Birds “in a Galaxy Far, Far Away”

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The worlds of Star Wars parallel our own in many ways. One finds there the social constructs of politics, religion, and technology, even fashion and music, playing out in climates and among creatures comparable to those on Earth. Major characters such as Princess Leia, Obi-wan, Finn, and Rey, of course, possess the physical and psychological qualities of humans. Varieties of nonhuman life remain familiar enough, too, as we find birds living “long, long ago” on some “far, far away” planets.

Avian-like Symbols and Wildlife

Granted, where creatures of Star Wars are often in appearance mammalian (e.g., Ewoks, Wookiees, Wampas) or amphibian/reptilian (e.g., Rodians, Dewbacks, Krayt Dragons), birds can be easily overlooked. Though not well represented, they do have a symbolic presence within the space opera, starting back with the first film released in 1977. During subsequent movies, avian life-forms materialize in other ways.

Birds are used for metaphorical purposes, as part of a moniker and a logo, in the original Star Wars (now known as Star Wars IV: A New Hope). The first instance occurs in the cantina scene when Han Solo speaks of the Millennium Falcon. The avian aspect of the name is apt for the carrier’s high-speed reputation since the peregrine falcon, with diving speeds exceeding 200 mph, is the fastest bird on Earth.1 That spacecraft plays a crucial role throughout the rest of the film, including in a pivotal scene not long after the introduction of another avian metaphor: the phoenix-like “starbird” logo of the Rebel Alliance.2 (By the way, this is the symbol that appears on X-wing Starfighter pilots’ helmets, such as the one worn by Luke Skywalker.)

While avian life-forms are not present as physical entities in the 1977 film, subsequent movies do confirm their existence. For example, in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, Padmé Amidala reminisces to Anakin Skywalker of her youth on Naboo listening to birdsong. Birds that resemble owls appear in the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars.3 Finally, 2015’s Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens gives audiences their first close-up view of a non-animated avian creature, the so-called steelpecker,4 a vulture-like bird that scavenges metal scraps from the desert terrain of planet Jakku. In addition, actual birds—those from Earth, such as the northern gannet—and the call of a bald eagle have been identified in sequences of this movie.5, 6

Looking for More Feathered Species

In a few days, a new live-action installment in the Star Wars film franchise will hit theaters. Reports indicate that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will pick up at a point prior to the original trilogy. Also, the movie will launch a new set of characters. Perhaps in a scene or two, if we’re lucky, some additional avian-like species will appear gliding overhead or perched on a parked spacecraft.

Sources:

  1. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Peregrine Falcon.” AllAboutBirds.com: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Peregrine_Falcon/lifehistory#fig1.
  2. Ratcliffe, A. “5 Symbols in the Star Wars Universe,” 2/2/2016. StarWars.com: http://www.starwars.com/news/5-symbols-in-the-star-wars-universe.
  3. O’Keefe, M. “6 of the Cutest Star Wars Aliens and Creatures,” 11/17/2016. StarWars.com: http://www.starwars.com/news/6-of-the-cutest-star-wars-aliens-and-creatures.
  4. Ratcliffe, A. “8 Things You Might Not Know About the Creatures of The Force Awakens,” 8/29/2016. StarWars.com: http://www.starwars.com/news/8-things-you-might-not-know-about-the-creatures-of-the-force-awakens.
  5. Lund, N. “A Field Guide to the Birds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” 12/21/2015. Audubon.com: http://www.audubon.org/news/a-field-guide-birds-star-wars-force-awakens.
  6. As Lund notes in the above Audubon.com article, filming at Skellig Michael, a popular site for nesting seabirds, posed concerns for conservationists. (For more information, please see Hatch, N. “The dark side of ‘Star Wars’,” 10/12/2015. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/news/dark-side-star-wars.)
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Ancient Flights of the Eternal

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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 B.C. and Hindu stepwell relief sculptures as early as seventh-century A.D. (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 20th-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.