A Wick-ed Idea: Real Birds as Candles

stormypetrelcandle

Long before Thomas Edison, someone had another bright idea. Why not take a dead, oily bird, slip a string through its dried carcass, and use it as a candle?

It worked. Up till nearly a century ago, the seafaring communities of Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland Islands used thousands of these feathered torches (1, 2, 3). Aside from possible fire-hazard risks and odor, the idea was practical enough. No oil for a lamp? Too little wax for making a candle? No problem. The stormy petrel (or storm petrel), the so-called “devil bird” used for these candles, was a familiar sight to Scottish sailors in the subarctic.

These birds are still found in these parts during the spring and summer, but the candles are relics of the past. If you click here, a photograph of an old stormy petrel candle is available from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Twitter account. A tarred wick protrudes from the specimen’s head.

Devil, Saint, or Something Else?

Though most petrels produce stomach oils (4), the bird’s name actually is not directly connected to petrol or petroleum. The latter is a combination of the Latin words for “rock” and “oil.” On the other hand, the word petrel is thought to be an alternate or mangled form of “pitteral,” an old English expression no longer in usage today (5). The linguistic variation of the word we have probably relates to the way the bird appears to amble across the ocean’s surface (6).

In fact, the petrel’s ability to “walk on water” has been long tied to another source for its name—St. Peter, who Matthew 14:29 reports as having performed this miraculous feat with Jesus. Thus, an enduring explanation for the origin of petrel has been that it stems from French and Italian renderings of the apostle’s name (7, 8). However, this does not seem to be the case (9). Interestingly, though, Peter is the English derivative of the Latin (Petrus) and Greek (Petros) words for “rock,” both related to the petr- prefix of petroleum (10).

While the linguistics of petrel may be murky, the rationale behind the bird’s first name is clear. The “stormy” moniker originated from an age-old belief in the petrel’s ability to predict tempestuous weather. A congregation of these creatures flocking near ships was taken as a sign by sailors that a storm was on its way (11, 12). Unfortunately, that ominous reputation is what earned the birds nicknames like “Waterwitch,” Satanique, and Oiseau du diable (literally “devil bird”) (13).

Many seafarers harbored negative attitudes towards stormy petrels, yet such contempt was not universal. Some sailors saw in the birds’ appearance a sort of blessing, a warning that enabled them to anticipate and prepare best they could for oncoming gales and thrashing waves. Thus, one nickname, “Mother Carey’s Chicken,” supposedly derives from Mater cara, a Latin epithet for the Virgin Mary. But just as notions connecting the bird’s name to St. Peter are disputed, so too is this idea (14). What we’re left with is a bit of a mystery.

More Light?

Even if no etymological links exist to those Biblical figures, stormy petrels are no more feathered demons than many other supposed devil birds. In fact, petrels are not the only avian creatures to have been used as feathered torches. Penguins (15) and the extinct great auks (16) have also served the same purpose. I do wonder, though, if the use of petrels as candles is related somehow to how strongly Orkney and Shetland denizens of the past felt towards these birds. Perhaps more light will be shed eventually on this subject.

Sources:

  1. Brox, J. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. p. 21.
  2. Rossotti, H. Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 51.
  3. O’Dea, WT. “Artificial Lighting Prior to 1800 and its Social Effects”. Folklore. Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1951). p. 315. (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.)
  4. Place, AR, et al. “Physiological Basis of Stomach Oil Formation in Leach’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma Leucorhoa)” The Auk. Vol. 106, No. 4 (Oct., 1989). pp. 687–699.
  5. “Petrel”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petrel.
  6. Fraser, I, Gray, J. Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2013. p. 44.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  8. Swainson, C. The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds. London: Elliot Stock, 1886. p. 211.
  9. Fraser, I, Gray, J. p. 44.
  10. “Peter”, “Petroleum”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peter, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum.
  11. Newell, V. p. 56.
  12. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  13. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  14. Swainson, C. pp. 211–212.
  15. Rossotti, H. p. 51.
  16. O’Dea, WT. p. 315.

 

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Lovey-Dovey Duck Lips

ducklips

“Your mouth makes a pointy beak.…
the shape… / left me feeling slightly lyrical.”
—Kate Kilalea, “You Were a Bird”

“Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize…”
—Ted Roethke, “I Knew a Woman”

We are more like birds than some of us may realize. Even in the simplest and most mundane of ways. For instance, have you noticed that when people kiss, their lips become “pursed,” slightly protruding into a “pointy beak”? I must admit that I had never given much thought to this until recently when rereading the above lines.

Neither Kilalea nor Roethke explicitly refer to kissing. However, the human mouths described in their poems, one regarding a dinner date and the other about lovemaking, conjure images for me of canoodling. Of course, poetry typically approaches its subjects indirectly, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, “tell it slant.” In poet Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, she notes, “Not everything will be given—some part of a poem’s good weight will be found outside the poem, in us.” (1) With poetry, we frequently need to read between the lines.

Traditional Birds of Love

As to why poets have long included birds in love poems makes abundant sense. Few creatures of such beauty exemplify courtship and reproduction the way our feathered friends do. They fly thousands of miles to nesting grounds, an observation elegantly described in Pablo Neruda’s poem “Migration,” an ode to birds and “the erotic urgency of life” (2). The euphemism “the birds and the bees” is a common phrase related to this biological principle.

The way we use language today indicates that birds typically accompany conversations on love. Occasionally, before a “peck” on the mouth or cheek, one lover may affectionately giggle at the other’s “duck lips.” Sometimes one may jokingly call an affectionate couple of friends “lovebirds” or say they seem just “lovey-dovey,” expressions that tap into associations first culturally embedded thousands of years ago.

Avian imagery has a long history of widespread associations with sensual desire and romance. Several winged favorites once affiliated with the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus respectively, include the dove, sparrow, partridge, and goose (3). References to these birds, too, abound in Renaissance works playfully devoted to the goddess and her acolytes. In ancient China, the wild goose was also considered a bird of love (4), as it was, too, in eleventh-century India for the poet Bilhana:

I remember her:
deep eyes’ glittering pupils
dancing wildly in love’s vigil,
a wild goose
in our lotus bed of passion. (5)

The waterfowl here is a symbol of the speaker’s mistress in Balhana’s Caurapancasika, just one of many works throughout the world that uses avian metaphors to express the primal power of lust and the emotional significance of love.

“Like Amorous Birds of Prey”

Though many poets have relied on doves, sparrows, and geese—those traditional birds of love—Andrew Marvell proves in his “To His Coy Mistress” that less conventional ones can also provide for moving similes:

Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball.

Passion’s illicit, consuming nature is expressed poignantly here by Marvell’s choice of raptors. Amazingly, this suggestively rousing poem was composed in the seventeenth century, during the same time that John Milton lived. An earlier love poem that features birds of prey—specifically eagles—is Geoffrey Chaucer’s much-tamer, late fourteenth-century “The Parliament of Fowls.”

As noted in a previous post, Chaucer was the first to combine St. Valentine’s Day, romantic coupling, and birds all together into one poem, themes that have since collectively resurfaced in other works, notably Elizabeth Bishop’s “Three Valentines,” John Donne’s “An Epithalamion, or Wedding Song,” and Michael Drayton’s “To His Valentine.”

For those of you interested in the history and symbolism of birds in love poetry and works of fiction, I highly recommend Leonard Lutwack’s Birds in Literature. He devotes an entire chapter to “Birds and the Erotic.”(6) While he does not mention anything about duck-lipped smooches, he covers a wide range of Western writers, from Catullus to D.H. Lawrence.

Sources:

  1. Hirshfield, J. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. p. 115.
  2. Neruda, P. “Migración”. Schmitt, J. (translator). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Stavans, I, et al (editors and translators). pp. 743-749.
  3. 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. 47.
  4. Armstrong, EA. pp. 42, 47.
  5. Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. p. 19.
  6. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 187-230.

 

Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets

cuckooClocks_JML

Out the flapping doors springs a little mechanical bird. Coo-coo! Coo-coo! Admittedly kitschy and somewhat annoying, it likewise has to be one of the cutest and most delightful inventions of all time.

Since emerging from the German Black Forest region in the eighteenth century (1), the cuckoo clock has become a cultural icon. If having never seen or heard one firsthand, you still likely know what one is. After all, the device appears in literature and art, even cartoons and pop music. It remains a cultural fixture of the West.

The staying power of the cuckoo is all the more impressive when considering that avian automatons have existed for more than two thousand years. Bird-themed devices that simulate the calls and motions of the real thing have exerted an alluring pull on people’s imaginations. But what are we to make of this? And, specifically, why has the cuckoo become the modern standard-bearer of avis mechanica and clockwork figures?

Ancient Feats of Fowl Engineering

As far as bird-styled mechanical clocks and automatons go, the cuckoo clock is a relative latecomer. At least a couple millennia before the Black Forest community of craftsmen popularized their iconic inventions, ancient Greek scientists had put forward their own designs. Archytas’s wooden pigeon employed weights and pressurized air for flight (2). Ktesibios’ mechanical water clock featured birds that whistled with the turning of each hour (3). Later, utilizing similar pneumatic and water principles, Hero of Alexandra and Philo of Byzantium conceived their versions of artificial singing birds (4, 5).

With the fall of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages, interest in mechanical inventions declined. Of course, such contraptions eventually returned with greater flair and refinement. For instance, inside the ninth-century Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’s lavishly furnished throne room supposedly sang mechanical birds forged in gold (6). More than a thousand years later, William Butler Yeats reimagined these warbling automata in his “Sailing to Byzantium” (7) and “Byzantium,” as the songsters represent the “artifice of eternity” for which the poems’ speaker longs. While previous literary works containing songbird gadgetry, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” suggest a leeriness towards machines (8, 9), Yeats’s poems welcome the “glory of changeless metal” over “complexities of mire or blood.” (10)

Of course, humanity’s fascination with technology continued well beyond Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). During Europe’s middle and late medieval periods, pleasure gardens and rooms featuring mechanical birds sprung up principally in the Islamic world. Such automata were noted in the palace courtyard of al-Muqtadir, the early tenth-century caliph of Baghdad (11). Technology like this developed a few centuries later in Western Europe. Around 1300, avian automata were reportedly installed at the Hesdin chateau in Artois, France (12). Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli depicted elaborate designs in his 1588 Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine, some featuring mechanical birds (13). Among the oddest of simulacrum contraptions, though, occurred one and half centuries after Ramelli’s work. The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson began demonstrating an artificial duck in 1738 that was said to mimic the actual waterfowl’s behavior, including activities such as eating and defecating (14).

About Time

The clockmakers of the Middle Ages returned to the avian theme initiated by Ktesibios. Timekeeping designs, like their automata counterparts, also steadily became more sophisticated. Syrian engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206) envisioned an “Elephant clock,” which atop a pachyderm replica included a whistling mechanical bird (15). Several centuries later, clockwork masterpieces in Western Europe featured mechanically animated crowing roosters. Among these, one was installed in 1573 at the cathedral of Strasburg, Germany, and another the following century within the royal apartments of Versailles, France (16). By the 1700s, the cuckoo clock emerged an exciting novelty from the southwestern mountains of Germany. Later productions included additional favorites, such as blackbirds and nightingales (17).

Feathered creatures are an obvious choice for clocks, for birds have long been linked to time. Even Yeats’s eternal songsters in “Sailing to Byzantium” trill “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Such connections have much to do with avifauna’s migratory instincts. As American writer Jim Harrison eloquently states in one his poems:

Most birds own the ancient clock of north and south, a clock that never had hands, the god-time with which the universe began. (18)

The times of day or seasons when birds are heard, thus, are rich with temporal associations. Roosters, due to their morning calls, are connected with the day and sun, just as owls, for their nocturnal habits, are to the night and the moon. Swallows return in the spring, and cuckoos in the summer, an observation noted in a sixteenth-century English poem of Geoffrey Whitney (19). Regarding the cuckoo, migratory connections, as well as the simplicity and familiarity of its call, most likely account for the bird’s popularity.

Let’s not overlook that cuckoos are likewise associated with zany, off-the-wall behavior. So as far as clocks go, not much could be more outlandishly amusing than a little bird popping out of a house-shaped clock, right?

Coo-coo! Coo-coo!

Sources:

  1. Wolff, HW. Rambles in the Black Forest. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890. pp. 178-179.
  2. Cooke, CW. Automata Old and New. London: Chiswick Press, 1893. p. 16.
  3. Truitt, ER. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. p. 4.
  4. Cooke, CW. pp. 17-24.
  5. Truitt, ER. p. 4.
  6. Treadgold, W. “The Macedonia Renaissance”. Renaissances Before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Treadgold, W (editor). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984. p. 86.
  7. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. p. 58.
  8. Hyman, WB. “‘Mathematical experiments of long silver pipes’: The Early Modern Figure of the Mechanical Bird”. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. Hyman, WB (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. pp. 145-162.
  9. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  10. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  11. Truitt, ER. p. 20.
  12. Truitt, ER. pp. 122-124.
  13. Hyman, WB. p. 151.
  14. Cooke, CW. pp. 60, 64-68.
  15. “The Elephant Clock”, Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/451402.
  16. Cooke, CW. pp. 52-54.
  17. Wolff, HW. pp. 179.
  18. Harrison, J. “Old Bird Boy”. In Search of Small Gods. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. p. 56.
  19. Lutwack, L. p. 24.