Ancient Flights of the Eternal

Tomb_of_Nebamun_web

Earth, air, and water. Birds embody transition, shifting effortlessly from one realm to another. What if these graceful beings, however, also possessed the power to freely pass to and from other worlds, going off to some Great Beyond or communing with the divine? Ancient art and scriptures throughout much of the world, from India to Egypt, allude to these kinds of beliefs.

The earliest depictions of avian creatures, discovered in caverns of Western Europe, such as Lascaux, Les Trois Frères, Cosquer, Chauvet, and El Pendo (1, 2), provide our first look into how humankind viewed its relationship with birds. Some of the art, which includes designs of owls and auks, dates back to at least 15,000 years ago (3, 4). Ornithologist Edward Armstrong notes that such prehistoric images of birds, usually found in remote cave areas, are actually not common, adding, “The secretive location of these designs suggests they had some esoteric or magical significance” (5). As civilization developed centuries later, the ideas behind bird imagery became bolder and more well-defined.

Links to the Divine and Transcendent

Birds in the iconography and stories of antiquity often hold varying degrees of religious significance. In some instances, the creatures were directly linked with divine entities. For example, in ancient Greece, carvings and sculptures of birds associated with certain deities (e.g., Zeus’s eagle) appeared on temples (6). In parts of India, a wide range of art and architecture features birds, including Buddhist stupas from fourth-century B.C. and Hindu stepwell relief sculptures as early as seventh-century A.D. (7). Hinduism, like other ancient belief systems, connects several of its divine entities with winged associates. Brahma and his consort Saraswati, for instance, have the peacock (8). Other examples of such pairings include the partridge, linked with the god Indra, and the parrot, a favorite of Kama, the god of love (9, 10).

Not just associated with the divine, birds also exemplify the spiritual or transcendent aspects of human life and also life-after-death. For instance, bird symbolism is used in the Hindu Rigveda to describe the passage of the human spirit once liberated from the body (11). Other kinds of stories, though, seem less figurative, in that they tell of people who supposedly changed form. The eighth-century Kojiki, a collection of ancient Japanese myths and historical accounts, reports of an early hero who upon death transforms into an enormous seabird. The description is rather moving: “His wife and children chase after [him] over sea and shore,” scholar Yoel Hoffmann explains, “cutting their feet on bamboo stumps and singing songs of mourning” (12).

In many cultures, birds appear as psychopomps or guides to the afterlife. Some examples include the so-called “Three Birds of Rhiannon”, believed by the ancient Welsh to sing on battlefields (13), and the Celtic goddess Mórrigan said to appear to dying warriors as a crow (14). I can imagine that in such scenarios the weary, untethered spirit was assumed to flutter out of a battle-torn corpse, emerging in flight with its avian guides. Such escorts to the netherworld or afterlife, of course, are not always connected to combat-related fatalities (see a previous post here for some additional information).

The Egyptians’ Obsession with Immortality

As naturalist Ernest Ingersoll notes in his early 20th-century classic Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, ideas “… that the disengaged soul departs to heaven in the form of or by aid of a bird is historically very old” (15). Disparate cultures are known for such beliefs, including the Assyrians, Aztecs, and Australian aborigines (16). The ancient Egyptians, in particular, were among the earliest of civilizations enthralled by myriad aspects of the spiritual with birds. Besides worshipping a list of deities represented with avian heads (e.g., Geb, Horus, Thoth, Nut, etc.), Nile River Valley residents millennia ago also emphasized the roles of birds throughout an elaborate system of burial practices and afterlife beliefs.

Archeologists have discovered avian imagery and relics in the Egyptian tombs of ancient rulers, scribes, and other officials of high rank. In several instances, bird iconography found at these sites appears to celebrate the hunting prowess of the deceased, such as the wildfowl hunt scene paintings in King Tutankhamen’s tomb (17), Nebamum’s burial chamber (18), and the tomb of Khnumhotep II (19). Experts believe that paintings like these may have also held some sort of magical significance, working as enchantments “to control chaos and to destroy evil forces” (20). In this sense, the Egyptians may have created the images as some arcane means of offering protection and subsistence for the spirit and preserved body in the hereafter.

Besides paintings, other bird-related items to aid the deceased have been found in cemeteries and tombs. For instance, Book of the Dead papyri provide “transformation spells” that include incantations for becoming a “falcon of gold”, “heron”, “swallow”, and “phoenix”, among other possible creatures in the afterlife (21). Furthermore, small figurines of human-headed birds were usually left near the mummified remains. Referred to as ba-birds, the items were thought to represent the deceased’s spirit or ba, giving it the ability to move on as needed in its afterlife (22).

Even preserved bodies of birds and other animals were enclosed in tombs and sanctuaries. Archeologists have discovered millions of mummified ibises within Thothian temples at Saqqara and Tuna al-Gebel (23). Similar counts exist at necropolis sites of other animals, ranging from birds such as falcons to lizards, beetles, and jackals (24). The Egyptians apparently were obsessed with all forms of the eternal. Birds, though, important in many early cultures, clearly played a pivotal part in their complex belief system.

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 200.
  2. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  5. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 155.
  7. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 141-151.
  8. Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
  9. Bunce, F.W. A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1997. pp. 140, 278.
  10. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. pp. 317, 319.
  11. Bhatt, P.M.. p. 145.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. pp. 33-34.
  13. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 14.
  14. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  15. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. p. 149.
  16. 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. p. 49.
  17. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  19. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 376.
  20. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife”. Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. p. 201.
  21. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt” Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34-35.
  22. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. pp. 201-202.
  23. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. p. 299.
  24. Scalf, R. p. 36.
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4 thoughts on “Ancient Flights of the Eternal

    1. Thanks so much, Aquileana! I haven’t done a post specifically on the Phoenix, though I mention it in one. Besides having a long and rich history in mythologies throughout the world, it is included in many bestiaries.

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