A Brief Flight through Horror: Birds of the Dead and the Damned

bloodySparrows

A tenant’s missing rent payment leads to a tough, street-smart property owner’s ghastly discovery. She enters the apartment unit to collect her money, but quickly realizes that she has stumbled upon a gruesome murder scene. Overcome with shock, the landlady screams. Then she faints. On the wall near a savagely mutilated body, a mysterious message is finger-scrawled in blood:

THE SPARROWS ARE FLYING AGAIN.

A ruthless homicidal rampage in Stephen King’s The Dark Half thus continues. It can only end with the inevitable showdown between the novel’s main character, author Thad Beaumont, and the killer George Stark (1). The connection between the two characters is complicated, with readers gradually finding out that Stark is much more than just Beaumont’s more successful and darker pseudonym come-to-life. As the story progresses, we learn more, too, about the mysterious and ever-growing number of sparrows.

“Back to Endsville”

The birds turn out to be escorts to the realm of the dead, an underworld which King at times calls “Endsville”. Such guides, known traditionally as pyschopomps, have historically taken on various forms in religion, folklore, and literature. These can include human or human-like beings. For example, Charon, the ferryman of the Greek/Roman underworld, is probably the most notable and familiar of psychopomps. Animals, angels, and other beings, however, can also fulfill these roles.

Another well-known psychopomp is the “ominous bird of yore” in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, who may be deemed a messenger from Hades or “Night’s Plutonian Shore” (2, 3). Has the raven not taken off with the protagonist’s spirit, swept away all hope of the narrator ever joining his deceased mistress (“my soul… shall be lifted—nevermore!”)? Or maybe something more sinister has occurred—perhaps the late mistress has been consigned to hell, and her lover learns from this ebony feathered “devil” that he, too, is to be ushered there but, as part of his torment, forever denied her presence. Having destroyed the thing that has sustained the speaker in his life, he is left at the very least in the raven’s “shadow” of despair, what could be interpreted as either a literal or metaphorical land of the dead.

“Screaming of vast flocks”

As one of the characters (a folklore professor and Beaumont’s colleague) in The Dark Half explains, whippoorwills and loons are among the birds most commonly identified as psychopomps. Swallows are also mentioned. And although ravens do not appear in the novel, King interestingly credits his inspiration to the sighting of a massive flock of crows, as well as to an H.P. Lovecraft poem (4). Psychopomps are a theme in several of Lovecraft’s works. For instance, whippoorwills assume this role in his short story “The Dunwich Horror”, of which below is a brief excerpt:

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down (5).

The story remains one of Lovecraft’s most popular works. His poem “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme” (perhaps the one to which King is referring) doesn’t mention whippoorwills, crows, or sparrows. Instead, it features a sinister “howling train” of wolves “that rend the air” to collect a dead boy’s soul from his parents (6). The description, though, is clearly evocative of the Wild Hunt stories often linked with Gabriel’s Hounds and the Seven Whistlers (7). These feared creatures were believed to ride out at night, particularly around the winter solstice, and snatch off with victims’ souls. Perhaps a combination of this poem and the whippoorwills of “The Dunwich Horror” actually influenced King.

“The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy”

As the name suggests, the Seven Whistlers consist of seven birds who make loud, frightful, piping/blowing noises. The types most often associated with the deadly flock are curlews, widgeons, golden plover, and wild geese (8). Many poets have expressed fascination with the legend. William Wordsworth, for instance, refers to it in his sonnet “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”:

He the seven birds hath seen, that never part,
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them: and oftentimes will start—
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds
Doomed, …. (9)

As the ornithologist Edward Armstrong also notes, English poet Edmund Spenser in his 16th-century epic The Faerie Queene cites the notorious flock among the “fatall birds”: “The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy” (10, 11). The creatures are the subject of Victorian poet Alice E. Gillington’s “The Seven Whistlers” (12). However, despite the similarities in Whistler lore with the poem by Lovecraft, he does not mention any birds by name that were commonly thought of as Whistlers in his “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme”.

Of course, none of birds connected with the legends of the Great Hunt seem nearly as menacing as those in King’s The Dark Half. His sparrows brandish a viciousness reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet surpassing in their ferocious intensity. Who knew that birds could be so terrifying?

In the hands of great horror writers, any animal may well assume a frightening presence, in this case a small bird commonly found throughout the world and occasionally deemed a pest. The sparrow may be an appropriate choice for psychopomp due to its near-universal presence, a symbolic reminder that death, though it may seem hidden in the backdrop of our lives, remains close by.

So along with the haunting figure of Poe’s demonic raven and the screaming whippoorwills of Lovecraft, let’s not forget the flesh-devouring sparrows of Stephen King this Halloween.

Sources:

  1. King, S. The Dark Half. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
  2. Poe, E.A. “The Raven”, The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178713.
  3. Cross, R.T. “Psychopomp”, 11/29/2011, The Etyman Language Blog: http://etyman.wordpress.com/tag/psychopomp/.
  4. King, S. “The Dark Half: Inspiration”, Stephen King’s official web site: http://stephenking.com/library/novel/dark_half_the_inspiration.html.
  5. Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror”, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/dh.aspx.
  6. Lovecraft, H.P., “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme”, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/poetry/p139.aspx.
  7. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press. pp. 217-220.
  8. Armstrong, E.A. pp. 217-220.
  9. Wordsworth, W. “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”, William Wordsworth: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (1999): http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww339.html.
  10. Armstrong, E.A.. pp. 217-218.
  11. Spenser, E. The Faerie Queene (Book II, Canto XII, Stanza XXXVI), Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (2010): http://www.bartleby.com/153/55.html.
  12. Gillington, A.E. “The Seven Whistlers”, A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical Review of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria. Edmund Clarence Stedman (editor). Bartleby.com (2003): http://www.bartleby.com/246/1159.html.

Devil Birds and Black Magic

owl_counts_web

For our ancestors, the presence of supernatural evil was an accepted reality. Sinister forces were thought to organize in secret under the cover of darkness, often hidden or in disguise, so as to inflict harm and damnation. Folks believed demons and witches conspired against them by possessing or controlling other life forms, such as snakes, felines, wolves, and bats. Many birds, too, came to be viewed with suspicion.

To Hell and Back

The most obvious of potential offenders were those associated with darkness. Birds with black plumage, such as crows and ravens, fell easily into this category, commonly linked with witchcraft in places such as Germany and Russia (1). According to the prominent naturalist and science journalist Ernest Ingersoll, many European cultures once believed that crows made an annual descent to hell to pay tribute to the devil (2). Superstitions like these undoubtedly have helped cement in popular consciousness the ominous character of these birds, as have works of literature like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

For one of England’s literary giants, another dark colored bird provided inspiration. A ruminating Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (3, 4) takes the form of a cormorant surveying Eden:

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived … (Book 4: 194-198)

The cormorant’s large size and the way the bird’s positioned wings could be perceived as displayed in mocking fashion of the Christian savior on the cross are characteristics perfect for Milton’s proud and rebellious Satan. Moreover, folklore previously existed in the Britain identifying the cormorant with rapacity and sinister connotations, so the bird may have seemed a ready-made villain (5).

Occult Potions, Haunting Calls

Historically, some fowl have been maligned by more societies than others. Ancient writings have long equated dark forces with nocturnal birds, and of those, the owl is most commonly connected with death and necromancy. This holds true for many non-Christian cultures, too. Mayan texts describe the inhabitants of that civilization’s underworld, Xibalba, as possessing owl-like features, and the birds were considered the realm’s messengers to the living (6). For the Romans, owls were synonymous with the dark arts. In fact, according to naturalists John Sparks and Tony Soper, “The screech owl, Striges, was the Roman name for a witch” (7). Owls were also deemed the avian associates of Hecate, the Roman goddess of witchcraft (8). Not surprisingly, classical literature describes witches (e.g., Canidia in Horace’s Epode V and Medea in Book VII of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses) using owl ingredients for their special potions, perhaps later influencing Shakespeare’s rendering of the witches’ brew in Macbeth (9).

Besides the owl’s nighttime hunting regimen, the bird’s eerie cries must in part have played a role in its sinister reputation. After all, the haunting screech-call of the barn owl seems undoubtedly demonic! To the primitive mind—and to possibly many folks today—birds capable of emitting such eerie sounds must surely be adroit in fomenting evil.

Understandably, some people in parts of South America and Africa are known to be wary of guacharos residing in caverns for similar reasons (10). One European explorer described “the horrible noise” that “thousands” of these birds can make: “Their shrill and piercing cries strike the vaults of the rocks, and are repeated by the subterranean echoes” (11). Manx shearwaters in the rugged, north coastal areas of the United Kingdom are notorious for their haunting cries (12). A few other birds, notes folklore scholar Venetia Newell, are known for strange calls around dusk or at night; these include swifts, nightjars, and curlews (13).

Tainted with Satan’s Blood, the Witch’s Hex

Some feathered creatures, due to their unusual behavior, have also garnered associations with the devil and witchcraft. Based on its appearance alone, the European yellowhammer, the beautiful avian subject celebrated in the verse of 19th-century British Romantic poet John Clare, initially seems an unlikely candidate for one of Satan’s favorites. However, the bird’s eggs bear an odd feature, appearing to display cryptic markings. As Clare describes in his “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”: “Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells / Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads / As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells…” But where the poet sees beauty, superstitious minds presume evil. Edward Armstrong addresses the bird’s reputation (“gouted with the taint o’ the de’il’s blood”) in his The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds, noting that the strange egg markings may have been interpreted in the past as “cabbalistic signs” and unholy to Christians (14).

The connection to sinister forces makes more sense when considering the wryneck and hamerkop. The European wryneck, with its uncanny ability to hiss and move its neck in half-circle motions, must have seemed as if under some spell, so much so that according to ornithologist Peter Tate’s Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition, the English verb jinx is actually a derivative of the bird’s Latin name, Jynx torquilla (15). In Africa, the hamerkop is feared due to perceived ties to sorcery. A major reason for this involves the bird’s penchant for constructing its nest from human possessions, ranging from small household items to even hair. Why is such behavior considered disturbing? As naturalist Mark Cocker elaborates in Birds & People, “In order to exercise control over a person, a witch doctor must first get hold of some item that is intimately connected to the victim” (16). So, due to the hamerkop’s tendency for collecting personal items, many people today regard this bird as a sorcerer in avian form.

Many other birds throughout different cultures and historical periods have been linked to the occult. The above, though, seem to rank among some of the most well known and interesting.

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 74.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 121.
  4. King, R.J. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, University Press of New England, 2013. pp. 4, 54.
  5. Ibid. pp. 54-58.
  6. Spence, L. Mexico and Peru: Myths and Legends. London: Senate, 1994 (first published 1920). pp. 222, 227.
  7. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 191.
  8. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p.
  9. Sparks, J., Soper, T. pp. 197-198.
  10. Ingersoll, E. p. 16.
  11. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 251.
  12. “Manx Shearwaters”, Beauty of Birds: http://beautyofbirds.com/manxshearwaters.html.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. pp. 61, 46, 26.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist. pp. 193-195.
  15. Tate, P. p. 160.
  16. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 138).

Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

UnderwaterSwallows_web

Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming”. This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite farfetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1-6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39: 26-30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’ plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration”, Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration”, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  3. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”

The Bird that was a Fish

barnaclegoose2

Birds have feathers and fish have scales, right? So how could people have ever thought that a large black and white bird came from a crustacean or some strange form of fish? But, amazingly, just a few centuries ago in parts of Western Europe, many folks actually did.

In all fairness, when considering our forbearers’ limited scientific knowledge, bizarre notions were bound to arise. Superstitions, folklore, and hearsay are early attempts at making sense of the world, and often a lack of experience and understanding factored into the development of some off-the-wall ideas. This lack definitely led to some interesting beliefs regarding one particular bird—the barnacle goose.

Where are the Eggs?

Overall, folks throughout Europe were quite familiar with geese. But not so much with this particular species. Barnacle geese winter in the Scottish Hebrides and in some western areas of Ireland, but they do not breed at these sites. This means that onlookers there who saw the birds could never find any of their eggs. The reason, inconceivable to many people at the time, was that the birds were nesting during the summer within the artic regions of the North Atlantic.

Clearly, the barnacle geese, like all other forms of life, were reproducing. But if there were no eggs, how exactly were their offspring formed? This was the puzzle. And based on the evidence available at the time, the answer seemed obvious, even if quite unusual. The answer, as many thought centuries ago, must be related to something commonly found in the birds’ wintering areas: barnacles. Frequently spotted on driftwood and the like, these formations were thought to be the young geese, an explanation that today accounts for the bird’s name. Thus, by means of association, in appearance and location, the barnacle and the bird became causally connected in people’s minds.

Remarkably, even first-person reports supported this fallacious logic. In Giraldus Cambrensis’s 12th-century account within Topographia Hiberniae, the royal clerk and clergyman notes, “… with my own eyes [I observed] more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and already formed” (1). Some variations of the story by other writers indicate that fruit, dropping off trees into the water, developed into the geese (2, 3). Either way, the notion that the barnacle goose was not really a bird persisted with the support of erroneous eye-witness accounts from Cambrensis and others. But the pervasiveness of this belief likely continued for a more convenient reason.

Fish on Friday, Fish for Lent

Wishful thinking was without doubt a critical component for these legends’ popularity. Why? Well, periods of fasting within Catholicism (such as Lent) forbid the consumption of meat, including fowl; however, fish were acceptable. So since many people believed the barnacle goose was not really a bird, eating it was deemed excusable. Doing so, in fact, offered a win-win situation. The goose was a tastier (and plumper) alternative to fish. Secondly, according to this widely held misconception about the bird’s status, consuming it posed no problem for maintaining religious dietary restrictions.

Obviously, other folks who knew better or at least found the barnacle-bird connection suspect could not let this issue rest. How to classify the barnacle goose became such a problem that eventually the Roman Catholic Church intervened. At the Fourth Council of the Lateran gathering in 1215, Pope Innocent III declared that the bird should not be consumed during Lent (4). Despite this papal ruling, misinformation about the barnacle goose’s origins still remained rampant for centuries. Only as explorers ventured north, documented the areas where the birds breed, and reported their findings did many people at last recognize the barnacle goose as a true bird (5).

Eventually, the wintering and breeding aspects of migration became clearer to scientists and laypeople. Looking further into more misunderstandings about migration next week, we can see that the barnacle goose story, quite remarkable from today’s perspective, was just one of many incredible fallacies.

Sources:

  1. Cambrensis, G. Wright, T. (editor). Forester, T., and Colt, R. (translators). The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis. London: George Bell & Sons, 1905. p. 36.
  2. Lee, H. Sea Fables Explained. London: William Clowes & Sons, Limited, 1883. pp. 98, 101-3.
  3. Heron-Allen, E. Barnacles in Nature and in Myth. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. 10-25
  4. Ibid. p. 16.
  5. Ibid. p. xv of forward.