An hourglass tattoo depicts something older than most countries in existence today. Its association with life, death, permanence, the past, the future, and the temporary makes it a popular tattoo choice. For those conscious of the world’s fragility, the hourglass represents life. The phrase ‘the sands of time’ originates from the hourglass. It means that the laws of the universe determine the date of your death on the day of your birth. Once precious time passes through your hourglass, you inch a little close to death. Unless you reincarnate, no way back shows up!
Hourglass Tattoo History
Invented in Alexandria somewhere around 150 B.C., the hourglass plays an important part in the life of history. Used to measure time accurately and repeatedly, hourglasses saved the lives of many before someone invented the modern clock. While primitive, their small measurements helped synchronize groups of people. Few alternatives match the abilities of the hourglass.
Large sundials measured time based on the shadow if the sun. But they only worked on clear days, and you needed telescopic eyes to distinguish how many seconds passed in a given time. Water clocks did away with relying on the sun and they measured minutes and seconds accurately. Unfortunately, their huge size made them difficult to build. Plus, the seasons changed what sort of time the clocks read. Time passed swiftly in the spring and stood still when the river froze!
Using the Hourglass
The hourglass, on the other hand, cared nothing for the height of the sun or place in the seasons. If you stand it in one spot and flip it evenly, the sand always falls at the same rate. People kept it in their pockets and used it to measure small amounts of time. Perfect for daily life, people today still use it for cooking and traditional board games!
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The hourglass proved most useful in nautical navigation. Mariners from Alexandria used the hourglass to measure minutes out at sea. While sailing the ocean, the constant change in wave height and angle of the sun disoriented sailors and that lead them to lose their sense of time. Hourglasses mitigated that to an extent and made sailing a much more accurate ordeal. Sailors used it to time their voyages and memorize the exact times between ports and landmarks. For those that watched the deck at night, they could compare it to the stars above. With the help of the ever-changing constellations, they navigated with accuracy.
Hourglass Tattoo Meaning
When the hourglass’s popularity spread from Egypt into northern countries, the strange depiction of time captured the hearts of artists and philosophers. It was the only symbol that could depict both the past and the present at the same time, so it came to represent both life and death. Its sands would flow regardless of the elements around it—just as a person’s life winds down at a steady pace, regardless of their good or bad deeds—so it was also used to instill a fear of death into people. Pirates adopted it for their flags, and people still place it on gravestones and coffins.
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The hourglass was used at the dawn of graphic user interfaces with computers. Instead of having the screen freeze while the computer loaded something, developers replaced the cursor with an hourglass symbol that would display instead. Later computers even animated hourglasses, with the sands moving from one side to the other, or the hourglass turning over. The hourglass has been replaced by the spinning wheel that we know and hate today.
Hourglass Tattoo Gallery
When choosing an hourglass tattoo design, you witness the huge variety of hourglass types. The sand can take on different colors, the shape can be curved or triangular, and the hourglass might even be wearing a sweet set of wings. The wings represent the fleeting nature of time itself, and everything tied to it—including lives, years, memories, and ages. The wings are most frequently feathered, but if a tattoo takes on a darker theme, draconic wings can be used instead. A broken hourglass represents death, pain, anger, and negativity.
Including a quote about time seems like common sense. One of the ones that pops out immediately is, ‘Life is like the sands of time,’ but that might be a little too on-point for some of you. Here are some of the most famous quotes about time and death that can withstand the test of time on their own or paired with an hourglass tattoo:
- Stat sua cuique dies – In Latin, this means, ‘To each his day is given.’ It appears in every form of media, from old and ancient scrolls to the background soundtrack of award-winning video games. A less direct translation—and the one most people know—reads ‘Your days are numbered.’ The quote encourages you to complete everything before your time is up.
- Memento Mori – Following up with another Latin quote, this one means ‘Remember [that you have] to die.’ This playful quote referred to death as a task for completion, rather than a terrible fate. It also insulted people of higher standing. It reminded them that, no matter how much money or power you possess, death comes for everyone.
- Arrow of Time – A little more recent than the others, an astronomer coined this concept in 1927. It illustrated that time only moved on a one-way track. Just like an arrow, it only flies forwards. While it has plenty of scientific meaning, it has just as much philosophical meaning. Once you let an arrow loose, you cannot take it back. Once someone is born, they must live and eventually die. Actions from the past cannot be undone.
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Hourglasses are perhaps the most poetic way to tell the time. They are more aesthetic than clocks and they depict a rich and detailed history. As a tattoo, they work well with quotes, and they have an infinite amount of varieties to match the individuality of every person in the world.