Happy Draw a Bird Day!

MREbird_for DABD

The demoiselle crane. Though it has a French name, this bird—the smallest of all the cranes—is native to northern Africa and parts of Eurasia, such as China and India.

This species, like other cranes, is celebrated in mythology and folklore. For example, Turkish folk songs fancy the bird a messenger of lovers (1). The creature’s graceful beauty seems ideally suited for such associations, even if my illustration fails to do it justice! By the way, demoiselle is French for “damsel.” This name was bestowed to it by one of the most famous queens in history. Marie Antoinette (2).

For illustrations of more feathered beauties, please check out Laura’s Create Art Every Day and Kerfe and Nina’s Method Two Madness. Laura started the monthly DAB Days, and Kerfe and Nina are doing the roundup of DAB Day illustrations from WordPress blogs. There will be links to a whole “flock” of drawings!

Sources:

  1. Kara, M, Teres, E. “The Crane as Symbol of Fidelity in Turkish and Japanese Cultures.” Milli Folklor. Yil 24, Sayi 95. p. 198–199.
  2. Mynott, J. Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 29.

 

 

 

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.

Birds in Chinese Religions and Culture

taoism_JML

The power of Confucius’s teachings are legendary. Supposedly he had the ability to captivate predatory birds with his wisdom. A testament to such stories can be found among the ornate decorations at sanctuaries dedicated to the sage and the religion later established in his name. “In rows along the beams of the sloping eaves stand birds of prey,” scholar John Renard observes at one temple, “for, according to tradition, even the fiercest raptors alighted and paused to listen when Confucius taught.” (1)

Another Chinese religion similarly matches the magnitude afforded to its individuals of great insight and conduct. This time, though, the source is the Tao Te Ching, the ancient text of Taoism (also spelled as “Daoism”). Unlike Confucianism, with its emphasis on social structures and education, Taoist philosophy stresses harmonious action by transcending such institutions. The Tao Te Ching, thus, speaks of the person who relinquishes contrivances and artifice to live in accord with nature. And at one point, Lao Tzu, who’s credited as the author of this book, compares such an individual to an infant whom birds of prey will not disturb (2).

The approaches of Confucianism and Taoism often do not coincide, so their presentations of a wise person’s relationship to eagles, hawks, and other raptors differ subtly. Yet this divergence retains comparable features, which may offer a look into how both religions complement one another, not unlike the concepts of yin and yang. In fact, China has a rich history of balancing multiple spiritual disciplines. For instance, before the rise of communism in that country, people practiced Buddhism alongside both Confucianism and Taoism as well as various folk religions. And over time, such systems merged into a kind of socio-religious amalgam still evident in Chinese communities throughout the world (3).

Birds as a Key Cultural Component

Outside of religion, China has widely embraced bird imagery. Among the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, one finds the rooster (4). An ancient martial arts fighting technique is named after the crane (5). Certain avian creatures are employed to indicate important social bonds, or the lack thereof. For instance, a pair of Mandarin ducks signify marriage, whereas a single wild goose implies estrangement (6). Even the Chinese Imperial Court, as scholar Patricia Bjaaland Welch explains, once relied on bird-based badges (e.g., of peacocks, egrets, paradise flycatchers, etc.) for ranking its officials (7). Moreover, she elaborates in her book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery on how that country’s fine arts portray arrangements of specific birds, plants, and other animals to communicate meaningful social themes (8).

Overall, Chinese culture frequently imbues birds with symbolic significance and positive connotations. Jack Tresidder notes in his Symbols and Their Meanings that two common examples, the pheasant and quail, represent virtuous behavior and skill (9). Similar use occurs in Chinese religions, too, for avian creatures often exemplify spiritual wisdom. For example, the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu states in scholar Burton Watson’s translation, “The true sage is a quail at rest, a little fledgling at its meal, a bird in flight who leaves no trail behind.”(10) The last of these three metaphors appears also in Buddhist texts, as noted in a previous post. The pheasant and quail, though, are just a few winged creatures of importance in Chinese religions and folklore.

Finding the Yang in One Bird’s Yin

Before looking at the most popular avian representatives, consider that even questionable birds are not entirely deemed undesirable and without value. In ancient China, as in many places of the world, the owl was considered an ominous creature, for its appearance supposedly signaled imminent disaster or, even worse, death. Thus, an owl’s entry inside the residence of Jai Yi, a Taoist politician during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), spurred him to serious spiritual contemplation (11). The statesman, however, discovered profound inspiration in the superstitions of his peers.

In his poem “The Owl,” Jai Yi questions the creature as to why it has come to him. The bird, of course, is incapable of speaking. Nevertheless, the poet imagines the owl’s response, and in that answer the raptor imparts not warnings but, rather, wisdom:

‘Disaster is what fortune leans
on; fortune’s where disaster hides.
Joy and grief find the same door, as
good luck and bad find the same seat.’(12)

The lengthy discourse from the feathered intruder includes the lines above, as translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, before eventually closing with the following statement:

‘Be free and have trust in your fate
and be a man who seeks what’s true
and though the thorns and weeds may scrape,
what can such trifles mean to you?’(13)

Jai Yi is not the only one from this time period who reconsidered the owl’s supposedly portentous nature. Many of his contemporaries apparently did so as well. “During the Han dynasty,” ornithologist Edward Armstrong explains, “ornaments called ‘owl corners’ were set on the corners of roofs to protect dwellings from fire.” He explains that, due to the creature’s reputation as a “bird of darkness,” the bird and its image were thought capable of preventing lightning strikes and the subsequent incineration of buildings. (14). So, although associated with harm and ruin, even the owl was clearly believed at times to possess protective qualities.

Symbols of Immortality and Sovereignty

Of course, owls have never been as popular as many of their larger, diurnal counterparts. And of these, no other bird has appealed to Chinese religious sensibilities like the crane. The long-legged creature remains an iconic representation of the wise Confucian scholastic (15, 16). Meanwhile, for Taoists, the bird is commonly associated with longevity and immortality (17, 18), characteristics ascribed to living a virtuous life. One prominent Taoist was said centuries ago to have resided on White Crane Mountain (19). Today, the recently rebuilt Yellow Crane Tower stands near a site where several legendary figures supposedly took flight on a mythical golden bird (20). Moreover, depictions of Taoism’s celebrated Eight Immortals frequently include a crane (21)—though a stork appears by some figures (22).

Chinese legends and art also include imaginary birds, such as the aforementioned yellow crane. While too many mythical avian creatures occur to detail here, two of the most important are the great three-legged crow of the sun and the magnificent phoenix. Both have existed as emblems of imperial Chinese rule (23, 24). The former bird became a prominent figure later in Japanese lore, as will be noted in the upcoming post on Shinto. However, Confucius attached significance to the phoenix. For him, this creature represented the wise monarch, the type of figure he wished to see eventually come to power (25). And though such a person never ascended the throne during his lifetime, Confucius left a legacy of ethical teachings to guide the future leaders and citizens of his country.

Summary

Spanning thousands of years before Confucius and the first Taoists as well as after, China’s history is vast. So, of course, is its size. From the rugged Himalayas to an extensive eastern coastline, the nation encompasses great geographic diversity. An abundance of avian life, thus, can be found there. The same holds true of birds in Chinese culture. Game birds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors figure in several millennia of scriptures, folklore, poetry, and paintings—more than can be presented in one post! Overall, avian symbolism in Confucianism and Taoism comprises just a part, albeit an important one, in this country’s myriad cultural traditions.

Sources:

  1. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 129.
  2. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Dale, R.A. (translator and commentator). London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Barnes & Noble Inc., 2005. pp. 158–159.
  3. Renard, J. pp. 14–16.
  4. Sun, R.Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. pp. 161–176.
  5. Galante, L. Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel / Weiser, 1981. pp. 15–16.
  6. Liu, W., Lo, I.Y. (editors). Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. First Midland Book Edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. p. 256.
  7. Welch, P.B. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2008. p. 67.
  8. Welch, P.B. pp. 69–88.
  9. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2006. p. 69.
  10. Chuang Tzu. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. Watson, B. (editor, translator). New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. p. 130.
  11. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. (editors, translators). The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, the Full 3000-Year Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. p. 38.
  12. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 39.
  13. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 41.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 215.
  15. Taylor, R.L., Choy, H.Y.F. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Confucianism: A-M. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2005. pp. 157–158.
  16. Palmer, S.J. Confucian Rituals in Korea. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1984.
  17. Renard, J. p. 124.
  18. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 217.
  19. Liu, W., Lo, I.Y. p. 87.
  20. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 355.
  21. Wilkinson, P. Eyewitness Companions: Religions. New York: DK Publishing, 2008. p. 254.
  22. Renard, J. p. 103.
  23. Tresidder, J. p. 71.
  24. Wilkinson, P. p. 243.
  25. Legge, J. (translator), Muller, F.M. (editor). The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism. Volume III. London: Oxford University, Macmillan and Co., 1879. p. 406.

Cultural “Foot” Notes

crowsfeet

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

“Crow’s Feet”                                                              

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

A Crane’s Foot in the Family Tree

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

The Foot Capable of One Fatal Blow

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

No Feet? Three Feet?

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

Chicken Toes

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

Sources:

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

“V” is for Vulture—and Virgin Birth, too

vulture_web

Giving birth without conception is usually considered a miraculous affair. However, according to encyclopedia-like manuscripts of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, such acts were not that extraordinary for vultures.

Back then, female vultures were supposedly capable of producing offspring without sexual relations. In some situations, the wind was believed to impregnate the female (1, 2). What’s more, one ancient text even states that a pregnant vulture can obtain a special stone that, by her sitting on it, will free her from pain while she goes about laying her eggs (3).

Mary and the Vulture, Jesus and the Pelican

Fascinating stories like the ones above emerged in the bestiary collections of late medieval Europe. These manuscripts, consisting of illustrations, notes, scriptural citations, and commentaries on numerous creatures, drew upon earlier sources, most notably Physiologus, an ancient text likely composed in second-century CE Egypt (4). Other classics, such as Herodotus’s The History, Pliny’s Natural History, Aelian’s History of the Animals, and the writings of church fathers, including St. Isidore’s Etymologies and St. Ambrose’s Hexameron, also offered ample material (5, 6).

Bestiary authors featured all types of animals—and many kinds of fowl—relating them to Christian themes. As is the case with animals like the dragon and unicorn, some of the avian entries, namely the phoenix, cinnamolgus (cinnamon bird), and charadrius, are mythical. However, most of the listings describe real subjects, such as the aforementioned vulture—but attached to erroneous information. Although detailed observations clearly did not inform the accounts, medieval readers didn’t seem to mind. First, most of the people at the time were likely unaware that the descriptions were inaccurate. Second and most importantly, these folks were consulting the text primarily for spiritual inspiration and ethical guidance. “Concerning the natural world, bestiaries were never intended to be scientific; instead the entries were moralizing and religious allegories,” states Jenneka Janzen of Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands (7).

Several accounts provide what for modern audiences must seem like unfamiliar, if not strangely tenuous, examples of religious symbolism. For instance, the female vulture in many bestiaries not only represents chastity, but the bird—due to the fantastical belief noted earlier—is also connected with the Virgin Mary (8, 9). The pairing, at first glance seems rather odd, but probably not any stranger than that of Christ with the pelican. The reason behind the latter’s association is due to another specious notion. Apparently, blood from a pelican’s wound was once believed capable of reviving the bird’s offspring. Ornithologist Peter Tate does offer a sensible explanation for such a bizarre belief: “Parent pelicans feed their young macerated food from the large pouch under their bill. Early observers clearly thought that it was blood that was being transferred” (10). The mistaken belief in the pelican offering blood to revive its young led to its symbolic association to the atonement of the Crucifixion. Hence, in late medieval paintings (11, 12), the bird is sometimes depicted nesting on or near Jesus’s cross.

Reborn Eagles, Vigilant Cranes

Since bestiaries and their earlier sources were far from factually sound, the texts propagated lots of rather peculiar ideas. For instance, eagles were thought to be emblematic of spiritual rebirth and baptism, for people centuries ago believed that when one of these birds advanced in age, it would soar as far possible towards the sun to sear away the cataracts from its eyes and burn away the remaining plumage from its body. The fiery raptor would then plummet into a spring or lake where it would again rise, as if from some magical fountain of youth, emerging as a renewed version of itself (13, 14). What an amazing but truly fantastical idea! If such a notion were true, of course, reproduction would not be necessary for eagles to survive.

Other accounts avoid reproductive matters altogether, praising a creature for embodying a particular virtue. For instance, the crane, noted for its vigilance, was cited metaphorically as a friend who assists by watching out for others, particularly against the stealthy advances of sin. How did this odd idea take root? Well, before drifting to sleep, a group of these birds were said to designate one of their members as a lookout. To safeguard itself from napping while on duty, the lookout supposedly hoisted a stone in one of its feet. That way, if the crane nodded off, the small rock would fall, thumping the ground and rousing the bird back to attention (15). This story, unlike so many in bestiaries, does have a ring of truth to it. Cranes indeed have the ability to sleep with one leg up; however, the part about sentries and clasped stones is not an accurate portrayal of crane behavior (16).

Overall, medieval writers penned bestiary entries to celebrate spiritual ideals, extol virtuous conduct, and condemn vice—not to provide true-to-experience, naturalistic reports. One today could excuse most of the erroneous descriptions, for the stories, just as they must have centuries ago, do appear to offer some memorable life lessons and religious instruction. And such accounts definitely make for some interesting reading.

Next week’s post will continue to look at the symbolic significance of birds on our culture, but we will move out of the Dark Ages. Instead we’ll focus on the spiritually uplifting effects of birds in general on modern society.

Sources:

  1. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 425.
  2. Biedermann, H. Dictionary of Symbolism. Hulbert, J. (Translator). New York: Facts on File, 1989 (1992). p. 370.
  3. Curley, M.J. (Translator). Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p. 48.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 81.
  5. Curley, M.J. pp. xxi, xxix of introduction.
  6. Janzen, J. “Where the Wild Things Are: The Medieval Bestiary,” 8/16/2013. Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth Century. Institute for Cultural Disciplines at Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands: http://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/where-the-wild-things-are-the-medieval-bestiary/.
  7. Janzen, J.
  8. Werness, H.B.
  9. Biedermann, H.
  10. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 105.
  11. Collections: “Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene.” Philadelphia Museum of Art: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102733.html.
  12. Rosasco, B. “Recent Acquisition: Crucifixion by Jacopo del Casentino,” Princeton University Art Museum: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/story/recent-acquisition-crucifixion-jacopo-del-casentino.
  13. Curley, M.J. p. 12.
  14. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 141.
  15. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 354.
  16. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 72.

Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

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Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming.” This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite far fetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1–6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39:26–30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  3. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”