The Heron is an avian tattoo design that is rich in symbolism, its graceful, elongated form featured in numerous myths, tales and legends around the world. We humans have long looked at the Heron and seen aspects of ourselves reflected in this statuesque bird and its patterns of behavior.
Picture the Heron and the Crow together on a branch-one black, one white, the one peaceful, the other looking for trouble-clearly opposites, yet fable tells us that they were friends. In China and Japan, that unlikely avian duo is seen as a manifestation of the well-known yin/yang symbol.
The heron shares much the same symbolism as other wetland wading birds, such as storks, bitterns and cranes-and egrets. In fact, the heron and the egret are from the same bird family, with their long beaks, longer legs, and necks that curve down onto the back of their body when resting. Egrets, in comparison to Herons, are usually white and not as tall as their heron brothers. The heron and its cousins are widespread around the world, inhabiting wetlands and water systems on every continent and are found on islands in every ocean.
Many of the species prefer warmer climates and are found in the tropics year round. Those species in colder climates generally migrate with the seasons. Herons are another species of bird that has greatly benefited from the protection and conservation of wetland habitats in many different ecosystems around the world. Destruction of the wetlands they call home is their greatest threat.
The Great Blue Heron of the Americas is the largest of the Heron species and may stand from 3.2 – 4.5 feet in height (1-1.4 meters) and have a wingspan of 5.5 – 6.6 feet (1.7 – 2 meters). Their slow, steady wing beats give herons an air of regal majesty in flight and yet they can cruise at air speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour (32 – 48 kilometers). Although they are solitary hunters and quite territorial, Herons will breed in large colonies or rookeries. For a shore bird, their habit of resting in large trees near water seems like a departure, but it is a form of protection against predators, which includes bald eagles. The all-white version of the species seen in Florida and the Caribbean is often called the Great White Heron, but is actually a color variation of the same species.
One of the heron’s most acknowledged traits is its patience. “Everything comes to the heron who waits.” The Heron is an ambush predator. It is unique in that it appears to hide in plain sight, standing motionless in shallow water and undetectable to its marine prey until it strikes from above. It appears to wait for prey to come within striking distance, rather than chase it down. Its classic one-legged pose has earned it a reputation for contentment and contemplation. Early Christians saw this as a metaphor, cautioning men against chasing after false doctrines to feed their hungry souls. In similar manner, the heron’s apparent flight plan-rising above clouds to avoid getting rained on-reminded Christians to avoid the storms of the material world. A heron holding a white stone in its beak became a symbol of the wisdom that accrues to a Christian who practices silence, as in – Silence is a Virtue.
A white heron symbolizes innocence, while the grey heron was taken by early Christians to signify penance. They believed that the heron, when suffering, shed tears of blood, just as Jesus in his agony sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Because herons have a diet of snakes, frogs, and other creatures that are often used by men as symbols of evil, Christians saw in the heron a metaphor of the conflict between good and evil, or of Christ’s battle against the Devil.
Greek gods also took the heron to heart, noticeably Poseidon, for whom it was sacred. It was the symbol of Atlantis, the sunken civilization, whose citizens were said to be Poseidon’s children. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom adopted the heron as one of her divine messengers.
North American Native tradition holds up the blue heron as a messenger that teaches about self-determination and self-reliance. The skinny legs remind us that athletic legs aren’t necessary for stability, but that ‘standing on one’s own’ is key. The Iroquois nation treated the blue heron as a particularly good omen. Since the heron was such an efficient hunter, to catch sight of one at the outset of a hunting trip was considered an auspicious sign.
Those with the heron as their totem, need to follow their hearts instead of subscribing to conventional wisdom. Their own unique wisdom is synonymous with their path of self-determination. Heron people will amaze the rest of us for their ability to sit patiently, balanced and wise, while those about them act too soon. When responding, finally, in tune with their heart, the heron’s languid flight is poetry in motion.
Native American legend tells of deceased wise men returning to earth as herons.
In ancient Egypt, the heron had a place of honour as the creator of light. To the Egyptians, the purple heron was the sacred Bennu bird, the soul of the sun-god Ra, which became the mythic phoenix. The heron therefore became associated with resurrection, regeneration and renewal. The Bennu was occasionally pictured with the body of a man and the head of a heron. A double-headed heron was the symbol of prosperity.
In China, the heron stands for strength, purity, patience and longevity. In Africa, the heron was thought to communicate with the gods.
If you have a heron tattoo, it might be interpreted as a statement of your intention to improve your powers of precision. You are committed to preserving your energy and to not squandering your life force. In a word, ‘grace’. You aspire to an inner grace regardless of your physical shape. You value ‘watching and waiting’, you have a ‘slow hand’. But yours is not a passive patience, rather an active one. When opportunity comes, you strike. You take pride in this strategy, because it is dignified, because you are the supreme hunter, and because you are quite a showman, to boot.
Heron as spirit guide teaches us how to carry ourselves with an unpretentious pride, and how to share our grace and compassion with others. The word is ‘majesty’. The heron exudes emotional stability.
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