Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

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

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

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

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

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

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

A Lesson in Empathy

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

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

Sources:

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

 

Scarecrow Season

scarecrow

It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.

Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.

Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the United Kingdom actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!

Making Them Scary (Sort of)                   

The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.

The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).

In many cases, ancient straw men also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)

Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.

A New Era

Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Straw man figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.

So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.

Sources:

  1. Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
  2. Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
  3. Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals.” JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
  4. Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
  5. Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas,” 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
  6. Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management.” Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.

Birds in Indigenous Tribal Religions

tribal_bird

For years, floodwaters submerged the earth. If not for Raven and Loon, humans would never have recovered. Loon persuaded Great Spirit, the powerful cloud-dwelling deity, to help restore the world, and then Raven led the people to land. Thanks to these two birds, civilization prospered again.

This story comes from the Haida, aboriginal residents of western Canada’s coastal region (1). Still central to their culture, the raven acts as a major tribal crest and totem (2, 3). In fact, native people from eastern Siberia (4) through Alaska (5) and down into northwestern parts of the United States (6) continue to venerate ravens and crows. Other indigenous cultures of the world have incorporated these birds into their lore. Crows, for instance, appear in several just-so stories of the Australian Aborigines (7), while southern Africa’s Masai people have a tale about a crow seducing and marrying a woman (8). Numerous myths like these exist. Regardless of the source, portrayals frequently acknowledge this bird’s clever “trickster” nature.

Loons, found in the arctic regions of North America and Asia, are also ascribed significant roles by the indigenous peoples of these areas. Sometimes this creature’s functions are comparable to those of the raven. Both birds in the Haida story, for example, are linked to the formation of the earth and the advancement of humanity. A common figure in creation myths, the loon is imagined as fetching mud from the ocean bottom and amassing the collected sediment into land. The creatures also are often regarded as healers (9); however, depictions of this waterfowl occasionally adopt a “trickster” theme. In one Eskimo story, for example, a loon takes on human form so as to deceive a beautiful maiden, sweeping her away to his frigid island (10). Obviously, birds of all sorts—not just loons and ravens—turn up in indigenous lore all over the world. Creation myths, just-so stories, and trickster tales are just the “tip of the iceberg.”

One Fell Swoop                  

The subjects of tribal culture are immense, even when considering only current populations. Estimates identify more than 5,000 tribes of indigenous people exist throughout the world (11). Climate and geography separate most of these groups, as do language and traditions. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the beliefs and customs of these communities exhibit several common features. Paramount among these: the broad integration of all aspects of a village’s surroundings into the group’s social and religious practices, ranging from familial connections to bonds forged with wildlife. After all, for such cultures, survival is based on the understanding and appreciation of mutual relationships (12). Thus, the individual is closely aligned with his or her tribe, and the tribe with its natural environment.

In such societies, little separation is perceived to exist between people and other creatures. Animals, in the forms of deities and spirits, generally possess anthropomorphized features. Some communities even regard themselves as descendants of such beings. In this way, Siberia’s Buryat claim lineage from the eagle and the swan (13). Similarly, Australian Aboriginal tribes associate themselves with specific animals, so that one clan claims a totemic connection to the kangaroo, another clan to the emu, and yet another to a species of cockatoo (14). Such cultures largely acknowledge a plurality of divinities and nature spirits who represent different tribal communities and non-human creatures.

Lots of deities and spirit beings have ties to the avian world. Ravens and loons, as noted previously, inhabit tales of several cultures. According to Africa’s Tsonga, the “first man” sprang from an egg laid by the bird-like deity named N’wari (15). For the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, the god who reigns over frigatebirds, sandpipers, terns, petrels and native avian fauna is also credited with creating the world. This immortal figure goes by the name of Makemake (16). Kane, a god associated with the albatross, holds similar roles for the indigenous people of Hawaii, Tahiti, and other Pacific islands (17). And, of course, the mythical thunderbird, a powerful supernatural creature akin to a gigantic eagle, remains popular in native North American legends (18).

Practical but Spiritual

In the world’s major religions, birds generally serve as symbols. Tribal beliefs employ these kinds of associations as well. The Maori of New Zealand liken the migratory birds proceeding out from Spirits Bay, especially a type of godwit, to souls making their way to the afterworld (19). For some Siberian peoples, the loon is deemed a psychopomp (20). Some folks in the Yucatan region of Mexico still speak of Yum Cimil, a Mayan deity of the underworld connected with the owl (21, 22). As a bird of the night, the owl also is linked to Masau’u, an important and complex Hopi / Pueblo god known as “Skeleton Man,” whose dominion includes both death and fertility (23, 24).

Avian life, however, resonates with indigenous peoples in approaches extending well beyond symbolic representation. This is evident when individuals and clans identify with birds as spiritual guides and totems. An assortment of other examples abound. Practices of South America’s native peoples utilize fat from flamingos, cormorants, and other birds for healing purposes (25). The Kwanga from the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea fashion daggers from the claw bones of cassowaries, associating the birds’ lethal strikes with the weapons (26). And the customs of North American Great Plains tribal communities require specific kinds of feathers for ceremonial dress (27). Regarding the latter, an old Cheyenne story explains how a chief in his youth learned from eagles to properly use their feathers in making warbonnets (28). On the whole, a convergence of the tangibly practical with the spiritually meaningful prevails among native cultures.

Summary

Tribal communities generally regard their winged neighbors with a reverence unseen in much of today’s industrialized world. A key reason for this is likely due to the familiarity indigenous cultures have with wildlife, an intimacy that fosters a sense of kinship with nature. Unfortunately, all of this could change. The rapid rise of global technology and market forces may eventually deluge the remaining tribal peoples and their ways of life. If this happens, how will they respond? Will they abandon their heritage? Or can they look to birds—like their forebears—to guide them through the sweeping tides of “progress” towards another new beginning?

Sources:

  1. Meyers, EC. Totem Tales: Legends from the Rainforest. Blaine, WA: Hancock House Publishing, 2008. pp. 5–8.
  2. Holm, B. Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum. Seattle: Burke Museum, University of Washington Press, 1987. p. 180.
  3. Werness, HB. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. p. 151.
  4. Hultkrantz, A. The Religions of the American Indians. Setterwall, M. (translator). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981. p. 36.
  5. Hunn, ES, Thornton, TF. “Tlingit Birds: An Annotated List with a Statistical Comparative Analysis.” Tidemann, S, Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 183–185.
  6. Hultkrantz, A. p. 36.
  7. Tidemann, S, Whiteside, T. “Aboriginal Stories: The Riches and Colour of Australian Birds,” Tidemann, S, Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 161–162, 171–173.
  8. Hollis, AC. Masai Myths, Tales and Riddles. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. pp. 26–27.
  9. Armstrong, EA. 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., 1958. p. 68.
  10. Yolen, J. (editor). Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 105–107.
  11. “Who Are Indigenous Peoples,” First Peoples Worldwide: http://www.firstpeoples.org/who-are-indigenous-peoples.
  12. “How Our Societies Work,” First Peoples Worldwide: http://www.firstpeoples.org/who-are-indigenous-peoples/how-our-societies-work.
  13. Armstrong, EA. p. 58.
  14. Lawlor, R. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1991. pp. 279–283.
  15. Allan, T, Fleming, F, and Phillips, C. World Mythologies: African Myths and Beliefs. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2012. p. 39.
  16. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2007. pp. 258–259.
  17. Beckwith, M. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976. p. 92.
  18. Cooper, G. World Mythology. Willis, R. (editor). New York: Henry Holt and Company, First Owl Books Edition, 1996. p. 225.
  19. Ibid 17. pp. 90-91.
  20. Andrews, T. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2000. p. 164.
  21. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 19.
  22. Alexander, HB. The Mythology of All Races (Volume XI: Latin-American). Gray, L.H. (editor). Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1920. pp. 138-140.
  23. Andrews, T. p. 173.
  24. Tyler, HA. Pueblo Gods and Myths. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. pp. 3-48.
  25. Tidemann, S, Chirgwin, S., Sinclair, R. “Indigenous Knowledges, Birds that Have ‘Spoken’ and Science,” Tidemann, S, Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. p. 9.
  26. Kjellgren, E, et al. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. O’Neill, JP. (editor). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. p. 61.
  27. Werness, HB. p. 151.
  28. Edmonds, M, Clark, EE. Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends. New York: Facts on File, 1989. p. 186.

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.

Oh, the Wonder—and Ugh, the Disgust!

starling_JML

People seem to either really like or loathe starlings. Videos of these creatures’ aerial maneuvers have become Internet sensations. On the other hand, agriculture officials frequently regard the birds as avis non grata, going so far as to employ mass extermination measures in the United States. What’s with both all the love and so much hate?

Those Amazing Murmurations

A murmuration, the name for a group of starlings, is an amazing sight, something my wife likens to a moving sculpture in the sky. “Murmuration” is also the title of a short online viral video posted a few years ago by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith. In their footage, the young women are paddling in a canoe before coming across a sudden swarm of starlings. Their recorded close encounter immerses viewers in nature’s serendipitous beauty, each sweeping movement a spectacle of wonder. Watching the feathered formations bound in flight over Ireland’s River Shannon must have been something special. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, we can partake in their experience vicariously.

“A Bird Ballet,” Neels Castillon’s short film from Marseille, France, evokes similar feelings of amazement. Both his and the “Murmuration” videos are professionally edited and include music. Occasionally, one hears the wowed responses of those shooting the footage. However, the rhythmic sky dance of starlings is so mesmerizing that I prefer watching with the sound muted. No enhancements necessary!

There’s nothing like seeing starlings fly en masse. In the poem “Starlings in Winter”, Mary Oliver refers to the birds as “acrobats.” She marvels at how “they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented, then closes again” (1). Of course, she’s just one of many poets that these birds have fascinated. Once while watching a murmuration during a coach ride, Samuel Taylor Coleridge compared the shapeshifting formations to “smoke” and “mist”, always in flux, “expanding or contracting, thinning or condensing … thickening, deepening, blackening!” (2)

Thousands of these creatures engage in ever-changing flight maneuvers somehow without getting tangled and crashing—that’s the spectacular thing about murmurations! How do these birds do this? In the 2014 book The Thing with Feathers, ornithologist Noah Strycker devotes an entire chapter to starling flocks. There he discusses how a collection of the birds form a magnetic system while in flight, and why the number seven is significant in this process. Due to these discoveries, researchers can now generate models that successfully predict the aerial patterns of a murmuration based on its size (3).

For Many, Still Avis Non Grata                                         

Strycker touches as well on humans’ love-hate relationship with starlings. He writes about the “Murmuration” video that garnered millions of views in just a matter of days, and also of Google search results easily confirming starlings as “America’s most hated bird” (4). Only introduced to North America in 1890, the European starling ranks today among the ten most populous avian species on the continent. With millions migrating across the country, starlings are generally regarded as an invasive pest. Strycker questions whether the birds deserve their negative reputation (5). Nevertheless, for nearly 50 years, a pesticide has been employed to poison these birds. It’s a practice that continues to this day.

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that multitudes of dead starlings had been discovered in the northern parts of Nevada. At first, many residents were uncertain as to what had happened to the birds. People learned later, though, that the United States Department of Agriculture had used DRC-1339, a chemical sometimes referred to as Starlicide, to kill them. In that article, an official provides the rationale for the baiting and extermination of the starlings: “Bird feces can contaminate food and water sources, putting cattle at risk for salmonella and E. coli infections if ingested” (6). In short, the measure was performed for the sake of public safety.

The U.S. has used this chemical since 1967 to kill starlings. Once ingested, the agent quickly damages a bird’s heart and kidneys, often resulting in death within one to three days. Officials have also employed DRC-1339 to control populations of pigeons, mynas, gulls, blackbirds, ravens, crows, and other birds (7, 8, 9). Proponents of the compound tout that its toxicity is quickly degraded by exposure to sunlight and moisture. Also, most raptors, with the exception of owls, are not sensitive to the chemical. So birds of prey, as well as many mammals, that may consume the dead starlings are deemed safe. Cats, however, are at risk, and research indicates that the chemical can be “moderately toxic to fish” (10).

A Balancing Act

Several animal organizations continue to frown upon employing DRC-1339 baits. Both the National Audubon Society (11, 12) and the Humane Society of the United States (13, 14) have been critical of its use. Despite claims that DRC-1339 is relatively safe, questions remain, especially regarding whether such mass-killing measures are warranted. And the debate looks to continue, especially with the recent bad publicity in Nevada. In the balance hangs the considerate treatment of wildlife on one hand and the well-being of cattle and crops on the other.

Starlings are marvelous beings, easily adapting to and flourishing in new environments. While their feathered formations awe many folks, the birds still provoke fear and revulsion in others. The dynamics of how humanity perceives these creatures persist in closely bound, twisting motions just like their flight patterns. Acrobats indeed.

Sources:

  1. Oliver, M. “Starlings in Winter.” Best Poems Encyclopedia: http://www.best-poems.net/mary_oliver/poem-13085.html.
  2. Dee, T. Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life with Birds. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2009. p. 113.
  3. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 43-48.
  4. Strycker, N. pp. 29-30, 39-40.
  5. Strycker, N. pp. 40-43.
  6. Griffith, M. “Feds Under Fire for Mass Killings of Starlings in Nevada,” 3/24/2015. Associated Press. MSN.com: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/feds-under-fire-for-mass-killings-of-starlings-in-nevada/ar-AA9WqTh?ocid=AARDHP.
  7. Feare, C.J. “The use of Starlicide® in preliminary trials to control invasive common myna Acridotheres tristis populations on St. Helena and Ascension islands, Atlantic Ocean.” Conservation Evidence (online journal), Vol. 7, 2010. pp. 52-61: http://www.conservationevidence.com/collection/7.
  8. “Compound DRC-1339 Concentrate—Staging Areas.” Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339StagingAreas.pdf.
  9. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide).” Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339Starlicide.pdf.
  10. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide).” Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001.
  11. Jonsson, P. “Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA acknowledges a hand in one mass bird death,” 1/20/2010. The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2011/0120/Bye-Bye-Blackbird-USDA-acknowledges-a-hand-in-one-mass-bird-death.
  12. Williams, T. “Red Baiting,” 11/2001. Audubon Magazine (online archive): http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0111.html.
  13. “What to Do About Crows,” 10/3/2009. The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/crows/tips/solving_problems_crows.html.
  14. Griffith, M.

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.

The Fair and Feathered in Fine Art

GoldfinchArt_JMLandin

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

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

When Faith Met the Goldfinch

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

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

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

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

Pet Subjects

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

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

So Many Birds, So Many Styles

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

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

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

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

A Variety of Tastes for the Palette

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

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

Sources:

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

Ancient Flights of the Eternal

Tomb_of_Nebamun_web

Earth, air, and water. Birds embody transition, shifting effortlessly from one realm to another. What if these graceful beings, however, also possessed the power to freely pass to and from other worlds, going off to some Great Beyond or communing with the divine? Ancient art and scriptures throughout much of the world, from India to Egypt, allude to these kinds of beliefs.

The earliest depictions of avian creatures, discovered in caverns of Western Europe, such as Lascaux, Les Trois Frères, Cosquer, Chauvet, and El Pendo (1, 2), provide our first look into how humankind viewed its relationship with birds. Some of the art, which includes designs of owls and auks, dates back to at least 15,000 years ago (3, 4). Ornithologist Edward Armstrong notes that such prehistoric images of birds, usually found in remote cave areas, are actually not common, adding, “The secretive location of these designs suggests they had some esoteric or magical significance” (5). As civilization developed centuries later, the ideas behind bird imagery became bolder and more well-defined.

Links to the Divine and Transcendent

Birds in the iconography and stories of antiquity often hold varying degrees of religious significance. In some instances, the creatures were directly linked with divine entities. For example, in ancient Greece, carvings and sculptures of birds associated with certain deities (e.g., Zeus’s eagle) appeared on temples (6). In parts of India, a wide range of art and architecture features birds, including Buddhist stupas from fourth-century BCE and Hindu stepwell relief sculptures as early as seventh-century CE (7). Hinduism, like other ancient belief systems, connects several of its divine entities with winged associates. Brahma and his consort Saraswati, for instance, have the peacock (8). Other examples of such pairings include the partridge, linked with the god Indra, and the parrot, a favorite of Kama, the god of love (9, 10).

Not just associated with the divine, birds also exemplify the spiritual or transcendent aspects of human life and also life-after-death. For instance, bird symbolism is used in the Hindu Rigveda to describe the passage of the human spirit once liberated from the body (11). Other kinds of stories, though, seem less figurative, in that they tell of people who supposedly changed form. The eighth-century Kojiki, a collection of ancient Japanese myths and historical accounts, reports of an early hero who upon death transforms into an enormous seabird. The description is rather moving: “His wife and children chase after [him] over sea and shore,” scholar Yoel Hoffmann explains, “cutting their feet on bamboo stumps and singing songs of mourning” (12).

In many cultures, birds appear as psychopomps or guides to the afterlife. Some examples include the so-called “Three Birds of Rhiannon”, believed by the ancient Welsh to sing on battlefields (13), and the Celtic goddess Mórrigan said to appear to dying warriors as a crow (14). I can imagine that in such scenarios the weary, untethered spirit was assumed to flutter out of a battle-torn corpse, emerging in flight with its avian guides. Such escorts to the netherworld or afterlife, of course, are not always connected to combat-related fatalities (see a previous post here for some additional information).

The Egyptians’ Obsession with Immortality

As naturalist Ernest Ingersoll notes in his early twentieth-century classic Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, ideas “… that the disengaged soul departs to heaven in the form of or by aid of a bird is historically very old” (15). Disparate cultures are known for such beliefs, including the Assyrians, Aztecs, and Australian aborigines (16). The ancient Egyptians, in particular, were among the earliest of civilizations enthralled by myriad aspects of the spiritual with birds. Besides worshipping a list of deities represented with avian heads (e.g., Geb, Horus, Thoth, Nut, etc.), Nile River Valley residents millennia ago also emphasized the roles of birds throughout an elaborate system of burial practices and afterlife beliefs.

Archeologists have discovered avian imagery and relics in the Egyptian tombs of ancient rulers, scribes, and other officials of high rank. In several instances, bird iconography found at these sites appears to celebrate the hunting prowess of the deceased, such as the wildfowl hunt scene paintings in King Tutankhamen’s tomb (17), Nebamum’s burial chamber (18), and the tomb of Khnumhotep II (19). Experts believe that paintings like these may have also held some sort of magical significance, working as enchantments “to control chaos and to destroy evil forces” (20). In this sense, the Egyptians may have created the images as some arcane means of offering protection and subsistence for the spirit and preserved body in the hereafter.

Besides paintings, other bird-related items to aid the deceased have been found in cemeteries and tombs. For instance, Book of the Dead papyri provide “transformation spells” that include incantations for becoming a “falcon of gold”, “heron”, “swallow”, and “phoenix”, among other possible creatures in the afterlife (21). Furthermore, small figurines of human-headed birds were usually left near the mummified remains. Referred to as ba-birds, the items were thought to represent the deceased’s spirit or ba, giving it the ability to move on as needed in its afterlife (22).

Even preserved bodies of birds and other animals were enclosed in tombs and sanctuaries. Archeologists have discovered millions of mummified ibises within Thothian temples at Saqqara and Tuna al-Gebel (23). Similar counts exist at necropolis sites of other animals, ranging from birds such as falcons to lizards, beetles, and jackals (24). The Egyptians apparently were obsessed with all forms of the eternal. Birds, though, important in many early cultures, clearly played a pivotal part in their complex belief system.

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 200.
  2. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  5. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 155.
  7. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 141-151.
  8. Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
  9. Bunce, F.W. A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1997. pp. 140, 278.
  10. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. pp. 317, 319.
  11. Bhatt, P.M.. p. 145.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. pp. 33-34.
  13. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 14.
  14. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  15. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. p. 149.
  16. 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. p. 49.
  17. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  19. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 376.
  20. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. p. 201.
  21. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34-35.
  22. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. pp. 201-202.
  23. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. p. 299.
  24. Scalf, R. p. 36.

Crystal Balls with Wings?

crows_web Back in the days of yore, if one had limited access to a local clairvoyant, numerologist, or astrologer—no problem. Folks thought they could simply count on the birds nearby for soothsaying purposes. That’s right, people didn’t just look to these creatures for forecasts regarding the seasons and weather; they actually believed their feathered neighbors could predict one’s love life, the birth of a child, changes in financial status, and death.

But why rely on birds? And how were their predictions interpreted? First of all, despite “bird-brained” being rather a pejorative descriptor for a person, several kinds of birds appear to possess characteristics associated with intelligent behavior. For instance, parrots, crows, and magpies can actually learn and speak limited amounts of human language. Also impressive, most birds can swiftly take wing, scanning expansive areas. What potential they have for gathering all sorts of details from the sky, right? The problem is getting the information from those birds. Yet, as history shows, many people thought they had figured out how to do just that.

Ancient Systems of Augury

The reasoning is not entirely flawed. One could imagine that these feathered creatures, due to their day-to-day roaming, may know or sense things that we cannot. People who picked up on observable changes in bird behavior likely experienced success when preparing for or avoiding calamities, such as enemy ambushes and natural disasters. For instance, we know that societies who live closely with nature notice birds’ calls in order to alert themselves to dangers (1, 2). Successful readings in such matters may have inspired more ambitious means of interpretation.

Assuming that birds could be knowledgeable of human affairs, through either observation or proximity to the divine / heavens, our ancestors needed to find a way to decipher the messages. The complex practices ancient peoples worked out for attempting to do this are known as augury. Specially trained individuals, often priests or personnel of religious affiliation, interpreted such things as patterns in bird flight and calls. For instance, the Celtic Druids supposedly paid special attention to the wren’s calls (3). The Romans developed an extremely elaborate system of augury. Criteria included dividing the sky into quadrants for noting the location of birds such as eagles, and identifying random arrangements of dropped feed by pecking chickens. For the Romans, the use of chickens in such manners was deemed especially crucial for determining military action (4). In fact, employing birds for soothsaying purposes was arguably the Roman Empire’s most revered pre-Christian religion.

The beliefs and practices of the past few centuries, of course, are not nearly as elaborate. I remember as a child learning that mourning doves perching on or by a home supposedly portended death for one of its residents, a notion that is actually quite widespread (5). According to other lore, an owl that cries out by a house indicates that someone within the family will soon die (6). In India, people may consider the lone cry of an owl as an ominous sign of imminent death. However, they may also believe that any additional cries up to nine foretell a variety of events, some good, some bad. Two calls, for example, signify success in an upcoming endeavor. And six calls indicate that guests will soon arrive at your home (7, 8).

Tallying the Future

In British and American folklore involving magpies and crows, the actual number of birds, rather than their cries, is central. Below is perhaps the most popular version of numerous rhymes:

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.

As alluded to in a previous post, this saying has been used in several pop songs, such as Patrick Wolf’s “Magpie” and, with slight variation, in The Counting Crows’ “A Murder for One.” The counting rhyme is also the running theme of Roger Burton’s short film series Magpies.

You have likely heard other versions, for an assortment of these rhymes exist. Again, they’re usually associated with magpies and crows, and feature the familiar opening line on sorrow. Since these birds are sometimes linked with the occult, people may have believed the feathered animals had the power to influence their lives. As a result, a wide array of rituals emerged to counteract the negative effects from seeing a single magpie or crow, including offering special greetings and making the sign of the cross over one’s self (9, 10).

Questionable Methodologies

Superstitions involving birds vary. So while one may be the loneliest number and hence equated with grief, that same number is not necessarily of ill consequence when spotting the raven. For instance, according to the ballad “Bill Jones” by British Romantic writer M.G. Lewis, seeing one is actually auspicious, whereas additional ones are considered ominous. He writes, “Why, to find one raven is lucky, ‘tis true; / But it’s certain misfortune to light on two, / And meeting with three is the devil!” (11, 12) On the other hand, of course, the message from that lone avian visitor in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is far from fortunate or comforting.

Obviously, interpretations regarding birds are contingent on the culture, its time period, and the creative flair of locals. Such sayings, thus, are quite diverse and plentiful, but one shouldn’t put much stock—if any—in them. Interestingly, among the learning experiences cited in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Drifting off,” the speaker adds that he had “overrated … the folklore of magpies.” While the notion that birds could help us know our future has an alluring charm to it, most of us know all too well that such beliefs have no basis whatsoever in science. Nevertheless, such ideas can still be fun to entertain.

So the next time you see several crows or magpies strutting around your front yard, appreciate the sheen of their dark feathers in the sunlight and the extensive history of their impact upon the human imagination. Just don’t count on them, though, knowing anything more about your future than a secret never to be known or told. Sources:

  1. “Traditional alert ‘saved Andaman tribes’.” SciDev.Net: http://www.scidev.net/global/news/traditional-alert-saved-andaman-tribes.html.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 13-14.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 120.
  4. Ingersoll, E. pp. 214-216.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 29.
  6. Newell, V. p. 46.
  7. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 94.
  8. “Owl Mythology Around The World,” British Bird Lovers: http://www.britishbirdlovers.co.uk/articles/owl-mythology-around-the-world.
  9. Tate, P. pp. 77-79.
  10. “Magpies And Superstition,” British Bird Lovers: http://www.britishbirdlovers.co.uk/articles/magpies-and-superstition.
  11. Lewis, M.G. Romantic Tales, Volume 4. London: D.N. Shury, for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808. p. 95.
  12. Ingersoll, E. p. 171.

A Brief Flight through Horror: Birds of the Dead and the Damned

bloodySparrows

A tenant’s missing rent payment leads to a tough, street-smart property owner’s ghastly discovery. She enters the apartment unit to collect her money, but quickly realizes that she has stumbled upon a gruesome murder scene. Overcome with shock, the landlady screams. Then she faints. On the wall near a savagely mutilated body, a mysterious message is finger-scrawled in blood:

THE SPARROWS ARE FLYING AGAIN.

A ruthless homicidal rampage in Stephen King’s The Dark Half thus continues. It can only end with the inevitable showdown between the novel’s main character, author Thad Beaumont, and the killer George Stark (1). The connection between the two characters is complicated, with readers gradually finding out that Stark is much more than just Beaumont’s more successful and darker pseudonym come-to-life. As the story progresses, we learn more, too, about the mysterious and ever-growing number of sparrows.

“Back to Endsville”

The birds turn out to be escorts to the realm of the dead, an underworld which King at times calls “Endsville.” Such guides, known traditionally as pyschopomps, have historically taken on various forms in religion, folklore, and literature. These can include human or human-like beings. For example, Charon, the ferryman of the Greek/Roman underworld, is probably the most notable and familiar of psychopomps. Animals, angels, and other beings, however, can also fulfill these roles.

Another well-known psychopomp is the “ominous bird of yore” in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” who may be deemed a messenger from Hades or “Night’s Plutonian Shore” (2, 3). Has the raven not taken off with the protagonist’s spirit, swept away all hope of the narrator ever joining his deceased mistress (“my soul… shall be lifted—nevermore!”)? Or maybe something more sinister has occurred—perhaps the late mistress has been consigned to hell, and her lover learns from this ebony feathered “devil” that he, too, is to be ushered there but, as part of his torment, forever denied her presence. Having destroyed the thing that has sustained the speaker in his life, he is left at the very least in the raven’s “shadow” of despair, what could be interpreted as either a literal or metaphorical land of the dead.

“Screaming of vast flocks”

As one of the characters (a folklore professor and Beaumont’s colleague) in The Dark Half explains, whippoorwills and loons are among the birds most commonly identified as psychopomps. Swallows are also mentioned. And although ravens do not appear in the novel, King interestingly credits his inspiration to the sighting of a massive flock of crows, as well as to an H.P. Lovecraft poem (4). Psychopomps are a theme in several of Lovecraft’s works. For instance, whippoorwills assume this role in his short story “The Dunwich Horror,” of which below is a brief excerpt:

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down (5).

The story remains one of Lovecraft’s most popular works. His poem “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme” (perhaps the one to which King is referring) doesn’t mention whippoorwills, crows, or sparrows. Instead, it features a sinister “howling train” of wolves “that rend the air” to collect a dead boy’s soul from his parents (6). The description, though, is clearly evocative of the Wild Hunt stories often linked with Gabriel’s Hounds and the Seven Whistlers (7). These feared creatures were believed to ride out at night, particularly around the winter solstice, and snatch off with victims’ souls. Perhaps a combination of this poem and the whippoorwills of “The Dunwich Horror” actually influenced King.

“The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy”

As the name suggests, the Seven Whistlers consist of seven birds who make loud, frightful, piping/blowing noises. The types most often associated with the deadly flock are curlews, widgeons, golden plover, and wild geese (8). Many poets have expressed fascination with the legend. William Wordsworth, for instance, refers to it in his sonnet “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”:

He the seven birds hath seen, that never part,
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them: and oftentimes will start—
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds
Doomed, …. (9)

As the ornithologist Edward Armstrong also notes, English poet Edmund Spenser in his sixteenth-century epic The Faerie Queene cites the notorious flock among the “fatall birds”: “The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy” (10, 11). The creatures are the subject of Victorian poet Alice E. Gillington’s “The Seven Whistlers” (12). However, despite the similarities in Whistler lore with the poem by Lovecraft, he does not mention any birds by name that were commonly thought of as Whistlers in his “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme.”

Of course, none of birds connected with the legends of the Great Hunt seem nearly as menacing as those in King’s The Dark Half. His sparrows brandish a viciousness reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet surpassing in their ferocious intensity. Who knew that birds could be so terrifying?

In the hands of great horror writers, any animal may well assume a frightening presence, in this case a small bird commonly found throughout the world and occasionally deemed a pest. The sparrow may be an appropriate choice for psychopomp due to its near-universal presence, a symbolic reminder that death, though it may seem hidden in the backdrop of our lives, remains close by.

So along with the haunting figure of Poe’s demonic raven and the screaming whippoorwills of Lovecraft, let’s not forget the flesh-devouring sparrows of Stephen King this Halloween.

Sources:

  1. King, S. The Dark Half. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
  2. Poe, E.A. “The Raven,” The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178713.
  3. Cross, R.T. “Psychopomp,” 11/29/2011, The Etyman Language Blog: http://etyman.wordpress.com/tag/psychopomp/.
  4. King, S. “The Dark Half: Inspiration,” Stephen King’s official web site: http://stephenking.com/library/novel/dark_half_the_inspiration.html.
  5. Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror,” The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/dh.aspx.
  6. Lovecraft, H.P., “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme,” The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/poetry/p139.aspx.
  7. 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. pp. 217-220.
  8. Armstrong, E.A. pp. 217-220.
  9. Wordsworth, W. “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares,” William Wordsworth: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (1999): http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww339.html.
  10. Armstrong, E.A.. pp. 217-218.
  11. Spenser, E. The Faerie Queene (Book II, Canto XII, Stanza XXXVI), Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (2010): http://www.bartleby.com/153/55.html.
  12. Gillington, A.E. “The Seven Whistlers,” A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical Review of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria. Edmund Clarence Stedman (editor). Bartleby.com (2003): http://www.bartleby.com/246/1159.html.