Birds of prey have long been symbols of war and military victory, and even today, ‘hawkish’ best describes the aggressor in a military or political context. In Hindu mythology, the hawk that precedes the warrior into battle is considered a good omen. In ancient Rome and Greece, the Gods of War, Ares and Mars, displayed both the eagle and the hawk as symbols of their power in battle.
When we speak of the hawk, we are also referring to the falcon, since in iconography they are indistinguishable. There are over two hundred species of hawks, and over sixty species of falcons, and both raptors are found on every continent except the Antarctic. They are naturally occurring in every ecosystem, from grasslands to deserts, prairies to seacoasts, and from evergreen to rain forests, and even the high Arctic. Most indigenous cultures have a story or myth that prominently features the hawk or falcon.
Possessing the keenest vision of all birds, the hawk can spot a mouse in the grass from a mile high, which makes this bird a symbol of enhanced perspective, or seeing the ‘big picture’. Superior intellect and keen judgment are also attributes of the hawk. A hawk that appears on your horizon might indicate the need to abandon short-sighted views in favour of observing the larger world around you. A hawk design that attracts your attention as a possible tattoo, might be the perfect statement about your aspiration to achieve such a heightened state of consciousness.
As a ruthless bird of prey, the hawk is the embodiment of focus and concentration. It is a living demonstration of the power attained by overcoming distractions. In medieval Norse design, a picture of a hawk set between the eyes of the eagle which perches atop the ‘tree of knowledge’, indicates how highly the hawk was regarded with respect to awareness and vision. The Norse goddess, Freyja, wore hawk plumage to symbolize her magical powers of swiftness and flight.
With its sharp, curved beak and powerful talons, the hawk has the means to scoop up its living prey and carry it high into its eyrie. Its ability to soar the heavens, makes the hawk a symbol of the freedom to travel from one realm to another.
Although the eagle is the supreme bird of the skies – symbolizing majesty and victory in many of the world’s cultures and often a symbol reserved exclusively for kings and royalty – the hawk has its place in the world of the supernatural. Many early civilizations took the hawk or falcon as a solar symbol. It was the messenger of Apollo, the Greek sun god.
Ancient Egyptians depicted the sun as a golden disc with the wings of a hawk. It was the sacred bird of the sun god, Ra, who was a monument to the battle won each day by the sun as it reappeared in the sky after its night’s absence. Horus, the god of the sky and of the day, is unmistakably a falcon/hawk god. Horus’ hawk-eye was a familiar symbol on Egyptian amulets, offering the wearer the protection of its far-sighted vision. The familiar Scarab Beetle is often portrayed with the wings of a falcon.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the parting soul as taking the form of the hawk. As such it was a symbol of death and also of the spirit’s journey between the worlds. The hawk was the perfect symbol of victory in the struggle between opposing elemental forces, especially the spiritual over the ignoble or corrupt. The falcon was allowed to ride on the Pharaoh’s nape as his protector.
In Celtic myth, the hawk was the symbol of freedom and success. When the Celtic hawk is shown with a rabbit in its talons, it is meant as a sign of conquest over lust, since the rabbit was their symbol of lust and greed.
In heraldry, the hawk is the symbol of tenacity in the pursuit of an object of desire or the accomplishment of a mission. The hawk is also an emblem of fidelity, for with few exceptions, the hawk has one mate for life.
In Native American art, the hawk is a favourite motif in tribal designs, and also a popular tattoo design. With its terrifying scream and powerful talons, it evokes awe and respect. The spirit of the hawk is one of truth, awareness and perceptiveness. The Polynesian people call it a bird of prophecy with healing powers.
Domesticated falcons serving as the hunter’s companion have been around since the Iron Age. While ‘in training’, they are fitted with a leather hood. This ‘hooded falcon’ has come to symbolize ‘the hope of liberty’. It became a guild logo during the Renaissance, coupled with the motto: “Post tenebras spero luceum,” meaning, “After darkness I hope for light.”
Get inspired by some great images and tattoos in our Hawk Tattoo Gallery