Animal Tattoo Meanings: On Animism and Tattooing
Guest post in collaboration with Gladys Geetha
We’re pleased to host this blog written in collaboration with Gladys, a Reiki Grandmaster and Tarot reader, and an expert on animal meanings and symbolism!
Gladys began her journey into spirituality nearly two decades ago in Dubai and has since gone on to educate herself in various modalities, including animism, an ancient religious and spiritual belief that all things – including animals, plants, rocks and mountains, words, and even objects – are ‘animated’ and thus alive, each possessing its own spiritual essence.
In modern spirituality, animism is frequently used to interpret meanings and messages that come to us in the form of animals. In this post, Gladys introduces the basics of animal symbolism to us – and gives us a glimpse into what these animal mean as tattoos!
Be sure to check out Gladys’ other work on her site Reiki With Friends.
Animal Tattoos and their Meanings
Animism has its roots in the most ancient tribal and indigenous populations, who prior to modern day religion found meaning and purpose in the world around them. Most of these cultures also practised ancient forms of body art, including tribal tattooing.
Of all these cultures, Native American animism tends to be one of the most popular. Totems, as per Native American beliefs, are spiritual beings or sacred objects and symbols of an individual or their tribe, and each person is said to have nine different animal spirits that act as guides throughout their life. Similar forms of animism can be observed in ancient cultures across the globe, such as the Mun religion of the Lepcha people of Sikkim, India.
Each animal has a meaning, which means it can be difficult finding the one that’s right for you or that truly represents you. To make things a little easier, we asked animal meanings expert Gladys to tell us what over 40 animals represent.
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Beasts of the Wild: On Strength and Raw Power
Animals from the jungles and forests instantly bring out the fear in us. They are known to be extremely strong, ferocious, and often quite fast. Yet each one of these frightening beasts has a kind and compassionate side. It is this side that gives us a glimpse into what these animals symbolize!
Lions represent raw power and aggression, but there’s another side to them – they’re also playful, and sometimes quite lazy!
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Lions are all about self-control. They emphasize our ability to master our emotions and know when to get serious – and when to have a little fun!
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With a roar that can shake the earth, the tiger is an impressive creature that makes its presence known – and heard!
Tigers can mean anything from danger and vengeance to power and strength to being a free spirit. Much like the lion, a tiger represents the ability to manage strong emotions more effectively. But the symbolism behind tigers has a long and diverse history!
The fastest animal on the planet, cheetahs are a reminder to remain focused – know your goals, keep your eye on the prize, and charge – full speed ahead!
The most common image of apes is that they’re aggressive – no doubt the image of a silverback charging at you is bound to scare anyone!
But there’s another side to them – they are extremely caring and compassionate and display amazing selflessness, both towards their fellow apes as well as to outsiders they don’t view as a threat.
Chimps are especially known for being playful – and they are quite mischievous too!
In South Asian cultures, the immortal being Hanuman is depicted as being half-man, half-ape, and symbolizes resistance to persecution. Hanuman features prominently in many other Asian styles of tattooing as well.
Beyond their aggressiveness, the majestic apes also stand for leadership, dignity, and loyalty.
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The deer is a symbol of power to Native American tribes, signifying intuition combined with sensitivity and gentleness.
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The deer teaches us to be calm but determined, and reminds us that there is great power in peace, and great healing in compassion – especially when we show some to ourselves!
Bears are a symbol of strength and confidence, as well as of solitude, quiet, and rest.
Known to be fiercely protective, they are not unlike elephants in their ability to be just as ferocious as they are loving.
The Gentle Ones: On Friendship and Love
Not all animals are terrifying, ferocious, and deadly! There are some animals that were bred to be our friends, who accompany us through life – including all its ups and downs!
Dogs are the best companions and friends – loyal, trustworthy, brave, protective, devoted. They teach us to be non-judgemental.
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With dogs, each breed has its own meaning and symbolism. For instance, Labradors symbolize unconditional acceptance, Corgis symbolize being protective and loyal to one’s ‘herd’, and Great Danes symbolize being easy-going and strong-willed – and to never let anyone walk all over you!
Dogs are a great reminder to love unconditionally and faithfully, and to never lose your childish wonder no matter what happens!
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Cats – as their nine lives tell us – are a symbol of rebirth. They are associated with night, darkness, and magic. In ancient Egypt, cats were revered as deities and would receive a royal burial. Many ancient gods were also depicted as cats.
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Cats are curious and playful, but they can be quite terrifying if they’re crossed! Overall, cats have a very clear message – live proud and free!
In China, the panda is an auspicious symbol said to bring luck and prosperity.
Even though they are actually quite strong, it is difficult to imagine being attacked by a panda! They symbolize gentle strength – the ability to be wise in how one uses their power.
These adorable fluffy bears live in peace and harmony, enjoying a quiet life among friends and family.
Beasts of Burden: The World-Builders
The phrase ‘beasts of burden’ is often used to refer to animals that carry rather heavy loads, usually in service to farmers and builders. While many see them as helping hands, we must always acknowledge how important their presence is to us – after all, without them, we would have never been able to build our towns and cities!
As the symbol of Aries, rams denote strength, pride, drive, and determination.
Rams also symbolize initiative and leadership. In some cultures, they are a symbol of protection.
Rams are also considered a symbol of divinity. Mythological horned gods are always depicted as warriors, as ram horns are a sign of strength and aggressiveness – or put another way, passion!
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Known for their great strength and power, bulls are protectors and associated with the wealth of the land.
They’re a sign to be assertive and stand your ground – especially when in doubt! Bulls teach us to never let others question what we believe in.
Bulls are the symbol of Taurus, the zodiac that thrives on being practical and grounded. Bulls, thus, also represent being realistic and committed – which can sometimes mean being quite stubborn! Put another way, however, bulls are also a symbol of being reliable and consistent.
Horses symbolize true freedom as they live unrestrained, free to move as they please.
In Native American symbolism, horses represent power, likely owing to the sheer strength of a mustang from the wild.
But horses also symbolize a different kind of power – personal power. After all, a true free spirit has no one to hold them back. Learning to master oneself is the greatest struggle – and the greatest triumph!
Gentle, wise, nurturing – elephants are emotional and loving animals who care deeply for their herd.
Never get in between a mother and her baby elephant though – elephants also symbolize power and strength, and this gentle and majestic creature will charge at you with a vengeance if she views you as a threat!
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In Eastern and Native American tribes, elephants also represent luck. Elephant tattoos can thus have a variety of meanings!
Animals of Mystery: On Magic and Mysticism
Some animals bring with them a sense of magic and mystery – it’s just in their nature! Since ancient times, these animals have been thought to represent everything from death and the afterlife to parallel universes and sight beyond sight!
Wolves are intelligent creatures with amazing intuition.
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A wolf’s howl is one of the most haunting sounds of the night. The howl of a wolf is how it calls to its pack. The howl of a lone wolf, however, is as a warning to all – wolf or human – that dares to trespass on its territory!
Wolves are a reminder to stay true to who you are – whether you’re in a pack or riding solo.
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While the Chinese thought of foxes as a sign from departed loved ones, Celtic lore views foxes as a symbol of guidance and wisdom.
Modern symbolism views the fox as cunning. In reality, foxes are actually extremely clever and resourceful. They are also curious and playful!
Known for their quick thinking, foxes teach us to always be alert!
Tiny Creatures, Big Messages!
They may be small, but when they show up these animals come with some very important messages! Read on to find out what these tiny animals – and the small animal tattoos they feature in! – represent.
Dragonflies are known for being resplendent and absolutely stunning. And why wouldn’t they – they are all about being a free spirit!
They symbolize change – from mental and emotional to physical – and are a sign that things are about to shift.
A dragonfly tattoo is a great way to remind yourself that life is a wild ride! These beautiful creatures teach us to always be open to change.
Butterflies come in so many colours, it’s hard not to smile when we see one gently flit past! Butterflies represent change and joy.
Many associate the butterfly with transformation – nothing says a new you quite like a caterpillar that can go into a cocoon and emerge as an entirely new creature!
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In addition to change, butterflies also represent luck, which makes them perfect for a tattoo that is meant to represent a new phase of your life. This might be why they’re so popular around New Year!
Moths are known to be nocturnal, yet for some unexplained reason, they are drawn to light! These ancient little creatures are thought to be in tune with nature and use the moonlight to navigate their flight.
Moths symbolize determination and faith, but more than anything, they are a reminder to never stop searching for the light in the dark.
They also, however, remind us to know our path. Follow the light, but make sure you don’t get burned!
Crabs are the symbol of the Cancer zodiac sign. They represent emotion and intuitiveness, as well as loyalty and deep attachments.
Chinese symbolism links crabs to success and high status because of the Chinese word for crab shell ‘jia’ which means ‘first’ and is associated with getting first place in the Chinese Imperial Examinations.
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If you need a reminder to be ambitious and aim high, then a crab tattoo might just be for you! They also, however, serve as a reminder that sometimes you need to loosen your grip and change your path – so listen to your heart when making a choice.
Scorpions are often thought to symbolize danger due to the painful sting they inflict on anyone they view as a threat. As the symbol of Scorpios, these little crustaceans represent passion and assertiveness. They also represent resourcefulness and a quest for truth.
Ancient Egyptians, however, revered the scorpion as a protector of souls that are crossing over into the afterlife.
Scorpions are also associated with spiritual change and growth, as many ancient societies believed the scorpion’s sting had the power to heal and cause a person to transcend reality and receive prophetic visions.
Lizards symbolize regeneration and are a message that you can overcome anything.
A fun fact about lizards is that they shed their tails when distressed and are capable of regrowing it later on! Lizards, thus, are a symbol of growth – of shedding extra baggage when it does not serve you and becoming a better version of yourself!
Spiders are often scary to most people – there’s even a whole section of phobias dedicated to it! This is probably why they feature prominently in horror and blackwork tattoos.
But spiders are more than just scary! They are master weavers. The webs they weave are very difficult to break or remove, indicating this is a creature that has mastered its craft.
Spiders, thus, represent finding your purpose and mastering the skills you need to accomplish it.
Ancient Creatures: When History and Mythology Combine
Animals have a prominent place in mythology. Of all creatures, some have been exceptionally valuable to telling the tales of our ancestors. Their symbolism and presence in ancient texts tell us a lot about where we come from and why we hold the beliefs we do.
Snakes are thought of as earthy creatures due to their nature of slithering along the ground.
Historically thought of as a creative force, snakes also symbolize transformation and immortality because they routinely shed their skin and emerge, almost as good as new!
Snakes are also important to many religions and ancient cultures, who viewed them as both terrifying, destructive forces and deities that bestowed blessings. Ancient snakes were, after all, what modern tales of dragons are based on!
Cobras are seen as deadly, but they have historically been associated with deep spirituality and royalty.
Ancient Egyptians saw them as magical creatures full of wisdom, often using cobra imagery in the Pharoah’s crown. They even had a Cobra Goddess named Wadjet! She was a protective force whose presence indicated the king’s reign over all of Egypt.
In South Asia, the cobra is often associated with Lord Shiva. While many tales are told about this association, some point out that the serpent is highly sensitive to human emotion – particularly fear – and if a serpent is calm around you, it indicates you are totally at ease and are thus able to perceive everything with a clear mind.
Prior to more modern depictions, dragons were depicted as serpents and revered and feared in equal measure as deities and ferocious beasts. They were thought to be forces of protection as well as monsters that caused destruction.
In current folklore and fantasy, dragons are often associated with East Asian mythology. The dragon is an important symbol in Feng Shui, representing fortune and growth as well as authority and the ability to rise above one’s circumstances.
The dinosaurs may be extinct, but they live on in our minds – and in ink!
They symbolize strength and nobility, as well as change and the ability to let go and move on from the past.
The mighty dinosaurs teach us to focus on here and now – because it’s all we have!
Tales from Under the Sea: On Healing and Strength
Water is the element of healing, of flowing with life and finding growth in moving forward. With fish and all other creatures of the deep sea, we find meaning that speaks to our souls on a much deeper level.
Koi Fish Tattoos
Hailing from Japanese culture, the koi fish symbolizes overcoming adversity – which might be why it’s such a popular choice for cover up tattoos!
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The koi fish is a reminder to have courage as you strive to reach your goals. It is symbolic of patience, determination, ambition, and success.
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Native Americans believed the lunar eclipse was caused by a codfish trying to swallow the moon. Due to its importance to trade the codfish is seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
While it is sometimes associated with sainthood, the cod is at other times seen as a symbol of lust and evil! At its core, however, the codfish represents something very important – mindful independence.
Turtles tell us that patience, dedication, and perseverance can help you achieve anything.
Turtles stand for longevity and endurance, with some species of turtles being known to live for hundreds of years!
Tribal animal tattoos often feature turtles because of the depth of meaning these animals represent!
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Celtic symbolism views the shark as a symbol of prosperity due to the association of its dorsal fin with the sacred sickle of the Druids, and it was thought to bring a good harvest and a successful hunt.
The shark is often viewed with fear due to the false notion that they are dangerous predators, but sharks are actually a sign to let go of fear and go after what you really want.
Seahorses symbolize patience and contentment. They are considered to be symbols of strength and power – even though they are so tiny!
Sailors viewed them as good luck charms, which might be why seahorses have a prominent place on most charm bracelets!
The tortoise is an ancient animal. Ancient societies believed the world was flat and sat on the back of a tortoise, which is why they are often linked with creation and bearing the weight of the whole world.
Tortoises symbolize wisdom and ancient knowledge as well as immortality, time, water, and the moon.
Wisdom from the Heavens: On Seeing the Big Picture
While each bird has a unique meaning, birds, in general, symbolize freedom and movement. Many ancient societies and tribes viewed them as messengers of god – after all, these creatures can get closer to heaven than any other animal!
Birds are a reminder that we are not meant to be chained to the ground – we were always destined to soar!
The finch symbolizes colourful and happy times ahead and is often associated with high energy and bright days on the horizon. It reminds you that life is a celebration – so let your colours shine!
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Greek mythology associates the raven with Apollo, the god of prophecy, and many think of them as a symbol of bad luck.
In Native American symbolism, the raven is a symbol of metamorphosis, as well as of mischief due to its association with changing attributes.
Ravens are also associated with melancholy, possibly owing to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ which made it a symbol of pain and darkness.
In actuality, ravens teach us to overcome the fear we have been holding on to for a long time.
The mythical phoenix is often associated with rebirth and renewal, as well as fire and the sun. This is because this a phoenix usually dies by bursting into flames and a new phoenix is born from these ashes.
Because the phoenix never truly dies, it represents immortality, life and death, and transformation.
Soaring higher than any other bird, the eagle is thought to be a connection to the divine. It sees everything from above, symbolizing freedom, honesty, and living true to your principles.
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Eagles also teach us to stay focused – it’s pretty difficult to miss anything when you have a bird’s-eye view!
Associated with war and death, crows have been dealt a bad hand in modern symbolism.
In reality, crows are a sign of health and wealth and are bringers of good luck and fortune. They also symbolize magic and mystery.
A very intelligent creature of the night, owls tell us to trust our inner knowledge and have the foresight to make wise decisions.
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Owls are a reminder that the secrets of ancient wisdom are meant for those who have earned the right to know!
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Little Black Bird Tattoos
Most commonly associated with Bob Marley’s ‘every little thing will be alright’, the three little birds also represent being free of worry, trusting yourself and not being afraid to fall, and knowing when it’s time to soar.
With little black birds, it’s all about hopes and dreams!
A symbol of peace, doves remind us to live calmly and with purpose.
Thought to be a messenger that brings messages from the afterlife, doves are often believed to be holy and a connection to the divine.
Peacocks are a symbol of beauty and elegance, nobility and grace, prestige and success.
Peacock feathers are thought to have magical and hypnotizing powers. In South Asian mythology, the peacock feather was used by Lord Krishna to cleanse the feet of the goddess Radha, and is thus also associated with beauty and knowledge.
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On a deeper level, peacocks teach us that we are most beautiful when we reveal our true colours.
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Thanks for reading! Check out our other posts for more!
For some more animal inspiration:
Want to know more about tattooing? Check these posts out:
- A Story of Ink: Where the art of tattooing began
- Tattoo Specializations: The Many Styles of Tattooing
- Tattooing 101: Everything About Inking – Explained!
See you next time!