You’ve heard before that it’s not the destination, but the journey that’s important. Such tired sentiments are not only trite and overused, not to mention oversimplified, they are aphorisms that’ve been made nearly meaningless in many different contexts–but possibly not in tattoo symbolism. Why should a tattoo symbol be exempt? Because the meander, this month’s tattoo, is a symbol that is only the journey, without a destination in sight. It’s also been called a Greek key or a key pattern.
Water Water Everywhere
In fact, the meander has become so associated with Greece, particularly ancient Greece, that is symbolic of that culture even when found in isolation. Examples abound in Greek art and architectural ornamentation, dating back to as early as 500 BCE. Archaeological research, however, pushes the use of the meander back to as early as the Neolithic of Central Europe, ca. 7,000 BCE. Interestingly, in both contexts, the association of the meander is with water. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, in keeping with her interest in the goddess cultures of Neolithic and Bronze ages of Old Europe, associated the meander with primordial and cosmic waters and the emergence of a bird goddess figurine. The location of the Meander River (Maiandros in ancient Greek) in modern-day Turkey reinforces both the Neolithic and Greek associations and also suggests a source to the image, one of a river that curves back and forth on itself along its course. Whether we take our cues from the Greek myth of Meander, the river god, or the primordial waters of the Neolithic, it seems clear that the Greek key or meander pattern has been linked with water, possibly since its inception.
Early inclusions of the meander pattern in Greek art have most notably been associated with Jason, the leader of the Argonauts. A seafarer of mythological proportions, he voyaged with his band of heros (named after their ship, the Argo) in order to retrieve the Golden Fleece. To be sure, the meander appears in all manner of Greek art and architecture: around vases and plates, ringing mosaic floors and stone columns. The association and importance of water to the ancient Greeks, though, would be difficult to understate. They were a seafaring culture, where the journey by water and the safe return were part of trade, conquest, and identity. While Jason may represent the height of that kind of achievement, the notion of water journeys was a pervasive one in Greek thought and daily life.
From roughly the same era, another Greek hero makes a very different kind of journey (although eventually a ship is involved and a return to Athens) and, again, the key pattern or meander makes an appearance. Theseus, the founder-king of Athens, is most famous for killing the minotaur in the Labyrinth of Crete. Here, the rectilinear key pattern is also associated with the twists and turns of the labyrinth into which Athenian youths had to journey, usually to be eaten by the half-man, half-bull monster. Theseus, of course–otherwise we’d be talking about someone else–manages to slay the monster and follow a piece of string back out of the maze. In it’s own way, it is another safe return.
Back to the Beginning
In the case of the meander tattoo, it is all about the journey, and not the destination. If anything, the destination is to come back to where you started. As a tattoo, the geometric and never-ending Greek key pattern is certainly emblematic of Greece and Greek culture. More than that, though, it’s linked to water, as is ancient Greek culture. In terms of the journey, it is the return home that is symbolized, especially in the way the pattern meets up with itself, back at the beginning.