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.
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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.

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.

 

Much Ado ‘bout Bird Poo

birdpoop

People have long exploited birds, predominantly for their feathers, meat, and eggs. Among the least likely item on such lists includes something the average person today would consider to have little or no practical purpose—poop.

Yet, for centuries human ingenuity has discovered incredible ways to utilize this waste product, ranging from ingredients for generating munitions to creating skin care products. Here’s the scoop on just a few items, some still in use today.

The Obvious One—Fertilizer, of Course

Anyone who has parked his or her car near some trees only to return hours later and find the vehicle splattered with white, pasty dung has experienced the typical revulsion towards bird poop. The scorn of municipalities that’s frequently directed towards pigeons is due in large part to their unsightly feces on sidewalks and building walls (1). Similarly, the massive amounts of droppings left behind around walkways, parks, and statues by the common starling, a bird that roosts in large numbers, has in turn resulted in animosity toward the migrating creatures (2). In suburbia, larger birds are problematic. To maintain areas clear for human activity, officials now drive flocks of Canada geese away from public lakes, golf courses, and waterways (3). With this almost war-on-birds mentality, you’d think that for many folks, birds are more often than not a nuisance.

But not all poop is reviled (nor the birds that produce it). In some areas of the world, bird feces—known as guano—once fueled a lucrative fertilizer industry. The extensive layers of droppings left by Guanay cormorants, brown pelicans, Peruvian boobies, and other seabirds along Peru’s coast (4) have long been recognized by the native people there as a highly valued farming resource (5, 6). By the mid-19th century, outsiders had discovered that such areas in the Central Pacific and the Caribbean harbored what was colloquially called “white gold”, to be claimed, mined, and exported (7). The fertilizer craze of this period—growing populations require more food—resulted in naval skirmishes, piracy, forced slave labor, and island land-grabs (8). Since that time exploitative processes, from guano extraction to overfishing, have devastated this region’s bird populations (9, 10). The mountains of bird feces once deposited in these spots are no more.

An Explosive Combination

Doves are revered as symbols of peace; so, one may be surprised to learn that their droppings were once used by the British monarchy as a munitions ingredient (11, 12). Long before the marvels of modern chemistry, people relied instead on natural collections of potassium nitrate or saltpeter, a compound necessary for making gunpowder. Although not readily abundant, potassium nitrate turns out to be prevalent in… you guessed it… dried pigeon and dove feces. And since the citizenry’s dovecots were ideal sources for such dung, the British government laid claim to all saltpeter in those structures, making laws permitting agents of the crown to scrape and dig up the material (13). Bird droppings, thus, played an important, if oft forgotten, role in British history.

“No Fun” Beautifying Facials

Truth indeed is stranger than fiction, as yet another case clearly demonstrates. The bush warbler “nightingales” (uguisu) in Japan are known for their song, but the birds have quite a reputation, too, for what’s dispatched from their other end. Due to its moisturizing and restorative effects, their poop (uguisu no fun) has been used for centuries in that country as a skincare product. In particular, the droppings were applied to remove the white make-up worn by courtesans (geishas) and Kabuki actors. Such face paint traditionally contained lead and zinc, which were harsh on the skin, and the uguisu no fun’s urea and guanine helped combat the make-up’s damaging effects (14). Today, some spas in the United States charge more than $150 for a “Geisha facial”, and apparently, many celebrities are smitten with the treatments (15, 16, 17). Who knew that people would actually pay that kind of money to have sanitized bird poop applied to their face? I guess, as Alix Strauss of The New York Times says, “When it comes to fighting aging, many of us will try anything” (18).

A “Crappy”—but Popular—Form of Fundraising

And when it comes to the introduction of any new form of entertainment or fundraising, consider that folks will also line up to try a novel spin-off on an old game, especially if it involves bird feces—hence, the growing popularity of chicken-poop bingo. The rules are similar to the original game but in this version, of course, there are chickens and excrement. As the birds peck for food along a numbered grid, their droppings randomly fall, indicating the next spot to be called on players’ boards. The Wall Street Journal’s Stu Woo notes, “At least a few decades old, the chicken antics have become a popular staple at fairs, festivals and fundraisers in small-town America, and beyond.” (19) To the chagrin of animal rights activists, the game has made its way to New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Columbia, Illinois (20); Louisville, Kentucky (21); Durham, North Carolina (22); and other cities throughout the U.S.

Overall, who knew bird poop could serve so many functions? After researching this topic, I know I’ll never look at the unsightly mess on my car the same way again!

Sources:

  1. Blechman, A.D. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 1-2.
  2. Squires, N. “Rome’s eternal problem – starling droppings”, 11/27/2008. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/3531770/Romes-eternal-problem-starling-droppings.html.
  3. Saslow, L. “Canada Geese: It’s Love and Hate”, 7/14/2002. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/nyregion/canada-geese-it-s-love-and-hate.html.
  4. Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. pp. 200-201.
  5. Vergano, D. “Bird Droppings Led to U.S. Possession of Newly Protected Pacific Islands”, 9/26/2014. National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140926-pacific-island-guano-national-monument-history/.
  6. Hager, T. The Alchemy of Air. New York: Broadway Books, Random House, Inc. 2008. p. 29.
  7. Vergano, D.
  8. Hager, T. pp. 25-36.
  9. Wilsdon, C. pp. 200-201.
  10. Vergano, D.
  11. Blechman, A.D. pp. 1-2.
  12. Cressy, D. Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 132.
  13. Cressy, D. p. 132.
  14. Freeman, S. “Geisha Facials”, 1/11/2010. HowStuffWorks: http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/beauty/skin-treatments/geisha-facial.htm.
  15. Freeman, S.
  16. Connell, C. “The most cringe inducing facial ever: The good news – it beats Botox. The bad news – it’s made from birds’ mess”, 5/28/2014: DailyMail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2641957/The-cringe-inducing-facial-The-good-news-beats-Botox-The-bad-news-birds-mess.html.
  17. Strauss, A. “Skin Deep: Fertilizer for the Face”, 7/4/2012. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/fashion/fertilizer-for-the-face-beauty-industry-turns-to-animal-secretions-and-droppings-for-ingredients.html?_r=0.
  18. Strauss, A.
  19. Woo, S. “Bingo! Henny the Hen Just Made Her ‘Mark’ on No. 16”, 10/22/2012. The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443749204578048740198716834.
  20. Woo, S.
  21. Havens, S. “Lady cluck: Chicken poo bingo featured at this weekend’s Flea Off Market”, 11/6/2014. Insider, Louisville: http://insiderlouisville.com/uncategorized/chicken-shit-bingo/.
  22. Blythe, A. “Durham Farmers’ Market hosts chicken bingo fundraiser”, 12/20/2014. News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/12/20/4419181_chickens-leave-their-mark-on-bingo.html?rh=1.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

cosmicEgg_web

It’s one of the great philosophical questions. And the answer, when glancing at the world’s many creation myths that prominently feature our winged neighbors, may seem every bit as confusing as . . . well, chicken scratch.

Birds as Land Creators

Long before modern science, all civilizations passed along stories that describe how the world as we know it came to be. Often these tales involve one or more supernatural beings who fashioned form out of primordial chaos. For instance, according to a Yoruba creation story, a deity descended from the heavens to establish land upon the great primeval sea. However, to accomplish this task, he brought several items along with him, including a five-toed chicken and a humongous bag of soil or sand. The legend then later attributes the chicken with scratching and spreading the dumped heaps of dirt into land (1). In this scenario (and in most order-from-chaos myths), the chicken presumably precedes the egg.

The Yoruba tale is somewhat atypical, though, for often in similar stories, a kind of waterfowl, such as a diver or loon, diligently collects mud from the bottom of an all-encompassing primordial sea and forms the land. The Seri attribute this act to a great pelican, “a mythical fowl of supernatural wisdom and melodious song” (2). For the Yocut, this bird was a duck who, after emerging to the water’s surface and dying, left the hawk and crow to position the fetched mud into place (3). Throughout history, many seafaring peoples have entertained comparable tales about how the land was brought forth from the ocean’s depths.

Scrambled Eggs

Other creation myths tell of a world that was born into existence rather than formed. Some stories recount how the entities of the universe resulted from the mating of two giant god-like figures. In such cases, the beings are occasionally dismembered and, from their parts springs life—so that the birth is rather a kind of rebirth. A frequent theme in many myths is that the birth of the universe as we know it resulted not from copulating deities—but from a giant egg.

A popular creation narrative, the cosmic egg from which the world hatches has several variations. A few of these relate to one type of fowl. In ancient Egypt, for example, a goose was said to have laid the great cosmic egg (4). This bird is also associated with the Hindu creator god, Brahma, who sprung from a golden egg (5). According to the Rig Veda and the Puranas of Hinduism, parts of the egg or Hiranyagarbha became aspects of the world, such as the sun, sky, and ocean (6).

The goose, though, is not the only bird to spawn a cosmic egg. Similar parallels exist involving other avian creatures. For instance, in a tale derived from classical mythology, the egg comes from the Greek goddess Eurynome while in the form of a dove (7). Also, the first Rune of the Finnish epic Kalevala describes how a duck lays its eggs on the lonely celestial “water-mother” Ilmatar (Luonnotar) (8, 9). As she “. . . moves her shoulders, / Shakes her members in succession, / Shakes the nest from its foundations, / And the eggs fall . . .”, so that the shell fragments, yolk, and other components are transformed into the sun, moon, clouds, etc. (10). In such instances, one could say that the egg—or rather the great egg—came before the chicken.

Unfortunately, there are no tales that I’m aware of about chickens producing eggs of the cosmic variety, but perhaps you may know of one. Please feel free to comment; I’d love to hear about other accounts. However, as to which came first, the chicken or the egg, we should probably let the scientists and philosophers settle that debate.

Sources:

  1. Beier, U. Yoruba Myths. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. pp. 7-10.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 11.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 108.
  4. Gimbutas, M.A. The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe: 7000 to 3500 BC Myths, Legends and Cult Images. University of California Press, 1974. p. 102.
  5. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 57.
  6. “Hiranyagarbha”. Academic’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism: http://hinduism.enacademic.com/328/hiranyagarbha.
  7. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 36.
  8. Tate, P. p. 130.
  9. Crawford, J.M. (Translator). Lönnrot, E. The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company, 1898. pp. 5-13.
  10. Crawford, J.M. (Translator). Lönnrot, E. p. 9.