If the Human Spirit Had Wings

cagedBluebirds

We look up to songbirds. Literally, of course, as when tilting our heads toward their tree-branch perches, but, moreover, metaphorically. Colorful bundles of energy, capable of such pleasant songs and distant journeys, these little creatures easily stir the imagination. What better symbols for the human spirit and its highest aspirations?

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Musicians and writers have often viewed our winged neighbors as emblematic of humankind’s greatest qualities, those aspects that inspire us, that make us feel whole. Feelings that lighten our state of being, for instance, can easily be likened to birds in flight. Such sensations people usually describe as elevated, as if no longer weighted, effortlessly able to rise up off the ground and towards the sky.

Joy is such an emotion, both beautiful and at times fleetingly whimsical. Birds are sometimes thought to embody it. You’ve likely heard of the bluebird of happiness. Well, Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Six Acts, an early twentieth-century children’s drama about the search for this small creature of delight, may have given birth to this now-popular expression in Western culture (1). Of course, many poems celebrate birds for the joy they provide. Percy Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark” and William Ernest Henley’s “The Blackbird” are just a couple examples.

Compassionate and wishful aspiration is another emotional state that can be depicted as bird-like, descending to comfort us with its uplifting song. Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” speaks of how such optimism “perches in the soul”.   Even as it provides its tune in the harshest of circumstances, the little one never begs for a “crumb” (2). Another poem of comparable sentiment, “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, relates the comfort serendipitously discovered from a little creature’s “full-hearted evensong / Of joy”. Despite the cold winter wind and frost, the bird seems to offer “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware” (3).

Besides happiness and hope, birds can act as proxy-symbols of a naïve desire that’s unharnessed from reason and calculating restraint, as demonstrated in Robert Graves’s short poem “Love Without Hope”. Here larks in song fly away from their young romantic captor towards a sophisticated and unattainable love interest (4). Numerous examples in verse abound, of course, involving similar characteristics.

“For the caged bird sings of freedom”

The caged or ensnared songbird, in particular, ranks among the most powerful of metaphors. Symbolic of the desire to overcome oppression, the imprisoned creature can represent both the basic needs of the individual as well as a segment of society. Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” “sings of freedom” (5), a theme taken up in Alicia Keys’s song of the same title and the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “Sympathy”. To fly is to be free, to fully express one’s nature, unhindered by others’ imposing, self-serving agendas. The profoundly spiritual appeal of such sentiment is expressed by the Biblical author of Psalms 124. Employing a similar metaphor, the scriptural song likens the “soul” of an entire nation (Israel) to an escaped bird rescued by God from its enemy captors.

A few songs present the bird within a cage as a metaphor for a dualism in which the spirit or mind animates the body.   In such a manner, for example, the necessity of being on good terms with one’s self is poignantly conveyed by a verse in Tori Amos’s “Crucify”. “You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird”, she croons, suggesting the deadening effects of guilt and suffering. Another example looks beyond this life. The narrative within Sting’s “The Language of Birds” focuses on an elderly pigeon keeper whose “soul was still trapped in the cage” (6). Only upon death is the man at last released from his own “cage” of corporeal confinement.

“Planted on the starlit golden bough”

Also invoking bird imagery, William Butler Yeats’s poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” address old age, death, and the quintessential search for the eternal. The first piece describes the speaker’s quest, alluding to some transcendent, avian-like form for his spirit, fashioned “as Grecian goldsmiths make” (7). Furthering this vision, the second poem expresses this figure as “More miracle than bird or handiwork” (8). What perhaps could we expect of a form that both seeks and represents the unbounded, the spiritual, the otherworldly? Regardless of this creature’s exact nature, Yeats taps into an allegorical power that has long associated birds with the soul, an idea that I’m hoping we can further explore later.

As Joseph Campbell noted in conversations a few decades ago with journalist Bill Moyers, “The bird is symbolic of the release of the spirit from bondage to the earth…” (9). Poets, musicians, and others within the arts have long understood this connection between our feathered neighbors and the heart’s profound yearning for freedom and happiness.

Included here are just several examples of this theme, most relatively recent. Next week’s post will look back thousands of years at some of the oldest.

Sources:

  1. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  2. Dickinson, E. “Hope is the thing with feathers”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.
  3. Hardy, T. “The Darkling Thrush”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173590.
  4. Leithauser, B. “A Poet of Piercing Valentines”, 2/13/2013. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-poet-of-piercing-valentines.
  5. Angelou, M. “Caged Bird”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948.
  6. Sting (official website), “Language of Birds” (lyrics): http://sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/596.
  7. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. First Scribner Paperback Poetry edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996. pp. 193-194.
  8. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). pp. 248-249.
  9. Campbell, J., with Moyers, B. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1991. p. 23.

‘V’ is for Vulture—and Virgin Birth, too

vulture_web

Giving birth without conception is usually considered a miraculous affair. However, according to encyclopedia-like manuscripts of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, such acts were not that extraordinary for vultures.

Back then, female vultures were supposedly capable of producing offspring without sexual relations. In some situations, the wind was believed to impregnate the female (1, 2). What’s more, one ancient text even states that a pregnant vulture can obtain a special stone that, by her sitting on it, will free her from pain while she goes about laying her eggs (3).

Mary and the Vulture, Jesus and the Pelican

Fascinating stories like the ones above emerged in the bestiary collections of late medieval Europe. These manuscripts, consisting of illustrations, notes, scriptural citations, and commentaries on numerous creatures, drew upon earlier sources, most notably Physiologus, an ancient text likely composed in 2nd-century Egypt (4). Other classics, such as Herodotus’s The History, Pliny’s Natural History, Aelian’s History of the Animals, and the writings of Church Fathers, including St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and St. Ambrose of Milan’s Hexameron, also offered ample material (5, 6).

Bestiary authors featured all types of animals—and many kinds of fowl—relating them to Christian themes. As is the case with animals like the dragon and unicorn, some of the avian entries, namely the phoenix, cinnamolgus (cinnamon bird), and charadrius, are mythical. However, most of the listings describe real subjects, such as the aforementioned vulture—but attached to erroneous information. Although detailed observations clearly did not inform the accounts, medieval readers didn’t seem to mind. First, most of the people at the time were likely unaware that the descriptions were inaccurate. Second and most importantly, these folks were consulting the text primarily for spiritual inspiration and ethical guidance. “Concerning the natural world, bestiaries were never intended to be scientific; instead the entries were moralizing and religious allegories,” states Jenneka Janzen of Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands (7).

Several accounts provide what for modern audiences must seem like unfamiliar, if not strangely tenuous, examples of religious symbolism. For instance, the female vulture in many bestiaries not only represents chastity, but the bird—due to the fantastical belief noted earlier—is also connected with the Virgin Mary (8, 9). The pairing, at first glance seems rather odd, but probably not any stranger than that of Christ with the pelican. The reason behind the latter’s association is due to another specious notion. Apparently, blood from a pelican’s wound was once believed capable of reviving the bird’s offspring. Ornithologist Peter Tate does offer a sensible explanation for such a bizarre belief: “Parent pelicans feed their young macerated food from the large pouch under their bill. Early observers clearly thought that it was blood that was being transferred” (10). The mistaken belief in the pelican offering blood to revive its young led to its symbolic association to the atonement of the Crucifixion. Hence, in late medieval paintings (11, 12), the bird is sometimes depicted nesting on or near Jesus’s cross.

Reborn Eagles, Vigilant Cranes

Since bestiaries and their earlier sources were far from factually sound, the texts propagated lots of rather peculiar ideas. For instance, eagles were thought to be emblematic of spiritual rebirth and baptism, for people centuries ago believed that when one of these birds advanced in age, it would soar as far possible towards the sun to sear away the cataracts from its eyes and burn away the remaining plumage from its body. The fiery raptor would then plummet into a spring or lake where it would again rise, as if from some magical fountain of youth, emerging as a renewed version of itself (13, 14). What an amazing but truly fantastical idea! If such a notion were true, of course, reproduction would not be necessary for eagles to survive.

Other accounts avoid reproductive matters altogether, praising a creature for embodying a particular virtue. For instance, the crane, noted for its vigilance, was cited metaphorically as a friend who assists by watching out for others, particularly against the stealthy advances of sin. How did this odd idea take root? Well, before drifting to sleep, a group of these birds were said to designate one of their members as a lookout. To safeguard itself from napping while on duty, the lookout supposedly hoisted a stone in one of its feet. That way, if the crane nodded off, the small rock would fall, thumping the ground and rousing the bird back to attention (15). This story, unlike so many in bestiaries, does have a ring of truth to it. Cranes indeed have the ability to sleep with one leg up; however, the part about sentries and clasped stones is not an accurate portrayal of crane behavior (16).

Overall, medieval writers penned bestiary entries to celebrate spiritual ideals, extol virtuous conduct, and condemn vice—not to provide true-to-experience, naturalistic reports. One today could excuse most of the erroneous descriptions, for the stories, just as they must have centuries ago, do appear to offer some memorable life lessons and religious instruction. And such accounts definitely make for some interesting reading.

Next week’s post will continue to look at the symbolic significance of birds on our culture, but we will move out of the Dark Ages. Instead we’ll focus on the spiritually uplifting effects of birds in general on modern society.

Sources:

  1. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 425.
  2. Biedermann, H. Dictionary of Symbolism. Hulbert, J. (Translator). New York: Facts on File, 1989 (1992). p. 370.
  3. Curley, M.J. (Translator). Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p. 48.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 81.
  5. Curley, M.J. pp. xxi, xxix of introduction.
  6. Janzen, J. “Where the Wild Things Are: The Medieval Bestiary”, 8/16/2013. Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth Century. Institute for Cultural Disciplines at Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands: http://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/where-the-wild-things-are-the-medieval-bestiary/.
  7. Janzen, J.
  8. Werness, H.B.
  9. Biedermann, H.
  10. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 105.
  11. Collections: “Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene”. Philadelphia Museum of Art: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102733.html.
  12. Rosasco, B. “Recent Acquisition: Crucifixion by Jacopo del Casentino”, Princeton University Art Museum: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/story/recent-acquisition-crucifixion-jacopo-del-casentino.
  13. Curley, M.J. p. 12.
  14. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 141.
  15. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 354.
  16. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 72.

When Two Worlds Collide

geese at airport

Birds have dominated the earth’s airy domain for eons. We are the newcomers, having relied on them for inspiration and insights into our own species’ dreams of flight. Without birds, there would have been no ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus, no model for Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine (1), and no example for Orville and Wilbur Wright to study when developing their airplanes (2).

Unfortunately, as human reach has expanded towards the sky, so have the number of collisions with our feathered neighbors. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than 140,000 bird strikes with civil aircraft have occurred since 1990, and the number of hits are increasing annually (3). Several factors may be resulting in the upward trend of incidents. For starters, wildlife protection measures are working to safeguard more birds, which in turn accounts for more birds in the air (4, 5). The number of aircraft also continues to increase, while advances in quieter aircraft technology may be making the birds more susceptible targets (6). One, too, must consider the improvements in reporting such strikes over the past few decades (7, 8).

Greater Awareness of the Damaging Potential

Bird strikes pose serious problems for all parties concerned. They result in almost certain death to the feathered animal thrust against the plane’s hull or pulled into its engine. For human passengers, the results can range from minor or no aircraft damage to a downed flight and fatalities, though the latter is rare. The FAA-co-sponsored Bird Strike Committee USA indicates that since 1960, such impact events have been responsible for more than 60 “major accidents” in the U.S. and over 260 fatalities (9). Also, commercial aircraft damage (from minor to catastrophic) now exceeds globally $1.2 billion per year for the airline industry (10).

Of course, the anniversary of the most famous incident involving a bird strike is quickly approaching, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson”. On the afternoon of January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after departing from New York City’s La Guardia Airport. Damage to the Airbus A320’s twin engines, both located under the aircraft’s wings, forced the plane to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Remarkably, thanks to the heroics of pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, no one died (11). The geese, of course, were not so lucky.

Identifying Problems and Providing Solutions

Although bird strikes are not new—the Wright Brothers reportedly had their own incident (12)—the “Miracle on the Hudson” has put a spotlight on the issue, particularly on the role large birds such as Canada geese play. The concern is understandable, though smaller avian species can be problematic. For instance, of all bird species in the U.S., the mourning dove resulted in the highest reports of aircraft bird strikes throughout the 1990 – 2013 period. But of those occurrences, just 3% involved any damage (13). Fortunately, impact events with Canada geese and turkey vultures occurred less often than those related to smaller species such as the mourning dove, American kestrel, European starling, and barn swallow, for both of the larger species involved significantly higher incidences of damage (50% and 52% respectively) (14). Nonetheless, a large flock of small birds can still cause serious issues.

Government agencies, aircraft manufacturers, airline industry officials, wildlife organizations, and scientists are continuing their work to prevent bird strike incidents. For instance, airports and the areas surrounding them are monitored so that landscapes and structures do not become breeding grounds or gathering spots for migrating birds. In some cases the birds have to be driven out, using specially trained dogs or falcons. Occasionally, fowl need to be forcefully removed from the premises and exterminated. Less intrusive means are fortunately at our disposal, too. Radar designed to detect birds is becoming increasingly available, and is being used for improved navigation (15, 16, 17, 18). The ideal approach is one that ensures the safe coexistence of both birds and humans in the skies with minimal inconvenience to either.

Sources:

  1. Stimson, R., “Da Vinci’s Aerodynamics”, The Wright Stories: http://wrightstories.com/da-vincis-aerodynamics/.
  2. Stimson, R.
  3. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA: http://www.birdstrike.org/commlink/top_ten.htm.
  4. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA.
  5. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.) “What is a bird strike? How can we keep planes safe from them in the future?”, 1/15/2009. Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-a-bird-strike/
  6. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  7. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  8. United States Federal Aviation Administration. “Fact Sheet – The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program”, 4/9/2014. FAA: http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14393.
  9. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA.
  10. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA.
  11. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  12. Stimson, R. “Bird Strikes”, The Wright Stories: http://wrightstories.com/bird-strikes/.
  13. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J. “Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990 – 2013”, Federal Aviation Administration National Wildlife Strike Database Serial Report Number 20, Washington, D.C.: FAA & USDA, July 2014. p. 59.
  14. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J.
  15. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA
  16. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.),
  17. United States Federal Aviation Administration. “Fact Sheet – The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program”.
  18. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

cosmicEgg_web

It’s one of the great philosophical questions. And the answer, when glancing at the world’s many creation myths that prominently feature our winged neighbors, may seem every bit as confusing as . . . well, chicken scratch.

Birds as Land Creators

Long before modern science, all civilizations passed along stories that describe how the world as we know it came to be. Often these tales involve one or more supernatural beings who fashioned form out of primordial chaos. For instance, according to a Yoruba creation story, a deity descended from the heavens to establish land upon the great primeval sea. However, to accomplish this task, he brought several items along with him, including a five-toed chicken and a humongous bag of soil or sand. The legend then later attributes the chicken with scratching and spreading the dumped heaps of dirt into land (1). In this scenario (and in most order-from-chaos myths), the chicken presumably precedes the egg.

The Yoruba tale is somewhat atypical, though, for often in similar stories, a kind of waterfowl, such as a diver or loon, diligently collects mud from the bottom of an all-encompassing primordial sea and forms the land. The Seri attribute this act to a great pelican, “a mythical fowl of supernatural wisdom and melodious song” (2). For the Yocut, this bird was a duck who, after emerging to the water’s surface and dying, left the hawk and crow to position the fetched mud into place (3). Throughout history, many seafaring peoples have entertained comparable tales about how the land was brought forth from the ocean’s depths.

Scrambled Eggs

Other creation myths tell of a world that was born into existence rather than formed. Some stories recount how the entities of the universe resulted from the mating of two giant god-like figures. In such cases, the beings are occasionally dismembered and, from their parts springs life—so that the birth is rather a kind of rebirth. A frequent theme in many myths is that the birth of the universe as we know it resulted not from copulating deities—but from a giant egg.

A popular creation narrative, the cosmic egg from which the world hatches has several variations. A few of these relate to one type of fowl. In ancient Egypt, for example, a goose was said to have laid the great cosmic egg (4). This bird is also associated with the Hindu creator god, Brahma, who sprung from a golden egg (5). According to the Rig Veda and the Puranas of Hinduism, parts of the egg or Hiranyagarbha became aspects of the world, such as the sun, sky, and ocean (6).

The goose, though, is not the only bird to spawn a cosmic egg. Similar parallels exist involving other avian creatures. For instance, in a tale derived from classical mythology, the egg comes from the Greek goddess Eurynome while in the form of a dove (7). Also, the first Rune of the Finnish epic Kalevala describes how a duck lays its eggs on the lonely celestial “water-mother” Ilmatar (Luonnotar) (8, 9). As she “. . . moves her shoulders, / Shakes her members in succession, / Shakes the nest from its foundations, / And the eggs fall . . .”, so that the shell fragments, yolk, and other components are transformed into the sun, moon, clouds, etc. (10). In such instances, one could say that the egg—or rather the great egg—came before the chicken.

Unfortunately, there are no tales that I’m aware of about chickens producing eggs of the cosmic variety, but perhaps you may know of one. Please feel free to comment; I’d love to hear about other accounts. However, as to which came first, the chicken or the egg, we should probably let the scientists and philosophers settle that debate.

Sources:

  1. Beier, U. Yoruba Myths. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. pp. 7-10.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 11.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 108.
  4. Gimbutas, M.A. The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe: 7000 to 3500 BC Myths, Legends and Cult Images. University of California Press, 1974. p. 102.
  5. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 57.
  6. “Hiranyagarbha”. Academic’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism: http://hinduism.enacademic.com/328/hiranyagarbha.
  7. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 36.
  8. Tate, P. p. 130.
  9. Crawford, J.M. (Translator). Lönnrot, E. The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company, 1898. pp. 5-13.
  10. Crawford, J.M. (Translator). Lönnrot, E. p. 9.