Themes of Swan Maiden Lore

swanmaiden2

Birds are symbols of freedom and elusiveness, sensuality and romance, even tragic love. All these characteristics and more are prevalent in one of the most widespread of fictional narratives, the so-called swan maiden tales.

Though variations exist, these stories frequently feature beautiful women who present as swans or other avifauna1 until they disrobe to bathe or swim. Conflict ensues when a male interloper sweeps away one of the maidens to be his bride. Voyeurism, coercion, deceit, sacrifice, betrayal, and third-party meddling are common plot elements, so tales like these tend to explore a range of power dynamics. Storylines often address whether true love can develop between the maiden and her captor/rescuer.

Trials of Love

For the protagonists’ relationship to survive—and it doesn’t always—the two usually must transform psychologically (especially to nurture or rebuild trust), and in some cases, physically (so that either are both human or both avian). As an example of the latter, in an ancient Irish text, the Celtic deity Óengus turns himself into a swan so he can join his swan princess Caer Ibormeith.2, 3 In a Swedish story with a different scenario and outcome, a hunter years later returns his wife’s confiscated feathered cloak. By doing so, however, he unwittingly reveals his culpability in the garment’s theft, destroying the relationship. The wife instantly morphs back into a swan and flies away, never to return.4, 5 “Happily ever after” is not a given, but in those tales where the woman resumes form as a bird and departs, reunion is possible if the husband can prove his love by completing a difficult trek to successfully locate her.6

Different versions of swan maiden tales exist throughout the world, with the Asian continent an important source of several. A couple (“The Story of Janshah” and “Hassan of Bassora and the King’s Daughter of Jinn”) are included in the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).7 Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, however, is probably the most well-known example. In the nineteenth-century Russian composer’s ballet masterpiece, Odette and Prince Siegfried are tested by a scheming sorcerer and his daughter. The two lovers die tragically but are reunited happily together as spirits.8 Though Swan Lake is arguably the most famous of such tales, the oldest likely originates from ancient India in the account of King Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī, two lovers tricked into violating a vow that results in their separation.9, 10

Narratives like these clearly transcend time and cultures, probably because romantic relationships and their dynamics are of universal interest. Part of such lore’s appeal may also lie with birds in general, a subject that has long fascinated the imaginations of poets, storytellers, and artists. Swans are significant due to their associations with grace, beauty, and the otherworldly, all aspects desirable to humans. The swan maiden stories acknowledge both the affinities and differences between our world and those represented by birds. Many of these tales offer us hope that humans are capable of great change and love.

Sources:

  1. For one of the earliest studies of this subject, please refer to the two chapters devoted to swan maidens in ES Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. London, UK: Walter Scott, 1891. pp. 255–332. Hartland notes that swans are not the only birds found in such stories, citing instances including doves, vultures, and other waterfowl. In some cases, the maidens do not appear as birds at all. As for men, they—rather than women—appear occasionally in avian form (e.g., the Brothers Grimm’s “Six Swans” and Wagner’s opera Lohengrin). On a related note, in the myth-inspired poems and paintings depicting the rape of Leda by the Greek god Zeus, a masculine deity is the one who morphs into a swan. This myth, however, is not considered part of swan maiden lore.
  2. Sax, B. The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward, 1998. p.64.
  3. Gantz, J. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1982. pp. 108–112.
  4. Yolen, J. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986, pp. 303–304.
  5. Booss, C. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland & Iceland. New York: Crown, 1984. pp. 248–250.
  6. DL Ashliman, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Pittsburgh, includes several of these stories among his online collection of featured swan maiden tales: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/swan.html.
  7. Campbell, JJ. The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of World Mythology (Volume 1). London, UK: Alfred van der Marck, Summerfield Press, 1983. p. 186.
  8. Sax, B. pp. 161–162.
  9. Sax, B. p. 63.
  10. Leavy, BF. In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender. New York: New York University Press, 1993. pp. 33–63.

The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

bluejays

In To Kill a Mockingbird, siblings Jem and Scout are excited about receiving air rifles as gifts. Atticus, their father, however is less than enthusiastic, having little to say except for one bit of brief but important advice.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard,” he counsels, “but I know you’ll go after birds.” While notably declaring off limits the namesake of the novel, Atticus permits his children to take aim at other birds, naming one species in particular. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em.”1 His remark suggests these birds were held in the lowest regard.

Negative sentiment toward blue jays indeed was common in the South. Their occasional consumption of other birds’ eggs and nestlings probably did not help their standing. A bigger problem seems to have been the creatures’ loud and boisterous activity, as stressed in another literary classic of the American South. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a group of noisy jays congregating on a mulberry tree annoy one character so much that he hurls a stone at them. His admonition, “Git on back to hell, whar you belong at,”2 is quite telling. It hints at the bird’s dark status in the folklore of the South, where at best the blue jay was thought a hapless trickster figure and at worst, a servant to Satan.

The Devil’s Little Helper                                                                                               

Sporting bright plumage and vocalizing lively raptor-like shrieks and a distinctive pump-handle call, the blue jay is among the most common of avifauna in the continental United States. The bird impressed both Emily Dickinson (poem 51) and Mark Twain (the second and third chapters of A Tramp Abroad)—though the latter did address in humorous fashion the blue jay’s poor moral character. Yet the bird never became as popular or respected as other colorful and widespread species, such as the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, and American goldfinch. This is evident by the fact that not a single American state has chosen the blue jay as its avian representative.3

In southern states, the bird was scorned, as apparent from that region’s literature and folklore. African-American stories from the South provide some particularly keen insights into the creature’s reputation. These tales generally agreed that this bird made weekly visits to hell.4 In most cases, Br’er Jay or Mister Jay was said to go there to bring either twigs (to fuel the infernal fires) or sand (to gradually extinguish the blazes or fill in the abyss to the underworld). Such trips, often considered punishment or the result of some unwise arrangement with the devil, were believed to occur every Friday afternoon.5, 6

The bird’s plight in these stories is presented with some variety. In one tale, for instance, the blue jay attempts to bring fire to a shivering black man in need of warmth, but the bird’s theft of a flaming rock from hell does not go as planned. When confronted by the devil, the jay ends up agreeing to pay him and his wife back regularly with kindling.7 Other accounts portray the corvid as greedy and unscrupulous, as when the bird makes a bad deal with Satan for some corn.8 Taken as a whole, these tales offer greater perspective on feelings toward the bird, adding to possibly why Atticus Finch singles it out.

An Undeserved Reputation

While in Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece no blue jay is shot and none visits the devil, the bird’s call is heard during the pivotal Halloween night scene, just prior to the novel’s climax. A blue jay, though, is not actually the one making the sounds. Instead, a mockingbird, perched in a tree on Boo Radley’s front lawn, mimics the calls of several birds, including those of the “irascible” blue jay and ominous whippoorwill.9 The songster’s selection foreshadows both the impending volatility and surprise ahead.

As readers soon learn in this coming-of-age classic, things are not always what they seem. Hearsay and impressions can deceive; prejudices and superstition thrive in the darkness. While the book’s message, of course, applies to attitudes about people, it could as well relate to birds such as the blue jay. After all, this much-maligned bird does a lot more than clamor in backyards; it is one of North America’s most interesting and beneficial winged residents.

Sources:

  1. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1960). p. 103.
  2. Faulkner, W. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956 (first published in 1929). p. 209.
  3. The blue jay has fared much better in Canada, where it is the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island and the mascot of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team.
  4. A couple other birds, the mockingbird and cardinal, sometimes appeared in this role. (For more info, see Pucket, NN. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro [sic]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; Greenwood Press, 1975. pp. 549–550.)
  5. Pucket, NN. pp. 549–550.
  6. Young, M. Plantation Bird Legends. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916. pp. 122, 125, 126, 234, 237.
  7. Young, M. pp. 46–48, 51.
  8. Pucket, NN. p. 549.
  9. Lee, H. p. 293.

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, whom 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 toward 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.

 

Scarecrow Season

scarecrow

It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.

Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.

Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the United Kingdom actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!

Making Them Scary (Sort of)                   

The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.

The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).

In many cases, ancient straw men also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)

Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.

A New Era

Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Straw man figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.

So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.

Sources:

  1. Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
  2. Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
  3. Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals.” JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
  4. Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
  5. Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas,” 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
  6. Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management.” Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.

Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

swallowTattoo

Why have sea dogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life on board a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.

Sources:

  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  4. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, AW. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings,” 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.

A Fly-by-Night Operation

NightSkyBirds

Many birds make their seasonal departures and returns when people are least likely to see them—at night. No wonder folks long ago believed that these creatures migrated to the moon. Little, though, did they suspect the stars’ role in such journeys.

Navigating by the Stars

Before developing sophisticated GPS devices and even the magnetic compass, we humans relied on the constellations for guidance during nightly travels. So what if birds happened to use the stars in a similar manner? Sure, it may sound a bit far-fetched at first. However, studies from over the past few decades indicate that for many species this is likely the case. In fact, certain birds depend on constellations as guideposts, so much so that researchers have discovered that heavy clouds can obstruct their view and, in turn, lead them astray, requiring the creatures to later correct their flights.

Like these birds, our ancestors, too, used astronomical formations as navigational aids. By identifying clusters of stars into constellations, earlier explorers were capable of making extensive expeditions over land and voyages over sea, long before the inventions of satellite technology and electronic communications. Connecting the night’s starry dots into linear forms was critical for orienting purposes. Some folks today still use the stars in this way.

An Interstellar Assembly of Fowl

The human practice of studying the stars has resulted in some interesting constellations, as societies easily found inspiration in their own myths as well as in the creatures around them. Among the most familiar bird-related constellations in the West are the Eagle (Aquila), Dove (Columba), Raven (Corvus), Swan (Cygnus), Crane (Grus), Peacock (Pavo), and Toucan (Tucana) (1, 2). Stargazers in other places, of course, generated different names for the same combinations. For instance, the Arabian equivalent to the constellation Lyra is sometimes referred to as the Vulture (3). In that same constellation, some aborigine people of southeast Australia see instead a Mallee-fowl (4). Different constellations also appear only to specific societies (not unlike a kind of Rorschach test), as in the case of a large Emu constellation recognized as well by Australian aborigines (5).

The Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada associated certain stars with birds. In their folklore, the constellation commonly referred to as the “Big Dipper” or Ursa Major is related as seven birds hunting a bear. The birds, all represented by individual stars, include a Chickadee, Blue Jay, and Pigeon, among others. They attempt to trail the ursine from the spring until fall, but only the Robin is at last able to kill the great bear. Interestingly, the Mi’kmaq’s astronomical interpretation operates as well as a just-so story, in that it seeks to explain why the robin has a red breast and why fall foliage turns red (both, according to the tale, due to the bear’s massive bloodshed) (6).

Starry Nights, Starry Flights

As mentioned earlier, ornithologists began learning decades ago that birds can use the constellations for navigational purposes. In the mid-twentieth century, Franz Sauer was the first to discover that such a thing was even possible. He ran numerous experiments on European warblers which led him to conclude that the birds have the ability to orient themselves directionally by the stars during autumnal migration periods. Another prominent researcher in this field, Stephen Emlen has worked extensively on indigo buntings (7, 8). He has stated, “Numerous species have been examined, and it appears that the ability to orient by the stars is widespread among birds that migrate at night” (9).

Interestingly enough, researchers use the full moon as a lit backdrop for tracking birds during these nocturnal migrations. As a bird flies over the moon, its silhouette is recorded via a photographic telescope. One such facility that routinely conducts such studies is Indiana’s Chipper Woods Bird Observatory (10). Another is New Hampshire’s Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, responsible for this YouTube video of several passing birds over a full moon. Of course, with spring on the way, more and more birds will be making such nocturnal migrations.

Sources:

  1. Cornelius, G. The Starlore Handbook: An Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
  2. “Constellation Names,” Constellation Guide: http://www.constellation-guide.com/constellation-names/
  3. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 69.
  4. Norris, R. “Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: Calendars,” Australia Telescope National Facility: http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/calendar.htm.
  5. Norris, R. “Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: The Emu in the Sky,” Australia Telescope National Facility: http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/emu.htm.
  6. Dempsey, F. “Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 102, No. 2, April 2008. pp. 59-61.
  7. Moon Watching: Studying Birds that Migrate at Night,” Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Indianapolis, IN: http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/moon.htm.
  8. Emlen, S.T. “The Stellar-Orientation System of a Migratory Bird,” p. 3: http://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/bionb221/WIM/readings/Emlen%20%281975%29%20-%20The%20stellar-orientation%20system%20of%20a%20migratory%20bird.pdf. (Also appeared in Scientific American. Vol. 233, August 1975. pp. 102-111.)
  9. Emlen, S.T.
  10. Moon Watching: Studying Birds that Migrate at Night,” Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Indianapolis, IN.

Cultural “Foot” Notes

crowsfeet

Folks often focus on the plumage of our feathered friends, overlooking their feet. However, besides serving an array of specialized functions, these structures have significantly impacted the history of human language, folklore, and, yes, even cuisine.

“Crow’s Feet”                                                              

It’s no secret. As we age, wrinkles form on the face, and the claw-like marks that appear under or along the outer corner of the eyes are likened to the feet of crows. This expression, still quite common today, dates back at least to fourteenth-century England, when Geoffrey Chaucer used it—with negative connotation regarding the feminine aging process—in his Troilus and Creseyde (1). Speculation exists as to the choice of the crow. Some believe this is due to the bird’s relationship with witchcraft and death (2, 3). Maybe, though, the crow’s association with wisdom and intelligence as well as the bird’s well-known habit for the extended rearing of its offspring were also factors. After all, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls cites the raven for its wisdom and the crow for its caring calls (4). Perhaps the enduring popularity of the “crow’s feet” term lies in part to its power as a metaphoric badge of wisdom and compassionate maturity.

A Crane’s Foot in the Family Tree

Another widely used word in our language derives as well from yet another bird’s foot, in this instance, that of the crane. The origin of the word “pedigree” has a long history, going back beyond Chaucer, to a period of time not that long after William the Conqueror and the Normans invaded England in 1066. Back then, families began illustrating their genealogical connections to the monarchy. The angled foot-like sections within these charts were thought to look a lot like a “crane’s foot” and, thus, were called such, but in French, pied du grue. This phrase developed into the word “pedigree” (5, 6). Today, of course, we refer to genealogical charts as “family trees” instead of “crane’s feet”.

The Foot Capable of One Fatal Blow

More than just a source of poetic inspiration and colloquialisms, a bird’s foot can deliver something much more lethal. This is definitely the case with the cassowary. Indigenous to parts of Australia and Indonesia, this large creature has acquired a frightening reputation. The notoriety is well warranted. It’s due to the bird’s sharp claws, especially the inner one, which is capable of gashing any animal (including humans) to death. Generally not aggressive, this is definitely one creature not to be provoked. Nevertheless, on the island of New Guinea, tribal people do hunt the cassowary, traditionally using its feathers and bones for items such as headdresses, jewelry, and tools. These folks also take the bird’s claws. They serve a rather fitting function—as daggers (7).

No Feet? Three Feet?

When first brought back to Europe from New Guinea during the sixteenth century, birds of paradise specimens fascinated the public. These creatures’ long, ornate tail feather were unlike anything Europeans had seen before. Adding to the bird’s mystique, natives of the South Pacific country typically clipped the legs and feet from the skins. Thus, Europeans initially thought these birds didn’t have any (8). This notion, though, was not unprecedented. Many people in the West at this time thought that swallows and house martins lacked feet as well. These small birds, in fact, were represented as the footless martlet (merlette or merlot) on seals, coats-of-arms, and other heraldic ornamentation (9, 10). The martlet is symbolic of swiftness as in traveling, or in fighting on the battlefield (11). On the other side of the world, in China and Japan, artistic renderings of another avian creature sometimes appeared with an extra leg—the three-legged crow. There is some debate, though, about the exact meaning of this as a symbol (12, 13, 14). As to the birds of paradise, no one now disputes that they have two feet!

Chicken Toes

Chicken “fingers” are a popular treat, especially with children. Though not really appendages, one thing’s definitely clear—they’re not toes! Fried chicken feet, however, are consumed in many places throughout the world, including parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean (15, 16, 17). In fact, they’re considered a delicacy in China, where the U.S. and Britain export them. Although I have never tasted them, I have occasionally seen packaged chicken feet in mainstream grocery stores in the South. I have even heard of folks, particularly in the Appalachian region, eating them (18). The dish is far from popular, even in that region, though. And I have my doubts that such culinary fare will ever become mainstream in the United States, no matter how well received it remains in other parts of the world.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 170.
  2. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 121.
  3. Walker, B. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988. p. 398.
  4. Chaucer, G. “The Parliament of Fowls.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature (The Online Archive): http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/08Fowls_1_17.pdf.
  5. Ingersoll, E. p. 170.
  6. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 70.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 21-23.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 398.
  9. Ingersoll, E. p. 64.
  10. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186-187.
  11. Vinycomb, J. pp. 186-187.
  12. Werness, H.B. p. 121.
  13. Chevalier, J., Gheerbrant, A. A Dictionary of Symbols. Buchanan-Brown, J. (translator). London: Penguin Books, 1969 (1996). p. 789.
  14. Stern, H. P. Birds, Beasts, Blossoms, and Bugs: The Nature of Japan. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976. p. 86.
  15. Kasper, L.R. “Footnotes: Eating hooves and claws from China to South Africa”. The Splendid Table: http://www.splendidtable.org/story/footnotes-eating-hooves-and-claws-from-china-to-south-africa.
  16. Flock, E. “Chicken feet in China, and other animal-part delicacies we eat around the world,” 12/16/2011. The Washington Post (Blog): http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/post/chicken-feet-in-china-and-other-animal-part-delicacies-we-eat-around-the-world/2011/12/16/gIQAjdYKyO_blog.html.
  17. Gray, R. “Let them eat chicken feet: drive to sell offal and animal feet abroad as delicacies,” 9/15/2013. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/10309562/Let-them-eat-chicken-feet-drive-to-sell-offal-and-animal-feet-abroad-as-delicacies.html.
  18. Farr, S.S. My Appalachia: A Memoir. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. p. 78.

“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 second-century CE 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’s Etymologies and St. Ambrose’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.

The Mysterious Tradition of the Wren Hunt

wren

How would you react if on the day after Christmas a small procession of boys in costume came to your door chanting some bizarre ditty? Although the group may indulge in song, you couldn’t confuse these kids with carolers. After all, besides wearing face paint and masks, they are carrying what appears to be a lifeless bird fastened to a pole.

Upon sight of such a strange mob, one’s first impulse, rather than opening the door, may be to call the authorities. Regardless of whichever decision one makes, you would eventually discover that these so-called “wren boys” are as harmless as Halloween trick-or-treaters. They’re simply asking for money, sometimes requested to bury a small, dead bird. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated, such a practice must seem incredibly odd.

Nothing Says “Thank You” like a Good-Luck Feather

Commonly referred to as the “Wren Hunt” or “Wren Day,” the custom of carrying a wren door-to-door during one of the first days following winter solstice dates back at least several centuries. It was popular in parts of Ireland and Britain (1). At one time, it was also practiced in areas of France (2) and even in St. John’s of Newfoundland, Canada (3).

The bird generally was not harmed or bothered throughout much of the year, except during the time of the Hunt. Boys usually would capture a wren on or around Christmas, with the bird often perishing in the process, though occasionally some would survive (4, 5, 6). On December 26th (St. Stephen’s Day and the usual date for Boxing Day in the United Kingdom), the adolescent boys and young men, donning disguises, would collect money from their stops throughout the village, to be used later to put on a party referred to in Ireland as a “Join” or “Mummer’s Ball” (7).

As mentioned before, the wren boys are known to sing during their money-gathering visits. One of their chants—many versions exist—goes in part something like this:

A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren. (8)

In the past, people who contributed to the boys’ funds were given a feather plucked from the wren, a token considered good luck. But retribution could await those folks who refused charity, for the boys, as a traditional means of cursing the person, would bury the dead bird on his or her property (9). Today, of course, this isn’t a problem, for real wrens fortunately are no longer used (10).

A Saint’s Stoning, an Army’s Betrayal, or a Fairy’s Curse?

As to the origins of this strange practice, they appear to be long buried in history. Some people attribute the custom as a reaction that later developed in response to St. Stephen’s murder, saying that the bird coincidentally disclosed the first Christian martyr to his enemies (11, 12). Do note, however, that Chapters 6 and 7 of Acts in the New Testament make no mention of the bird’s involvement in Stephen’s arrest or subsequent stoning. The only connection between the saint and the bird appears to be the timing of the hunt.

Some folks link the annual capture of the wren to the bird’s supposed role to another act of betrayal.  A host of parallel stories indicate that a wren inadvertently alerted invading enemy forces (e.g., Vikings, Cromwell’s army) to a surprise military attack by Irish defenders, resulting in calamity for the latter (13, 14). Many other such narratives are recorded. Depending on the story, the two factions consist of various parties. Nevertheless, the wren’s treacherous actions remain similar in the accounts.

One tale reported from the Isle of Man is remarkably different. This explanation instead blames the practice on a beautiful femme fatale, who led multitudes of men to drowning with her siren-like voice. In some cases, she is referred to by the name of “Cliona” (15). According to Joseph Train’s nineteenth-century account, a “knight-errant” was almost able to destroy the “fairy” or witch, but she used her supernatural powers to escape, transforming herself into a wren, a form to which she was subsequently condemned every year. This story, unlike others, explains the idea behind the wren feathers as a good luck charm. According to Train, one who possesses a feather from the fairy-wren supposedly will not suffer shipwreck for the following year (16). Thus, such a charm, particularly for coastal fishing communities, was understandably deemed an invaluable talisman.

Taking the Hunt into a New Century

Despite the prevalence of lore surrounding the Wren Hunt’s origins, the custom’s original source remains uncertain. Several scholars have attempted to link the practice to pre-Christian cultures, such as to the Celts. For instance, Ernest Ingersoll thought that Christian missionaries likely “condemned the little songster as a symbol of heathen rites, and encouraged their converts to kill it at the time of the annual Christmas feast as a sign of abnegation of Druidical connections” (17). Edward Armstrong’s The Wren and Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence’s Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol explore in-depth the possibility of this custom springing from ancient connections (18, 19). For the skeptical, though, the exact origins and rationale for the practice cannot be confirmed; and the dearth of available evidence beyond the past few centuries simply fosters speculation.

Tracing the practice’s origins—whether they be only a few centuries old or several millennia—does not pose a problem for the small number of people who today celebrate the Wren Hunt holiday. For them, the occasion is an opportunity to partake in an ancestral tradition with some added modern-day twists. Today in Sligo, Ireland, for example, writer Joe McGowan reports that few boys and young men stop by homes anymore; most instead go to pubs, retirement facilities, and the like to collect money (20). In other places, such as Ireland’s Dingle, the celebration has given way to Wren Day festivals and parades (21). For better or worse, the scenario described earlier of costumed boys and young men at front doorsteps has mostly become a thing of the past.

Sources:

  1. Howe, L. “The Burial of the Wren,” The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 6, No. 22, Jul.–Sep., 1893. p. 231.
  2. Howe, L.
  3. “Folk-lore Scrap-book.” “Hunting the Wren. — In the ‘Evening Herald,’ St. John’s, N. F.” Rev. A. C. Waghorne. The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 6, No. 21, Apr.–Jun., 1893. p. 143.
  4. Howe, L.
  5. Rev. A. C. Waghorne.
  6. Bergen, F.D., “Burial and Holiday Customs and Beliefs of the Irish Peasantry,” The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 8, No. 28, Jan.–Mar., 1895. p. 24.
  7. McGowan, J. “Wrenboys in Ireland,” Sligo Heritage: http://www.sligoheritage.com/archwrenboys.htm.
  8. McGowan, J. [Note: English translation of some Irish dialect rendered here]
  9. Bergen, F.D..
  10. McGowan, J.
  11. McGowan, J.
  12. “Winter/Religious Festivals: Saint Stephen’s Day,” IrishFestivals.net: http://www.irishfestivals.net/saintstephensday.htm.
  13. McGowan, J.
  14. “Winter/Religious Festivals: Saint Stephen’s Day,” IrishFestivals.net.
  15. McGowan, J.
  16. Train, J. An Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man, from the Earliest Times to the Present Date; with a View of its Ancient Laws, Peculiar Customs, and Popular Superstitions, Volume 2. Mary A. Quiggin, North Quay: London, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., Stationers’ Hall Court. 1845. p. 125.
  17. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co. 1923. pp. 120–121.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Wren, first edition, New Naturalist monograph. London: Collins, 1955.
  19. Lawrence, E.A. Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol, first edition. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
  20. McGowan, J.
  21. Bray, A., and O’Sullivan, M., Irish Independent. “Music / revelry with the Wren Boys in Dingle,” 12/27/2012. Experience the Dingle Peninsula: http://www.dinglepost.com/post/38941787608/music-revelry-with-the-wren-boys-in-dingle.

Halcyon Days—Here Again?

halcyon

Today marks the first day of the so-called “halcyon days”—or does it?—a period of fifteen days in December first recognized by ancient Mediterranean civilizations for its tranquil weather. During this brief time winds calm and storms typically abate, so that the so-called halcyon birds could supposedly build their nests upon the waters.

Some classical texts indicate that for the first seven days prior to the winter solstice, these birds constructed nests from fish bones, while during the seven days after, they tended to their eggs and hatchlings. Aristotle writes of this process in Book 5, Chapter 8, of his The History of Animals. Several ancient writers reiterate the claim, including Pliny and Plutarch (1). Other sources, as we shall see, appear to dispute the time period, indicating an earlier arrival of the halcyons’ brief mating season.

But are halcyon days something that actually occurs? Aren’t these birds just a mythological concept? Or do they actually have real-life counterparts? Where does the myth end and the truth begin?

When the Winds First became Still

The origin of the halcyon bird goes way back thousands of years. It’s rooted in a mythological love story involving Alcyone and her royal husband Ceyx. The Catalogue of Women (usually attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod, possibly a contemporary of Homer) and Metamorphoses by Roman writer Ovid are two popular sources, among others. Despite several variations in the tale, the crux remains the same. Ceyx perishes in a shipwreck and a distraught Alcyone dashes into the sea. The gods react with compassion, reviving her husband by transforming him into a bird. They, too, of course, turn her into a bird so they are both alive and alike again.

Halcyon days apparently resulted so the two feathered lovers could mate without disturbance on the sea. Such calm periods are noted in Halcyon, a short dialogue sometimes dubiously attributed to Lucian of Samosata. According to Ovid’s account (Book 11 of Metamorphoses) Alcyone’s father Aeolus, the demigod and wind keeper of Homer’s Odyssey (Book 10), halts the winds for several days each year for his daughter. Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Simonides, Pliny and others link the period of tranquility for mating halcyons to Sicily (2). Incidentally, while to the south of Sicily lies Malta, to the north are the Aeolian Islands—the namesake of Alcyone’s father.

The Real Halcyon, New Lore

Although we know today that the halcyon is a mythical creature, the bird interestingly has a real-life counterpart. Since the halcyon is described in several texts, such as in Book 9, Chapter 15, of The History of Animals (Aristotle again), as a blue and green bird comparable in size to a sparrow, the creature later became associated with the kingfisher. In fact, some of the scientific taxonomical names for kingfishers are derived from the word “Halcyon.” However, unlike the mythical halcyon, the common kingfisher nests in burrowed holes along lakes, river banks, and seashores (3).

A host of new lore also ended up developing around the kingfisher, due to the bird’s link to the ancient stories. In fact, the conflation of the Alcyone myth (romantic love associations) and halcyon days (wind associations) with the kingfisher has resulted in some peculiar practices during parts of history. For instance, according to ornithologist Peter Tate, “… the Tartars of Eastern Europe and central Asia believed kingfisher feathers could be turned into powerful love talismans. The method was to throw plucked kingfisher feathers into water, collect all those that floated, and then stroke the hapless object of affection with one of them” (4). In the late nineteenth-century, John Ashton notes an even stranger application: “If a dead Kingfisher were hung up by a cord, it would point its beak to the quarter whence the wind blew” (5). Belief in the dead bird’s wind-detecting ability, as Ashton adds, even found its way in the plays of William Shakespeare (King Lear, Act 2, Scene 2) and Christopher Marlowe (Jew of Malta, Act 1, Scene 1). Several decades later in seventeenth-century England, Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, criticized such practices as scientifically erroneous (6).

Separating Myth from Reality

Much of the lore surrounding the kingfisher, of course, is clearly without merit. Although the birds are monogamous, they can mate several times throughout the year, usually starting in the spring or summer (7).  Also, the idea of halcyon days as a set period of time in December is far from universally accepted in Europe, even in areas near Sicily, where the mating ritual is noted by several ancient sources. In some parts of Europe halcyon days is akin more to what we call Indian summer here in North America, occurring as early as November. For example, when Shakespeare refers to halcyon days in his play The First Part of King Henry VI (Act 1, Scene 2), his Joan of Arc equates it with “St. Martin’s summer.” British folklore scholar Venetia Newell points out, “In France, especially, the kingfisher is associated with St. Martin, whose day (November 11th) often falls within a period of fine weather before the onset of winter” (8). Furthermore, in Malta where kingfishers can reside from August to April, the birds are also associated with St. Martin of Tours rather than the winter solstice (9).

So what are we to make of all this? Have halcyon days passed us by? Perhaps such brief periods are not something actually restricted to a calendar. Perhaps they are simply feelings of serene bliss and beauty, at times contingent upon an experience or setting. They may become available when, as Walt Whitman writes, “all the turbulent passions calm…”, or while, like Ogden Nash states, “… We vegetate, calm, and aesthetic, / On the beach, on the sand, in the sun” (10, 11).

Perhaps in these days of ratcheting pressures involving holiday season preparations, we can still find some respite, no matter who we are or where we live, whether celebrating with others or relaxing in contemplation. With a few deep breaths, our mind—like Alcyone’s mythical nest—occasionally can settle into near stillness upon the oft-turbulent sea of existence. Maybe, in such moments, halcyon days can be found… here and now, again and again.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 21.
  2. Ingersoll, E.
  3. “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online. http://www.avibirds.com/html/Kingfisher.html.
  4. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition, 2008. p. 70.
  5. Ashton, J. Curious Creatures in Zoology with 130 Illustrations throughout the Text. London: John C. Nimmo, 1890. p. 200.
  6. Browne, T. Pseudodoxia Epidemica. 1646; 6th, 1672 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/pseudodoxia/pseudo310.html).
  7. “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online.
  8. Newell, V. The Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., U.K.: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 39.
  9. “Kingfisher”. Malta Independent Online. http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2014-02-07/news/the-kingfisher-3899883521/.
  10. Whitman, W. “Halcyon Days.” Walt Whitman Archive: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/periodical/poems/per.00093.
  11. Nash, F.O. “Pretty Halcyon Days.” Best Poems: http://www.best-poems.net/ogden_nash/poem-13465.html.