Easter Eggs: Their Colorful History and Symbolism

eastereggs

This is the time of year for egg hunts, Cadbury Crème Eggs, and multicolored plastic eggs filled with jellybeans. Yet beyond the dye, chocolate, and sugar, a deeper meaning lies in one of Easter’s most cherished traditions.

No scriptural basis of course exists for having Easter eggs, just as no accounts in the Gospels report that several winged favorites tended to Jesus during the Crucifixion (e.g., a swallow pulling at the crown thorns and a red crossbill at the nails).1 However, the impulse to incorporate birds with an important event and their eggs with a major recurring holiday seems natural enough. After all, the dove is a symbol for the Holy Spirit and for Christianity as a whole. Why wouldn’t birds have a role in Easter? Also, birds in general are much loved, and eggs hatch to create more birds.

Overall, many factors are crucial to the Easter egg tradition, and these include associations with the time of year in which the holiday falls, social and religious developments arising from Lent many centuries ago, and even the possible assimilation of earlier non-Christian customs.

The Egg as Symbol

Always celebrated on the first vernal Sunday following a full moon, Easter has an apparent connection with spring. Since this is the season when migrating birds are returning and mating, the holiday’s association with eggs is not surprising. Besides the many nests potentially visible this time of year, eggs also share some similarities in shape and color to the moon. However, despite the satellite’s role in determining Easter’s annual date, any lunar connection to Easter eggs is probably marginal at best. The egg’s popularity rests primarily as a potent symbol of life. In the case of Easter, it represents Jesus’s Resurrection2 and the potential of eternal life for his followers.

Throughout the world, from antiquity to today, eggs traditionally have signified birth/creation and rebirth/revival.3 They have served this function in several creation myths, as well as in funeral practices, both as iconography and as objects buried in human graves.4, 5 As a result of practices centuries ago, Islamic mosques and some Christian churches still hang preserved eggs from ostriches as decorations.6 The Montefeltro altarpiece painting by Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca famously depicts such an egg above Madonna and child.7 The most extravagant examples of egg-inspired art came several centuries later when Peter Carl Fabergé created his ornate Easter egg designs for the Russian imperial family.

The symbolic power of the egg extends to its use as a ceremonial food by Christians and non-Christians alike. A hard-boiled egg is part of the Jewish Passover Seder. The custom of decorating eggs, which originated in ancient Persia, survives today in Iranian New Year (vernal equinox) celebrations.8 In addition, the elaborate beeswax-resist designs (e.g., pysanky, kraslice) of Eastern Europe’s Slavic peoples may have predated their conversion to Christianity.9 By the thirteenth10 or fourteenth centuries,11 Christians in Europe began coloring eggs for Easter using red dye to symbolize Christ’s blood.12 Whether this practice involved outside influences is not necessarily important to appreciate and enjoy Easter eggs today, for any religion can absorb preexisting customs and imbue them with new meaning.

The Influence of Lent

At least in part, the painting of Easter eggs more than seven hundred years ago appears to have developed in response to Lenten restrictions and farmyard realities.13, 14 Eggs were among the foods regularly given up during the fasting period, but those laid by domesticated chickens and geese could be collected and decorated. With the arrival of Easter Sunday, the eggs were eaten to mark the end of the fast and celebrate the holiday.15

By the early 1800s, chocolate versions of these eggs debuted in Western Europe.16, 17 Playing off of this Easter candy theme, the American confections company Just Born took the next step, popularizing its marshmallow-shaped chicks—called Peeps—back in the 1950s.18 So today, along with chocolate egg-shaped candies, we have all sorts of bird-inspired Easter candy.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112–115.
  2. History.com. “Easter Symbols and Traditions.” History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/easter-symbols.
  3. Killgrove, K. “The Curious History of Easter Eggs from Birth to Burial,” 3/26/2016. Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/03/26/the-curious-history-of-easter-eggs-from-birth-to-burial/#6ebea03a16af.
  4. Killgrove, K.
  5. Green, N. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam”. Al-Masaq, Volume 18: No. 1, March 2006. p. 30.
  6. Green, N. pp. 35–39.
  7. Green, N. p. 36.
  8. Killgrove, K.
  9. Lesiv, M. The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. pp. 126–133.
  10. History.com.
  11. Green, N. p. 36.
  12. D’Costa, K. “Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter,” 3/31/2013. Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beyond-ishtar-the-tradition-of-eggs-at-easter/.
  13. McRoy, A. “How the Fast of Lent Gave Us Easter Eggs,” 2/2010. Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2010/february/how-fast-of-lent-gave-us-easter-eggs.html.
  14. D’Costa.
  15. McRoy, A.
  16. Godiva Chocolate. “The History of Chocolate Easter Eggs.” Godiva Chocolate, Inc.: http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/The+History+of+Chocolate+Easter+Eggs.html.
  17. BBC Newsround: “Why do we have Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny?” 3/27/2016. BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/17597617.
  18. History.com.

The Ancient Art of Augury

auguryPatterns exist throughout nature. For people ages ago, such things were considered messages from the gods. Decoding these encrypted communications was at the heart of ancient divination, a common practice of early civilizations.

Divination methods in antiquity varied in scope. Nearly anything could be viewed as an expression of divine will and available for interpretation, including dreams (oneiromancy), heavenly bodies (astrology), and entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy). Ornithomancy or augury, as it’s more commonly known, covered the domain of avian activity.

Primarily associated today with the Roman Empire, ancient augural forms concentrated on certain types of birds, using their appearance, flight, calls, and feeding to anticipate the likelihood of favorable or unfavorable occurrences.1 An owl perching near a public square signaled ominous potential;2 chickens gobbling grain before a possible battle suggested divine support for a military incursion.3 (More about the chickens shortly.) Most signs were sought (impetrative), but some were not (oblative/prodigal). In the case of the latter, the gods were interpreted as making statements through extraordinary incidents, usually as a harbinger to some punitive calamity.4

Popularity and Possible Origins

Much of what is known about augury in the classical world comes from the writings of the ancient Romans. The subject played a critical role in that culture’s politics and religion. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was said to have selected the site of his city based on a sighting of twelve large raptors, either vultures or eagles. The story is recounted by Cicero, the first-century BCE Roman orator, in his On Divination (Book 1). Cicero’s contemporary Virgil relates several instances of augury in his Aeneid, the principal politico-literary work of the Roman Empire.

“Sacred chickens” were integral to the augural activities of the empire. Senior officials consulted their feeding habits (to eat = positive; to not eat = negative) for decisions involving military and administrative action. The birds even traveled in cages with armies, requiring a chicken-keeper (pullarius) to maintain and care for the fowl. The Roman historian Livy (64/59 BCE–17 CE) details aspects of this augural practice in Book 10 of his History of Rome. There he also provides an account of the capital punishment inflicted on an augor/auspex for relaying a false reading.5 The Romans took their augury and chickens seriously!

The use of birds for divining purposes however predates the rise of Rome. Thousands of years old, the practice appears to have developed earlier in Asia Minor (Turkey). The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder attributes augury’s origins to a single person, an ancient king of this region. While all-too convenient and simple, this dubious reference in his Natural History (Book 7) may hint at the practice’s long-venerated status in that area.6

Application and Eventual Demise

Reported instances of augury occurred throughout the Anatolian peninsula and in other places along or near the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the earliest writings on this form of divination come from this region’s ancient Hittites,7 more than a couple millennia prior to Pliny. Homer’s Iliad describes the practice among both the Greeks and Trojans. For example, an eagle sighted clutching a small fawn, released for sacrifice to Zeus, inspires valor in the Greek warriors (Iliad, Book 8). One of the oddest accounts from ancient sources regarding birds and divination is by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, a first-century BCE Greek historian. He writes of a temple where a woodpecker and doves serve as oracles.8

For the ancient Romans, though, conducting auspices was not about predicting the future. It was a formal system, more ceremonial than prognostic, developed for gauging whether the gods felt positively or negatively about a proposed action. 9, 10 In essence, think Magic 8 Ball rather than crystal ball. Before matters such as calling forth a public gathering or advancing troops in combat, consultations were routinely made.11, 12 The official then could either heed or ignore the assessment.13, 14 On the whole, since augury was sanctioned by the government, checking again later was advisable to simply disregarding the reading. After all, the gods could change their minds and circumstances turn favorable.

In time, major societal shifts and upheavals led the Romans to abandon their gods and ritualized augury practice. Only a few everyday reminders of that ancient pastime remain. One is through language, with words such as auspicious and inauguration.15 Another, though not directly related to Roman augury, exists in similar but less complicated avian divination forms in folklore (e.g., weather forecasting).

Sources:

  1. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1996. p. 23.
  2. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. Religions of Rome (Volume 2). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 174.
  3. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. p. 116.
  4. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113, 114, 117.
  5. Jaucourt, L. (Translator: Goodman, D.) “Poulets Sacrés (Sacred Chickens).” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert. Vol. 13 (1765), p. 203. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing (University of Michigan Library): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/did2222.0000.865/–sacred-chickens?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
  6. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. “Luwian Religion, A Research Project: The Case of ‘Hittite’ Augury.” Luwian Identities: Culture, Language and Religion Between Anatolia and the Aegean. (Editors: Mouton, A, Rutherford, I, Yakubovich, I.) Boston, MA: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013. pp. 338–339.
  7. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. pp. 329–330.
  8. British archeologist Sir William Halliday proposes that clerics in avian costume , rather than actual birds, at the Matiene temple as the “most plausible explanation” of these oracles in Dionysios’s report (from Book 1 of Roman Antiquities). For more information, please see Halliday, WR. Greek Divination: A Study of Its Methods and Principles. Chicago, IL: Argonaut, Inc., 1967. pp. 265–266, 268.
  9. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. pp. 23–24.
  10. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 112–114.
  11. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. p. 166.
  12. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113–116.
  13. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. p. 24.
  14. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) p. 113.
  15. Oxford Dictionaries. “Under the Auspices of White Elephants?!” OxfordWords blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/01/phrase-and-punctuation-origins.

Turkey Day: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition

turkey

The American Thanksgiving feast is almost unimaginable today without the turkey. The bird’s name, image, and flesh have become synonymous with the annual holiday, as evident from young children’s grade-school artwork, grocery store advertisements, political ceremonies, and professional football game trophies.1 Since the turkey’s modest inception at the seventeenth-century harvest celebration of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people, the creature’s stature has greatly ascended.

Humble Origins

For starters, whether turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) was consumed at that famous gathering of 1621 is dubious. The few records available indicate that an extensive amount of game was prepared for the three-day autumnal feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the event often considered the precursor of and model for our Thanksgiving holiday. First-person accounts from participants Edward Winslow and William Bradford reveal that, along with venison and fish, “fowle” / “foule” was served.2 However, experts have expressed skepticism about whether this reference meant turkeys, noting that ducks and geese were more likely due to their prevalence in that area.3, 4

Meanwhile, during the time of the harvest event at the Plymouth colony, turkeys from North America were already being consumed in England.5 Approximately a century prior to this historic celebration, European explorers had discovered the domesticated turkey in what is today Mexico.  When conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards brought these birds back along with them. Oddly enough, the fowl’s similarity to another established galliform led to its eventual namesake. “Guinea fowl, a native of Africa, was known as a turkey in some areas because some of the domesticated stock had been imported from Turkey,” explains zoologist Osmond Breland in his book Animal Life and Lore. “Out of this confusion, the American fowls were also called turkeys.”6 So this, in short, is how a New World bird acquired the name of a Middle Eastern country.

The American turkey quickly assumed its spot among prominent feast birds, eventually eclipsing them.  For centuries throughout Europe, other large and more abundant fowl had adorned tables during celebratory meals and festive occasions. In England, roasted swan had been popular in such circumstances.7 Domesticated geese had been commonly used as well, especially during autumn.8 The custom of two children pulling opposite ends of the wishbone or furcula to obtain a granted wish or to determine who would be the first to marry may have even begun with the greylag goose.9 When the turkey grew in popularity, so did the transfer of this ritual. The turkey was a poultry favorite among the American colonists, though Benjamin Franklin’s letter expressing admiration for the bird as a symbol for the new country has been overstated and misunderstood.

The Dinner Table Centerpiece of a Holiday

By the nineteenth century, the turkey gained a prominent position within the Thanksgiving meal, thanks primarily to novelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Her efforts persuaded President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to declare Thanksgiving a nationally recognized annual holiday; she also popularized the turkey’s culinary importance in her writings.10 Besides establishing this distinctly American celebration, President Lincoln became the first U.S. commander-in-chief to “pardon” the bird. The presidential practice of granting selected turkeys clemency from the dinner table, however, did not catch on until a century later, starting with President John F. Kennedy.11

Without the vision of Hale and the influence of Lincoln, Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today perhaps would not exist. Of course, the colloquial moniker “Turkey Day” may be an unfortunate indictment that this special occasion, established for expressing gratitude, has turned into our nation’s most gluttonous pastime.

Sources:

  1. “NFL Thanksgiving Day Football History, Trivia, and Fun Facts,” 11/24/10, 1/3/2015. Sports Geekery: http://www.sportsgeekery.com/3815/nfl-thanksgiving-day-football-history-and-fun-facts/.
  2. “Primary Sources for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth.” Pilgrim Hall Museum: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.
  3. Armstrong, E. “The First Thanksgiving,” 11/27/2002. The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1127/p13s02-lign.html.
  4. Krulwich, R. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies,” 11/23/2011. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2010/11/22/131516586/who-brought-the-turkey-the-truth-about-the-first-thanksgiving.
  5. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 44.
  6. Breland, OP. Animal Life and Lore: Revised Edition.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972. p. 148.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  8. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds.  New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 93.
  9. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 104.
  10. Krulwich, R.
  11. Montanaro, D. “The Strange Truth Behind Presidential Turkey Pardons,” 11/25/2015. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/25/457253194/the-strange-truth-behind-presidential-turkey-pardons.

 

If Looks Could Kill

cockatrice_jlweb

Monsters have been known to take many forms, from seductive succubi and skulking bogeymen to blood-slurping chupacabras and giant krakens. Among the most unusual and horrific of such creatures has to be the cockatrice. Associated with demonic forces and deadly powers, this small, peculiar beast stirred panic in the hearts of late-medieval Europeans.

Part-bird and part-snake, with bat-like wings, the cockatrice was believed to be the offspring of a farmyard oddity—an egg-laying cockerel.1 If anyone discovered such a rooster, prompt and severe actions were required. First, retrieving the egg before it was incubated by a toad2 or snake3 was necessary, so as to prevent the cockatrice from developing and ultimately hatching. If the rooster was really thought to have laid an egg, then the fowl had to be destroyed so that no other eggs were produced. Again, such matters were taken very seriously, as demonstrated in 1474 by the people of Basel, Switzerland, who put their alleged avian culprit on trial before burning it at the stake.4

A Scary Notion

The possible existence of creatures in conflict with the natural order of things was a terrifying prospect to people centuries ago. What the cockatrice and its supposed egg-laying cockerel parent represented were affronts to a fixed delineation between the sexes and between species. Aberrations could be seen as crimes against nature, involving witchcraft or the meddling of a sinister supernatural realm. Danger was apparent in the cockatrice’s form, of course, in other ways. The creature supposedly had scales and a snake-like tail, key physical characteristics shared with the devil. (Passages in the book of Revelation (12:9 and 20:2) describe Satan as a serpentine entity, an idea John Milton used with memorable effect in his Paradise Lost.)

Not surprisingly, the cockatrice became synonymous in medieval bestiaries with another ancient and menacing snake, the basilisk. Perhaps most familiar today from JK Rowling’s 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk has a long history. Belief in such a beast extends at least as far back as the first century, described in the writings of both Pliny (Natural History) and Lucan (Pharsalia)5 and later misattributed to venomous creatures of the Old Testament.6 Similarities were said to exist in the lethal prowess of both the basilisk and cockatrice, as they were reportedly capable of delivering venomous bites and emitting a poisonous odor.7 Their usual mode of killing, however, consisted of simply staring into a victim’s eyes, a notion popularized in Shakespeare’s plays.8

Science to the Rescue                                                                            

As serious inquiry replaced superstition, monsters from the Dark Ages came to slowly be dismissed. Scientists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment rejected the flimsy evidence—mostly hoaxes9—of a half-bird, half-snake cockatrice. Unraveling the mystery behind the egg-laying cockerels, however, took a bit more effort. The eighteenth-century French scientist François Gigot de Lapeyronie was the first to conduct rigorous investigations into the subject; his studies concluded that the roosters in question were actually hens.10 Subsequent research has since demonstrated that female fowl with certain ovarian diseases can develop some of the physical characteristics of their male counterparts.11

So unbeknownst to the residents of fifteenth-century Basel, Switzerland, the egg-laying rooster they prosecuted was probably a hen with some hormonal ailment. The cockatrice that haunted medieval Europe never materialized, for the beast with deadly eyes was only a freakish fiend hatched from unfounded fears, another testament to the irrationality of human nature.

Sources:

  1. Bondeson, J. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. p. 167.
  2. Bondeson, J. p. 167.
  3. Stephens, TD. “A Basilisk by Any Other Name … (A Short History of the Cockatrice): A Commentary on Dr. Hook’s Article on Shakespeare, Genetic Malformations, and the Wars of the Roses.” Teratology 35: 2 (April 1987). AR Liss, Inc. p. 278.
  4. Stephens, TD. p. 277.
  5. Badke, D. The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages: Basilisk (1/15/2011): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast265.htm.
  6. In several Old Testament texts (e.g., Isaiah 14:29, Jeremiah 8:17, Proverbs 23:32, Psalms 91:13), the terms for certain venomous animals were erroneously translated as “basilisks” and “cockatrices.” For more information, see J Bondeson (p. 167) and TD Stephens (p. 277).
  7. Hulme, FE. Natural History, Lore and Legend: Being Some Few Examples of Quaint and By-Gone Beliefs Gathered in from Divers Authorities, Ancient and Medieval, of Varying Degrees of Reliability. London, UK: Bernard Quaritch, Norman and Son, 1895. p. 237.
  8. Hulme (p. 237) notes three Shakespearean plays that refer to the cockatrice’s deadly glance: Romeo and Juliet (3.2.47), The Tragedy of King Richard III (4.1.54–55), and Twelfth Night (3.4.197–198). A greater number of the bard’s works cite the basilisk in this role, including Cymbeline (2.4.109–110), The Life of King Henry V (5.2.17–18), The Second Part of King Henry VI (3.2.52–53), The Tragedy of King Richard III (1.2.153), and The Winter’s Tale (1.2.386–389), among others.
  9. One of the most common hoaxes consisted of dried rays or skates, sometimes referred to as “Jenny Hanivers.” TD Stephens (p. 279) notes the use of these preserved remains centuries ago by conmen. Famed Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi supposedly possessed such a specimen but did not think it was a basilisk or cockatrice (J Bondeson, p. 178).
  10. Bondeson, J. p. 188.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 282.

 

Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)

 

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 Salute to National Birds

quetzel

Several comments from my last post got me thinking. Most countries have national birds. But why? What do they matter? And which characteristics make for an effective one?

The custom is widespread, a heraldic vestige dating back to ancient empires and the once-flourishing practice of coats of arms. Countries as culturally diverse and far away from one another as Finland (the whooper swan), India (the Indian peafowl), and South Africa (the blue crane) give a nod to their avian preferences.1 As previously noted, the bald eagle was declared part of the United States’ official symbol in 1782, back when the country adopted its Great Seal.

Not all birds are sanctioned as national representatives; some have become accepted by consensus or through online voting. Such is the case with the United Kingdom’s European robin.2 It holds true as well for the common loon, a traditional but unofficial favorite of Canada. This is why Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project is conducting an online poll for selecting the top vote-getter from a bevy of avian candidates. Thus far, the common loon is leading. The aim of this project, once complete, is to persuade the Canadian government to act, making the nomination official.

Identity Politics

Generally speaking, the national bird is a cultural favorite that demonstrates some symbolic significance. The chosen symbol usually connotes a sense of respect, which undoubtedly accounts for the popularity of the eagle, a large bird associated with strength and expansive vision, as well as the ability to soar to great heights. Yet much more seems required for becoming a national bird than mere symbolism alone.

Most national birds, from best I can tell, fulfill three qualities:

  • The avifauna are native species found throughout many regions of a nation (either during breeding or wintering periods, or both).
  • Their features (and/or cultural relevance) are exceptional or distinctive in some manner (e.g., color, size, song) in relation to other native birds, as well as to other national birds.
  • They inspire special devotion and graphical representation within the national domain.

Thus, the first factor explains why the African fish eagle is appropriate for Zambia and the gyrfalcon for Iceland but not vice versa. The second factor provides further justification for why the colorful keel-billed toucan of Belize, the call-carrying bare-throated bellbird of Paraguay, the enormous emu of Australia, and the diminutive kiwi of New Zealand are national birds. And the third factor involves the depiction of these creatures on flags, currency, stamps, and the like. Think of this as the public relations campaign aspect of celebrating a national bird.

Vexillology? Numismatics?

Those familiar with The Big Bang Theory sit-com, may remember the fictional video podcast series called “Fun with Flags.” For their nerdy online project, hosts Sheldon and his girlfriend Amy regularly shared factoids about vexillology. For those unfamiliar with the term, that’s the study of flags—and, yes, the duo’s stilted conservation was that comically technical.

Unfortunately, poor Sheldon suffers from ornithophobia. However, if he and Amy had managed to record a podcast examining birds on national flags, they would have noted that very few include avian images, only about a dozen or so. And, not surprisingly, roughly a third of those display raptors, mostly eagles. Among the most unusual of birds featured on flags are Dominica’s imperial Amazon parrot, Uganda’s grey-crowned crane, and Kiribati’s frigatebird.

Interestingly, while the Andean condor is considered the national bird of several South American countries,3 its presence graces only a single national flag, that of Ecuador. The raptor however is among several avifauna depicted simultaneously on both flags and currency, a group that also includes Mexico’s golden eagle4 and Papua New Guinea’s bird-of-paradise.5 By the way, here’s another word worthy of a Sheldon podcast: numismatics. If you were wondering, that’s the term for the study of currency.

National Treasures

Of all the national birds, the one that arguably occupies the most prominent status is Guatemala’s resplendent quetzal. Valued for its beautiful feathers, this creature was linked centuries ago to two major Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl and Quetzalpetlatl.6 In honor of the bird’s historical and cultural significance, the quetzal not only appears today on Guatemala’s flag, banknotes, and coins, but its name has been conferred upon the national monetary system.7 Thus, rather than dollars or pesos, financial transactions are made in quetzals.

A lot of countries, of course, display a variety of birds and other animals on their currency. Doing so is a way to increase awareness of native wildlife and encourage conservation.8 Featuring creatures on flags and as national birds, national mammals, national reptiles, etc., is another means of cultivating an appreciation of the many lifeforms and environments in our home countries and abroad. For me, these are the most important reasons for having a national bird or national any-other-creature.

Sources:

  1. Long, A. “National Bird Day – Time to Take Pride in Your Birds,” 1/5/2016. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/national-bird-day-time-take-pride-your-birds.
  2. Mathiesen, K. “Robin Wins Vote for UK‘s National Bird,” 6/10/2015. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/10/robin-wins-vote-uk-national-bird-britain.
  3. Long, A.
  4. Armstrong, EA. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 73. (Note: arguments based on Aztec legend do exist for the northern crested caracara over the golden eagle as the actual bird on Mexico’s flag.)
  5. Armstrong, EA. p. 150.
  6. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Metro Books, 2007. pp. 212–213.
  7. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 5.
  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Voices: 5 Countries Putting All Their Money on Species,” 8/8/2014. National Geographic: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/08/5-countries-putting-all-their-money-on-species/.