Easter Eggs: Their Colorful History and Symbolism

eastereggs

This is the time of year for egg hunts, Cadbury Crème Eggs, and multicolored plastic eggs filled with jellybeans. Yet beyond the dye, chocolate, and sugar, a deeper meaning lies in one of Easter’s most cherished traditions.

No scriptural basis of course exists for having Easter eggs, just as no accounts in the Gospels report that several winged favorites tended to Jesus during the Crucifixion (e.g., a swallow pulling at the crown thorns and a red crossbill at the nails).1 However, the impulse to incorporate birds with an important event and their eggs with a major recurring holiday seems natural enough. After all, the dove is a symbol for the Holy Spirit and for Christianity as a whole. Why wouldn’t birds have a role in Easter? Also, birds in general are much loved, and eggs hatch to create more birds.

Overall, many factors are crucial to the Easter egg tradition, and these include associations with the time of year in which the holiday falls, social and religious developments arising from Lent many centuries ago, and even the possible assimilation of earlier non-Christian customs.

The Egg as Symbol

Always celebrated on the first vernal Sunday following a full moon, Easter has an apparent connection with spring. Since this is the season when migrating birds are returning and mating, the holiday’s association with eggs is not surprising. Besides the many nests potentially visible this time of year, eggs also share some similarities in shape and color to the moon. However, despite the satellite’s role in determining Easter’s annual date, any lunar connection to Easter eggs is probably marginal at best. The egg’s popularity rests primarily as a potent symbol of life. In the case of Easter, it represents Jesus’s Resurrection2 and the potential of eternal life for his followers.

Throughout the world, from antiquity to today, eggs traditionally have signified birth/creation and rebirth/revival.3 They have served this function in several creation myths, as well as in funeral practices, both as iconography and as objects buried in human graves.4, 5 As a result of practices centuries ago, Islamic mosques and some Christian churches still hang preserved eggs from ostriches as decorations.6 The Montefeltro altarpiece painting by Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca famously depicts such an egg above Madonna and child.7 The most extravagant examples of egg-inspired art came several centuries later when Peter Carl Fabergé created his ornate Easter egg designs for the Russian imperial family.

The symbolic power of the egg extends to its use as a ceremonial food by Christians and non-Christians alike. A hard-boiled egg is part of the Jewish Passover Seder. The custom of decorating eggs, which originated in ancient Persia, survives today in Iranian New Year (vernal equinox) celebrations.8 In addition, the elaborate beeswax-resist designs (e.g., pysanky, kraslice) of Eastern Europe’s Slavic peoples may have predated their conversion to Christianity.9 By the thirteenth10 or fourteenth centuries,11 Christians in Europe began coloring eggs for Easter using red dye to symbolize Christ’s blood.12 Whether this practice involved outside influences is not necessarily important to appreciate and enjoy Easter eggs today, for any religion can absorb preexisting customs and imbue them with new meaning.

The Influence of Lent

At least in part, the painting of Easter eggs more than seven hundred years ago appears to have developed in response to Lenten restrictions and farmyard realities.13, 14 Eggs were among the foods regularly given up during the fasting period, but those laid by domesticated chickens and geese could be collected and decorated. With the arrival of Easter Sunday, the eggs were eaten to mark the end of the fast and celebrate the holiday.15

By the early 1800s, chocolate versions of these eggs debuted in Western Europe.16, 17 Playing off of this Easter candy theme, the American confections company Just Born took the next step, popularizing its marshmallow-shaped chicks—called Peeps—back in the 1950s.18 So today, along with chocolate egg-shaped candies, we have all sorts of bird-inspired Easter candy.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112–115.
  2. History.com. “Easter Symbols and Traditions.” History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/easter-symbols.
  3. Killgrove, K. “The Curious History of Easter Eggs from Birth to Burial,” 3/26/2016. Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/03/26/the-curious-history-of-easter-eggs-from-birth-to-burial/#6ebea03a16af.
  4. Killgrove, K.
  5. Green, N. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam”. Al-Masaq, Volume 18: No. 1, March 2006. p. 30.
  6. Green, N. pp. 35–39.
  7. Green, N. p. 36.
  8. Killgrove, K.
  9. Lesiv, M. The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. pp. 126–133.
  10. History.com.
  11. Green, N. p. 36.
  12. D’Costa, K. “Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter,” 3/31/2013. Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beyond-ishtar-the-tradition-of-eggs-at-easter/.
  13. McRoy, A. “How the Fast of Lent Gave Us Easter Eggs,” 2/2010. Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2010/february/how-fast-of-lent-gave-us-easter-eggs.html.
  14. D’Costa.
  15. McRoy, A.
  16. Godiva Chocolate. “The History of Chocolate Easter Eggs.” Godiva Chocolate, Inc.: http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/The+History+of+Chocolate+Easter+Eggs.html.
  17. BBC Newsround: “Why do we have Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny?” 3/27/2016. BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/17597617.
  18. History.com.

The Ancient Art of Augury

auguryPatterns exist throughout nature. For people ages ago, such things were considered messages from the gods. Decoding these encrypted communications was at the heart of ancient divination, a common practice of early civilizations.

Divination methods in antiquity varied in scope. Nearly anything could be viewed as an expression of divine will and available for interpretation, including dreams (oneiromancy), heavenly bodies (astrology), and entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy). Ornithomancy or augury, as it’s more commonly known, covered the domain of avian activity.

Primarily associated today with the Roman Empire, ancient augural forms concentrated on certain types of birds, using their appearance, flight, calls, and feeding to anticipate the likelihood of favorable or unfavorable occurrences.1 An owl perching near a public square signaled ominous potential;2 chickens gobbling grain before a possible battle suggested divine support for a military incursion.3 (More about the chickens shortly.) Most signs were sought (impetrative), but some were not (oblative/prodigal). In the case of the latter, the gods were interpreted as making statements through extraordinary incidents, usually as a harbinger to some punitive calamity.4

Popularity and Possible Origins

Much of what is known about augury in the classical world comes from the writings of the ancient Romans. The subject played a critical role in that culture’s politics and religion. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was said to have selected the site of his city based on a sighting of twelve large raptors, either vultures or eagles. The story is recounted by Cicero, the first-century BCE Roman orator, in his On Divination (Book 1). Cicero’s contemporary Virgil relates several instances of augury in his Aeneid, the principal politico-literary work of the Roman Empire.

“Sacred chickens” were integral to the augural activities of the empire. Senior officials consulted their feeding habits (to eat = positive; to not eat = negative) for decisions involving military and administrative action. The birds even traveled in cages with armies, requiring a chicken-keeper (pullarius) to maintain and care for the fowl. The Roman historian Livy (64/59 BCE–17 CE) details aspects of this augural practice in Book 10 of his History of Rome. There he also provides an account of the capital punishment inflicted on an augor/auspex for relaying a false reading.5 The Romans took their augury and chickens seriously!

The use of birds for divining purposes however predates the rise of Rome. Thousands of years old, the practice appears to have developed earlier in Asia Minor (Turkey). The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder attributes augury’s origins to a single person, an ancient king of this region. While all-too convenient and simple, this dubious reference in his Natural History (Book 7) may hint at the practice’s long-venerated status in that area.6

Application and Eventual Demise

Reported instances of augury occurred throughout the Anatolian peninsula and in other places along or near the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the earliest writings on this form of divination come from this region’s ancient Hittites,7 more than a couple millennia prior to Pliny. Homer’s Iliad describes the practice among both the Greeks and Trojans. For example, an eagle sighted clutching a small fawn, released for sacrifice to Zeus, inspires valor in the Greek warriors (Iliad, Book 8). One of the oddest accounts from ancient sources regarding birds and divination is by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, a first-century BCE Greek historian. He writes of a temple where a woodpecker and doves serve as oracles.8

For the ancient Romans, though, conducting auspices was not about predicting the future. It was a formal system, more ceremonial than prognostic, developed for gauging whether the gods felt positively or negatively about a proposed action. 9, 10 In essence, think Magic 8 Ball rather than crystal ball. Before matters such as calling forth a public gathering or advancing troops in combat, consultations were routinely made.11, 12 The official then could either heed or ignore the assessment.13, 14 On the whole, since augury was sanctioned by the government, checking again later was advisable to simply disregarding the reading. After all, the gods could change their minds and circumstances turn favorable.

In time, major societal shifts and upheavals led the Romans to abandon their gods and ritualized augury practice. Only a few everyday reminders of that ancient pastime remain. One is through language, with words such as auspicious and inauguration.15 Another, though not directly related to Roman augury, exists in similar but less complicated avian divination forms in folklore (e.g., weather forecasting).

Sources:

  1. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1996. p. 23.
  2. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. Religions of Rome (Volume 2). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 174.
  3. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. p. 116.
  4. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113, 114, 117.
  5. Jaucourt, L. (Translator: Goodman, D.) “Poulets Sacrés (Sacred Chickens).” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert. Vol. 13 (1765), p. 203. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing (University of Michigan Library): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/did2222.0000.865/–sacred-chickens?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
  6. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. “Luwian Religion, A Research Project: The Case of ‘Hittite’ Augury.” Luwian Identities: Culture, Language and Religion Between Anatolia and the Aegean. (Editors: Mouton, A, Rutherford, I, Yakubovich, I.) Boston, MA: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013. pp. 338–339.
  7. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. pp. 329–330.
  8. British archeologist Sir William Halliday proposes that clerics in avian costume , rather than actual birds, at the Matiene temple as the “most plausible explanation” of these oracles in Dionysios’s report (from Book 1 of Roman Antiquities). For more information, please see Halliday, WR. Greek Divination: A Study of Its Methods and Principles. Chicago, IL: Argonaut, Inc., 1967. pp. 265–266, 268.
  9. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. pp. 23–24.
  10. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 112–114.
  11. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. p. 166.
  12. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113–116.
  13. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. p. 24.
  14. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) p. 113.
  15. Oxford Dictionaries. “Under the Auspices of White Elephants?!” OxfordWords blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/01/phrase-and-punctuation-origins.

“Spirited” Away?

alcohol_birds

If you want to sell something, stamp a bird’s image or name on it. This seems to best sum up the strategy of the alcohol industry. Goose Island Beer, Swan Draught, Woodforde’s Once Bittern Norfolk Ale, Emu Bitter, Kingfisher Premium Lager, Magpie Pale Ale, Bluebird Bitter, First Sparrow Smoked Wheat Ale, and Rude Parrot IPA are just a few examples in this sector’s extensive inventory.

Not only breweries, but liquor producers and winemakers seem obsessed, too. The Famous Grouse blended Scotch whiskey, Grey Goose vodka, Captain Morgan Parrot Bay flavored rum, Black Swan wines, and Kestrel Vintners. Why are dozens of alcoholic beverage manufacturers choosing birds to “hawk” their brands? For that matter, why do companies in general incorporate birds into their ads and logos?

Advertising from a “Bird’s-Eye View”

Relying on our feathered neighbors to promote certain types of products and services makes sense. For instance, the rationale behind the airline industry’s choice of bird-related imagery is easy. Birds fly. What better symbol than an avian one conjures the beauty of soaring through the skies? Hence, we have the eagle of American Airlines, the crane of Japan Airlines, the namesake of Germany’s Condor Flugdienst, the falcon of Air Arabia, and the goose of Turkish airlines.

Advertising also has worked for several products and services with no direct links whatsoever to birds. In commercials, AFLAC’s white duck repeatedly spouts the name of its insurance company—a humorous, off-beat reminder that rhymes with “quack.” Decades before, TV ads featuring Vlasic Pickles’ talking stork elevated that brand to iconic status. Folklore has long associated the stork with maternity (1, 2, 3). Vlasic continues to play on this idea, conjoining it with the craving for pickles that sometimes occurs during pregnancy.

A couple other brands come to mind. Twitter, an online technology company, enables a person to send out short bursts of info, likened to a bird’s “tweet.” That analogy is clever. Unilever’s Dove soap features an avian symbol and moniker. This also works, because these creatures have long been connected with beauty (e.g., Greco-Roman mythology) and purity (e.g., Christianity).

Several bird-themed ads for alcohol products have enjoyed immense success, too. Perhaps this is why so many beer and spirits brands keep flocking to avian themes. To better understand this phenomenon, let’s take a quick look at some of the most well-known ones.

An International Menagerie

Irish brewer Guinness ran one of the most memorable international advertising campaigns of the twentieth century. Featuring many animals (e.g., ostrich, pelican, penguin, sea lion, giraffe, etc.) throughout its series of ads, Guinness indicates that “the most famous of all” its unusual creatures was the toco toucan (4). The bird’s use in its advertising was so poignant that one may see similar images employed today by Irish pubs.

Regarding the bird’s appearance in Guinness’s advertising, British naturalist and author Mark Cocker sees a metaphor for that brewer’s ale, what he describes as, “This black beer…” topped with a “… delicious creamy white head…” (5) However, he also explains, “The bird’s simple colours echoed the graphic black-and-white nature of the drink itself, but otherwise there were no authentic connections.” (6) Moreover, while not native to Ireland, the tropical, large-beaked fowl may have helped the country’s iconic brewer reach out beyond European consumers.

Guinness discontinued using this South American toucan in its ads decades ago, but many brands today still rely heavily on birds to represent their alcoholic products. Captain Morgan recently introduced its Parrot Bay rum, which plays with the pirate-parrot link while incorporating the colorful psittacine to connote the product’s added tropical flavors. Also, several breweries and distilleries have long employed avian imagery evocative of heraldic symbolism. Smirnoff’s double-headed eagle, Anheuser-Busch’s eagle, Wild Turkey’s gobbler, and Hardy’s rooster evoke a kind of age-old, regal-like quality, not unlike the eagle for Barclays banking and financial services and the swan for Swarovski jewelry.

Folks in the beer, wine, and spirits business appear unable to resist the metaphoric power of birds. The appeal is understandable—to a certain degree. Birds are wild, some are exotic, and most are capable of flight. Alcohol possesses analogous characteristics, as a peculiar and distinctive “untamed” beverage. Though a depressant, it produces intoxicating, mood-elevating effects that could be likened at times to “flying.” While such associations still seem contrived at best, I do see them. From a marketing perspective, though, there’s a much larger issue.

Crowded Market

Here’s the problem. Related products using similar ad concepts make standing out from one another difficult, especially when the items and concepts are loosely connected. The American automotive industry demonstrated this point years ago. A plethora of vehicles once sported bird monikers (7), from the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Road Runner to the Buick Skylark and Eagle Talon. Several names for popular cars, such as the Ford Thunderbird, Pontiac Firebird, and Pontiac Sunbird, were based on imaginary avian creatures. Yet the industry’s long-running fascination with birds, even mythical ones, has not turned out well. Good luck today finding any new automobiles named after one.

The market for alcohol, a legal but regulated drug, is obviously different than most. The bird-inspired branding behind Yuengling lager, Grey Goose vodka, André Cold Duck wine, Campbeltown Loch blended Scotch whiskey, and many other beverages doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. But if the trend gets out of hand, beer, wine, and spirits producers will have to change course to differentiate themselves.

For the sake of comparison, just imagine if Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Toucan Sam, Cornelius the rooster, and the Puffins had to contend with the likes of a Flakey the Finch, Granola Grouse, and a roster of other potential fill-in-the-blank cereal-aisle rivals. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Don’t let advertising go to the birds.

Sources:

  1. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. pp. 131-132.
  2. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, 2006. p. 72.
  3. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 122.
  4. “Factsheet: Gilroy and Animals”. Guinness Storehouse: http://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/pdfs/factsheets/factsheet_pdf_7.pdf.
  5. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  6. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  7. Snyder, JB. “Thanksgiving List: 13 Cars Named After Birds”, 11/24/2010. Winding Road: http://www.windingroad.com/articles/lists/thanksgiving-list-13-cars-named-after-birds/

 

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 14th– and 15th-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 18th-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 12th-century handscroll Five-Colored Parakeet (14) and the vibrant 16th-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 13th-century Return of Swallows, Bian Jinzhao’s 15th-century Three Friends and a Hundred Birds, and Gao Qifeng’s 20th-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 20th-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 19th-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.

Devil Birds and Black Magic

owl_counts_web

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

To Hell and Back

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

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

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

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

Occult Potions, Haunting Calls

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

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

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

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

Some feathered creatures, due to their unusual behavior, have also garnered associations with the devil and witchcraft. Based on its appearance alone, the European yellowhammer, the beautiful avian subject celebrated in the verse of 19th-century British Romantic poet John Clare, initially seems an unlikely candidate for one of Satan’s favorites. However, the bird’s eggs bear an odd feature, appearing to display cryptic markings. As Clare describes in his “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”: “Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells / Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads / As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells…” But where the poet sees beauty, superstitious minds presume evil. Edward Armstrong addresses the bird’s reputation (“gouted with the taint o’ the de’il’s blood”) in his The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds, noting that the strange egg markings may have been interpreted in the past as “cabbalistic signs” and unholy to Christians (14).

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

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

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 74.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 121.
  4. King, R.J. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, University Press of New England, 2013. pp. 4, 54.
  5. Ibid. pp. 54-58.
  6. Spence, L. Mexico and Peru: Myths and Legends. London: Senate, 1994 (first published 1920). pp. 222, 227.
  7. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 191.
  8. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p.
  9. Sparks, J., Soper, T. pp. 197-198.
  10. Ingersoll, E. p. 16.
  11. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 251.
  12. “Manx Shearwaters”, Beauty of Birds: http://beautyofbirds.com/manxshearwaters.html.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. pp. 61, 46, 26.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist. pp. 193-195.
  15. Tate, P. p. 160.
  16. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 138).