two mighty creatures are depicted together. The serpent and the eagle have their own significance, but neither have been steadfast throughout the ages. Both are much more complex and fascinating than many originally thought. This oneHOWTO article discusses what is the meaning of eagle and snake tattoos? We'll see both the classic history of these two indelible images as well as the civilizations and groups of people who boast a particular association with them.
It is much too simple to stereotype people who get tattoos. People from almost every nation and creed get inked. It is certainly much more accepted in mainstream culture than it was even 20 years ago. However, if you skip back a few more decades, you will see that tattoos were much more representative of the counter culture.
Criminals, salty sailors and drifters (think of Robert Mitchum's famous "love" and "hate" knuckle tattoos in The Night of the Hunter) were more commonly known for having tattoos. Getting a tattoo wasn't something you might pick up at the mall on a Saturday afternoon. It was a branding which represented a lifestyle. What type of lifestyle, you ask? Being, for lack of a better word, a badass.
This isn't to say that any member of the merchant navy with a tattoo was a criminal or even particularly fearsome. We are talking more about general perceptions of how tattoos were viewed. It's partly due to the tribal origins of tattoos which were used by indigenous people of areas all over the world as much as 40,000 years ago. Often these tattoos represented warrior courage and there are few animals which represent being a warrior as much as the eagle.
The eagle was so impressive as a figure that the beliefs about them were astounding. As they fly high, close to the sun, writers like Pliny the Elder recorded that the eagle was able to look directly into it. Eagles were so fierce that the myth went as far as their children having to look directly at the sun once they hatch. If they didn't, they'd be kicked out of the nest.
In ancient religious and spiritual practices eagles had great significance. Zeus was said to have taken the form and one of Vishnu's vehicles (a Vahana) was depicted as having the wings and beak of an eagle. In Roman myth Jupiter was represented by the eagle and Horus, an Egyptian deity found on many hieroglyphs, was depicted as having an eagle's head.
Eagle tattoos represent being a warrior for many people. While the lion is the king of the beasts, the eagle is the king of the air. Both can represent nobility and savagery when needed. This is seen in the precursor to eagle tattoos - eagles in heraldry. Heraldry is the practice of depicting images on battle-wear. Eagles adorned many shields, swords and emblems throughout the history of warfare. Sometimes noble like on chivalric knights, sometimes foreboding as on Nazi regalia.
As we have said, people often get eagle tattoos as they are a symbol of strength and courage. However, there are many facets about the bird which make it an ideal design for a tattoo.
If you have ever heard the term eagle-eyed, you should know that it is because of the eagle's famous sight. They can spot a snake in the sea or a rabbit in a forest and swoop down with amazing accuracy. Some people may get an eagle tattoo for that very reason. It's the way they approach work or life. With accuracy, perspicacity and single mindedness. Clarity and vision can also represent success in life, whether it is love, work or anything else you are passionate about. An eagle tattoo is the mark of someone with drive.
Eagles are also symbols of freedom. This is one reason why they are popular naval and sailor tattoos. Many people choose to live a life on the open seas as it is representative of a certain type of freedom. Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins was a tattoo artist who helped build a mythology behind being an individual. Eagles regularly appeared in his work and in the Hawaiian Sailor Jerry style tattoos which he helped popularize.
If it sounds like these eagle tattoo meanings are pretty macho, it is not a coincidence. The eagle has also typically represented masculinity and male virility. This is not to say it is not a popular tattoo amongst those who don't identify as male. All tattoo meanings might mean something different to the person who has been tattooed. The positive attributes of eagle symbolism are not only applicable to men.
The type of eagle tattoo is important also. Sometimes they are motionless, showing a reserved and stoic presence. Some Eagle tattoos are "spread eagle" with their wings out and ready to pounce, showing action and aggression. These all may be characteristics of the person receiving the eagle tattoo. Sometimes the eagle is battling another creature (more on that below).
The bald eagle in particular is one which has a lot of meaning for people in the USA. This is in part due to it being their national bird. Despite its origins in Native American culture (where the eagle represented different things for different tribes), it was heralded by the young United States as they believed their country to be similar to the Roman republic which also used the eagle as a symbol.
Americans with eagle tattoos often have them as a sign of national pride. This is particularly so if it is accompanied by the American Flag or some other patriotic symbolism. Many military and Naval personnel have eagle tattoos to represent their allegiance. As national pride in America is some of the most fervent globally, it is not surprising many civilians get eagle tattoos for this reason also.
Eagle tattoos don't always show the entire eagle. Sometimes only a part of the eagle is shown and it may represent certain traits:
- Eagle feather tattoos: feather tattoos have a whole symbolism of their own, but one common one is encompassed by Native American tattooing. The eagle feather was often worn by the chief to signify wisdom and knowledge. This is in contrast to the more violent depictions sometimes found in eagle tattoos.
- Eagle eye tattoos: this goes back to the idea of clarity and vision discussed above.
- Eagle wing tattoos: these are popular tattoos for those who love freedom and have a bit of an Easy Rider vibe about them. People with eagle wing tattoos are like the Harley Davidson motorcycle which bears an eagle on its badge - free and not fond of restrictions. It's quite common to see tattoos with eagles either on or behind depictions of motorcycles in the same tattoo.
Snake or serpent tattoos are similar to eagle tattoos in the idea that they both can convey machismo and fierceness. However, there is one key difference in this perception. Whereas the eagle is a noble warrior, a snake is seen as being much more pernicious. This is particularly true in cultures whose religion is influenced by Judeo-Christianity.
In the book of Genesis in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles tells the story of how Adam and Eve were tempted to eat from the tree of knowledge by a serpent. The snake was not necessarily Satan, but is thought to be by many scholars. By listening to the snake, they were banished from paradise.
Snakes are therefore seen as being treacherous. They will connive and trick you, luring you into situations to your detriment. This partly may come from a misunderstanding of how snakes defend themselves. When a snake is threatened, it will strike out against a perceived attacker. But often the snake will see a person before the person sees the serpent. This makes it seem like the snake is vindictive and vicious.
Why would someone have a snake tattoo like that? Perhaps because the bearer wants to show that they are vengeful and not to be messed with. This could be in a general sense or even slightly tongue in cheek. It is also a very popular tattoo among criminal gangs and prisoners.
Other religions have been a little kinder to the snake. While their natural demeanor has been interpreted by some as vicious, others see their calmness and readiness as signs of intelligence. Within their lidless eyes was reason rather than pure instinct. They are seen as guardians and protectors, especially of some sacred sites. Remember Indiana Jones when he falls into a pit of snakes? They were protecting a burial site and this elevates them in many people's views. Often people would get serpent tattoos if they had a particularly hazardous profession.
There is a sexual subtext to the creation myth in the Garden of Eden (seen by the fact Adam becomes ashamed of his nakedness). While this could be a reason why many Abrahamic religions preach chastity, snakes in other belief systems represented a more healthy type of sexual life. They were seen as signs of fertility and snake handling became a way for some to help improve fertility. Snake tattoos might be worn by people who are more open about their sexuality.
It was also seen as an umbilical cord to mother nature. The serpent lies on its belly close to the earth. In this way it is often seen as a link between man and nature. If you are a devout Christian, you may see this as heavenly goodness versus earthly depravity. Other mythologies see this link between humanity and nature as being more mutually beneficial. Snake tattoos can be signs of someone being close to nature.
There are some serpent tattoos which have a more specific meaning:
- Snake on a dagger: you may have seen this symbol the last time you went to a hospital or saw an ambulance. The dagger is actually the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Serpents symbolize protection of health and together they have been a symbol related to healthcare for many years. Someone who has been affected by a medical issue or is in the profession might get this snake tattoo.
- Snake eating its own tail: the ouroboros is a symbol of a snake (or sometimes a dragon) eating its own tail in a circle shape. This represents the cyclical nature of life, of being born, dying and being reborn. It was a common symbol in Ancient Egypt and specifically linked to Tutankhamun. This may be a snake tattoo worn by those wanting to emphasize nature and life.
- Snake and a rose: having a serpent tattoo with a rose can be a sign of lack of sexual innocence. It doesn't necessarily mean it, nor does it make a judgment of someone who has one. It can often be an empowering symbol of sexuality.
- Two headed snake: there is a famous Aztec sculpture of a two headed serpent. Its actual significance is not completely known, but it is thought to be a link between humans and the underworld. In this way, it is maybe a snake tattoo for someone who knows the dark side of life, but wants to move past it.
Eagle and Snake Together Tattoos
So we have seen the significance of eagle tattoos and snake tattoos separately, but what do they mean together? Well, they are part of a tattooing tradition known as battle tattoos or battle royale tattoos. These are tattoos where two or more animals are seen fighting. The fierce animals can represent many things, but they are generally a mixture of predatory animals. This means there are powerful forces at work.
When an eagle and snake tattoo depicts them fighting, it is usually a sign of two sides of the one person in conflict. As we said, they are both strong and fierce animals, but the eagle is often seen as being noble. This is in contrast to the serpent which is might be seen as a darker entity. Often the eagle is winning, showing that a person has gone through trials and tribulations, but ultimately the good side wins.
There is not always a victor in these eagle and snake tattoos. This could mean that the person with one is still in battle with their inner turmoil. It could also just be a sign of being tough.
The legend of Tenotchtitlan tells of the founding of the city now known as Mexico City. You can see on the coat of arms of Mexico that an eagle is devouring a snake on top of a cactus. This was a sign from the gods that where the eagle landed was where they should establish the city. This is a mis-translation of the original myth, but the legend lives on regardless.
There are also eagle and serpent symbols which are found in Egyptian, Chinese and other ancient cultures. Pliny the Elder also wrote of another legend where an eagle attacks a snake which has tried to take its eggs. Sometimes they are seen in battle. but merging to become one entity. This is similar to this idea of yin and yang, the two sides of the same coin.
If you see someone with an eagle and a serpent tattoo, it is likely that each animal represents something from our definitions above. Whichever they are, they either are or were in conflict with each other. It's rare to see an eagle and snake tattoo where the two are assisting each other.
Maybe some of this symbolism resonates with you and you are considering getting an eagle and/or snake tattoo. Before you do this, perhaps you should consider whether you should get a tattoo at all?
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