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.
- 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.
- Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p.
- Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 121.
- 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.
- Ibid. pp. 54-58.
- Spence, L. Mexico and Peru: Myths and Legends. London: Senate, 1994 (first published 1920). pp. 222, 227.
- Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 191.
- Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p.
- Sparks, J., Soper, T. pp. 197-198.
- Ingersoll, E. p. 16.
- Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 251.
- “Manx Shearwaters”, Beauty of Birds: http://beautyofbirds.com/manxshearwaters.html.
- Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. pp. 61, 46, 26.
- Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist. pp. 193-195.
- Tate, P. p. 160.
- Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 138).