So this Artist and a Cormorant Walk into a Bar

Toulouse

It seems like the opening to a joke. An artist shuffles into a French establishment with his leashed cormorant. After a day of fishing, the diminutive man and his odd pet make their way to a nearby table to share a drink.

But there’s no punch line. Turns out this is actually a true story. Not only did the famous late-nineteenth-century painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec own several tamed cormorants; the birds were also his fishing buddies (1). And he occasionally led one of the creatures into a café with him. There the post-impressionist artist and “Tom” would indulge in absinthe (2). “It has developed a taste for the stuff,” Toulouse-Lautrec supposedly told a friend. “It takes after me.” (3) Not surprisingly, the avant-garde artist renowned today for his Moulin Rouge posters, passed away relatively early in life, suffering from alcoholism, syphilis, and mental illness.

Apparently, Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated with a centuries-old tradition of training cormorants to snatch then regurgitate their catches. This practice is still conducted in several parts of the world, particularly in Japan where the form is known as ukai (4). Influenced by such methods, the flamboyant illustrator acquired a number of these birds, using them toward this end. He also featured one of the cormorants, along with a crab, in a painting. As Julia Fry notes in the biography Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, “The cormorant [in this piece] was no doubt one of [the artist’s] own hunting birds, for … the study clearly shows the ring placed around the bird’s neck to prevent its swallowing of prey.” (5)

Creative Geniuses—for the Birds?

While many odd connections exist between the famous and the feathered, none of them top Toulouse-Lautrec’s absinthe-drinking cormorant. However, John Barrymore’s pet comes close. The American stage actor and grandfather of movie actress Drew Barrymore collected exotic animals. One of these included a hissing vulture named “Maloney” that habitually preened the thespian’s mustache (6). What stories that must have made for Hollywood gossip magazines! In all seriousness, let’s hope the bird, after feeding on a carcass, didn’t go anywhere near its owner’s mouth.

Throughout their lives, both Barrymore and Toulouse-Lautrec had many pet birds. For creative types, such affinities were not that unusual. Quite a few larger-than-life historical personalities surrounded themselves with exotic animals. For instance, a menagerie belonging to the British Romantic poet Lord Byron included an eagle, a falcon, a crane, and some peacocks (7). Among Frida Kahlo’s feathered friends, the Mexican artist counted an eagle and numerous parrots, such as her beloved “Bonito” (8). Also, Pablo Picasso enjoyed the company of winged pets; he is said to have kept an owl, canaries, pigeons, and doves (9).

Some writers willingly shared their limelight with pet birds. Charles Dickens’s talking raven “Grip” shaped several notable works of nineteenth-century literature. Fashioned into an avian character within the Victorian author’s novel Barnaby Rudge, the bird soon went on to inspire one of the most popular poems of all time—Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” However, rather than repeating “Nevermore,” Dickens’s corvid chatted, “Halloa old girl!” (10) Ages ago, the ancient Roman writers Catullus and Ovid wrote poems concerning the deaths of their lovers’ pet birds. In the case of the former, a sparrow, and the latter, a parrot (11, 12). Clearly, even back then people were forming impressive emotional bonds with their feathered friends.

Say What?

Death is an inevitable part of life, pet birds without exception. Some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s cormorants, like their artist-owner, came to unfortunate ends. One bird was shot, and another died from throat blockage caused by an eel (13). Although I’m not certain whether any elaborate rites were held for his deceased pets; such instances are not without precedent. According to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (Book 10, Chapters 122-123), a large procession turned out for the funeral of a talking pet raven, a favorite of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14, 15). Also, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lamented the passing of his pet starling with a poem and a small ceremonial gathering (16).

Unlike Mozart’s starling, which could trill a portion of the maestro’s Concerto in G Major, U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s African grey parrot possessed a rather unpleasant talent. “Poll,” who outlived its master, loved to spout obscenities. The poor bird even disrupted Jackson’s funeral with several profane outbursts, forcing its eventual removal from the service (17).

I guess you could say that attendants of Toulouse-Lautrec’s funeral, especially his pious mother, were fortunate in this regard. Cormorants can’t mimic human language. Nonetheless, thanks to his café escapades decades ago, “Tom” still gives us plenty to talk about today.

Sources:

  1. Frey, J. Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc. pp. 274, 344, 371.
  2. King, RJ. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, University Press of New England, 2013. pp. 12-13.
  3. Frey, J. p. 274.
  4. King, RJ. pp. 5-6.
  5. Frey, J. p. 371.
  6. Williams, P. “The Tallest Trophy,” 4/20/15. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/the-tallest-trophy.
  7. Jenner, G, McFarnon, E. “Anne Boleyn’s lapdog and John Quincy Adams’s alligator: 10 famous people in history and their bizarre pets,” 2/13/2014. History Extra: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/anne-boleyn%E2%80%99s-lapdog-john-quincy-adams%E2%80%99s-alligator-famous-people-history-and-their-bizarre-pets.
  8. Boehrer, BT. Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. pp. 135-137.
  9. Morris, D. Owl. London: Reakton Books Ltd., 2009. p. 128.
  10. Lane, RM. “Charles Dickens bicentennial, and his link to Poe,” 1/13/2012. The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/charles-dickens-bicentennial-and-his-link-to-poe/2012/01/03/gIQA8VwdwP_story.html.
  11. Lazenby, FD. “Greek and Roman Household Pets,” The Classical Journal. Vol. 44, No. 4 (Jan. 1949). pp. 245‑252 & Vol. 44, No. 4 (Feb. 1949). pp. 299‑307. Online via University of Chicago: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/44/4/Household_Pets*.html.
  12. Boehrer, BT. pp. 17-18.
  13. Frey, J. pp. 480, 274.
  14. Lazenby, FD.
  15. Boehrer, BT. p. 13
  16. West, MJ., and King, AP., “Mozart’s Starling,” American Scientist, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Mar. 1990): pp. 106-14. Online via Indiana University: http://www.indiana.edu/~aviary/Research/Mozart%27s%20Starling.pdf.
  17. Boehrer, BT. pp. 112-113.

Birds in Shinto and Japanese Culture

ShintoRooster

Daylight had long faded to memory. The world seemed consumed by a never-ending darkness. Despite waiting and waiting… and more waiting… morning never came. The sun goddess Amaterasu refused to emerge from her cave.

The other deities and spirits realized that something had to be done, for an earth without light was becoming too much to bear. These beings, referred to as kami, deliberated on a way to lure the goddess out again. Eventually, after devising a plan, they brought all components into place. The strategy included aiming a mirror towards the grotto-housed Amaterasu (in order to catch her reflection) while roosters crowed nearby.

Soon the great solar goddess, hearing the cocks’ daybreak song, noticed the glowing cavern entrance. She was puzzled, her interest piqued. The scheme appeared to be working. Finally stepping out to investigate, the goddess did what she had resolved to not do—Amaterasu brought sunlight back again into the world (1, 2, 3). The most revered deity in the Shinto pantheon, thus, had been tricked in part by some roosters.

Today these creatures are kept at some Shinto shrines, while the torii, those gate-like structures at temple entrances, are deemed the birds’ honorable perches (4). Although the cock is highly regarded, several other birds also figure prominently within this religion and throughout Japan’s culture.

Monsters, Messengers, and More

Birds are noted in the Kojiki and other ancient texts regarding the history of the Japanese people and their land. Several tales involve a great hero referred to as Jimmu Tenno, who’s depicted as Japan’s first emperor and a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For instance, before Jimmu’s conquest of Japan, he sighted a falcon near or on his ship, interpreting the bird’s appearance as an auspicious sign (5, 6). Later, in a dream, Amaterasu revealed her plans to dispatch Yatagarasu, a special three-legged crow and messenger. The vision turned out to be prophetic, for the great kami-bird soon materialized and contributed to Jimmu’s victory (7).

Like many ancient civilizations, the early Japanese also commonly associated death and the hereafter with avian creatures. Archeological remains and artwork discovered at funeral mounds, for instance, suggest birds were considered psychopomps, guiding the dead towards the afterworld (8, 9). In many cases, too, the human spirit was recognized as a bird. A popular story about Yamato Takeru, another of the nation’s storied heroes of antiquity, illustrates this belief. The Kojiki states that upon death he transformed into a white-feathered bird. The exact kind is not clear; however, speculation posits types ranging from a sandpiper to a swan (10).

Other avian creatures, too, continue to remain popular in lore related to death and rebirth. In some circles today, people believe that the dead can return as ravens (11). One Japanese tradition holds that certain individuals, usually Buddhist monks and mountain ascetics tainted with spiritual pride, are reborn as kami-like beings with avian features (e.g., wings and claws, heads of a kite or crow, etc.). Known as tengu, these monstrous figures are believed to reside in the forest highlands where they wreak mischief on nearby hermits. But not all tengu look or act similarly, and some do not resemble birds (12, 13). Also, a few, rather than haunting holy men or abducting children, reportedly offer individuals martial arts instruction. For example, popular stories indicate that tengu trained the legendary twelfth-century warrior and general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (14). Overall, while these mythical creatures may have originated in spooky woodland lore, today they have taken off in the Japanese entertainment industry. One regularly finds tengu in the country’s comics (manga) and animated films (anime) (15).

Iconic Creatures

Featured in Japanese art and folklore, cranes abound among the nation’s most beloved animals. At least a couple of the Seven Gods of Good Luck are portrayed alongside these creatures. Depictions of the sages Fukurokuju and Jurojin, both of whom represent long life, include cranes (16, 17). Ideas associating such deities and these birds with longevity likely stem from Taoist influences (18, 19). As noted in a prior post, cranes do figure prominently in that Chinese religion. They also are significant in origami, the centuries-old art form of Japanese paper folding. Custom holds that a person capable of creating 1,000 paper cranes will be granted health and longevity (20). This idea probably accounts, too, for the origami birds’ popularity as a wedding gift, interpreted as a symbolic wish for the new couple’s marriage to be long and happy.

Besides the crane, a couple other winged creatures deserve mention. The first is the cormorant, a bird particularly important centuries ago. The Kojiki, for instance, refers to allies of Jimmu Tenno as folks who fished with trained cormorants (21). This practice likely originated in China, but is most famous in Japan. If you’re wondering exactly how such a process worked, the key lies with a string-like apparatus. This cord is fixed around the bird’s long neck, enabling fishermen to regurgitate catches restricted within the cormorant’s esophagus. In fact, such a method is still practiced today, but primarily as a reminder of Japan’s cultural heritage (22). Then there’s another feathered favorite, the pheasant. This close relative of the junglefowl rooster is depicted as the messenger of deities such as Amaterasu (23). While the green pheasant is thought of as Japan’s national bird (24), the albino version held significance for the imperial court. According to the eighth-century Nihongi text, sightings of a white pheasant indicated that the kami were pleased with the emperor (25).

Summary                                                                                                             

Much has changed in Japan since the unification of this archipelago nation many centuries ago. Just in the past one hundred years alone, the country has relegated its imperial figures to a ceremonial role and grown into a tech industry powerhouse. Commercial fishing is also thriving—but without the cormorants. Yet, as this post attempts to demonstrate, birds still remain integral to Japanese culture and religious life, from aspects of origami and manga to the symbolism on display at Shinto temples.

Sources:

  1. Roberts, J. Japanese Mythology A to Z. New York: Jim DeFelice, Chelsea House, 2010. p. 5.
  2. Sun, RQ. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. p. 162.
  3. Horne, CF et al. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Volume XIII: Japan. New York: Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, 1917. pp. 37–40, 164.
  4. Sun, RQ. p. 162.
  5. Frédéric, L. Japan Encyclopedia. Roth, K. (translator). Boston: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. pp. 420–421.
  6. Martin, LC. The Folklore of Birds. Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 55.
  7. Volker, T. The Animal in Far Eastern Art and Especially in the Art of the Japanese Netsuke: With References to Chinese Origins, Traditions, Legends, and Art. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1975. pp. 38–39.
  8. Bonnefoy, Y. (compiler). Asian Mythologies. Doniger, W. (translator). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 270–272.
  9. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. p. 34.
  10. Horne, CF et al. pp. 60–61.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. p. 34.
  12. Bonnefoy, Y. pp. 285–287.
  13. Foster, MD. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. pp. 130–139.
  14. Foster, MD. pp. 133–135.
  15. Kimbrough, RK., “Tengu,” The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Weinstock, JA. (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. pp. 529–531.
  16. Roberts, J. pp. 42–43.
  17. Frédéric, L. p. 438.
  18. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 23.
  19. Mak, R. “Japanese Mythology.” Bullen, M, et al. National Geographic: Essential Visual History of World Mythology. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2008. p. 365.
  20. Mackenzie, D. “Exploring Origami.” Exploratorium Magazine Online (Volume 23, Number 2): http://www.exploratorium.edu/exploring/paper/paper2.html.
  21. Horne, CF et al. pp. 85, 92.
  22. Gabriel, O, et al (editors). Von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World (Fourth Edition). Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. pp. 34–36.
  23. Horne, CF et al. p. 170.
  24. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 50.
  25. Horne, CF et al. p. 142.

Devil Birds and Black Magic

owl_counts_web

For our ancestors, the presence of supernatural evil was an accepted reality. Sinister forces were thought to organize in secret under the cover of darkness, often hidden or in disguise, so as to inflict harm and damnation. Folks believed demons and witches conspired against them by possessing or controlling other life forms, such as snakes, felines, wolves, and bats. Many birds, too, came to be viewed with suspicion.

To Hell and Back

The most obvious of potential offenders were those associated with darkness. Birds with black plumage, such as crows and ravens, fell easily into this category, commonly linked with witchcraft in places such as Germany and Russia (1). According to the prominent naturalist and science journalist Ernest Ingersoll, many European cultures once believed that crows made an annual descent to hell to pay tribute to the devil (2). Superstitions like these undoubtedly have helped cement in popular consciousness the ominous character of these birds, as have works of literature like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

For one of England’s literary giants, another dark colored bird provided inspiration. A ruminating Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (3, 4) takes the form of a cormorant surveying Eden:

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived … (Book 4: 194-198)

The cormorant’s large size and the way the bird’s positioned wings could be perceived as displayed in mocking fashion of the Christian savior on the cross are characteristics perfect for Milton’s proud and rebellious Satan. Moreover, folklore previously existed in the Britain identifying the cormorant with rapacity and sinister connotations, so the bird may have seemed a ready-made villain (5).

Occult Potions, Haunting Calls

Historically, some fowl have been maligned by more societies than others. Ancient writings have long equated dark forces with nocturnal birds, and of those, the owl is most commonly connected with death and necromancy. This holds true for many non-Christian cultures, too. Mayan texts describe the inhabitants of that civilization’s underworld, Xibalba, as possessing owl-like features, and the birds were considered the realm’s messengers to the living (6). For the Romans, owls were synonymous with the dark arts. In fact, according to naturalists John Sparks and Tony Soper, “The screech owl, Striges, was the Roman name for a witch” (7). Owls were also deemed the avian associates of Hecate, the Roman goddess of witchcraft (8). Not surprisingly, classical literature describes witches (e.g., Canidia in Horace’s Epode V and Medea in Book VII of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses) using owl ingredients for their special potions, perhaps later influencing Shakespeare’s rendering of the witches’ brew in Macbeth (9).

Besides the owl’s nighttime hunting regimen, the bird’s eerie cries must in part have played a role in its sinister reputation. After all, the haunting screech-call of the barn owl seems undoubtedly demonic! To the primitive mind—and to possibly many folks today—birds capable of emitting such eerie sounds must surely be adroit in fomenting evil.

Understandably, some people in parts of South America and Africa are known to be wary of guacharos residing in caverns for similar reasons (10). One European explorer described “the horrible noise” that “thousands” of these birds can make: “Their shrill and piercing cries strike the vaults of the rocks, and are repeated by the subterranean echoes” (11). Manx shearwaters in the rugged, north coastal areas of the United Kingdom are notorious for their haunting cries (12). A few other birds, notes folklore scholar Venetia Newell, are known for strange calls around dusk or at night; these include swifts, nightjars, and curlews (13).

Tainted with Satan’s Blood, the Witch’s Hex

Some feathered creatures, due to their unusual behavior, have also garnered associations with the devil and witchcraft. Based on its appearance alone, the European yellowhammer, the beautiful avian subject celebrated in the verse of nineteenth-century British Romantic poet John Clare, initially seems an unlikely candidate for one of Satan’s favorites. However, the bird’s eggs bear an odd feature, appearing to display cryptic markings. As Clare describes in his “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”: “Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells / Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads / As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells.” But where the poet sees beauty, superstitious minds presume evil. Edward Armstrong addresses the bird’s reputation (“gouted with the taint o’ the de’il’s blood”) in his The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds, noting that the strange egg markings may have been interpreted in the past as “cabbalistic signs” and unholy to Christians (14).

The connection to sinister forces makes more sense when considering the wryneck and hamerkop. The European wryneck, with its uncanny ability to hiss and move its neck in half-circle motions, must have seemed as if under some spell, so much so that according to ornithologist Peter Tate’s Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition, the English verb jinx is actually a derivative of the bird’s Latin name, Jynx torquilla (15). In Africa, the hamerkop is feared due to perceived ties to sorcery. A major reason for this involves the bird’s penchant for constructing its nest from human possessions, ranging from small household items to even hair. Why is such behavior considered disturbing? As naturalist Mark Cocker elaborates in Birds & People, “In order to exercise control over a person, a witch doctor must first get hold of some item that is intimately connected to the victim” (16). So, due to the hamerkop’s tendency for collecting personal items, many people today regard this bird as a sorcerer in avian form.

Many other birds throughout different cultures and historical periods have been linked to the occult. The above, though, seem to rank among some of the most well known and interesting.

Sources:

  1. 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. 74.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 121.
  4. King, R.J. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, University Press of New England, 2013. pp. 4, 54.
  5. Ibid. pp. 54-58.
  6. Spence, L. Mexico and Peru: Myths and Legends. London: Senate, 1994 (first published 1920). pp. 222, 227.
  7. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 191.
  8. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p.
  9. Sparks, J., Soper, T. pp. 197-198.
  10. Ingersoll, E. p. 16.
  11. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 251.
  12. “Manx Shearwaters,” Beauty of Birds: http://beautyofbirds.com/manxshearwaters.html.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. pp. 61, 46, 26.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist. pp. 193-195.
  15. Tate, P. p. 160.
  16. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 138).