What do you see when you gaze up at a bird? Just a small flapping bundle of bones, tissue, and feathers? Maybe a winged life-form in search of a mate or on the lookout for its next meal? Perhaps a colorful songster if it’s trilling a pretty tune?
But is that all? Chances are that there’s also something calling forth to deeper dimensions of your being, beyond the surface of empirical and intellectual analysis, to those undercurrents where myth, poetry, folklore, music, and the visual arts live. To the world of dreams and the imagination, the place where deep-seated and powerful emotions play with a language all their own. And if we look closely, our feathered friends take flight from there as well.
When a Bird is not just a Bird
As Freud and other psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began exploring the human subconscious, they soon noticed the appearance of birds in their patients’ dreams. This is not surprising. “Dreams about birds are very common and extremely various,” Julia Turner remarked in her 1924 book Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream (1).
Anybody remotely aware of Freud’s research knows that he frequently ascribed sexual implications to his patients’ dreams. The subject of birds was no different. “The intimate connection between flying and the idea of a bird makes it comprehensible that the dream of flying in the case of men usually has a significance of coarse sensuality,” he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, adding that similar content revealed by female patients also indicated “longing.” (2)
The Austrian psychoanalyst’s assessments did not go unchallenged. In particular, Freud’s former protégé Carl Jung saw a greater range of dynamics at work, often extending well beyond sexuality. These aspects typically related to archetypes found in world religions and mythology. Joseph L. Henderson, one of Jung’s followers, indicated that avian creatures often symbolize spiritual release and transcendence (3). Such ideas also correspond in part to those of Julia Turner, who connected birds to a person’s “higher self,” seeing feathered animals as longstanding symbols of the soul (4). A previous post here delves more into the bird-as-spirit cultural element.
On a sidenote, the very nature of dreaming may be responsible for the long-held and widespread association of birds with the soul. In other words, the dreaming state conceivably fostered notions in early societies of a spirit separate from and capable of venturing outside the body. Stanislas Dehaene, a professor of experimental cognitive psychology at the Collége de France, touches on this idea in his 2014 book Consciousness and the Brain. “And the bird,” he adds, “seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.” (5) Dehaene briefly notes in his book several historical instances of related bird symbolism.
Birds probably fascinated humans long before the invention of language, which may account for the many ways our winged neighbors continue to entice us. Like the pioneers of modern psychology, British ornithologist Edward A. Armstrong respected the pull that symbols can have on the mind. After all, he devoted several books to bird folklore. Though he embraced science, he also valued so-called “dream thinking” and “folk thinking.” “Probably both types of thinking are therapeutic,” he stated, “because in them the lightly buried, partly repudiated, past finds expression.” (6)
As for the various interpretations of such expressions, ideas advanced by Freudians, Jungians, and others are all probably correct—depending on the individual, his or her culture, and the circumstances. In a sense then how people decipher the avian content of the subconscious mind may be debatable. That birds still rouse feelings of hope and desire, wonder and excitement, continuing to give flight to the imagination, fortunately is not.
- Turner, J. Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000 (reprint – first published in 1924 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.). p. 163
- Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams. Third Edition (Translator: Brill, AA). New York: Macmillan, 1923. p. 239.
- Henderson, JL. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man”. Jung CG, et al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968. pp. 147-156.
- Turner, J. pp. 162-163.
- Dehaene, S. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. New York: Viking Penguin. 2014. p. 1.
- Armstrong, EA. 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: Collins, 1958. p. 84.