Birds in Buddhism

buddhist

“I don’t know anything about consciousness,” a Zen master once declared. “I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing.”

At the time Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, was responding to a query from a clinical psychologist (1). For lots of people, questions about consciousness can spin into heady discussions. However, Suzuki Roshi’s answer, both simple and poignant, sidesteps any intellectual grasping. His response points to awareness, not as an idea, but rather as experience. Here he refers to a common, everyday activity. Indeed, birds are frequently calling. But how often are we able to hear them over our thoughts?

That the late Zen master referred to singing birds is likely not a coincidence. Our winged neighbors are addressed similarly within Buddhist scriptures. The Maharatnakuta Sutra, for instance, likens the Buddha’s voice to the songs of birds (2). While explicating the Amitabha Sutra, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “If we live in mindfulness and our mind is concentrated, we can also hear the teachings of the Dharma in the sound of the wind and the sound of the birds.”(3) In essence, such aural qualities can be viewed as invitations to awaken to the present moment.

Symbols of Attachment and Enlightenment

Buddhism, of course like other religions, also employs avian imagery for figurative purposes. In art illustrating the cycle of suffering, the junglefowl rooster is centrally depicted within the Buddhist bhavacakra or great wheel of life. Native to India, this bird and its links to lust and attachment (4) have a long and widespread history. A more flattering image, on the other hand, is afforded the white heron and egret. Due to their graceful movements and patient concentration, these creatures have come to represent meditation (5) and spiritual practice. Herons with white plumage regularly appear in Buddhist poetry, the most notable being “The Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” attributed to the ninth-century Chinese teacher Dongshan Liangjie (6).

Buddhist poems occasionally sprinkle in observations regarding birds. Two important Japanese writers, Bassho and Ryokan, both mention them. So, too, does the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen. In one poem, he compares the way a white heron disappears in a snowy winter landscape to the practice of bowing (7). Below is another Dogen piece, as translated by Brian Unger and Kazuaki Tanahashi:

Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.(8)

The Zen master’s verse here employs an avian metaphor for awakened individuals of “Nondependence of Mind.” The idea is evocative of a much older teaching. Briefly in The Dhammapada, the historical Buddha compares the paths of fully enlightened beings to the “flight of birds in the sky” (9). In Dogen’s analogy, the creatures move across water; whereas, in the Buddha’s they pass through air. Regarding the latter, scholar Edward Conze explains, “The saints have their range in the Void [selfless non-attachment], and one can no more discern their tracks than those of the birds through the sky.”(10)

Going Beyond Death

Another notable winged creature in Japanese Buddhist poetry is the cuckoo. Haiku and other short verse often allude to the songbird as sign of imminent death and subsequent rebirth in a better realm. The reason for these connections, scholar Yoel Hoffmann seems to suggest, involves the dual roles of this bird as both harbinger of spring and deadly brood parasite (11). He provides numerous translations of such poems. Here’s one example:

Cuckoo,
let’s go—how bright
the western skies!(12)

Though the poet writes of his impending demise, his tone is neither gloomy nor fearful. The cycle of life continues, perhaps to a realm more conducive for enlightenment. “In the Jodo, or Pure Land, sects of Buddhism,” explains Hoffman, “it is believed that the dead are born anew in the Pure Land in the West, ruled by Amida, the Buddha of Everlasting Light.” (13) Death, thus, may be greeted not with dread but instead with optimistic acceptance. The next world may afford better opportunities for enlightenment. [On a side note, the visual arts often associate the peacock with Amida (or Amitabha) Buddha (14); whereas, Japanese death poetry interestingly favors the cuckoo.]

The notion of rebirth has been explained and imagined in many ways, with the idea first presented in the Hindu Upanishads (15). One finds the concept later among the earliest Indian Buddhist scriptures, especially in the fable-like stories collectively known as the Jataka. These tales, recalling past lives of certain members and associates of the early Buddhist community, often portray human personalities as previously existing as animals. According to the Jataka, the historical Buddha took many such forms before his enlightenment, including avian ones like the peacock, goose, vulture and quail (16, 17). In another tradition, the ancient Tibetan text The Precious Garland of the Dharma of the Birds depicts the Buddha as a cuckoo who offers spiritual instruction to the other birds (18). Again, the nature of rebirth and the emphasis on it varies in Buddhist teachings, and animals are considered just one form of possible rebirth among several (19, 20).

Other Birds in Scriptures

While not abundant, additional avian references in Buddhist scriptures exist. At least a couple are nominally derivative. For instance, near the Indian city of Rajgir stands a famous mountain called Vulture Peak. This is where the historical Buddha frequently gave talks to his followers. Scholar Edward Conze explains, “Its name was derived from the beak-like shape of the formations, a kind of rugged and jumbled natural amphitheater appropriate for such sublime teachings.”(21) Probably the most obtuse avian reference, though, relates to one of the Buddha’s most famous disciples, Sariputra. His name is based on that of his mother, who—apparently due to her large or accentuated eyes—was named after the sarika (22). The sarika, by the way, is actually a real bird. We know it as the mynah (23).

Buddhist scriptures do occasionally mention mythical avian forms. For example, in the Lotus Sutra, among the guardians of the Buddhist teachings are listed the garudas, reminiscent of the eagle-like creature in Hinduism, and the kalavinkas, birds supposedly unrivaled in their ability to warble beautiful songs (24). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen notes that the “… garuda is occasionally used as a synonym for Buddha…” (25). The phoenix, popular in other religions, holds significance for some Buddhists, too. According to scholar Thomas Cleary, the mythical creature can represent in Zen “… an enlightened one, rising from the ashes of the death of ego …” (26).

Summary

While this post focuses primarily on birds in Buddhist teachings and in literature influenced by the religion, more could obviously be said about our winged neighbors, particularly regarding their role in ceremonies. Of these, merit-based animal releases and the ritualized “sky burial” of Tibetan Buddhists come to mind. Since this post is getting rather long, though, perhaps I can return to those subjects at another time. If you’re interested, do feel free to click on the above hyperlinks, which lead to articles regarding such practices.

Like the previous birds-in-religion posts, this one is only intended as an overview. For next time, let’s move on to several Chinese religions that have co-existed for centuries with Buddhism. We will find more birds there!

Sources:

  1. Suzuki, S. Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki. Chadwick, D. (editor). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. p. 107.
  2. Zhang, Z. (editor). A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras: Selections from the Maharatnakuta Sutra. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1983. p. 77.
  3. Hanh, T.N. Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2003. p. 67.
  4. Corless, R.J. The Vision of Buddhism. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1989. p. 167.
  5. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 214.
  6. Leighton, T.D. “Dongshan and the Teaching of Suchness.” Zen Masters. Heine, S., Wright, D.S. (editors). New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 50–52.
  7. Dogen, E. “Bowing Formally.” Unger, B., Tanahashi, K. (translators). Moon in a Dewdrop. Tanahashi, K. (editor). New York: North Point Press, 1985. p. 214.
  8. Dogen E., “On Nondependence of Mind.” Ibid 7.
  9. The Dhammapada. Easwaran, E. (translator). Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. p. 102.
  10. Conze, E. The Buddha’s Law among the Birds. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1996. p. 57.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co. Inc., 1986. p. 142.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. p. 204.
  13. Hoffmann, Y. p. 141.
  14. Werness, H.B. p. 320.
  15. Keown, D. (editor). Dictionary of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 235.
  16. Conze, E. p. 49.
  17. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. Stories of the Buddha: Being Selections from the Jataka. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989. pp. 85–89.
  18. Conze, E. p. 57.
  19. Keown, D. p. 235.
  20. Harvey, P. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp. 32–39, 44–46, 59–60.
  21. Conze, E. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001. p. xvii of introduction.
  22. Lopez, D.S. The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988. p. 151.
  23. Olivelle, P. (editor). The Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 351.
  24. Reeves, G. (translator). The Lotus Sutra. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. pp. 54–55, 66, 374–375, 463–464.
  25. Fischer-Schreiber, I., Ehrhard, F-K, Diener, M.S., Kohn, M.H. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1991. p. 76.
  26. Cleary, T. (translator). Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005. p. 458.

Birds in Hindu Culture

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Two birds perch in a branch. One consumes the hanging fruit, both bitter and sweet, while the other simply observes. Eventually the first bird tires from eating. Having gotten its fill of pleasure and suffering, the creature turns to its joyful counterpart. The second bird has no need for the fruit. It has another source for nourishment: Wisdom.

The story of two birds, one of the earliest and most well-known in Hindu scriptures, appears in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. But what are we to make exactly of this parable? Well, the tree and its fruit supposedly are metaphors for the body and sensations, respectively. Feeding on the fruit is the bird, which represents a person’s soul, referred to Hinduism as the jiva or atman. The other bird, the content one watching nearby, is the world soul, known as the paramatman. Once the jiva is finally ready, the paramatman is available to guide the individual soul from its ignorance and suffering (1, 2).

Paring the Many to a Pair

Interestingly, several avian-related themes from the above parable reappear throughout Hindu religion, literature, and art. Like the bird indulging in the hanging fruit, feathered creatures frequently represent the sensual realm, especially the world of youthful beauty and lust. And similar to the wise and joyful companion on the tree, birds are also associated with spiritual bliss, freedom, insight, and wholesomeness. While one must be careful to refrain from egregious generalizations, Hindu culture provides ample instances of such avian symbolism. Plentiful are representations related to either the soul or the divine (3)—or either bodily yearnings or spiritual liberation.

In a culture of such rich, voluminous variety as that of India, birds undeniably emerge and operate on many levels. They, for instance, appear in the Panchatantra, a book of ancient fables (4). Several, such as the crane, heron, and pigeon, among others, are emulated in popular yoga poses (5). The peacock, a cultural and religious icon connected to numerous deities (6, 7), is India’s national bird (8). Crows, considered by some Indians as ancestors, are offered feed as part of a spiritual rite known as shraddah (9). These corvids also hold an honored place during Tihar, Nepal’s Festival of Lights (10). Yet, despite countless beliefs and portrayals, Hindu art, literature, and religion often render feathered creatures from the perspectives of hedonistic indulgence and spiritual awakening. For the purposes of an overview, comparing such depictions to one or the other of the two birds perched in the tree thus seems reasonable.

Wings of Carnal Desire

Birds have long been associated in Hinduism with sensuous longing and attachment. Hood College scholar Purnima Mehta Bhatt discusses some of these aspects. Though her assessment focuses on ancient Indian stepwell sculptures, she cites examples from other art forms. “In classical Sanskrit literature,” she explains, “especially the drama and poetry of Kalidasa and Bilhana, there exists the accepted tradition for lovelorn heroines to beseech the birds for news of their beloved.”(11) The same holds true, too, for heroes and male figures. A desperate King Pururavas in Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvasiyam, for example, implores several birds, including a cuckoo, duck, and goose, for the whereabouts of his lost love (12). Overall, accounts like these are commonly featured in Hindu literary works.

Some writers even liken lovers to avian forms. Bilhana’s eleventh-century lyrical poem Caurapancasika employs metaphors in this regard. The pining speaker, forced from his mistress, elegantly compares her several times to a wild goose (13). Below is just a small taste of Bilhana’s sensual verse, as translated by Barnard College scholar Barbara Stoler Miller:

Her seductive eyes’ lashes playing
like a pair of mating birds
caressing each others’ bills. (14)

In the wake of this passionate affair lie beautiful memories and evocative language. Both, though, reinforce the speaker’s intense heartache.

The Ramayana, Kamasutra, and Other Texts

A precursor and influence upon both Bilhana and Kalidasa is the ancient masterpiece Ramayana. According to legend, a tragic event involving birds inspired its author. The sage Valmiki, witnessing a curlew in distress after a hunter killed its mate, then supposedly became motivated to first compose poetry (15, 16). Not surprisingly, birds frequently appear in his Ramayana, from major characters (e.g., vulture siblings Jatayu and Sampaati) to sightings of fowl. Regarding the latter, for instance, Lake Pampa is presented as an idyllic location populated with songbirds, waterfowl, and peacocks. However, at this point, the hero Rama can only relate to them with woe. When commenting on the creatures around him, he is overtaken with bittersweet passion. His wife has been recently abducted by the demon king Ravana, and the sight of mating birds serves only to magnify Rama’s sense of loss (17). A paradise for the senses cannot overcome his deepest despair.

Other dynamics of love and lust, too, are explored in Hindu literature. The most scandalous of these may be Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, which refers to birds in several bewildering ways. For instance, as noted by University of Chicago Divinity School scholar Wendy Doniger, the text encourages women to amorously gibber, mimicking the calls of parrots, doves, partridges, cuckoos, geese, and a few other birds. She also remarks that the ancient book advises, among its many arts of seduction, learning how to train either a parrot or a mynah to speak. In particular, for a man, Doniger explains, such pets could provide a predatory means “to lure a woman to his home …” (18). In contrast to these odd, creepy tactics in the Kamasutra, there’s the Sukasaptati: A talking parrot’s role in maintaining marital fidelity between a wife and her traveling husband is central to the framework of these stories (19).

The parrot’s prominence in erotic-themed Indian literature may seem odd, but the bird’s presence is not without warrant. In Hinduism, deities are sometimes associated with certain creatures. An owl attends Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and wealth (20); while Yama, the god of the dead, dispatches a dove (21). For Kama, whose realm consists of love, romance, and sexual desire, his animal attendant is the parrot (22). The god is occasionally affiliated with other birds, as demonstrated in Mahendravikramavarman’s short comedic play Bhagavadajjukam, which links the deity to the cuckoo’s call (23). Again, though, the parrot, once a popular pet of courtesans (24), remains Kama’s primary bird.

Feathers of Purity and Wisdom                                       

If the parrot and other fowl in the Kamasutra are reminiscent of the sensual, fruit-eating bird in the Rig Veda and Upanishads, what of an appropriate spiritual counterpart? Several possibilities exist in Hindu literature. There’s the eagle, revered in the Vedas and associated in multiple aspects with the divine. The raptor, for instance, is credited with bringing the bliss-inducing soma plant to the ancient Hindu priests (25). Also, Garuda, the fierce “king of birds” (26) and vehicle for several major deities (27), is described as possessing characteristics of this bird-of-prey.

While the eagle is a noble example, better candidates for this honor may be the birds referred to as paramahamsa (28) or arayanna (29)—either geese or swans. Like the eagle, they have links to the gods and heaven; however, these mythical waterfowl are also renowned for something more: They are believed to embody purity and wisdom (30). In his book The Essentials of Hinduism, Swami Bhaskarananda describes this bird as the “symbol of a spiritually illumined soul who has experienced the Divine Essence of everything by rejecting the worldly lures of the senses.” He adds that this creature “… remains in water and yet the water never clings to its feathers. Similarly, a spiritually illumined soul lives in the world, yet is never contaminated by it” (31). Such characteristics easily explain why hamsa and paramahamsa came to be used as laudatory titles for Hindu ascetics (32) and even for the god-avatar Krishna (33). Overall, the paramahamsa and arayanna seem almost ideal representatives of the second bird in the tree—excepting, of course, that neither swans nor geese possess the ability to perch on limbs!

Summary

As noted earlier, interpreting the variety of avian life depicted in Hindu art and literature with this dualistic approach (carnal desire vs. spiritual liberation) is inadequate for fully comprehending and appreciating the rich vitality of Indian culture. While stressing the dichotomy between the two birds of the Vedic parable provides an interesting starting point, we should not forget that this ancient religion has spawned numerous traditions, practices, and philosophies. From Indian culture, itself, have also come other religions. One of these was quite influential, spreading throughout the Asian continent. We’ll take a look next at the depiction of birds in Buddhism.

Sources:

  1. Doniger, W. Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988. pp. 34–35.
  2. Knapp, S. The Heart of Hinduism: The Eastern Path to Freedom, Empowerment and Illumination. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005. pp. 13–14, 260.
  3. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, DC: Earthscan LLC, 2011. pp. 145–146.
  4. Olivelle, P. (editor, translator). The Pancatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 27–29, 51, 60–61, 64–65, 105–111, 118–121.
  5. “List of Yoga Poses: A-Z Asana Guide,” Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/pose-finder/.
  6. Knapp, S. pp. 172, 185–186.
  7. Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
  8. “National Symbols,” National Portal of India: http://india.gov.in/india-glance/national-symbols.
  9. Chaturvedi, B.K. Narada Purana. New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books Ltd. p. 50.
  10. “Festivals in Nepal,” VisitNepal.com: http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/nepal_festivals.php.
  11. Bhatt, P.M. p. 146.
  12. Sharma, T.R.S. (chief editor). Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology. Volume Two. Delhi: Wellwish Printers, 2004. pp. 294–297.
  13. Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. pp. 17, 23, 29.
  14. Miller, B.S. p. 19.
  15. Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 291.
  16. Chinmayananda, S. “The Essence of Ramayana.” Nityanand, S. (compiler). Symbolism in Hinduism. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 2008. p. 193.
  17. Sharma, T.R.S. pp. 93–100.
  18. Doniger, W. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 435.
  19. Satyendra, K. Dictionary of Hindu Literature. Delhi: Ivy Publishing House, 2000. p. 177.
  20. “Uluka – The Owl.” Nityanand, S. (compiler). Symbolism in Hinduism. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 2008. p. 317.
  21. Parmeshwaranand, S. Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Upanisads, Volume 1. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2000. p. 160.
  22. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 212.
  23. Sharma, T.R.S. p. 352.
  24. Bhatt, P.M. p. 146.
  25. Williams, G.M. p. 271.
  26. Cush, D., Robinson, C., York, M. (editors). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge, 2008. p. 263.
  27. Bhatt, P.M. pp. 147–148.
  28. Bhaskarananda, S. The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World’s Oldest Religion (Second Edition). Seattle, WA: Viveka Press, 2002. p. V.
  29. Williams, G.M. pp. 58–59.
  30. Bhatt, P.M. pp. 145, 148–149.
  31. Bhaskarananda, S.
  32. Zimmer, H.R. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Campbell, J. (editor). Bollingen Foundation Series VI. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Mythos edition, 1992. p. 48.
  33. Williams, G.M. pp. 58–59.

Birds in Islamic Culture

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Only a couple miles separated Mecca from invaders. Enemy plans to destroy the city’s temple seemed certain—but then the extraordinary happened. Daylight darkened. Masses of birds reportedly swooped in, nearly covering the sky. In their feet and beaks, the birds carried pebbles and clay fragments, dropping them as projectiles.

The Abyssinian forces, despite their sizeable advantage, were soon decimated, and those soldiers who survived the avian ambush quickly retreated. Mecca and its temple, the Ka’bah, were saved. It was 570 CE, the so-called “Year of the Elephant,” thus named for the elephantine-fronted invaders whom the birds and Meccans defeated. It was also the year of Muhammad’s birth (1).

More Birds: In Muhammad’s Life and the Qur’an

Born in Mecca shortly following the “miracle of the birds” (2), the prophet and his followers decades later would establish a new faith known as “Islam.” Not surprisingly, considering the aforementioned avian-related event, birds appear throughout Muhammad’s life and in that religion’s scriptures. In one crucial instance, birds were said to have prevented his capture. Shortly after the prophet had fled persecution to Thawr cavern, a pair of rock doves began nesting at its mountain entrance. The late Islamic scholar Martin Lings notes that the eggs were positioned “where a man might step as he entered the cave,” convincing the Quraysh search party that “no one could possibly be there” (3). This pivotal event preceded the migration of Muhammad and his followers to Medina.

Islamic scriptures also make numerous references to birds, even noting the role of the creatures during the “Year of the Elephant” (Qur’an 105). In one case, Qur’an 16:79, the mysterious ability of birds to fly is offered as proof of God’s existence. Another verse, Qur’an 5:4, permits using falconry to hunt game, a practice with Middle Eastern origins (4), later adopted by Europe. Other verses in the Qur’an restate Biblical events, such as God’s feeding of the Israelites with manna and quail (Qur’an 20:80). Meanwhile, some sections augment older accounts from Genesis, as in the raven that demonstrates to Cain how to bury his murdered brother (Qur’an 5:31) and God’s instructions to Abraham involving the killing of four birds so that they can be brought back to life, thus confirming God’s ability to resurrect the dead (Qur’an 2:260).

Several bird-related passages in the Qur’an allude to lore that developed much earlier in Christian and Jewish traditions. For example, Qur’an 3:49 and 5:110–111 speak of Jesus’s ability to mold living birds from clay. This claim, not found in the New Testament, is in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (5). Legends regarding King Solomon also appear in Islamic scripture. Qur’an 27:17–30, for instance, recounts the role of the hoopoe in communications between Israel’s wise leader and the Queen of Sheba. Jewish folklore held that Solomon could understand the “language of birds” and had established the hoopoe’s privileged status with the great monarch (6, 7). Numerous accounts in other cultures exist of people with such gifts, of course, and at least a couple tales within the Qur’an-influenced Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) entertain this motif.

Additional Cultural Depictions

Beyond the Qur’an, birds are found in other written sources from Islamic culture. Again, the popular Arabian Nights features numerous stories, the most impressive involving the rukh (also roc)—a giant eagle-like creature that snatches elephants up with its monstrous talons. Mythological birds are present in all cultures, even those that embrace the Abrahamic faiths. In Judaism, for instance, there’s the ziz, and in Christianity, the phoenix and caladrius. Islamic literature outside the Qur’an offers several, especially the rukh. It’s clearly a fictional bird, but speculation has long posited that the creature may be loosely based on the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar (8). Another important mythical entity is the simurgh, the gigantic avian creature sought by an expedition of birds in Fariddin Attar’s twelfth-century poem The Conference of Birds (also known as The Language of Birds). A metaphor for the transcendent unity of the divine, the simurgh functions strictly as a religious symbol.

Attar’s work, like that of Rumi, Hafiz of Shiraz, and other Sufi poets, emphasizes the soul’s mystical journey to God by depicting the spirit in bird form (9, 10, 11). Avicenna’s Recital of the Bird, Sanai’s The Rosary of the Birds, and Muhammad Nasir’s The Lament of the Nightingale are just a few examples of this prevalent theme. The latter creature of Nasir’s work—actually the bulbul but regarded in the Middle East as a “nightingale”—and the falcon are commonly featured in the literature of Islamic mysticism (12, 13, 14). As is the case in many cultures, birds are often associated with the spiritual or divine. One Sufi poet, Ruzbihan Baqli, even refers to Muhammad as both a bulbul “nightingale” and simurgh, in what Islamic scholar Carl Ernst refers to as the prophet’s “dynamic role” between “the divine beloved [Allah] and the human lover [religious devotee].” (15)

Many other birds figure prominently. The rooster, for example, is largely respected by Muslims (16). “In Islamic tradition,” Jack Tresidder, the author of numerous books on symbolism, explains, “a cock was the giant bird seen by Muhammad in the First Heaven crowing, ‘There is no God but Allah.’” (17) The ostrich is another bird of religious significance. Its eggs have been used for centuries as decoration in mosques, and archeologists have excavated them from Muslim burial grounds. The eggs’ use for spiritual purposes actually predates Islam, extending back thousands of years to ancient Egypt. Symbolic of rebirth and purity, ostrich eggs resided as well inside Christian churches throughout the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Africa (18).

Summary

Like the other Abrahamic faiths, Islam refers to and depicts birds in many forms: protectors, messengers, nutritional sustenance, and symbols of the soul. The importance of these creatures to Islamic Sufism, in particular, cannot be overstated. From the writings of Ahmad Ghazali and Sa’di to the twentieth century’s Sir Muhammad Iqbal and today’s Coleman Barks and Daniel Moore, one finds such bird-themed motifs.

As with my previous posts on Judaism and Christianity, the information provided here is far from comprehensive. My goal is to simply demonstrate once more the significance of our feathered friends to communities all over the world and throughout history.

Sources:

  1. Lings, M. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006. pp. 19–21.
  2. Lings, M. p. 21.
  3. Lings, M. p. 122.
  4. Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. p. 199.
  5. Cullmann, O., Higgins, A.J.B. (translators). The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Cameron, R. (editor). The Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1982. pp. 124–125.
  6. Frankel, E. “The White Eagle and the Crested Hoopoe: Two Legends about King Solomon,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://www.jhom.com/topics/birds/solomon.htm.
  7. Frankel, E. The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993. pp. 214–216.
  8. Simon, M. “Fantastically Wrong: The Angry, Enormous Eagle that Could Carry off Elephants,” 7/30/14. Wired Magazine: http://www.wired.com/2014/07/fantastically-wrong-the-angry-enormous-eagle-that-could-carry-off-elephants/.
  9. Asani, A. “’Oh that I could be a bird and fly, I would rush to the Beloved’: Birds in Islamic Mystical Poetry.” Waldau, P. and Patton, K. (editors). A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press. 2006. pp. 170–179.
  10. Ernst, C.W. “The Symbolism of Birds and Flight in the Writings of Ruzbihan Baqli.” The Heritage of Sufism: The Legacy of Medieval Persian Sufism (1150-1500), Volume 2. Lewisohn, L. (editor). Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld Publications, 1999, pp. 353–366.
  11. Abdi, R. “The Soul – Bird in Persian Sufi Literature,” 3/23/2012. Earthpages.org: https://epages.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/the-soul-bird-in-persian-sufi-literature-by-rupa-abdi/.
  12. Asani, A. pp. 170–179.
  13. Ernst, C.W. pp. 353–366
  14. Abdi, R.
  15. Ernst, C.W. p. 358.
  16. Tottoli, R. “At Cock-Crow: Some Muslim Traditions about the Rooster,” Der Islam. Volume 76: Issue 1. January 1999. pp. 139–154.
  17. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, 2006. p. 61.
  18. Green, N. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam,” Al-Masaq, Volume 18: No. 1. March 2006. pp. 27–66.

Birds in Christianity, from the Obvious to the Unusual

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The New Testament mentions at least six different types of birds. Even more are found in the Old Testament. Some non-canonical literature, particularly gnostic manuscripts such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Secret Book of John, also contain references. But focusing on those feathered creatures in the traditional Christian texts—along with a brief look at some of the avian-related folklore, art, and poetry inspired by Jesus and the saints—offers up more than enough material for a post!

Annunciation to Crucifixion

Let’s begin with the obvious, the dove. This bird’s allegorical connection to the Holy Spirit makes it the most prevalent avian icon of Christianity. Today, many churches use doves in their logos and signage, the Gospel Music Association dubs its annual accolades the “Dove Awards,” and until recently the Vatican released doves into St. Peter’s Square. One can find the white-winged creatures in paintings depicting the Annunciation and also Jesus’s baptism. The latter scene is especially noteworthy, as the descriptions given in John 1:32 and the synoptic gospels (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22) establish this symbol’s scriptural basis. Furthermore, Jesus mentions the birds in one of his teachings. Extolling doves for their gentle ways, he recommends that his followers behave similarly (Matthew 10:16).

Despite the dove’s importance, Christ incorporates other birds into his sermons. When mentioning the dead, for instance, he notes the scavenging vultures (Matthew 24:28, Luke 17:37). In another teaching, to represent common objects of seemingly little value, he turns his disciples’ eyes to the small sparrows (Matthew 10:29–31, Luke 12:6–7). Later, when counseling his followers against worrying, Jesus remarks how the crows (or ravens) do not stockpile food (Luke 12:24). Thus, alluding to the wisdom of these birds, he indicates that God will provide, too, for his disciples and others in need.

As recorded in the New Testament, birds accompany pivotal events in Christ’s last days and also appear in visions related to the early Church. Jesus’s cleansing of the temple consists not only of driving out the moneychangers but also those merchants who sell sacrificial pigeons (or doves) (Matthew 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–16, Luke 19:45–46, John 2:16). Later, a situation involving Peter’s repeated denial of knowing Jesus is punctuated with a rooster crowing (Matthew 26:34, 26:69–75; Mark 14:30, 14:66–72; Luke 22:34, 22:56–62; John 13:38, 18:25–27). This incident, a fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction, marks the last time any of the four gospels refer to a feathered creature. But birds are reported later again in important visions witnessed by St. Peter (Acts 10:11–16) and St. John (Revelation 19:17–21).

While the New Testament does not reveal any birds at the Crucifixion, folklore entertains several narratives. In Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, the naturalist Ernest Ingersoll runs through numerous “legends of the Cross” that sprung up in Europe. Some of these involve a red crossbill attempting to pry the nails from Jesus’s limbs, a European robin tending to his pierced side, a swallow wresting the sharpest thorns from the crown placed around Jesus’s head, and a dove sitting nearby in mourning (1). These tales passed as just-so stories, attempting to account for certain avian characteristics. For example, the red feathered patches on several birds, according to such legends, originated as stains from Christ’s blood.

Unusual Christian Symbols

Bird imagery, of course, is not always rooted in the events of Jesus’s life. The Greek Orthodox Church, for instance, employs iconography of pagan origins that extends back ages. The double-headed eagle is used today due to the heraldic emblem’s connection to the prior Byzantine Church. However, the design predates Christianity by several thousand years (2). The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints does not identify with any particular avian symbol, but the Salt Lake City community has erected a monument commemorating the summer of 1848 when seagulls supposedly saved early Mormon settlers’ crops from a massive cricket invasion (3).

Centuries ago, European Christians commonly associated certain birds with figures of the New Testament, but did so in a rather tenuous manner. For example, in medieval bestiaries, the pelican is identified with Jesus Christ and the vulture with the Virgin Mary. As noted in a previous post, these works usually have religious and moral reasons for making such odd connections, even when lacking any overt scriptural basis. Some associations seem a little more sensible, though, such as the identification of St. John with the eagle. Medieval manuscripts often linked the two due to the raptor’s early presence in Revelation (e.g., 4:7, 8:13), a prophetic book commonly attributed to the apostle (4). Another bird is sometimes identified with St. Peter. Though the stormy petrel is not mentioned in the New Testament, it is supposedly named after Peter and an account in Matthew 14:29 (5). How so? Well, when this small bird feeds from atop the ocean’s surface, the creature appears to walk on water, just as Peter is said to have done with Jesus.

A few stories assimilate pagan mythology. Many people centuries ago fancied the European goldfinch in the role of the aforementioned swallow at the Cross (6). As cited in a prior post, this belief, conjoined with Christianized ideas regarding antiquity’s mythical charadrius (also caladrius), is likely responsible for hundreds of Renaissance paintings portraying the Christ child with this bird. Of course even earlier, Church Fathers appropriated another legendary creature with pre-Christian origins as a symbol of the Resurrection—the phoenix, sometimes depicted with the attributes of an eagle and peacock (7). Interestingly, St. Augustine of Hippo reports in his City of God that peacock flesh does not decompose, an idea equated later in some bestiaries with immortality (8). Perhaps he even had the phoenix in mind.

Saints and Their Feathered Friends

Numerous legends tell of Christian hermits and evangelists befriending birds. Some of these remarkable relationships include St. Columba’s heron, St. Malo’s wren, and St. Hugh’s swans, among many others (9). One of the most famous of these legends involves “St. Kevin and The Blackbird,” a tale reiterated in verse by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. In his short poem, Kevin has stretched his arm outside a window when a blackbird lands in his open palm and lays its eggs. The saint then, while praying, miraculously steadies his arm and hand in place, “Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks / Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.” (10) An incredible story, but not without precedent! The Hindu Mahabharata offers a similar tale about a hermit named Jajali, except in that ascetic’s case the birds nest on his head (11).

The most celebrated of all Christians in regard to our winged neighbors, of course, is St. Francis of Assisi. His sermons to these creatures are commonly portrayed in Western art, ranging from the Giotto’s late thirteenth-century “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” to Sir Stanley Spencer’s provocative twentieth-century “St. Francis and the Birds.” The theme occurs, too, in verse, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Sermon of St. Francis” (12) as well as another of Heaney’s poems, “Saint Francis and the Birds” (13). But again, St. Francis, is just one of many figures in Christianity associated with birds.

Summary

On the whole, Christianity has exerted an immense bearing on the portrayal of birds in Western art (e.g., Hieronymous Bosch, Raphael, Josefa de Obidos, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Olga Suvorova, etc.) and literature (e.g., John Donne, John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, Geoffrey Hill, etc.). A single blog post cannot come remotely close to examining the historical dynamics of this theme, a point that holds true as well for other religions. At the very least, I’m hoping that the information provided offers a decent overview.

For a look at avian creatures in the Old Testament, please see the previous post on Judaism. As always, thanks for reading—especially such a lengthy piece! Next week, I would like to view birds in Islam, the last of the Abrahamic faiths.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112–115.
  2. Ingersoll, E. pp. 28–34.
  3. “Seagull Monument, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA,” Mormon Historic Sites Foundation: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/seagull-monument/.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 144.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  6. Ingersoll, E. p. 113.
  7. Ingersoll, E. pp. 196–198.
  8. Heck, C. pp. 44, 477–478.
  9. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. xiv.
  10. Heaney, S.J. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” The Poetry Archive: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/st-kevin-and-blackbird.
  11. Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 160.
  12. Longfellow, H.W. “The Sermon of St. Francis” (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=232).
  13. Heaney, S.J. “Saint Francis and the Birds,” Emory University’s Lewis H. Beck Center: http://beck.library.emory.edu/BelfastGroup/browse.php?id=heaney1_1041#heaney1_1035.

Birds in Judaism and Jewish Culture

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A look at one of the oldest faiths offers us insights into the many ways birds impact societies. Judaism, of course, is a religion of spiritual and practical guidance, but it is also much more. It’s a living collection of history, songs, wisdom teachings, and customs that support the cultural and ethnic identity of Jews throughout the world. In these sources and practices, avian creatures of all kinds are used as food and offerings, as metaphor and allegory, and as a celebration of life and God.

The ancient scribes of this tradition sprinkled observations on birds throughout their writings. In a few cases the men are seized with wonder, as expressed by the author of Proverbs 30:18–19 who ranks the flight of the eagle among the four enigmas too perplexing for him to understand. Sometimes lines within such texts convey gratitude, as in the way Psalms 104:12 praises God for the birds that nest and sing. Of course, other examples exist, numerous ones often appealing symbolically or applying to practical matters.

Spiritual Images

Avian metaphors, first and foremost, are common in Jewish scriptures and folklore. Jeremiah 17:11, for example, claims that folks who are greedy and dishonest are like certain birds, such as partridges, hatching eggs not their own. In several instances, too, the Israelites are compared to birds. Among these, Exodus 19:4 likens them to an eagle’s offspring (and God to a parent eagle) while Amos 3:5 uses the metaphor of a sinful people trapped like an ensnared bird. Centuries later, some European Jews even resorted to portraying historical personalities in their art with bird-like features. This was due to Old Testament prohibitions regarding certain types of artistic images (Exodus 20:4–6, Deuteronomy 5:8–10). To circumvent these restrictions, a German fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript called the Birds’ Head Haggadah reveals that artists depicted many humans with avian faces (1). Such hybrid-like creatures, neither existing in the heavenly nor the earthly realms, would have been deemed fine for illustration.

Overall, bird imagery in Semitic literature outside the Old Testament has an imaginative and mystical flare. There’s the giant ziz, the avian equivalent of leviathan, discussed by Talmud scholar Louis Ginzberg (2, 3) and the legends that King Solomon, the wise monarch and son of King David, could understand the language of birds (4). We have descriptions in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a first- or second-century CE text of pre-Rabbinic Judaism, of the great patriarch and an angel making their way to heaven by aid of a pigeon’s and turtledove’s wings (5). And in other writings, we learn that sparrows sing as spirits continue to be born, set forth from the Guf, a mysterious storehouse of souls. However, once the last spirit departs from this realm, the songs of sparrows will cease and the world will soon end (6).

Birds for Food and Sacrifice

The number of Jewish scriptures are extensive, but the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, remains a central part of the faith. Aside from those passages in Genesis devoted to the creation and great flood, the Torah addresses the role of birds principally (but not exclusively) as a food source. Numbers 11 notes how God, via a strong wind, provided quails for the hungry Israelites at one point during the group’s long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Also, Exodus 16:13–14 tells of these birds being sent by God, along with manna, as sustenance for Moses and his followers. Interestingly, the accounts in Exodus of how God provided for the nomadic Israelites, particularly chapters 15 and 16, are used to support the Ashkenazic Jewish practice of feeding birds on Shabbot Shirah (7, 8), which occurs in either January or February, depending on the Jewish calendar (9).

Quails are among many of the birds permitted as edible forms. However, restrictions on other avian creatures are lain out in the earliest Biblical scriptures. Prior to the Talmud’s clarifications, the Torah’s Leviticus 11:13–19 and Deuteronomy 14:11–18 issued dietary instructions for the Israelites’ consumption of birds, by specifying which fowl are not to be eaten. The reasons are debatable as to why certain birds are declared “unclean” (10); however, most of the forbidden fowl listed do consume meat. Eagles, owls, hawks, and other raptors fall into this category. Carrion feeders, such as vultures and crows, are also prohibited as food. These scriptures indicate as well that many kinds of waterfowl, ranging from a broad realm of seagulls to the larger herons, pelicans, and cormorants, are unclean. Again, note that these latter birds consume lots of fish.

Some restrictions are less obvious. For example, add to the list of the unclean, Israel’s national bird, the hoopoe, which occasionally eats small reptiles and amphibians. While this crested bird (pictured above) is associated with King Solomon (11), the creature’s habit of sifting through animal feces to find insects and of messing its nests are far from appealing characteristics. The ostrich is an intriguing entry. Primarily an herbivore, it does not feed on any creatures besides insects. The bird perhaps is banned from consumption due to its reputation for swallowing rocks and metallic objects. Of course, several passages in the Old Testament, such as Job 39:14–17, Isaiah 13:21, and Lamentations 4:3–4, speak negatively of the ostrich for other reasons: its perceived ignorance and predilection for desolate areas. Job 39:18, however, notes that the bird has the ability to outrun horses.

Besides addressing birds as a form of physical nourishment, the Torah states how some of these creatures are encouraged as offerings. The book of Leviticus cites the frequent role of birds in such customs. For example, Leviticus 1:14–17 states that only doves or pigeons should be sacrificed as burnt offerings to God. Details regarding specific situations are addressed throughout the book, such as Leviticus 5:7–10 for sin offerings and Leviticus 14:1–7 for the ritual purification of those afflicted with skin diseases. No reference is made to chickens, for at the time this book was written those birds were not available to the Israelites (12). Nevertheless, centuries later, domesticated chickens came to be accepted as atonement offerings (kapparot) on the day before Yom Kippur (13).

Birds of Ill Repute

Whereas the dove’s reputation is relatively positive and unblemished, scriptures have presented several birds in a negative light. Genesis 8:8–12 states that the first bird released was a raven, but it failed to report back to Noah and his Ark. Later, though, in I Kings 17:2–6, the raven proves much more reliable, for the prophet Elijah, while in hiding, relies daily on them to bring him food. Generally, though, due to their carrion-eating habits, ravens are associated with death and destruction. Proverbs 30:17 states that one who fails to properly respect his or her elderly parents either should or will perish in a manner that affords ravens and vultures the opportunity to feed on that person’s corpse. Isaiah 34:11–15 indicates, as part of God’s curse, that owls, ravens, and vultures will populate the devastated land of Edom, an enemy nation of the ancient Israelites.

A strong case could be made that of all birds presented in Jewish scriptures, literature, and folklore, the owl is the most despised. After all, during the medieval period, the bird came to be strongly associated with Lilith, a demoness and witch, and in some traditions, the first wife of Adam. She is even named in Isaiah 34:14 as part of the aforementioned curse on Edom. The ninth-century text Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira (or Alphabet of Ben Sira) offers a much more detailed picture of Lilith. Over time, she was taken to be more than just a temptress and disobedient free spirit; she was also blamed for strangling infants at night during their sleep (14). According to Jewish and African lore, the nocturnal cry of a nearby owl, not surprisingly, was once thought capable of inflicting death on a baby (15, 16).

In Summary

Birds, presented in various forms throughout the Judaic religion, remain a notable part of Jewish life and culture. A brief survey from just the past couple hundred years reveals the continued symbolic importance of these creatures to Jewish writers, as demonstrated in secularized works as diverse as Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “To the Bird,” Franz Kafka’s short story “The Vulture,” Chava Rosenfarb’s novel Bociany, Bernard Malamud’s short story “The Jewbird,” and Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem “The Roar of Waters.” Of course, the scriptures and customs of Judaism continue today to attach significance to our winged neighbors. Many of the world’s other major religions do as well, and those traditions will be explored later.

Sources:

  1. “The Birds’ Head Haggadah: A Medieval Illuminated Manuscript with a Twist,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://jhom.com/topics/topics/birds/haggadah.htm.
  2. Ginzberg, L. “The Monstrous Ziz and Other Fantastic Birds,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://jhom.com/topics/topics/birds/ziz.html.
  3. Ginzberg, L. Legends of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1956, 1992. p. 15.
  4. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 258–260.
  5. Box, G.A., Landsman, J.I. (Editors and Translators). Translations of Early Documents: Series I: Palestinian Jewish Texts (Pre-Rabbinic): The Apocalypse of Abraham. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919. Online via Marquette University: http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/box.pdf.
  6. Schwartz, H. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 22, 164–166.
  7. Golinkin, D. “Why is Shabbat Shirah ‘for the Birds’?” Schechter on Judaism, Vol. 3, Issue No. 4, Jan. 3003. Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem: http://www.schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=25.
  8. “Shabbats: Special Shabbats,” Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/specialshabbat.html.
  9. “Jewish Holidays: Tu B’Shevat,” Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/holiday8.html.
  10. “Clean and Unclean Animals,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4408-clean-and-unclean-animals.
  11. Ingersoll, E. p. 60.
  12. “Birds,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3316-birds.
  13. “Kapparah,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9204-kapparah.
  14. Schwartz, H. pp. 215–226.
  15. Ingersoll, E. p. 186.
  16. Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 89.

The Fair and Feathered in Fine Art

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What’s the relationship between the goldfinch and Christian art? What birds are commonly portrayed as pets in paintings by famous artists? And how do artistic renderings of our winged neighbors differ by time period and place? This week’s post will look at these questions and a few other related topics.

There are, of course, many aspects to consider when examining birds in art, most of which will have to be included at a later time. After all, this is a large subject, and birds have fascinated artists for a long time. Depictions of our winged neighbors exist in prehistoric cave paintings, inside burial chambers and ancient temples, within illustrated manuscripts such as bestiaries, and most frequently as awe-inspiring pieces for wealthy patrons and museums. By looking at a small sample of masterpieces from just the past thousand years, we can easily see how birds bless us with their beauty, provide us with a sense of communion with nature, and evoke feelings that extend well beyond their physical form.

When Faith Met the Goldfinch

The old adage goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Obviously, paintings communicate a great deal of information to the viewer. And symbolism is one of the most powerful means at an artist’s disposal, quite evident in the depictions of certain birds. Take for example the popularity of the European goldfinch. Ornithologist Herbert Friedmann, in his book The Symbolic Goldfinch, notes that the bird’s image occurs in more than 480 paintings of the late medieval period and Renaissance (1, 2, 3). As famously rendered in paintings attributed to Raphael (Madonna del cardellino), Leonardo da Vinci (Madonna Litta), and many others, the bird is a frequent fixture in compositions featuring the young Christ child with his mother Mary. But why?

What does a goldfinch, a bird with no direct Biblical references, have to do with Christianity? Could the reason lie with special meaning that particular bird had at that time to those artists, their patrons, and their viewers? In fact, religious belief and social circumstances were quite critical aspects of European life around 1500. And both, as Mark Cocker explains in Birds & People, affected how the goldfinch came to be seen, in essence, as an allegorical representation of Jesus. For starters, folklore already linked the red markings on the bird’s head to the crown of thorns placed upon Christ during the Passion. But, like Jesus, the bird was thought, too, to be a physician of sorts.

Cocker notes that this is because the goldfinch was one of the avian candidates for the mythical charadrius, sometimes referred to as charadrios (4) or caladrius (5, 6). According to ancient sources, such a bird reportedly possessed the ability to heal the sick by staring back into their eyes. Various candidates have been named for these mysterious creatures, including bitterns, curlews, gulls, and plovers. Although the bird is described as having white feathers, in several instances it is said to be yellow or golden (7). The latter, of course, would lead to associations with the goldfinch, as would other forces.

The Black Death was a prevalent and destructive force in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe. Since nothing seemed to halt the disease, belief in the charadrius took on a new and desperate role, existing in the form of a religious image. “A dominant feature of the age,” Cocker reminds us, “was the recurrent nightmare of plague, and by incorporating European Goldfinches into paintings the artists were invoking the curative powers of the charadrios on behalf of their contemporary audience.” Thus, the bird, quite popular throughout Europe, became a kind of “visual good-luck charm” (8).

Pet Subjects

Due in part to its popularity as a pet, the goldfinch was also portrayed in several famous paintings without any overt religious connections. Francisco De Goya’s eighteenth-century painting Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga (9), for instance, depicts the birds within a cage, while a tethered magpie and several cats are positioned curiously nearby. Approximately a century earlier, Abraham Mignon’s Fruit Still-Life with Squirrel and Goldfinch (10) illustrates the goldfinch pulling a small container of sustenance up towards itself, something these birds can actually be trained to do (11). And then there’s Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting The Goldfinch, which like Mignon’s piece, portrays the bird chained by one of its legs. The Fabritius work (12), of course, may be the most recognizable artistic rendering of this bird today, thanks in part to how it features prominently in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Though the goldfinch clearly has a special place in European art, it is but one of many birds to attract considerable attention from painters. Parrots are another favorite, included in Western works ranging from Peter Paul Rubens’ The Holy Family with Parrot to several of Frida Kahlo’s still-life paintings and self-portraits with her pet birds, such as Yo y Mis Pericos (“Me and My Parrots”) (13). These exotic birds are associated with a wide variety of characteristics, but typically represent beauty and sensuality. Of course, members within the parrot or psittacidae family appear as well in art from many parts of the world, such as Chinese emperor Zhao Ji’s twelfth-century handscroll Five-Colored Parakeet (14) and the vibrant sixteenth-century manuscript illustrations accompanying Central Asia’s Tuti-Nama (“Tales of the Parrot”) (15).

So Many Birds, So Many Styles

In the Far East, illustrations of birds frequently appear on hanging scrolls, handscrolls, screen panels, and fans. Besides parrots, widespread avian subjects consisted of cranes, peacocks, swallows, and crows. Quian Xuan’s thirteenth-century Return of Swallows, Bian Jinzhao’s fifteenth-century Three Friends and a Hundred Birds, and Gao Qifeng’s twentieth-century Peacock Spreading Tail (16) are several Chinese examples.

Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, internationally renowned today for his woodblock print series Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, also included birds in his works, such as Cranes on a Snowy Pine, Willow and Birds, and Hydrangea and Swallow (17). Several of Hokusai’s contemporaries, such as Maruyama Okyo and Shibata Zeshin, produced memorable paintings featuring crows, birds that are also part of Western masterpieces like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, Pablo Picasso’s Woman and a Crow, and what is likely Vincent van Gogh’s last work, Wheatfield with Crows—though, Cocker offers details that suggest that the latter’s subject matter may instead be rooks (18).

Over the past two hundred years, artistic depictions of birds have become much more varied in style. Some works, such as Salvador Dali’s 1949 painting Leda Atomica, reinterpret a popular, recurring theme in literature and art, in this case the “Leda and the Swan” myth. Dali’s swan is rendered in near-realistic detail, an aspect quite unusual for much of twentieth-century Western fine art.

More, however, can often be stated with less. This, for instance, is the case with Henri Matisse’s 1947 Les Oiseaux (“The Birds”). The painting’s beauty clearly lies in its simplicity, as white, dove-like shapes flutter on a field of blue sky. The same holds true with Paul Klee’s 1922 Twittering Machine (19), but with different results. Whereas Matisse, I think, evokes a warm sense of child-like innocence with his painting, Klee’s simple lines illustrating mechanical birds perched on a crankshaft create a rather unsettling effect, his work a possible symbolic statement on humankind’s naïve subjugation of nature.

A Variety of Tastes for the Palette

A multitude of other styles are available for fans of bird art. The late Charley Harper’s “minimal realism”, for example, renders subjects into colorful, geometric shapes. Some of his most famous pieces feature the northern cardinal, such as the 1969 painting A Good World, and the 1988 work A Day in Eden (20). And then there’s Picasso’s 1911 Cubist masterpiece Le pigeon aux petits pois (“The Pigeon with the Peas”) (21), which employs numerous dynamic sweeps and angles—providing complex but non-naturalistic perspectives of its avian subject. The work is a drastic departure of the more lifelike depictions of birds in the paintings of Picasso’s father and instructor Don José Ruiz y Blasco.

Many artists, especially those who also doubled as naturalists, wanted to portray avian species as realistically as possible in the subjects’ natural habitat. John James Audubon’s nineteenth-century The Birds of America remains the most celebrated of such works. Of course, naturalistic painting is alive and well today. But it’s just one among many styles in which we humans seek to connect with our winged neighbors.

Sources:

  1. Friedmann, H. The Symbolic Goldfinch. New York: Pantheon, 1946. pp. 4-5.
  2. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 500-501.
  3. “The Goldfinch in Renaissance art.” Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world’s birds website, 2008. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/casestudy/95.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 501-502.
  5. Druce, G.C. “The Caladrius and Its Legend, Sculptured upon the Twelfth-Century Doorway of Alne Church, Yorkshire.” Archaeology Journal, 1913. Vol. 69: pp. 380-416.
  6. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 188.
  7. Druce, G.C.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 502.
  9. “Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.7.41.
  10. “Abraham Mignon – Fruit Still-Life with Squirrel and Goldfinch,” Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abraham_Mignon_-_Fruit_Still-Life_with_Squirrel_and_Goldfinch_-_WGA15666.jpg.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 105.
  12. “The Goldfinch”, The Frick Collection: http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/mauritshuis/605.
  13. “Yo Y Mis Pericos,” The Frida Kahlo Foundation: http://www.frida-kahlo-foundation.org/Yo-Y-Mis-Pericos.html.
  14. “Bird Painting”, China Online Museum: http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-birds.php.
  15. “Parrot addressing Khojasta in Tutinama commisioned by Akbar,” Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parrot_addressing_Khojasta_in_Tutinama_commisioned_by_Akbar,_c1556-1565.jpg.
  16. “Bird Painting,” China Online Museum.
  17. Katsushika Hokusai: The Complete Works: http://www.katsushikahokusai.org.
  18. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 388-390.
  19. “Twittering Machine” (Die Zwitscher-Maschine), The Museum of Modern Art, New York: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=37347.
  20. Harper Originals, Estate of Charley Harper: http://www.harperoriginals.com/charleys-originals/.
  21. “£430m of paintings stolen in Paris,” The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/pound430m-of-paintings-stolen-in-paris-1978312.html?action=gallery&ino=2.

“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.